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On Being a College Dropout
Approximately 18 months ago, I was a student at University of Illinois. I was studying Computer Science, living at Allen Hall. I was in a long distance relationship with Jessica Allan, and was working for the most part on LiveJournal related code, having just started getting interested in the Semantic Web. I was broke as a joke, living at home when I wasn't at school, and had no expectations of my future or future employment status. I had relatively limited social standing, and was doing my best to tread water.

Today, I am gainfully employed by a seemingly well-funded internet startup, doing work I enjoy. I have a great family, and despite all the problems I may have had in my personal life recently, I'm happy. I'm paying down the debts I have, and have been receiving contacts for further work spawning from my current employment. I've created and redesigned my website to act as a marketing piece for my skills, successfully, and have established myself in a lifestyle that I enjoy in the middle of a great city, with great people. I'm parenting two kids (relatively successfully, even) and maintaining a household with the help of the family and friends around me.

What changed?

I dropped out of school. I was no longer bounding my creativity by the work that was assigned to me in order to get me to "learn" -- I was now generating output that was fueled by my interests, rather than by the interests of an educational system which in large part was trying to output me to fit into the assembly line model they had. I was doing what I wanted, and my creativity and output were increased greatly as a result.

First I was doing PHP development for wedü, which taught me so much about the language that I wouldn't have otherwise learned. I got valuable experience there that I would recommend for anyone: doing a relatively menial task for your first year out of school, so long as it's in your chosen field, can be an extremely helpful thing in creating a broad set of base skills... or deciding you really don't like it. In the process, I also learned business skills that I consider very valuable. It taught me a lot about management, and as with all jobs, it occasionally taught me some things about mis-management, both on my part and on the part of my coworkers. I learned how to interact with clients in a business setting (which is very different from a retail setting, which is where I had been before). It also taught me that I never have any plans to work in full-scale marketing long term: it's not a place where I want to be if I can avoid it.

Then, I did freelance work for a couple months. Creating your own rates and hours is extremely hard work, especially when you have no experience with it. I learned some about contracting, about finding clients, and about the powerful marketing tools that you can create by simply doing nifty things and letting people find them. I learned that you can't expect money when people say you're going to get it, and you need to ensure that you save for the future when you're doing contracting, because there will be times when you don't have the income that you need.

Now, I'm working on contract to Ning. I have an absolutely amazing boss, a great job, and I've got good people to work with. I'm working with the best and the brightest in the PHP business, and I'm doing something that's fun. I'm making money, I'm having the time of my life, and my boss is sending me to dinner at Craigie Street Bistrot tonight. I have contacts looking for more work outside of my contract (in my oh-so-copius free time) and I'm encouraged to come up with new features for existing applications on Ning and build them. Bugs in code are fixed in a matter of hours, I get daily recaps of what's going on and the oppourtunity to make clear what I need as a developer to make my life easier, and all in all, everything just works out great.

The reason that I got this job is entirely because of my website and my weblog, the latter something I've started only since I left school and was able to spend the time I wanted on my own projects. Dropping out of school was the right decision for me to make at the time, because otherwise I was not doing what I wanted.

I believe that rather than just assuming that everyone should go to school, parents and students alike should take a look at things: Do you have a strong desire to expand upon and learn more about what you're doing in school? Is it your interest, to the point that you throw your whole self into it out of enjoyment, rather than neccessity? If you don't, I think you're doing the wrong thing. If you can not make yourself participate to the fullest extent of your abilities in whatever you're doing, then you should look into finding a way to change what you're doing until you can.

I did, and it got me where I am today, where I couldn't be happier.

Think about it.

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Self-generated career path

What a great summary of your self-generated career path. I really enjoyed talking with you at the Cambridge Commons on Thursday night--bet the food and martinis at the Bistrot are even better, though.

It's probably out of print now, but I really enjoyed _Confessions of an Autodidact_ by Kendall Hailey, another happy no-thanks-college dropout.

As a parent, I couldn't agree more. We're already encouraging the (11 year-old) girl to investigate options for her future. There's an online course now from our local university that will give her the education she wants in under two years. Equine Technician. Not vet. Not BSc. She knows what she wants. My great hope is that she learns to educate herself and that we can help her be ready to start the course as soon as possible (it's only 6 more years until this is an immediate concern, wow!).

So she wants to work with horses. She's been serious about this since she gave up a promising figureskating 'career' to do riding instead because it made her happier. Her dad and I have about 15 years of university between us and her grandfather's Chairman of the Board of another university. We'll be thrilled as pigs in slop if she never goes except that there's something there she can't get anywhere else. She's already looking at how much it'll cost her to get what she wants. How much does she need to earn working what hours to pursue her show jumping on the side? (Thank G*d she's not got it in her head she's about to be the next Ian Millar.)

I wish more parents realized that what's really important is that their kids be able to support themselves, feed their souls, contribute to their community, and remain good people. No one has ever needed university for that. I'm glad you had the courage to jump ship when it was right for you.

An interesting read.

