Defining Success, Part One

“Many successful college kids would have been successful whether they went to college or not.”

“The bachelor’s degree? It’s America’s most overrated product.”

“More people need to realize that you don’t have to get a four-year degree to be successful.”

At some point, before or after you read this entry, I highly recommend reading this short article from which I have pulled the above quotes, “Living the Good Life Without College”: http://www.onlineathens.com/stories/020109/opi_383534188.shtml

As with most things which go against the mainstream view, this John Stossel article stirs up copious controversy among its readers. And what that has brought me to see is the frighteningly obsessive value this society puts on education; particularly on one single way to get this education. Words I hear repeatedly in these arguments are “job,” “employment,” and “success,” often coupled with “you can’t.”

These arguments lead me to believe that there is a hugely significant amount of fear ingrained in the American mind. We are told by teachers, politicians, peers, and often our family, that, to paraphrase John Taylor Gatto, we must go to school, work hard, and get good grades; go to college, work hard, and get good grades; graduate, get a job, work hard for 40 years in that job to get as many promotions as possible and make as much money as possible, in order to buy as much STUFF as possible. So, in essence, the purpose of education is to own large amounts of grand material possessions. How valiant. How patriotic.

Sure, this model may seem like a perfect fit for some. But I think there are more people out there than we realize who want something different for themselves. Something better. Not everybody fits into the same mold. We are all unique. We’ve been told that since day one. So why, then, must we all accomplish basically the same things in life, in the same way?

What is this ever-sought “success” that is always talked about? What does that word really mean?

Let’s start with the basics. Most highschool seniors do not really know what they want to do in life. In spite of everything else they could do in their precious young years, they usually go ahead and jump right into college after graduation. They are unsure of where they are supposed to go in life, so college becomes another comfort zone, as grade school probably was. My mom said she jumped into college not knowing why, or what she wanted to do afterwards. I have peers and have met many others who did or are doing the same thing.

The idea was tempting to me, too. By November 2007 (my “senior” year) I had gone around in millions of circles in the past eight or so months, pondering over what I truly wanted to do for the rest of my life. Every time I’d settle on something I would say to myself, “Okay, this is the one this time! This is my calling.” Of course, I usually changed my belief about what my “calling” was every month, give or take a couple of weeks. Naturally, it would have been be nice for me to simply choose one thing to study for four years, and sit back and “relax” while I learned it all, feeling secure in the knowledge that, once I graduated, I would have a degree that would supposedly allow me to make tons of money in the corporate world. But, by the time I would have graduated, would I have even wanted to have a job even close to what I had majored in? Knowing myself, probably not.

What bothered me even more when I talked to people—friends, extended family, random people on the street—is that they could not seem to comprehend, visualize, or in any other way understand the idea that I was thinking about not going to college. I had several home schooled friends with whom I had discussed life after high school. I had mentioned my indecisiveness about college to a few, and I almost always got the same reaction: “Have you applied anywhere yet?” (“No.”) “Well, you’d better soon, because you’re a senior, right?” (“Yeah.”) “You have your SAT scores back by now, I guess?” (“I haven’t taken the SAT.”) “What? Well, you’d better take it soon!” (“I don’t want to.”) “But you have to take it in order to get into college.” (“No I don’t.”) “Uh, yeah you do!”

Well, where will they be in four years? They may be lost and confused, just as I am sure I would be after college. All that intense schooling… and then what? For my interests, for what I wanted to do with my life, what good would college be to me? Broadly, I want to work with animals and nature. Why spend four years in classes, half of which aren’t even relevant, when I could spend a fraction of that time getting out there and experiencing what I want to do myself, deciding whether I really like it or not, and using the experiences, references, etc., to apply to any job I want with the confidence that I have what it takes to get it?

If I had decided to go to college, I would have, indeed, graduated with high grades and an interesting degree, gotten a good job and make lots of money thusly. That is all fine and dandy, except that it is nothing I have ever wanted to do. Me, I want to jump right into doing a job that I love, learning useful things I also enjoy (not things I am forced or obligated to learn), and taking pleasure in the work I am doing. On top of that, I learn better by emersion in a hands-on environment, not in classrooms with textbooks, lectures, and tests. And I am definitely not the only person this applies to.

Once people see that today’s definition of success may not necessarily be the right one for every person, they could begin to branch off and start being themselves, doing what interests them, and taking many different paths in life. It’s not all college and good jobs. Success should be when a person is passionately doing what they love in their life. That is my ideal, and my definition of a successful person.

I will blog more about the definition of success in my next entry.

~Jess

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6 responses to “Defining Success, Part One

  1. Wow, pretty much sums up a lot of my feelings on the subject, that I could never really put into words.

    It is interesting that so many people seem to assume that a degree in college on a particular subject is going to be more useful than actual, real experience in that subject.
    Or perhaps it’s not the issue that people assume such things, but they simply never look at it in those terms.

    As an added bonus, all that money spent on a college tuition could just as easily be used for self-training, as well as a much-needed jump start on the “real world”.

