Chris Guillebeau reflects on how he once chased a "proper education", striving for things simply because the path from here to there was clear and easily marked out by milestones that many others had followed.
It took me a long time to get away from validating my life according to something that didn't relate to my true hopes and goals. At the time, I really did want to devote years of my life doing things that no one would notice, in hopes of obtaining letters behind my name that no one would care about. As ridiculous as I knew it was, I still wanted it! It was hard to let go of... until I finally did.
Part of it was the attachment to something of questionable value (a degree, useless letters), but I was also attracted to the linear nature of academia. I wanted to do something interesting and meaningful, and I saw a clear, if not entirely sensible path. Never mind that the end was muddled; at least I had a certain next step. Pay this amount of money, write a certain number and type of essays, complete such-and-such requirements, meet with these advisors, and so on. All fairly straightforward.
But when you venture out on your own, the next step is often unclear. You don't necessarily know what to do at any given time, which is why having a specific direction is a superpower. There is also no degree or graduation waiting for you at the end, and you have to determine your own milestones.
Years later, I write these notes while sitting in a hotel lobby in Tajikistan, a place I had never heard of back then. I fly around the world and work on projects I find meaningful. I have no qualifications to do much of anything, yet for the most part I do whatever I want.
I realize now it wasn't so much the acceptance or rejection of academia, an institution that may very well serve other people's needs more than mine. It was the rejection of defining myself according to exterior standards, a system that was rigged to reward conformity by design.
How often do we give up the things that make sense in return for things that are less ambiguous? Clarity might make our day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month lives easier to plan and easier to predict, but are we really growing and learning and challenging ourselves if everything we do has been done a thousand times before?