An Academic Confession
A long time ago, I sent a thick packet of information to Yale, explaining in considerable detail how awesome I was and why they should accept the honor of my giving them tens of thousands of dollars a year.
They sent me back a short, polite letter, saying that while they were happy to accept my initial contribution of $75, they had plenty of other applicants, even more qualified and more awesome than me, all willing to pony up the tens of thousands of dollars for the next few years.
Regretfully, I was informed, the $75 was all I’d be able to pay them. “We wish you well in your future endeavors” was how they ended their brief reply, and they didn’t even follow me on any online social networks.
Every year, a large number of young people go through the same ritual—hours upon hours spent explaining why they deserve the privilege of becoming indebted to a system that probably won’t train them for a job. For many (not all, but many), the main benefit of graduate school, or even college or university in general, is a form of life avoidance: I’m not sure this is what I want, but at least I won’t have to think about it for a while.
When my first book came out, I finally made it to New Haven. I wandered the campus before speaking that night, drinking coffee at a student hangout and remembering all the time, money, and stress I had invested in the unsuccessful application. A couple days after New Haven I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts and saw signs advertising my appearance at the Harvard Coop. Back in the day, Harvard had also sent me a polite letter saying I wasn’t good enough for them.
Thinking about it on the road, I enjoyed the irony: I never made it to their graduate programs, but now I was speaking at their bookstores and campuses, my name on posters around the city.
It took me a long time to get away from validating my life according to something that didn’t relate to my true hopes and goals. At the time, I really did want to devote years of my life doing things that no one would notice, in hopes of obtaining letters behind my name that no one would care about. As ridiculous as I knew it was, I still wanted it! It was hard to let go of … until I finally did.
Part of it was the attachment to something of questionable value (a degree, useless letters), but I was also attracted to the linear nature of academia. I wanted to do something interesting and meaningful, and I saw a clear, if not entirely sensible path. Never mind that the end was muddled; at least I had a certain next step. Pay a certain amount of money, write a certain number and type of essays, complete such-and-such requirements, meet with various advisors, and so on. All fairly straightforward.
But when you venture out on your own, the next step is often unclear. You don’t necessarily know what to do at any given time, which is why having a specific direction is a superpower. There is no degree or graduation waiting for you at the end, and you have to determine your own milestones.
Graduates sometimes experience anxiety and uncertainty. What happens now? they wonder, confronted with the loss of routine and clear deliverables. On a path of independence, you get all these feelings in the beginning, with no one assigning you papers to write or exams to sit.
Having to be responsible, to make decisions about your life, to find something that fulfills you and matters to the world can be a scary thing. It certainly was for me, which is why I felt comforted by the thought of turning my decisions over to someone else.
Fortunately, I didn’t get what I thought I wanted. I paid the application fees, wrote the applications, and pestered people for recommendation letters all to learn that I would probably be better-suited somewhere outside towers of ivory.
Years later, I write these notes while sitting in a hotel lobby in Tajikistan, a place I had never heard of back then. I fly around the world and work on projects I find meaningful. I have no qualifications to do much of anything, yet for the most part I do whatever I want.
I realize now it wasn’t so much the acceptance or rejection of academia, an institution that may very well serve other people’s needs more than mine. It was the rejection of defining myself according to exterior standards, a system that was rigged to reward conformity by design.
Yep, I’m glad I didn’t get what I thought I wanted back then.
Great post Chris. I love the irony. It has definitely worked out for the best, you have learn’t to create your own path in life with is a very hard but valuable skill to master. Good luck getting into Eritrea.
Great points. I agree. But it’s not going to work for everyone. I quit my grad program because professors couldn’t tell me what I would do with the $40,000 degree except prove to a human resources resume filter that I was qualified for a job, no matter how arbitrary the advanced degree qualification was. What we need to do is figure out how to communicate the value of these life experiences.
Love following what you are doing and writing. Inspiring. Great post. “I’m glad I didn’t get what I thought I wanted back then” – awesome. I’m finally realizing the same thing – glad I didn’t get what I thought I wanted back then.
I’m going through kind of the same thing right now. But what if grad school is really necessary to achieve your dreams? I want to be a clinical psychologist, and really you need to be trained to do that (and I want to do it WELL). Unfortunately, I’m qualified in every way except for the bad GPA I had from years back. If I don’t get in, what do you do then? I can only think to suck it up, get some good grades under my belt, and reapply.
I love this post, Chris. I’ve been writing/thinking/speaking a lot lately on how we let others define our worth…and that true freedom, financial and otherwise, comes from finding it within. That may be a bit more of a woo-woo way to say what you wrote here, but I think we’re on the same page. Great post.
Congratulations in learning a key life lesson so young! It took me WAY longer, but when I finally got there it was such a rush of freedom. If you believe that all of us have a gift to give while we’re here and that none of us can be replaced, it is even more important to reach this realization. How many gifts has the world lost because people in the hopes of doing the right thing as measured by society’s external yard stick, denied their true self.
You had to give them $75 just to apply ?!?!? Cheeky buggers, think how many get rejected, that’s a lot of $75 payments ….
I had to laugh at “For many (not all, but many), the main benefit of graduate school, or even college or university in general, is a form of life avoidance: I’m not sure this is what I want, but at least I won’t have to think about it for a while.”
That was pretty much me, 20 years ago! I *thought* I wanted to be a professor, but I didn’t *really* know what that really looked like.
Like you, though, it created a clear path. I didn’t have the vision at the time to see another one. (And at the time, the internet wasn’t even a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye, so models of unconventional, non-conformist life design were hard to find.)
