University Isn’t for Everyone…But it’s Never a Waste
Lessons learned from someone who didn’t like school.
Originally Published in the Post-Grad Survival Guide
I didn’t want to stay in university.
Many moments throughout my time, at a relatively prestigious institution in the Greater Boston area, found me wanting to high-tail it off campus and run as far away as possible from the seemingly endless influx of assignments, exams, and questions of “what do you want to do with your life?”.
Yet despite the many stresses I encountered, despite my belief that the higher education system is unsustainable, overpriced, and overrated (especially so in the US), and despite struggling to be grateful for what was meant to be a privilege, I’m very glad I stayed in school.
While it’s not for everyone, school can provide a (sometimes necessary) structure to help you discover who and how you want to be.
And, like any life experience, it’s never a “waste”.
First Things First: College is Hard for Everyone
I try, especially in hindsight, to avoid defining life events as inherently good or bad.
100% of the (seemingly) worst moments of my 23 years have turned out to be catalysts for growth and change that guide me towards more authentic ways of being. Yet it’s never easy to remember what I know intellectually:
In every moment there is opportunity for learning and enjoyment.
College was one of these periods around which I had this rather begrudged understanding.
I was often frustrated, dejected, and anxious.
I wanted nothing to do with my major.
I wanted nothing to do with the people trying their best to guide me.
I even led myself to believe that I wanted nothing to do with most of the other students.
Because I didn’t feel comfortable or inspired by the place, the studies, and the people that I was around, I often found it difficult to focus on anything but the negatives.
An ever-present feeling was that I was wasting valuable time and money just to receive a fancy piece of paper and be sent on my way.
From this came self-isolation, fear-based decision making, and a boatload of distraction from the general sense of discontent that I operated from.
My university experience included unfriendly encounters with the law, bouts of anxiety-induced shingles, disordered eating, some of the worst hangovers I’ve ever had, and the belief that I had to pretend to be anything other than myself in order to fit in.
Yet in spite of all these things, I came through as a man that I love because of these experiences.
My lessons were based in things far deeper than academia; I learned a lot about people, as well as about myself and my interactions with the world.
At that age, I’m fairly certain that a lack of structure would have seen me fall into laziness, perhaps even a job I loathed.
I never thought I’d be one to advocate the benefits of going to school, but hey, here I am. School worked for me, and it was hard for me. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
Some of the many, many things I learned in school…
Experience is far better than intellectual knowledge. University provided me with experiences to learn many of the things that I already thought I knew…
I learned patience in choice, and why to not engage in hasty, uninformed decision making.
While fortunate enough to attend a fancy school in the first place, the decision about where to go and what to study was not one I was prepared for.
Nor would I argue, are most aspiring first-years…
My decision was made during a time where I still had to ask to go to the bathroom!
It was no surprise that my main selection criteria at this time consisted largely of party-ing opportunities, girls, peer pressure and other cursory thoughts that plague the minds of most angsty teens.
Because I wound up in a school, field of study, and city that I didn’t want to be in, I was taught the importance of making decisions for myself and not for others. I had a lot of time to reflect on this.
At the end of the day, the people I thought I needed to please didn’t really care where I went to school, what I studied, or how “successful” I became. They just wanted what I did: happiness.
I got to practice loving myself
Most college students are between 18–23 years old. I’m going to try my best to avoid generalizing…but here’s a generalization: everyone at this age is confused, often even self-loathing to some degree. Most have little idea or awareness around what really matters to them…and I was much the same.
I based my self-worth on the parties I was or wasn’t invited to, remained emotionally unavailable and detached from the many sexual partners that I thought I needed to have in order to be cool, and put way too much pressure on myself to get grades that I forgot about the second I showed them off to someone who I assumed gave a damn.
In short, my metrics of self-love were entirely based on what I thought others thought of me.
It took a of self-loathing to get me to realize that we can’t love anything without first loving ourselves.
In college, I started to do things for me, began to understand that the more I loved myself the more others loved me, and the less I cared about what a stranger thought of me.
I learned that loving oneself isn’t selfish, arrogant, or egoic. It’s courageous, and absolutely vital.
I got some major reality checks, and learned about responsibility.
I had to internalize knowledge that I was aware of to some degree, but that the ignorance of being a privileged youth deterred me from accepting.
I came to understand everything wouldn’t be handed to me on a silver platter for the rest of my life. This was my way of learning what others have to learn far earlier in life.
I learned I have to support myself and take responsibility for my well-being and my future. I couldn’t play the blame game anymore. I was in the driver’s seat for the first time: no one was telling me what to do or how to be.
