Back To School 2016
Fourteen years ago, I wrote a piece for the Back to School issue entitled "How to Be a Dropout." The gist of the article was, in effect, that dropping out of college is not only not the end of the world, but it can actually help lead you into a more interesting, intentional life.
Like many of you, I had it drilled into my skull from a very early age that a university degree was the only hope a person had of succeeding in the world. Without it, the best you could look forward to was ditch digging, dissolution, and despair.
I believed this when I applied to a half-dozen colleges. I believed it when I got into every college I applied to. And you can bet your sweet life that I believed it when I dropped out of college for the first time. I may have even believed it when I dropped out of college for the second time.
Truth to tell, some small part of me may still believe it. But the rest of me understands that it's a hoary myth, a lie we tell young people because we need to believe there is a formula for succeeding in life. There isn't—because success is not a high-paying job, nor a house, nor a family, nor a car, nor a diploma, nor fame, nor wealth. Success is the rare gift of living the way you want to live. That doesn't mean living without sacrifice or compromise; it means living without so much sacrifice and compromise that you become incapable of joy.
College is not for everyone, as you will soon learn. Many of you are probably already considering quitting. Usually that's because you're not used to being challenged. Sometimes, though, it's because the specific challenges of academic life feel less worthy of your time and energy than other things.
I know you didn't ask, but my advice is this: Go ahead and quit. If you miss it, you'll go back. If you don't miss it, you'll be sparing yourself anywhere from one month to 10 years of miserable self-loathing, poisonous cynicism, and misguided finger-pointing.
You get the idea. I have received more correspondence about that piece than any other article I've written in 22 years as a journalist. I still get e-mails about it. People have written to tell me it helped ease their anxiety after they, too, dropped out of school. People have written to congratulate me for articulating a vague sense they'd had for a long time that they were just sleepwalking through their college experience because they thought they had to. In a few cases, people have written to say the article was the last straw in their decision to drop out.
In every case, I say the usual things: Thank you for reading, thank you for writing, I hope everything is going well for you, etc. What I never say are a few things I find myself believing as years go by:
I take it all back. It's not that world anymore. Maybe it never was. Stay in school. Get a degree. Learn a trade. The world is a nightmare. The economy is fucked. Life is suffering. Your dreams don't matter to anyone but you. Your quest for independence and self-determination are an illusion born of privilege and a misbegotten sense of what "freedom" even is. There is no such thing as "living the way you want to live." What kind of asshole tells that to a bunch of children?
Maybe the kind who dropped out twice, inspired by the old idea that being true to myself was nobler than working for a boss, then spent two decades living the dream of the working artist/musician type who got day jobs only when it was absolutely necessary. I was in a band for 16 years, had a hit record, acted in a bunch of independent films, saved a lot of money, and then spent it when I didn't make any. In a way, I won the lottery. In another way, I utterly blew it. Most years I can still make a living from art things—as long as I forego health insurance, never say no to gigs, and get used to the uncertainty about where my next check will come from. There are worse lives, but I still wish I had stayed in school.
Success in 2016 is having the means to live with a modicum of dignity and a morsel of comfort. Anything more is a bonus and anything less is the norm. Your specialness should not be your central preoccupation. Staying in school helps prepare you for surviving, for helping other people, for finishing things. If you're an artist, you'll make art anyway; the idea that you deserve it as a job is a glitch of free-market capitalism. People are starving. People are homeless. People are voting for Donald Trump. Everyone who's scared is right to be. Everyone who isn't probably has a college degree.
Take it from someone who's still writing the same article 14 years later.