It also took me awhile to let go of defining myself according to exterior standards (a process I suspect I’ll continue to work on throughout life). I’m sure glad I launched out on my own, though! I live a happier, more creative, richer, more fulfilling life than I ever imagined back in those grad-school days!
I had a similar experience. It can be scary not plugging into a system and blazing your own trail instead, but well worth it in the end.
How uncanny the timing is of your post. I applaud and appreciate the honesty of it as it was for you. I have several undergrad degrees, and a slew of experiences, and, yet, I still imagine that I do not have something necessary to define and/or fulfill my life’s purpose. Reading your article shined a light on an area that I have only theoretically visited in my self-explorations — the notion of unleashing and liberating myself from the system of norms and external expectations.
These little affirmations that come my way bolster my resolve to take that leap.
Wow. Sitting here at my desk in a job that has nothing to do with my degree, or the post-grad I’ve enrolled in that starts in 3 weeks time.
That was a reality I needed to hear.
Problem is, at 21, I still don’t know what I want to do with my life. I can very clearly define what I don’t want, but can’t articulate what I do want.
Any suggestions from the older and wiser folk out there?
Thanks for a very insightful article on the relevance of higher ed. Universities charge staggering amounts for services that are successfully delivered less than half the time (the chances for a college student graduating with a degree with in 6 years is 49.4%). And, a student has no idea of the rate of successful employment of a particular school’s previous graduates in any given field.
I believe that high school students need to think a great deal about the huge debt they will incur, and make sure higher education is what they *really* want, not just a great social experience at their, Mom and Dad’s and the taxpayers’ expense or a social norm that needs to be followed.
Striking out on your own seems risky, but starting your career $25,000 in debt with no quantifiable prospect of employment is risky too! Considering the enormous amount spent on higher ed, I hope consumers start to demand more from educators.
I have applied to 3 MBA programs in Montreal as a marketing professional and entrepreneur without any success due to an insufficient degree from France back in 1995. I even took the time this Christmas to see what it would take to finish a graduate program prior to a MBA. The answer was 120 credits (5 years) and another 3 years for a total of $30,000 and say $400,000 in lost revenue which will take 20 years to break even. Conclusion: I have found an answer and closure. I will focus on learning the Finnish Way and focus on my childrens education. I suggest you do the same and encourage higher education for those who did not miss the boat or have the money / time to spend. Education is the foundation of any society.
I’m one of those people that fell for the hype of following what should be done. I went to the college I wanted to go to and got the degree I was eyeing. And I even got a ‘great’ job. In the end, when that little voice that told me what I should want died away, I found myself really listening to what I was truly after. And it’s entirely different from what I’m doing now. Now I’m trying to re-invent what I do. I wish I didn’t get what I wanted back then. I would have been following my dreams much, much sooner.
Chris, do you think you would have gone to those schools, had they actually accepted you (and your money)? How do you think your life would have been different?
For some reason I think maybe you’d still be right where you are…it might have taken you to different paths (depending on how long you’d have stayed there!), but you might still be writing a book with a similar (if not more) conviction about how traditional academic path (no matter which school!) is not for everyone, just because you are who you are in essence…..Just a thought.
Well, there’s no way to know for sure — I certainly don’t think it would have been terrible or anything. But I also don’t think I’d be where I am now, since this path came about when I didn’t pursue my graduate education any further.
So so so true. I did a year of college, got disillusioned with it when I realized I already had the primary skill set I could take away from completing the degree. Which is the power of looking information up when I needed it, and the intellect to comprehend it.
I’ve been tempted over the years to go back to school and get a degree. Especially when a good number of my peers have fancy letters after their name. I even started night school while running my software company.
And then I realized… most of my friends with this fancy letters constantly complained about their lives, their debt and their lack of feeling accomplished. They lacked freedom to do the things they really felt called to do, because they had to pay for the debt they accumulated to get the degree in the first place.
Woah. I was debt free, running my own company, having a great time and contributing to the world in the way I wanted to. Just what would having a degree add to that? Nothing. So I let it go too.
I loved this! It’s like you looked inside me and you were able to articulate my unspoken rejection of going to grad school just to “go to grad school.” Yes, it’s much more difficult to find your sense of acceptance when you’re paving your own path and determining your own milestones. It’s not as easy when the path isn’t as clear and laid out for you with a predetermined climax and definite end point. But isn’t that actually the fun of it? Because you just don’t know how truly awesome and amazing that path could ultimately be…
Thanks for the post, Chris!
Thank you so much Chris. I coach millennial artists and activists in their 20’s. A few are “walk outs,” a term coined by friends in India, Manesh and Shilpa, Harvard education grads who realized that academic institutions inform people in ways that often indoctrinate instead of humanize and liberate. As a kind of “walk out” unconventional person myself, I relate. Academia reinforces the disembodiment of desire. It promotes a couple forms of thought practice and forgoes the other thousand aps in the human body. Is that smart? One of my closest friends who has walked out of academia is Dorothy. She “woke up” right before her last semester at Yale and walked out. She has an amazing story that I hope she will tell someday. In the meantime there is now a book published by the Berkana Institute under the “Walk Out” title. Many people who are featured in it are highly playful, adventurous, and “unconventional.” I have to say Chris, there are just a few blogs that I consistently read. You are living proof that it is not the degree that makes a thinker. I keep meeting inspiring people.(Just met Jono Fisher who started the Wake Up Sydney project to make Syndey the kindest city in the world.) So I know there is a lot to what you and I and the unconventionalistas are onto. Thx
I can definitely relate after being rejected from all of the PhD programs I applied to a few years back. It hurt my pride, but I’m glad that I didn’t go down a route that wasn’t related to my true passions.
