Reflections on dropping out of school after two years
17 October, 2018
I have a confession to make.
It may sound as a total surprise for some people who know me. Most people who know me get a bit shocked when they learn this little detail about me.
I dropped out of high school. And that was the best decision I have ever made as a teen.
A disclaimer before we start: this is my own story of survivorship bias. It is highily anecdotal, and as far as I’m concerned it only applies to my specific context. Read this with a grain of salt.
I’ve lived my entire life in Brazil. My passport has no stamps (yet) and I had a pretty standard education until I was 14.
I went to small private schools as child, which is a pretty common practice here as there’s lot of options and most middle class families can afford them.
This changed for my family somewhere around 2014, when Brazil got hit harder with a political and economical recession. My parents decided to put me on a cheaper school they could afford, just one year before I was set to start high school.
2014 is also the year I started freelancing more and more, selling websites to all sorts of people and making my own money (very little, tho, but enough to afford my own shit). The whole situation made me think a lot about if it was time for me to leave my parents home and go see the world.
And what happens when you have a teenager who’s making money and wants to leave his parents home? Exactly.
I couldn’t stop studying, of course. That was totally out of my range of possibilites. A 14yo out of school making his own money without a degree? Not possible, I thought.
So by the third quarter of 2014 I had a solid plan laid out: I was going to apply to a federal institution, which offered not only a high school degree but also a technical degree in a field of choice, and I would start from there building the blocks of my career. Totally free, 100% federal government money.
The field of choice was of course I.T., and the campus was of course far away from my hometown.
By the end of the year test results came out and it was official: I was going to spend the next three years in another town studying both high school and I.T., all day.
The first year
As 2015 started, I moved in to student dorms along with some other classmates. The first three months were scary af. I was 14, far away from home, and I had to figure out my own shit now, near total strangers.
Classes kicked in and I got all excited. “So many new things to learn!”
By the second month or so I even got invited to get started on a research project of the campus, doing some code and interface tweaks on a GNU project, with financial compensation and all.
I thought everyday for the first few months “this is it! I found my way!”, but then things started to get more clear.
Making your own path vs. following some script
As I advanced more in the classes, two things got very clear to me:
- The whole thing was designed to generate half-skilled professionals so they could move to the big city and work for Big Companies;
- The content of the classes was totally outdated. At least 10 years behind what was happening on the real world. Even the fundamentals were sketchy;
Of course those weren’t nice realisations to have, and hell, there’s was nothing I could do.
The more I talked to everyone, from teachers to senior students and ex-students, the more “hmmmm” I got.
I couldn’t drop out, right? Also I couldn’t change the course. So what’s left to do?
The solution was what I was already doing for the past three years or so: using the internet to educate myself.
I started learning new programming languages, new frameworks, new patterns, new methodologies. The more I learned by myself, the more the course stopped making sense to me.
One hour of genuine interest in learning a new thing would teach me more than 10 hours of outdated classes. What a surprise.
The funny thing is that almost all of our teachers were masters, doctors, PhDs, and yet, they all seemed to be living in a different world than me.
The local tech market where I lived was 10 to 20 years behind what was the norm worldwide. I didn’t fully grasp this realisation at the time, but I knew that getting that degree would get me to a place I wasn’t sure I wanted to be.
So what did I do?
I started missing classes (specially the regular high school ones) and spending more time at the library. Building side-projects and doing small freelance contracts, improving my skillset in a way the school system could not.
The desire to build stuff and make money with my skills started growing stronger in me. Slowly I came to the realisation that I didn’t need a degree to make money, I just needed to be really good.
The second year
This decision of course had consequences. I started receiving warnings about classes, from pretty much everyone in the campus.
The thing is that my grades didn’t get much affected. The whole system was flawed. All I had to do for most tests for high school disciplines was to remember a concept or two and apply logic to solve the tests. It didn’t measure how well I had understood the subject, it measured how well I had memorized the concept.
Besides that I had no real interest in most of the classes. This is a pretty common place for all students I guess. “Why the fuck do I have to learn this thing?”
Things got ugly and I started getting into fights with teachers and whoever dared to question the way I was going throughout the course.
By March 2016, I was convinced I could go my way and that school was bullshit. Yup, very arrogant, I know.
Risk assessment, or why I didn’t really risk anything by dropping out
By April 2016 I started working on a new startup idea with two other friends. That product was my way out of “the system” (whatever that means). If I could make it work and make some money, it was the perfect excuse to go to my parents and say “hey, I need you to sign the paperwork to get me off school for six months or so”.
So I worked harder than I ever did before. I would attend classes all day, work on intervals and do more 4 or 6 hours of coding at night.
I started to look like a zombie. My friends got worried. My social life on campus vanished. I didn’t care, all I cared about was to get off school and try my own thing. School started to look like hell, a waste of time. I started having panic attacks over the feeling of being trapped in something I couldn’t escape.
Right before the July recess, I shared my plan with my family. They thought I was crazy.
They even sent me to a therapist (who after some sessions told them to “just let the kid do his own thing”), but in the end, my argument proved to be stronger.
My argument to them was simple: “I have this project here, it can be something big, and I have X people saying it could be something big. I need six months off school to validate this idea. If it works out the gains will be far superior to any costs, and if it doesn’t works out, I will just have wasted six months.”
The argument was compelling, so they signed the paperwork to let me go.
Of course I didn’t had any intention to ever come back near a school again, regardless of the outcome of my little endeavour.
The only reason for me to go to school was to “secure” a good job later and build a career. From the moment I realised I didn’t need school to make a living coding, it stopped making sense.
And if life proved me wrong, that was ok too, I could simply get back in the system and follow the path.
So yeah, I guess in the end the only thing I had to lose was my fear of sucking at life.
My startup failed after six months. I turned 16 and got myself emancipated (after pressing my parents a lot), ensuring that no one could force me to go back to school.
I started a software agency, got some clients, started increasing my income, and even moved to the big city to take on a normal 9-5 job (just to discover that I liked freelancing better).
I’m pretty sure today that I made the right call, even if I didn’t have the full picture at the moment.
I never wanted to work for big companies. I never wanted to spend the best years of my life studying things I didn’t care about, just to move on later and spend the rest of my life inside a office space working for the man.
All I really wanted was freedom, and that the system could never give me.
I’m 18 now, and I’m doing good. My freelance business has never been better, and I have a lot of free time on my hands to create side projects, to travel, to experience life as whole.
I also discovered that tech really has something special. If you can code, if you can speak english, all you really need is a good reputation to do well.
Of course, I can only say this today because I have learned some meta-skills necessary to overcome the need for a degree. The good news is that anyone with time and a internet connection can learn this today. And frequently, regular schools and colleges won’t teach you this stuff.
Nope, that degree alone won’t make you successful. Living in the real world, solving real problems for real people may give you a better shot.
As usual, feel free to share your thoughts with me on Twitter.