I learned that I am responsible for my own reality.
Somehow or the other, college helped me realize this.
I came to know what I don’t want to do.
My experience in school included several full and part-time jobs that helped me understand what I didn’t want to do.
Being a slave to money, a pattern of thinking that I’ve had to persistently reflect work with to get past, was one theme that dominated my experience.
I didn’t want to do work that I didn’t care about.
I didn’t want to work at companies where every reason I liked the job had nothing to do with the job itself (and everything to do with benefits: salary, snacks, ping pong, etc.).
I learned to appreciated nature a lot more.
I went to school in a city, despite being a lover of the outdoors and continually leaning on it for support throughout my life.
My time at university reinforced in me a gratitude for mountains, rivers, and oceans that I didn’t know I’d had.
It also helped me acknowledge that urban life isn’t what I desire in perpetuity.
…but that I can be happy anywhere
With that being said, I learned that I’m able to experience happiness anywhere. Despite college being difficult, I had a lot of fun.
I was able to find wonder and excitement even in the mundane, and got a lot of practice at doing so.
I learned to playing the chameleon…and network
Despite not believing in what I was doing, I met some extraordinary people at school.
Whether directly or indirectly, I received advice and support that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I now have so many resources on which I can lean on as well as lend help to, as I learned that I can relate to people from all walks of life.
I have true friends ranging from age 14–85, have loved ones in hundreds of countries around the world, connections in dozens of industries, and learned that I can adapt to any number of vastly different social situations.
I received an education in relationships
I learned to get along with a lot of people.
I moved around at school. A lot. I lived in beautiful apartments, basements, and even cramped boxes with several roommates.
I learned how to live with people I didn’t get along with.
I learned to be grateful for my own space after being paired with snorers, screamers, and even those averse to bathing.
I learned how to support friends, lovers, and family through difficult times. I practiced how to receive help from these same people during my own trials and tribulations.
I cultivated consideration of others, as well as the knowledge that all relationships take work, and that that work is worth it .
I hardened my perseverance
I was determined, after a time, to finish what I’d started. And I worked damn hard to give 100% of myself to my schoolwork despite often not wanting to.
I refined my discipline and ability to prioritize
I learned the importance of doing what is important. How to not procrastinate. How to value time for self-care as absolutely vital, and how to balance studies, work, time with friends, exercise, and everything else that often overwhelms students.
I learned that you can’t quantify life problems
Everything is relative.
Everyone, regardless of socioeconomic or cultural status, has issues, problems, fears, and anxieties.
We’re all human.
It’s impossible to quantify pain.
It’s one thing if you’re a starving child in a developing country, sure, but my point is that internal suffering feels very real, no matter how ridiculous the cause.
I discovered my intense curiosity
I love meeting new people, being exposed to global communities.
I like when people disagree with me. I like having my opinions and insights challenged.
I’m curious about everything, and I will be a lifelong learner.
Spending so much time studying things that I didn’t want to be studying gave me so much appreciation and drive to focus on what I do want to do.
I cultivated self-confidence
I got to practice being myself when it was unpopular, weird, and downright confusing to people.
I also learned that I am I loved in spite of and because of this.
I learned to say no. I didn’t want to party every weekend. I liked going to bed at 9 and waking up at 5. I liked routine, discipline, and healthy living, even when it meant I had to sacrifice.
I learned that people are kind, compassionate, and forgiving.
I made a lot of mistakes. I lied. I was an asshole, often. And I was forgiven for all of these things by people who were courageous and compassionate enough to do so.
I learned how important community is…
Everyone was, is, going through something.
Having a support system, a community, is so important. Not only in helping us meet these difficulties, but also to help us experience the wonder of friendship, collaboration, and celebration.
I learned to entertain myself in traffic.
I ended up commuting to stay close to home and nature. It meant a lot of time in the car, but also a lot of money saved, audiobooks listened to, songs sung, and phone calls to loved ones made.
I learned there is no one path
The list of all that I learned could carry on and on and on and on.
Amongst the most important things that I learned is that college isn’t for everyone, and that it served me in so many ways despite my intense resistance to it.
No one can tell you what success is, or that you need to go to school to achieve it.
Attending any sort of university is certainly not the first thing I recommend when asked for advice.
I think college is deeply flawed, yet paradoxically invaluable.
In many ways, it’s a social credit card (all credit to Tim DeSutter for this term).
There’s a lot that needs changing, but university can be an excellent catalyst for self-discovery by trial-and-error.
I for one, am grateful to have attended.
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