Recently, I’ve been interviewing high school seniors who are applying to Penn (where I did my undergrad) and I want to tell them that while school can be helpful and useful, they should pursue the things they love instead of building up their “resume”.
Do you think this is a lesson you have to learn on your own? I’m not sure I would’ve believed others if I hadn’t learned it the hard way.
Chris – this has got to be the most profound statement I’ll see this week:
“I have no qualifications to do much of anything, yet for the most part I do whatever I want.” Love it!
I have a traditional BA and MA. Then I completed my doctoral studies – all of them with flying colors. At that point I met with my dissertation committee. I summarized the process as I saw it to that group of 4 old guys. I could spend another 1.5 years researching and writing a document that no one else in the world would ever read so they would give me a piece of paper I could hang on a tiny space on my wall. OR – I could use that same amount of time to write a book that could be read by lots of people and potentially make me a million dollars. They were mortified that I framed it in such a manner – but that’s exactly what I did, and exactly what happened.
“For many (not all, but many), the main benefit of graduate school, or even college or university in general, is a form of life avoidance: I’m not sure this is what I want, but at least I won’t have to think about it for a while.”
Amen to that. Career student! Funny though that you did get into UW’s grad program…I wasn’t good enough for THEM! 🙂
I hope someone at Harvard got this in their inbox from a Google Alert. Though I have an undergrad degree, the last thing I want is a “Masters” degree. No thanks. Life is full of better learning opportunities. You just have to know where to look (like Tajikistan)
“…a system…rigged to reward conformity by design.”
So very well put. Great article for all the sheeple.
Thank you for writing it.
I have to say, I’m a bit confused about your opprobrium toward higher education. From what I can gather, you have completed at least one tertiary degree. You may not have made it to the Ivy League programs, but you definitely made it through your undergrad degree and into a post-grad program (though you state you did not complete it).
Based on this, I find it rather disingenuous to imply through your posts that you don’t have qualifications (most people would consider an undergrad a qualification), or that they have no value. It could be argued that your studies further developed skills you already had, such as: writing coherently and cogently for the site and for your publications; analysing and problem-solving as part of managing a small business; and general skills such as time management and deadline-meeting. I am certain you had these skills already – and of course plenty of people develop these skills without pursuing higher education. However, ignoring your studies overlooks the obvious privilege (and it is a privilege that many people DON’T have and wish they did) you have had of pursuing them – even if it was not a path you chose to continue.
Going to graduate school taught me what words like opprobrium, tertiary, and disingenuous mean. But I don’t think it serves as an actual qualification, no. If I tried to get an actual job, who would possibly hire me? Where I live in Portland, the baristas have Master’s Degrees.
But yes, I realize that the choice to pursue higher education or not is indeed a privileged choice. I have tried to acknowledge that fact many times in many posts, and the same could be said about most of our community.
I recently stumbled upon your site and have quite enjoyed everything I’ve read and the attitude you endorse. Considering my situation, your writings have been particularly germane. I know at any moment I could get into a graduate program but I know it’s not what I want and that I would feel like jerk taking a place from someone who does wish to contribute to the field. Family pressures and safety aside, I know in my heart it’s not for me. Thank you for trumpeting a path of freedom and courage. I wish you the best in all you do!
I don’t have a degree of any merit, however I have a wealth *(30+) of work and life experience under my belt. In the past I have been stunned to learn a new graduate with a Bachelors degree will be paid more, despite never working in a business capacity. The degree means more money, not the talent or experience. It was devastating to not be honored, monetarily or otherwise, for what I brought to the table.
Even the strongest person can be destroyed by this revelation. You can remain destroyed or take yours talents and create something of your own.
I opt for using my talents with people that will want and appreciate them.
To Chris and all other non-conformers out there,
I can relate to this story so much, though with some differences. When I was a child, I was very talented and passionate for all things artistic; but also had a great curiosity for the sciences. For a lot of reasons, I choose the science path – which seemed more logical, controled and safe.
Now I am a biologist, struggling to complete my Master’s thesis. Although I truly adore biology, and for a long time believed that I wanted to be a part of the academia; during the Master’s, not only I failed some very important exams (and tasted rejection and reproval for the first time), but I also started thinking: is this really what I want?
After months of blaming myself and feeling useless, I finally realized: no, it’s not.
I’ll finish the Master’s and keep my current non-inspiring 8-to-5 job for a while, but on “the backstage”, I’m working on creative projects and building my own business. It’s not easy swimming against the current, but now that I see things differently, I simply can’t afford not to try. Hopefully someday I’ll also say “I’m glad I didn’t get what I thought I wanted back then”.
I vacillate between appreciating my Stanford experience and feeling totally derailed by what I was told and bought into about its significance.
Your timing is perfect, thank you for sharing these thoughts. Having recently finished grad school and wondering what in the world to do next I find myself grasping for answers and conventions from those who’ve gone before, only to discover the painful and liberating answer that the only way to do it is my own. Thanks for being another voice for non-conformity!
I have a master’s degree from the only school I applied to.
I run a successful business and am incredibly happy with my life.
I travel the world, make friends, eat street food, and enjoy any minute of it.
So many people work so hard to achieve some sort of academic “something” and to be honest, in places like Honduras, Senegal, and Thailand, those degrees matter. A Georgian earning a master’s degree from the US has a much better life than a Georgian who does not.
For a world traveler, shouldn’t you recognize that man?