    Personally, given the choice between spending thousands of dollars on a college course, graduating with a debt, and diving right into the first job I see in an attempt to pay off the college tuition, or taking those thousands of dollars (or even lack thereof) and simply getting to start my life with some simple job experience, go out there and get experience in a field I enjoy, and best of all, no debt… I’d go with the second option every time.

    On an unrelated note, I’d like to thank you for turning me on to the word “Autodidact”. Not a word I’d heard before, but it’s a personal favorite one now. =D

  2. the problem is that the college experience is not satisfying; it is a comfort zone in the lowest common denominator paradigm. after college leads fore some into a job somehow linked to their degree but this is not likely 1/2 the time. dissatisfaction raises its head as one is living in a place where life is not sustainable; starvation leads usually to thinking the only option is a different degree ; that a mistake was made ; trust in the education system as a caring , nurturing entity is misplaced. bion says: we spend and often waste a lifetime walking in the shadow of our unclaimed self. The comfort zone is the safety from fear of the unknown and grasping for anything that pretends to offer answers.

  3. I disagree with Patrick to some extent. It is a comfort zone, sure. But it’s not safety from the fear of the unknown for a lot of us. I know exactly what I want, and I have no problem going for it. I’m at college for a specific reason, and I LOVE it. I could not even imagine not being here, and most of my friends are like that. Once you hit the end of sophomore year, everyone knows what they want to some extent. I think it’s all in how you approach college. If you look at it as you and most of your commenters are by saying that “it’s 4 years of your life you will waste, you’re in debt, you won’t have a job, you’re going to fail, it was a mistake etc” then yeah, I would say it’s pointless. BUT if you look at it as “I have been given an opportunity to pay a small amount of money (depending on where you go that is) in order to increase my knowledge. I am learning from teachers who have studied their feild for years, I am preparing myself for my future, and I am getting a specific degree instead of wasting my time here, I may have to learn on a different system, but I am LEARNING” then I would say it’s entirely worth it. I know you and I do disagree on this issue, and even I will completely agree that college isn’t for everyone, and you can survive without it. BUT I do think that you give college less credit than you should. The pointless classes you take are only broadening your horizon. Sure, I hate Gen-Ed. But taking a science like bio for me may spark an interest I didn’t know I had. And if not, I still learned something. Sure, I self-learn as well. I balance my time between both. But self-learning could not teach me what I learn by having access to some of the greatest research in the world, and a college full of doctorates.

    I know I’m addressing this one in a wrong post, but I want to know where you got your info about colleges wanting a gap year…I’ve worked in our school’s admissions office some, and I have never heard that. We’ll accept students who have taken that year off, but it’s not something we look for by any means.

  4. Geo – glad I could sum up your thoughts for you! 🙂 I think the second option is wiser as well. Besides, if , in the future, you do decide there is something you want to specifically study in college, you will probably have the means to put yourself through, and you will have a bigger goal for the degree you are going for than most students who go to college right out of highschool.

    And you’re welcome! “Autodidact” is a great word.

    Patrick – well said. It’s not always everybody’s experience, but there is a huge number of students to whom college becomes that comfort zone from the fear of the unknown, aka the real world. That is another reason why I think it’s good, if you do think that college is a step you would like to take towards your Big Goal, to just go out and live, work, and learn in the real world for a few years first. It puts everything else into perspective.

    Allie – I see what you are saying; and I am sure you do have a specific goal for college, which is very commendable. However, I think you are misinterpreting and/or missing the point of the entries I have written and the comments that have been made. “It’s 4 years of your life you will waste, you’re in debt, you won’t have a job, you’re going to fail, it was a mistake etc” is not what anybody is saying here. If you read the last entry, I said there is nothing inherently wrong with college; what is wrong is everybody’s assumptions that it is the ONLY way for EVERY person; and in this entry I have gone on to say that another thing that is wrong with college is the assumption that the only way to be successful is to have a degree, and that in the world these days there seems to be only one type of “success” that is really respected.

    Gen-ed is also not inherently bad; however, they do take up a lot of time for those of us who would simply like to concentrate on the major at hand and get on with our dreams. Another thing is that they are not the only way to get broadened horizons and new interests. If they were, adults would be taking gen-eds for the rest of their lives. Instead, there are things like books, television, seminars, and most of all, people to talk to who have varied and different interests and know a lot in a given field I may never have given much thought to before.

    I have read in a few different articles not that college WANT a gap year, but that they look upon gap year students with intrigue. Of course, if you spent that gap year in a basement playing video games, the college isn’t going to think you are very special. Basically, it is what is done in that gap year that colleges look at. It’s not so much that they prefer a gap year, as it is that gap year applicants have done things and gotten experience which colleges may prefer over an applicant who have come fresh out of another institution. None of the articles have really stated explicitly where they get this information (which irks me a bit), but each one has pointed out Harvard specifically.

  5. Pingback: Tweets that mention Defining Success, Part One « Life Without College -- Topsy.com

  6. Pingback: Eli Gerzon's Worldschooler Blog » Interviewed for Radio Free School blog and re: unschoolers living and succeeding without college

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