And you do sound rather happy with your situation and the route you've taken so far, which is good to hear, too!

(Random fact: my mind did a double-take when you said "Approximately 18 months ago, [...] I was in a long distance relationship with Jessica Allan" -- my first reaction was, "but she wasn't called that then, was she?". *thinks* I think this is what we, at work, call "type 1 historisation[?]" -- interpreting past dynamic data with the current set of master data rather than the set of master data as it existed then. [I keep getting the type numbers mixed up, though.])

She had, actually, mostly switched to the Allan name by then -- she legally didn't change until the finalization of the divorce (3-4 months later), and didn't change her username until October, but she had mostly dropped the Lavarnway name in personal use long before both of those. (I don't know if it was true at that particular date: she was never Ms. Lavarnway, nor Ms. Allan, to me. She's always been Jess, or my Jessie.

Well yes and no. For starters, clearly this was absolutely the right thing for you. I look at you now and I compare you to theover-eager teenager who pissed me off by asking me questions about RSS in comments to my LJ.. and you've just come on leaps and bounds in every respect since then. Dropping out and moving cross country has definitely been the making of you.

And beyond that, I definitely agree with you in the general case as well. There's a government initiative over here to try to get (iirc) 50% of all 18 year olds to go to university, which I think is a disastrous policy. There are already so many people at universities who really don't want to be there, and are doing nothing but costing themselves, their parents and the taxpayer money, procrastinating moving into Real Life, and being disruptive to the people who are actually there to study.

However (and you knew that was coming, right?) I don't think it's necessarily true to say that if you aren't really enthusiastic about and enjoying your classes then they aren't appropriate. For myself, I've never actually been in gainful employment, but I've been ensured by people who have that no matter what one does, one will always have to put up with parts of it which are crap -- and that's a skill that university teaches.

So, for instance, there are a whole lots of my classes that I find it very hard to be enthused about, because they're very simple for me, and therefore also very tedious. Does that mean that I'm doing the wrong thing? No, it means that I need to toil through it until I get to the bits that are challenging enough to hold my interest. And I'm quite sure that that will come, because there are some bits of my course (notably the theoreitcal physics classes) which I do really enjoy and want to do the work for out of interest. I stick with the tedious classes because I need to do them as a foundation for what I want to do with my life (be an academic in physics).

But yes, generally I agree with you. One size does not fit all.

I think that you're a special case because your future job interest coincides with the academic learning you have to do now. If you look at the description I offered of my path - working at wedü in what was basically menial labor first, then getting something good out of it - it's exactly the kind of thing you're doing. Given a goal of an academic career, it's hard or impossible to seperate what would be "work" from "education".

In other words, I think your situation matches what I said, in every aspect except that for you, work and education are equivilant, so seperating them isn't possible. You're doing menial albor to get the base foundation needed to enter a more advanced position in your field. This is the case with almost anyone whose goal for employment is research related: If you're going to have to work in a school environment, then school is also your work environment as far as these things are concerned.

Of course, one size can't fit all. It's simply not possible. So even if I made some grand statement about what "everybody" should do, it would be implicit that it would not fit everyone. I just think that my statements here are pretty closely mirroring your situation, with the exception that since you want to be in academics, you can't seperate the two, which makes the post, in large, moot :)

My father dropped out of MIT after 1.5 years. He then started an electronics company that's sent parts to the moon and Mars. 20 years later, it's still supporting him and his extensive family.

In response to another thread-- I've met you once at a party of juniperesque's.

In response to this thread-- It's awesome that you're doing what you want to do. My brother stayed at my place after he went to his tenth reunion. He was amazed by the fact that what was once cool wasn't as cool anymore-- what was more impressive was that he was able to say that he's doing everything he's always dreamed of doing. He's got his pilot's license, he's got his own home-- most of those things aren't possible while remaining at school-- I'm glad to hear it's working out for you.

Sadly, dropping out and just starting up for yourself isn't always a realistic option. See: medical school. ;) (I highly doubt I'm cut out to deal with college well, but I want to be a doctor at some point -- that means, really, 8 years of suck for me, but I think the reward is worth it).

That said, I completely agree overall. I've done fine for myself, in the overall, despite no college to speak of. Alan dropped out, and certainly does well enough for himself as well. It's just not all about the piece of paper.

I do and don't agree with you. I think "go to college' Is just something we DO now, and I don't think that's necessarily good. If you don't know what you're doing, college can be a big ol' waste. But on the other hand, it will qualify you to do at least some stuff that you wouldn't have been qualified for before, and you can figure out what you're doing by exploring the job market. And it's also a way of keeping 18-year-old kids from having to dive into the job market and fend for themselves. Increasingly it's used as a way to put off the decision about what you want to do. And I think this is good or bad, depending on the person. I'm not sure about for me, since I'm now going back to school in pursuit of a field I switched out of when I was a freshman, but the issue with me is probably more that I didn't have good career counseling than anything else. And the fact of my degree, even earned in confusion, will help me down the line.

so true.


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