That’s all great and I’m glad to hear it.
Your experience in academia is certainly valid, as is mine and everyone else’s.
I received a combined BA/MA in Archaeology from UCLA at age 36, after working in business for 16 years. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I’ve noticed a subtle denigration of university education among the Internet self-made (recently read Danielle LaPorte on same and can’t remember the names of the other authors). For some, university can be a happy and enriching experience.
I purchased your Publishing Guide because I discovered archaeology gave me much to write about. You’re one of the few successfully pursuing traditional and self-publishing in nonfiction. I’m finding the guide wonderfully well-written and discerning.
Great post Chris! Glad that things ended up working the way it was suppose to be.
I wish there was less emphasis these days on needing to get an education. Seems like conformity starts at such a young age going through elementary, middle, high school, college, and then corporate job. The system flows effortlessly, and anyone who seems to deviate from that so called “normal” pattern is shunned or deemed unnatural.
Learning is great, but at times, I don’t think it really needs to cost upwards of 200k.
My post today is about the deeper meanings of childhood dreams, so it’s funny that you posted this today, too.
It’s amazing to look back on that time and realize that we had no idea what was best for us. We get so jumbled up in what everyone else says we’re supposed to do, and forget what makes us happy. Or we get so lost in our driving desires that we make a lot of bad decisions because we are “invincible.” I guess that’s where the core of maturity lies: in taking responsibility for our own lasting happiness.
I’ve sent this to all the students I advise re: college admissions. Thanks for sharing.
Universities like Harvard and Yale are not vocational schools that train a person for a job. They are places that challenge a person, make them think, and figure out how to solve problems, the main one being how to graduate.
Thanks Chris…”if only” is a regret sung by many-including me. What is success? In another life somewhere in the universe I did not marry young, I finished my education and have a deserving career. I married well and have beautiful, talented, educated children.
Excellent post Chris. And poignantly true. Learning to walk one’s own path is one of the most difficult things you can do. But it is also the most rewarding one.
The real challenge is that pervasive indecision, which you mentioned in your post. It can be debilitating. You that know you want to get somewhere, but you have no idea where or how to start.
That’s the real value of school, or the military for that matter. It gives you a definite aim. But what usually gets missed, what’s written in the fine print, is that signing for the institution doesn’t guarantee results.
There’s something to be said for enjoying the irony. I found that I had a richer experience living in England as a college graduate than I would have been had I really chased my dream of studying dusty books at Oxford. Skipping out on an over-priced education and getting my degree through alternate methods taught me a lot about the world. How to put value on your dreams. How you enjoy the things you work harder for. And the thrill of skipping out on a boring college commencement to fly to Ireland.
I’ve got some of those letters. I’ve been known to say that I only use them when I have to deal with the phone company. But then again, unlike many people I come across, I know what they mean. They mean I added some facts to the accumulated knowledge of humankind that it didn’t have before. They also mean that I sat down and wrote the equivalent of a book about how I managed to do that and what sources I used to know how to go about finding those new facts. They mean I’ve got a certain amount of intelligence. Eventually, I left the field, and I came to the conclusion that my art might be remembered longer than my research as other facts got piled on top of the ones I contributed, but I still value those letters whether at the end of my name or at the end of the name of others. I also value things like “author of…” and “founder of…” and “inventor of…” without any such letters. And I want other people to value them, too, to know even when I’m working retail at 61 to support a disabled husband, that I’m capable of far far more. They also help me remember it.
Great and inspirational story Chris. It gets my hopes up, and strength to push forward to make my dream true, and do only what i love. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for this post. I grew up with a father who was a professor and always thought I would go into academia too. Part of me still regrets not going for a Ph.D. program when I got in 5 years ago (instead, I went for an almost as worthless JD!). While I’m doing something that I absolutely love now – stationery design – I still feel inadequate and I feel like I’ve given up on a dream that was so long in the running. For me, it’s not just the letters or title, but I also would really enjoy the work of an academic. I hope I can get to your place sometime in the near future.
@chris – I have been following you for a while and always enjoy your work. Your empire building kit has nudged me down a truly remarkable path but I was glad to see your replies to Wendy and Craig in particular. All too often this type of post encourages the passing of judgment on things like formal education (and also the notion of being “employed” come to think of it). In my experience both can be viewed as part of the overall enriching experience in life which serve certain purposes but (and this is the important element) they should not be followed mindlessly on the basis of other people’s expectations. There are many ways of building a tower. Let’s celebrate them all!
Yes, I agree.
“It took me a long time to get away from validating my life according to something that didn’t relate to my true hopes and goals.”
Nice to know that even you have struggle with this! 😉 It’s definitely not an easy lesson to learn… and learn, again and again.
Back in the day-1977-78 to be precise-I attended a community college in California while living with sister and her family. “Take this paralegal course,” my sister said. I hated it; I’m sure there were others who love that sort of thing, not me. Took general ed classes; was bored and didn’t trust my talent as a writer and learn more. One year. I dropped out and moved back to Washington State. Continued to write poetry and journalling now and again and still felt bored at the idea of sitting in a classroom and having an instructor tell me what to do. Still not trusting my talent, I continued to avoid learning anything more about the writing craft. After clearing a lot of limiting beliefs, I find the words flowing. As far as attending a school…I prefer to learn at my own pace and what I enjoy. I’m a voracious reader and life has taught me a lot along the way. School? Maybe to take a subject that would be fun to learn. Not for any letters after my name.
I loved your post Chris. Angela (above) has said it all for me. There is a strange comfort to knowing that even you have struggled to find your true place in all of this. Thank you 🙂
My daughter turned me on to your site, and I look forward to each post.
