Four years ago I made the single most formative decision of my life. With just six quarters remaining, I decided to drop out of the University of Washington and enter the workforce early.
Today we have the highest unemployment rate (in the US) than we have seen in 30 years, are in the midst of a recession and are living during a time where college degrees are as close to a minimum requirement as they have ever been. A lot of time has passed since that fateful day and I now have the benefit of hindsight to judge my decision.
Dropping out of school was surprisingly easy. I started my day at 11:00am and went to my Human-Computer Interaction class in Mary Gates Hall on the University of Washington campus. The class started with the professor handing back graded tests that we had taken the previous week. I wasn’t worried as I had found the test easy and didn’t feel like I needed to have studied for it.
I was handed my file and noted the grade point spread on the cover sheet. I looked at my score and was immediately embarrassed and appalled. I looked around to see if anyone else was on the verge of melting. I had scored the lowest in the entire series. I immediately left the classroom and went for a long walk.
I had been contemplating dropping out of school for a while but hadn’t really imagined myself taking the leap.
At the time, I wasn’t sure why I felt so unsettled about my education but I was certain that something was wrong. My grades were average (meaning C’s) but I didn’t think my classes were particularly hard or interesting. Looking back, I now know that the reason for my unhappiness and poor performance was that my academic experience was completely uneven.
In one class, I was literally on my own final exam when the professor cited some work I had done at my job at local startup without realizing I was in the class. (After I dropped out, I was asked to come back and give a lecture to my former classmates.) In another class, I was the worst student out of the entire quarter. No matter how much time I put into it, I couldn’t will myself to succeed in the classes I didn’t find interesting.
Outside of school, I was living in a fraternity (Chi Psi) and working at a local startup (SEOmoz). I was loving my experience in the fraternity and was both learning a lot about life as well as making some extraordinarily good friends. For work, I was feeling incredibly fulfilled. I knew that I was starting to grow a positive reputation for myself in a industry that I knew was growing and I loved the time I spent with my co-workers. I looked forward to going to work everyday and learned far more there than I did in any classes.
Outside of school, I was loving my life. In school, I was miserable.
A Long Walk
After getting my embarrassing test score back, I left the classroom and went for a long walk. Long walks have been my venue for all of the important decisions I have made in my life. They are still my best decision making tool.
I walked around campus for several hours alone with my thoughts. I tried to reason my way into staying in school but something inside me just kept signaling that it was not the right fit. College was just not for me.
I finally let out a deep and long breath. Change was imminent. I didn’t feel any fear.
The first person I told about my decision was the girl I was trying to date at the time. I called her, mentioned my walk and declared that I was dropping out of school.
I had been attracted to this particular girl because of her spontaneous lifestyle and positive attitude. She was super alternative, always smiling and I really liked her for it.
The first thing she did was yell at me and call me retarded. :-p
She told me it was a terrible decision and that she thought I was making a destructive and life ruining mistake.
We never ended up dating.
The next people I told were my friends at my fraternity. They were shocked.
Half were super excited for me. Those guys compared me to other people who had dropped out and done well (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, etc..) and wished me the best of luck. The other half either were openly against my decision or silent with a facial expression of someone watching the moments right before a train wreck. It was both disheartening and uplifting.
Next I called my parents. This was the hardest part as both of my parents are teachers. Education had been an enormous part of my upbringing and I was sure they were going to be disappointed.
I thought back about my dad walking into my bedroom on the night before each first day of the school year and telling me, “Danny, make sure you try as hard as you can. Your mother and I don’t care about your specific grades or how the other kids are doing. We only care that you try the best you can.”
That day, I had to tell them I was done trying.
“Hey, Mom and Dad! Can I come over for dinner tomorrow? I have some news.”
I later found out, my parents already knew what I was going to say.
When I told them about my decision during dinner, my dad responded with “Yep, I saw that coming.” He then smiled. He had known what I was going to do months before I had known.
My mom was a lot more concerned. “I don’t know Danny, your job is going fine but what about the long term?” I knew she was upset but didn’t find out until later that she was actually floored.
Upon writing this post, I called my mom to ask her about the order of events and realized for the first time, that despite how my life has unfolded since, she is still not entirely sure of my decision. I don’t blame her. I took a hell of a leap.
The Actual Event
The next day I went into the administration building at the University of Washington. I was greeted by a crabby women who asked me for my student ID number and what I wanted to change about my schedule.
I told her my ID number and that I wanted to drop out.
She barely noticed. “Did I get your number right?”
I looked on her computer screen, it was off my one number. “Nope! It was a 3 not an 8.”
“Oops, that was close. I almost dropped all of some other guys classes. That would have been a mess.”
“Okay, you are officially out. Have a good day.”
I looked at her blankly. The biggest decision of my life hadn’t even phased her.
Would You Change Your Decision If You Could?
This decision paved the way for my life. At the time, I had thought that the decision was about my schooling. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that that decision was really about my happiness.
Identifying what makes someone happy is not difficult. It is the events, people or experiences that ignite the lights behind their eyes and keep them awake and thinking way past the point where they should be sleeping. Identifying happiness is not the hard part of life, the difficult part is prioritizing it.
The real decision that I made that day was to trust myself. I had many perfectly legitimate reasons for staying in school (statistics around success and education, advice from loved ones, cheap housing and food options, a lifestyle that surrounded me with friends, a well tested life path…) but instead decided to follow my instinct. I chose happiness.
After I took the leap the first time, it made it much easier to make similar decisions later.
Six months after dropping out, I donated or sold my possessions until I only had 100 worldly goods left. Shortly after that, I decided to fully dedicate myself to my life list. Three months later, I left the job I had dropped out of school to work at and moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, six months after that, I quit my (new) six figure job and moved to Barcelona, Spain.
Since dropping out, I have lived a much fuller and fulfilled life. Contrary to my initial fears, I am financially stable, continually learning new skills, valuable to society and most importantly, living my dream. I look back and have zero regrets about dropping out of school.
I look around at my friends who are faced with similarly large decisions. Many have mortgages, kids and/or impressive jobs but have told me that they are looking for something else. They have heaps of legitimate and important reasons for continuing their current lifestyles but like me, have a persistent inner voice that is begging them to get out and explore.
I don’t think that any of them are in the wrong. Their excuses are completely legitimate. The trouble is, happiness is extremely convenient to de-prioritize. Life has a special talent for finding new ways to get in the way.
I don’t claim to know what the right direction is for others but I do know one thing for certain. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to choose happiness early on in my life. The decision I made years ago to drop out of school ended up paving the way for an adventure that I now wake up to and enjoy every day. Thank you former self, a happier you exists today because of your braveness.