When I was about 14, I had a vinyl record of The Best of John Lennon. There was a scratch on it which always made the needle skip on a particular line of the song Watching The Wheels.
Now, whenever I hear that song on Spotify, I still hear the skid of the needle as it used to jump back and play the same line until I moved it.
I don’t even own a vinyl player anymore and that particular record is long gone. But that little scratch is so ingrained in my mind that I often don’t realize I’m not actually hearing it.
Six months ago I was at university, studying English Literature and Language. I felt suffocated and frustrated. I wasn’t really learning anything.
My university accommodation was a mess, with rats, mold and no option to move elsewhere. It’s a small thing but I felt it illustrated how little they actually cared about students. I hated the whole thing with every fiber of my being and just wanted to be doing something which felt meaningful, to be learning by living. Yet university left me with nothing but essays on poetic language and long days in the library making notes on postmodernism. By the end of the first semester, I knew I couldn’t stay. So I decided on a trial period – I would take a year off to do whatever I wanted and if I couldn’t get a job without a degree, I would return. The first question I ask myself when I make a big decision is this: how will I feel about this when I’m eighty?
When I was making the choice to drop out of university, I asked myself that and knew the answer straight away. If lacking a degree held me back too much I could always return and finish the one I started. That option is still open to me. At 80, I wouldn’t care if I got my degree at 22, or 27, or 40 or never. But if I stayed at university for another 3 years, miserable, unfulfilled and not learning anything, I would end up regretting it. Even if I only took a year off (as was my initial plan), I knew I wouldn’t regret spending that time traveling and learning. Time is the ultimate leveler.
A few days after signing the relevant paperwork to take a year off, I opened Airbnb and looked for a place which I could afford to rent for a month, and which was available at short notice. There were two available. One was a loft with a 4-foot high ceiling. The other was in a converted barn in what I would consider the middle of nowhere. I went for the barn and spent 30 days there, barely seeing another person the whole time. My days were spent writing and walking the muddy hills, seeing ponies and sheep. My nights were spent reading Robert Greene by the fire. I made plans. I worked on my portfolio. I started pitching potential writing clients.
One day, while out for a walk, I rescued a pheasant from a dog and carried it to a safe field wrapped in a towel. If you are unfamiliar with pheasants, just know that they are incredibly dumb birds which even dumber people breed and release so they can shoot them. This one hadn’t actually been hurt, the dog had just pulled out some feathers. Once it calmed down, it ambled off across the field. It occurred to me that most of my big ideas are a lot like that pheasant. I find them when I’m looking for something else, they’re a bit feeble and take some time to find their feet, and they are never what I plan for. But they get somewhere and they lead to the next thing. I kept Steven Johnson’s advice in mind:
“The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle; reinvent. Build a tangled bank.”
I returned to civilization to do my TEDx talk, reduced my belongings down to one bag, then went traveling for a few months. I couch surfed and took last minute flights, visiting Paris, Chaville, Versailles, Verona, Venice, and Berlin. In each place I explored, not doing anything fancy, just walking and soaking up the beauty of my surroundings. Paris involved a lot of time in bookshops, afternoons sat by the canal, a day in Pere Lachaise cemetery, visits to small museums. In Italy I stayed in the countryside and mostly passed my days among fields and dilapidated farmhouses, sometimes straying into central Verona to see churches and galleries. I took the train to Venice after dreaming of it since my childhood. I cried as I stepped out into the streets because it was every bit as wonderful as I had imagined.
Now I have begun embracing adulthood. I just got my first flat, a sweet little 2 room place which I am proud to call my own. My flatmate is a scruffy kitten called Patti who enjoys destroying books and taking naps on my shoulder. I found her via an ad and when I went to collect her, she was sat by the door seemingly waiting for me. I work full time as a freelance writer, doing work I love and building my portfolio further.
Dropping out didn’t turn me into Bill Gates, but it also hasn’t left me a failure at life.
I’m more and more skeptical about the universal value of a university education. A degree is a product. A well-marketed one, yet still an expensive one. In this new economy more and more of us are able to create the jobs we want, doing work based on our skills and not on a grade on a piece of paper. I am content with what I do now and happy to not have a heap of debt hanging over my head for the next few decades. Not having a degree means I am not tied to any one area. When I need to learn about a new subject for a piece of writing I am doing, I spend a few days reading textbooks and academic papers, get a grasp of the basics and then write about it. In this way, I’m learning a hell of a lot more than I would have done at university. By 2020 around 50% of us will be freelancers and most graduates end up doing work unrelated to their degree anyway.
A lot of people ask me (usually via Quora) why I dropped out, in a way that suggests I’m throwing my life away or I am doing something abnormal. A few people have even got in touch to say they are concerned I’m not going to survive in the ‘real world.’
But dropping out is not as big a deal as the stigma surrounding it suggests. It’s one thing to drop out because you find university too hard and you just want to nap on your parent’s’ couch and watch Netflix. It’s another thing to do what I have managed to do – make a plan, assess the options, drop out, get your own place and launch into a career. Those are two very different scenarios.
There is also a dramatic difference between going to university because you don’t know what else to do, or because everyone else is, or because you’re scared of adulthood, and going to university because you have a focused reason to do so. Plenty of other people have told me that university is valuable for meeting people and having fun. To me, that sounds like a weak excuse – it’s pretty easy to network without getting into serious debt. Plus, drinking and going to clubs is a weird standard for ‘fun.’ That’s not a judgment statement. It didn’t work for me. I wilted in university. I’m thriving outside of it. This isn’t me being a slacker, this is me making a considered choice. That’s the important part.
It took a lot of guts to make such a sudden, drastic pivot. I had no idea if it would work out. But I’m proud of everything I have achieved in half a year – travelling alone, getting my own place, becoming financially independent, finding work I love and which supports me, having meaningful experiences.
Six months on, I guess this is adulthood. I guess this is real life.
I’m learning to enjoy the simple stuff- lying on the floor playing with Patti, building my own furniture out of palettes, fixing things, cooking rice for the first time, buying kitchenware, getting my work done. I guess, like John Lennon, I’m just watching the wheels go round. The only thing I really know is that I keep finding (metaphorical) pheasants and that things do work out eventually, with work and patience. That sometimes the scratch on the record becomes part of the music, and it sounds wrong without it.