This one was especially relevant. I think many students go to college right out of high school because it’s the next step in life, because their parents expect it and/or because they don’t know what else to do. So many 18 year olds are immature and not ready for college, but they go anyway. The Brits have a great idea in doing a “gap” year.But, in the US any” gap” seems to be cause for alarm. A “gap” in your work record, a” gap” in your college career always raises a red flag for academic admission or a job.
It has become another part of the…wait for it…”American Dream”…Like home ownership. Because University has become obscenely expensive, and certainly not a guarantee for any future job, perhaps more people will start looking at the cost versus the payoff. Thanks for a great post.
This is for Sarah whose graduate school program starts in 3 weeks. Do something. It doesn’t have to be school. The more experiences you have (whether in jobs, volunteer work, church, friendships) the closer you’ll come to finding your bliss.
I’m a writer who didn’t start writing until I was 32. When I graduated from Business School, I could barely write a memo and that is a true statement. The first 13 years of my career I had 13 jobs. Every single one was valuable. Then, at the age of 32, I had 3 small babies who really needed a Mother and not a part-time lady who dropped into the house every evening. I started my own consulting business and have spent the last 18 years in total freedom. That doesn’t mean I have had failures and BIG ones. But I totally and purposefully know what it is I am MEANT to do. I am meant to speak, write, create, encourage and bring joy.
You find your mission by navigating through life, not through grad school. Get excited…life is an incredible teacher.
Believe me, you don’t want the student loans, anyway! 🙂 I’m working to release the guilt I have associated with a bulls*t degree. Yes, it bought me time. But, like you, I’ve discovered that a masters degree has nothing to do with getting a life.
As a veteran of two masters degree programs and a number of adventures around the world, I understand your point. You are correct when you state that it is not the degree that gives you credibility, anyone can earn a degree without learning anything. The journey, literally and figuratively, gives each of us the time to acquire both the skills and the ability to effectively apply them in an effective manner.
When I think about my recent graduate experience (which I was fortunate to not have to pay for), the part I enjoyed and learned the most from was my interaction with other students. I wonder if I would have been disappointed or had a changed opinion if I had paid for it myself. That being said, it will be interesting to see what happens in the future to our education system. I think more and more people of all ages are becoming disillusioned by the ‘systems’ method, from education to the corporate world. It takes creativity and innovation to do something different and still be successful. You are definitely an inspiration to do what you want and not what you ‘should.’
PS: Has anybody started watching Morgan Spurlock’s ‘Failure Club’? It runs online and goes along the lines of this post in that people are finally doing what they want after YEARS of not doing it. Have a look!
I can definitely relate with the anxiety and frustration after college and having no clear objective ahead makes it difficult on some. I almost submitted my application for graduate school just to have something I was doing, but am now very glad that I didn’t. Thanks for the post.
Love it. Had a similar experience while applying to a hybrid MA program at the London School of Economics/USC. I had just finished my second guest lecture on the material the MA covered at one of the most well respected Journalism schools in the country. Two days later I got the rejection letter. It was at that point that I was able to see it in proper context. I’d been rejected from a program I was applying to, that I likely could have been teaching. There’s definitely great value to the experience and I have gone back and pursued my MA – but the approach I’ve taken is one that puts a much heavier emphasis on keeping everything in context and my motivations are definitely vastly different than when I first applied.
This is so insightful and incredibly well timed. I’m a 22 year old college student that has had to take 2 semesters off over the course of my education due to illnesses. This most recent (and still current) medical leave is due to a chronic illness that affects me cognitively and physically. As school grows farther away it leaves me wondering the ever haunting questions of “what now? What do I do with my life? What do I do with myself?” I really appreciate this article, because right now, I do need to let go of letters and a piece of paper and focus on my health before anything else can be done. And your article showed me and reminded me that, it is indeed a piece of paper with a stamp on it. Thank you.
I love this post, Chris. I personally can relate much to it. It is an amazing feeling when one starts discovering their life isn’t defined by that of academia.
I once told an angel investor how important the MBA was, he politely smiled. Two years later we met again and I apologized and told him how I dropped out when I realized the professor could not apply what he was “teaching” in the real world that I worked in.
Great article! And one increasingly being ‘heard’ by me. As a non-traditional student, it had always been a dream to attend college. I have, and some enough will have two degrees ( History and Fine Art – Studio) at the AA level. While, I don’t regret the experience. However – I am finding the college thing does leave much to be deserved. Frankly, little people using students as things to move about for their purposes. Classes, and assignments that, at best, serve little but rather mindless ends. As a artist, I have sold outside of my country. Not even the professors here have done yet, but I am told to do such-and-such because “I said so.” And so and so….
Frankly it seems better to listen to myself, and live a life that is real – and my own. I like reading this one very much!
(first time commenter, long time reader! Love your blog and your books!)
I agree with your post, but I think that when reading the post one should be clear of your point. From what I understood, your point was this: do not define yourself by rules created by other people. Don’t depend on a fake structure to live your life.
That being said, although this was true for you about grad school, I think a grad school can be fabulous if you love what you do, you are doing it for yourself, and you are trying to do it by your own rules. Also, although I agree that it is just a waste of yourself and your life to just go to graduate school just because you do not know what you want to do with your life, I found undergraduate school a great place to wander and be lost. I came out with a degree and a clearer idea than ever about what I wanted to do with my life. I also was able to meet so many people who had the same interests as me, and learn from them. Yes, it is a cop-out just to go to school to fill time, but sometimes you must just do and try. And for me, and I’m sure many others, that is what an undergraduate degree is about.
Also, although school is definitely not for everyone, I think that, to better oneself, one always should keep learning and teaching. Really, everyone loves learning (can you imagine a child that doesn’t love to learn about the world?), but I think that sometimes school systems or teachers or peers ruin a the learning experience. This doesn’t mean we should give up on learning! It just means that we should each pursue learning in a way that is conducive to us and our lives; reading tons of books from the library or listening to TED lectures or to doing apprenticeships or traveling the world.
I am so happy that you found adventure and your life’s self-direction. I find it makes me feel like I almost have permission? to find my own weird life and create the regularity and chaos that I need in my life. Thanks Chris.
I’d agree that it’s a form of life avoidance, but it also gives you a chance to ‘grow up’ outside the confines of High School.
It’s a bit different in Australia as our fees are as ridiculous, but most of the people I know who didn’t pursue tertiary study got engulfed in life a bit too quickly, sort of hit 35 before they hit 25 if you know what I mean?
Still, enjoyed the irony of the universities welcoming you back!
This is absolutely amazing. It encourages me on my own “nonconformist” educational track. Why do we feel compelled to do what everybody else does?
I love how you talk about the “privilege” of paying a university money. They do sometimes treat you like they’re doing you a favor by giving you something in return for your cash.
Thanks for posting this, Chris. I have two degrees, neither of which I’m using. Do I regret getting them? Absolutely not. The experiences I had in college shaped who I am today. I’m quickly learning that there is plenty I can do and teach myself without getting further formal education. That’s not to say I wouldn’t if the opportunity to do came up for me, though.
“Be very careful what you wish for because you just might get it”. Some things in life I wanted SO badly never materialized and the absence was filled with something far better. I just couldn’t see it at that moment.
Believe in yourself. We can all take more than just one path to get to where we want to be.
Graduate school is a way to avoid life? I guess I’m associating with a bunch of awesome people who have graduate degrees and just knew what they wanted in life and did so at their own design. I know people who got Bachelors degrees to avoid life, but not graduate degrees. Graduate school is meant for people who are focused and know what they want. Perhaps Chris, Harvard and Yale really did understand you and knew better to take you because you weren’t focused. Oh I’m sure I’ll take heat but that’s okay.
When you say, “…a system that was rigged to reward conformity by design,” this could be said for any system/institution. I think it’s a matter of perspective and how comfortable people are with themselves to create their design, even with the “system”. And that’s okay. You can still find your niche and go on to be awesome!
I think that main point of this essay should be to try different paths such as school or traveling or touring with a band. It may cost you in terms of finances or time but, in the end, that is okay too. I’ve tried many paths in life (wildland firefighter, hotel management, drummer, community planner, and more) and they were all benefit to my life today.
I’m happy for you, Chris, that this worked out for you. From reading your work over the last couple years, it’s these schools’ loss that you were not accepted. You are the type of person, self motivated and interested, that it seems to be would do well with or without the university education.
I still see value in higher education, though, and corporations value it, too.
I did a 2 year software programming diploma 20 years ago, graduated and started making $80 K / year. 15 years later graduated with an Business Degree completed online and found employers valued my 2 year diploma + experience A LOT more than the undergrad degree.
Seems I am on my own in my negative response to your post. I usually love what you share, but this one is not landing with me. As a college professor, I think one of the biggest problems facing education today is this erroneous assumption that a college degree equals a job. No. Getting a college education is about bettering yourself in a particular way using a particular path. There are many paths to a successful and educated life. Academia just wasn’t your path– but to belittle the hard work, sacrifice, dedication and focus of those who choose the path isn’t right. I care about those letters after my name– they represent years of my life focused on becoming an expert at something I love, just as you have done with your website and book. My students work hard and sacrifice a lot, and it’s not about a job, but becoming better at something they love. Again, many ways to get that same training and knowledge–every person should be respected and applauded when he or she takes any step toward a dream.
I get inspired to think outside of the box upon reading your post. My first encounters with your writings was a new student of Internet Marketing at a popular online school. I have had an awakening for lack of another word in that one year span. This post seal the deal, and confirms the revelation. We can’t change the pass, but we can do anything with the future. Educations real value is the feeding of passion, harvest of knowledge, and cultivation with the hope it inspires others. Thank you for being that inspiration.
Love the post. It’s just where I am right at the moment, I’ve just made the leap. Give up the PhD, for freedom? No contest really.
I like the ideas of your book, you said, “instead of paying a lot of money to an institution that doesn’t even properly train you, simply do your personal learning”, with all the examples you’d listed there (i liked the wikipedia random page and learning a language and travelling and so forth).
now, in europe, where i come from, things are way better (at least concerning higher education). i studied medicine in germany, which was for free. the 500 dollar biannual fee didn’t hurt me, because as a child of a numerous family i was liberated. but can you imagine… in austria and germany, when they implemented the fee, the students went mad and started protesting, demonstrating and even locking themselves in… in germany, after some years of struggle, they are abolishing it again, and for most parts of the conutry, university studies are going to be entirely for free again.
our system is very different – it is about young people growing up basically. living in a shared appartment, having some kind of job, studying sometimes, doing arts or sports other times and visting a party or two – all of this for free. just wanted to share a europeans perspective.
That is a wonderful post, Chris, and it reminded me of my step-father’s story. As a young man he was accepted to Harvard university and he went off to the Wicked East to pursue his studies.
He dropped out after less than 2 years. He told me once he was in very good company because Bill Gates dropped out too at about the same time. My step-father went on to do everything he ever wanted to do. He passed the state exams and became a Professional Engineer (all without a degree) and he joined up with another engineer to start a business which is still going strong after 30+ years. He never got rich but he loves what he does. Today he is an expert in his field and travels all over the world and ends up in some of the strangest places. He’s over 70 now and he is and always will be one of my heroes.
What you’ve written is almost undoubtedly true for vast number of undergraduates.
But it does depend on how you see it. Whilst studying for a degree, I knew that I didn’t really care about it. I knew it wouldn’t lead to the career of my dreams. So I used the three years of freedom to experiment. I had just become an adult. I used the time to find my limits and passions, in all manner of very foolish ways.
I now have no set career, no barriers, no commitments, no institutional lock-in. I’m making a living doing exactly what I want to be doing. I can’t say university helped me get here, but neither can I say it prevented me.
Would I go back to university? Possibly. I can think of several good reasons. I might have a creative passion that would be better nurtured amongst others who are better at it than me, or think about the same thing differently. A post-graduate course, in which the value is in the learning process rather than the certificate, might well be a way to learn more than I could just by having conversations with myself. It depends how you look at it.
Country music has a song for virtually every situation a human can encounter. In this case, it’s ‘Thank God for unanswered prayers.’
It boils down to having the initiative create your own destiny and create your own future in direct opposition to following the crowds through the pillars of academia. Don’t be lazy just getting a degree.. Great insight in this article!
Your posts are always thought provoking Chris. In my long life, I’ve met many fascinating non-conformists who were from all career paths although very few were self employed and even fewer would have defined themselves as business people. I’ve been getting the creepy feeling that you equate self employed business people with nonconformty. Please say it isn’t so. Emerson and Thoreau would strongly disagree!
As always, your timing is uncanny.
Sharing this with my angst-riddled teenage son, who is up to his neck in the college application process. Not mentioned in your article is all the judgement passed on kids at this stage in life, and the uncertainty – will you pass high school, will you get into college, will you be allowed to take the car, will you be able to make new friends if you go away. No wonder they act the way they do. Thanks as always for a great article.
I did the same thing with a thick application to Harvard. I’m in my senior year of college now, and I’ve worked my ass off to pay for tuition up front. I have no support and make payments on my own. I know people graduating now from U of M who are 35-40K in debt and without a job. When I graduate, I’ll be debt-free and in control of my own life. It’s the most liberating feeling, to make your own way.
That is to say, I went to a local university instead and not Harvard.
I didn’t get into Yale graduate school. I made it to the final all-important short-list and choked at the interview. They told me that I wasn’t made of the ‘right stuff’. The omnipotent rarified committee gave me the big ‘you’re not good enough’ and that tore me up for awhile. It’s people like Chris who have helped me learn otherwise…that ‘the committee’ doesn’t get to tell you who you are…
This is a great, inspirational post. Lately I have been struggling with trying not to want things that I know in my heart I don’t want. Not too long ago I knew that owning a home was not something that I dreamed of, however in the past few months, 4 of my close friends have bought homes and suddenly I am questioning myself. Am I behind? Do my kids deserve the norm of living in a home with their own rooms? What have I done wrong, that I am not in the same place as my peers? This post helped remind me that just because I am not doing what is considered normal does not mean that I am failing. Thank you.
Interesting view in your post, as well as in the plethora of comments. College is for learning to think, not for job preparation. While I agree with your comments generally, I must say I got considerable $$-value out of my graduate degree. Here’s how:
My BS was in a Social Science and my Master’s was in Public Administration. (Neither having much to do with anything specifically.) Although I had a great, prestigious job, I decided to start a business — Taxation and Accounting (all learned on-my-own well after all college).
One day, perusing legal anomalies, I came across a ‘grandfathering’ provision in a state legislature. Upon an immediate application (the application period was very short) I was fortunate to be evaluated and granted a professional accounting certificate (Bill Clinton wasn’t the only beneficiary of Arkansas).
When clients would come into my office they gave notice to an advanced degree and a state certificate as a public accountant on my wall. Not realizing their relevance, they were always impressed. Because of these ‘certificates’ they readily agreed to my substantial fees! This served me well for many years until I sold the business.
Chris, I’m quoting from your post – this is one of the most honest, well said statements I’ve read in years. It’s exactly where I’ve gone and am advising others who solicit my advice to go:
“It took me a long time to get away from validating my life according to something that didn’t relate to my true hopes and goals. At the time, I really did want to devote years of my life doing things that no one would notice, in hopes of obtaining letters behind my name that no one would care about. As ridiculous as I knew it was, I still wanted it! It was hard to let go of… until I finally did.”
The problem some of my peers are having is that they’re on a leadership development path, yet they can’t seem to find their inner passion. Although they’re getting notches in their belts that may lead them to the goal they’ve adopted (to be executives), they’re allowing themselves to be warped out of their true shapes during the process. To me, the lack of passion is a clue that they’ve lost touch with their true hopes and goals. So, over coffee, I ask what they really want. Sometimes the dialogue helps them figure it out. Thanks so much; I’ll start pointing people to this post.
This is so relevant to what I`ve read and considered regarding life decisions: “Bloom wherever you`re planted”. Might be one is embedded firmly. Could also be uprooted by some circumstance. Nonetheless, the choice is still there: what is the next step to take.
Funny I know people who avoid life through travel. Perpetual backpackers. They avoid coming home because on the road they are equal – someone with a silly tale – and at home they are pretty well unemployable, broke and homeless. Compare that to someone who has spent a decade building a life for themselves. I went to university sure, but if I didn’t I wouldn’t be paid what I am now. I loved my time there. Plus I used some of the skills when I lived overseas for 12 months.
I loved this post. I am a homeschooling mom whose high-school junior is deciding “what’s next”. I see that education doesn’t “make” a life, but you do need basic sets of skills to thrive. My son might not be accepted to a great school, but I see he’s qualified to do a great number of things. In fact, he’s one of your readers and is embarking on building a small business. Maybe, being qualified to “live well” is what really matters, and the rest is a personal matter.
You have so aptly described the central quandry of my whole life, in academia and out. (And I have been in, out, on–like a drug– and around academia since 1977) I want to contribute by counseling high school students about college but am on the fence to really recommend it even though getting a liberal arts education was the best thing I ever did.
Great post- so many people will need its message. A year and a half ago, I really could have used it.
I have been a reader of yours for a while now, but never a commenter or contributor. “The Art of Non-Conformity” paperback was just recently put on shelf in a very random little shop in Albany NY. When I came upon it, I was surprised & thrilled, informed the store owner of this, and walked away with it hoping to send comments or questions to you/ other readers instead of remaining in the background.
I really resonate with the idea of withdrawing from time to time and asking, “What’s the next step.” So glad you linked to that article. And so glad you went beyond academia!
In the 15 years since my grad school rejection letter (hallelujah!), I’ve come to see that the traditional career path has all but vanished and yet our educational system doesn’t seem to have a clue as to how to adapt to that.
While I don’t think higher education is obsolete, I do believe that what’s missing is the teaching of better internal guidance tools to help someone understand whether the path of civil engineer or pediatrician is, in fact, a wise choice for them.
Yeah, but don’t demonize or minimize higher education too much. Learning is an important form of enrichment and research still shows that people with a college education earn more money, live longer, are more likely to both get and stay married.
You need a degree to work in engineering and the sciences. Sadly,the US is falling far behind other industrialized nations in graduating mathematicians, engineers, and scientists. Exotic travel is awesome, but no one is going to discover the cure for cancer from a hammock. It’s all about balance.
Why oh why didn’t I read this years ago! Ok, so it wasn’t written years ago and would I have missed the point if I had – maybe. But after investigating the questions of “what is it that really inspires me” and “what is it that I’m passionate about doing”, I feel that I’m heading much closer to the direction that I should be.
Whereas before, when I always took the safe option, do the right thing, get a job because you should, it always felt like a cop-out quite honestly. Do this, do that, be nice, play by our rules and we’ll give you this paycheck that you can, potentially, negotiate a bit once a year. Also, that’s just the way it is buddy and everybody else accepts it.
But then I find people like you who inspire me again that it doesn’t have to be that way and I don’t have to accept that way of life. I’m not there yet, but getting closer and still bloody passionate about getting it.
Good on you. Great post, Chris. A few years (10, wow has it been that long?) I was accepted into Savanna College of Art and Design to get get my masters degree. I looked at the amount of debt I would be in and decided that what I really wanted to do was paint. So, I opened a gallery and painted.
Bottom line, the art of living your life is to decide what you want and start. Do something about it, assess, and then do something else about it. There are no guarantees about anything, ever. I think there is a whole movement out there about self-education. Just go find out about whatever it is you want to learn.
It is great that you discovered, for a small price, what many people are discovering with a pile of student loans. You found that self esteem comes from within not from the dictates of the world around us. It is also exciting that, as a member of the media was complaining today, more people are discovering this truth and are making their mark in this world. Viva la difference!
Loved your last sentence in the article. A phrase I have learned from a friend, “A ‘no’ is sometimes better than a ‘yes’.”
still thinking about this article (read it a few days ago). i used to be in the habit of forcing my way through the world. sometimes i did end up where i intended and it was not the great experience i had hoped for (film school in guadalajara). that’s another sort of lesson. but i also had an academic rejection experience and this came up in conversation last night.
many years ago, i applied for an MFA in poetry at naropa in boulder, colorado. the school was co-founded by allen ginsberg and trungpa rinpoche – a super alternative education right up my alley. i was so well-versed in poetry and the beat generation in particular that i knew that the school had mistakenly given ginsberg credit for a line of verse written by kerouac. (really, ginsberg just added a comma to the verse as a joke.)
i was shocked when i wasn’t accepted into the program. my ego prevented me from investigating the matter, but i found out later that my application wasn’t complete as i hadn’t included my transcripts from a semester of undergraduate study in australia.
rather than persist in applying to naropa, i ended up trying to get an alternative education out of a traditional school and that was a bit painful. i regretted this for a long time. but i have since considered that with the exception of ginsberg all of those beat poets ended up dying in a gutter so they really hadn’t figured out anything important after all. and what is the use of a degree in poetry anyway?
i’m glad that you had the opportunity to speak at the universities that rejected you as a student. how satisfying!
Reading this along with many of the comments just broke my heart.I am 34 and living a painfully bland conformist life and it takes a little piece of my soul with it everyday I clock in at 7am & clock out at 6pm.I didn’t finish my undergrad commerce degree because my heart desired a path in journalism but my parents were not having it. Now I fight everyday to feel credible as a professional.i also fight everyday to hush the voice inside me that begs me to set it free so it can have its day.it promises me a better life.it swears that my purpose is credible and the world needs to see it.
Zuki, Chris and others have proven that everyone/anyone can be a journalist! I have a degree in it and though I’m currently not working in that field, I still write, I still look at things in the world and try and make sense of them.
That voice isn’t going away. Answer the call.
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