I never had to work that hard in school. Most of my early education (high school and below), I spent the majority of my time just waiting to get older – hanging out with friends, playing sports and video games, and worrying about girls.
I didn’t own a computer until about 1991 when I was in the 11th grade (it was a Commodore 64) and even once I got that I *mostly* just used it for playing games (though I did spend more time ‘programming’ it to do stupid things than my friends, who also had one, ever did; and I did take the time to read the entire manual about how to program with it [anyone else remember the good old PEEK and POKE commands?]).
Since the 5th grade I had been working in one part-time job or another…sometimes, especially through the summers, it would add up to enough hours to basically be full-time. But all of these jobs had been min. wage sort of things (cleaning my dads bar, mowing lawns, dishwasher, popcorn & peanut vendor at the local baseball stadium, errand boy at the local beer distributor, lifeguard, machine operator at a small plastics plant, etc., etc., etc.)
Really I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I had no real inclination of what kind of work I would do. Most of the adults I knew were either factory workers or professors…of the two I thought 'professor’ seemed like the nicer gig, but honestly factory work didn’t look so bad as a fall back option either (and my experience in working for one, full-time, third shift over a summer had been very positive).
So in high school I was really just killing time, waiting to get my life started, and move on to the next phase. I didn’t work hard because I didn’t have to (I think I finished somewhere in the top 15-20 in my grade; and that included intentionally trying to fail a class [another story I’ll share some day]), and I guess I assumed that at some point (probably in college) someone would reveal to me what it was that I was really supposed to do. What I was supposed to be.
The other thing I had going was that my mom worked for the local University, and as such, I was eligible for FREE tuition. Which meant, since about the 3rd or 4th grade, I pretty much knew (assumed) I was going to college and that the college would be Edinboro University.
I also knew it was a decent school for certain things, but it wasn’t the world’s hardest to get into (which meant I didn’t have to work too hard to make the cut). This was so much 'just a fact’ in my life, that I never even considered or applied to any other schools (one of the few 'big’ regrets of my life actually).
As I had expected, I got in…and though I had lots of freedom living at home, I was so anxious to get started with my life, that I opt'ed to live in the dorms from the start (I did have to pay for room and board)…btw, outside of the first holiday break from school that was about two weeks that you *had* to move out of the dorms, I never did move back.
So I was finally free to make my own choices, do whatever I really wanted, and be in complete control of my future…so what did I do with that first semester?
Well not too much really. I got to know just about everyone in my dorm (the now infamous, thanks to us, Centennial Hall) and I still hung out with some of my high school friends (the few that were still in the area).
What I didn’t do was much homework. Or attend all my classes.
My thinking was that this was college, and I was free to do what I thought was right…I still had to take the classes they told me, but as long as I could show up and pass the tests (which I did every time), everything should be good right? Well not so much, my first semester I earned…
4 Cs and an F.
For those of you that are wondering, that earns you an amazing grade point average of 1.6 (just a *few* whole grade points shy of honor role).
And here’s the thing about grade point averages…they are averages…and I would learn the hard way that averages, once they are low, are *really* freaking hard to pull up.
Though I pulled my grades up consistently from that semester on (earning mostly As and Bs with the occasional C) I would eventually (be formally requested to) take a semester off to regroup, reflect on my life goals, and refocus on my commitment to 'higher education’ (actually I spent most of those days working 12 hour shifts delivering John’s Wildwood Pizza).
So if I was so smart, and school was so easy, why did I do so poorly? Well, I think there were a number of mistakes I made.
The first and most obvious was that I simply didn’t accept, or learn, the rules.
At the university that I was enrolled, homework and attendance were required. They counted towards your final grade. Showing up, doing the grunt work…these were the easiest things in the world to actually do…but my ego, and my belief in my ability to coast by were so high, that I didn’t think they applied to me.
Turns out, they did.
The second, and probably more egregious mistake, was that I didn’t even try to push myself or take advantage of the available resources.
I simply took the classes I was told/recommended to take…none of which actually interested me (but were required to earn a degree). I was trying to play their game, let them take score, but play on my rules (and that never works).
One of the things that Steve Jobs did early in his life, that I don’t think gets enough attention, is that he 'officially’ dropped out of college…but he didn’t stop going to classes. He just stopped playing their game and letting them take score. He focused on what interested him, what pushed him.
It never even occurred to me that I could do that (so much for being so smart eh?).
And it turns out I was willing to show up and put in the work once I found something that really interested me and pushed me (which was this new thing called the 'internet’ around the same time)…but almost nothing about my formal college experience revealed that to me or put me on that path (though it did an amazing job in revealing all sorts of things I didn’t want to do or deal with).
So, anyway, after one semester I was on 'academic probation’. I need to wake up, learn the real rules, and start playing the game the right way. So what did I do?
The very next semester, I took a third-shift job, pledged a fraternity (Delta Chi if you’re curious), and got into a relationship of course…and I got a little better about picking and scheduling classes (looking back this was probably the start of my “to get get more done, and be more efficient, overcommit” theory/mantra).
Really I had started college because I didn’t know or think there was any other path…and, even after my initial struggles and through my initial 'professional career’ (that I luckily backed into), I stuck with it earning a few credits year-after-year…not because I wanted the degree, or because I felt it was a useful experience, but because I just thought “it was what you are supposed to do”.
Eventually, the job opportunity to work for American Express pulled me away from the area…and that meant that I would either have to transfer to another school or just give up on the pursuit of the degree (at least temporarily).
At the time, I was about 10 credits shy of a 'computer science’ degree…but I had already been 'programming’ for a couple of years. I had built two nationally distributed CD-Roms, I had been 'the computer’ guy for fast growing publishing company, and I had worked with a number of ad agencies and other clients as a freelancer.
Through all of those experiences, I was not using a single bit of the 'knowledge’ I was learning at night in class working towards my degree.
The move forced me to confront that reality, and ultimately gave me the freedom to accept that my personal time would be better spent on other pursuits (and for better or for worse, the time I had been dedicating to getting the degree basically shifted into the time I spent trying to turn thedfl.com into a business).
For a very long time (even still on some down days), I have felt incomplete about not finishing school…not because I value the degree, but because others do.
I still HATE having to check the 'high school’ box on forms that ask for highest level of education completed. And at various times I’ve toyed with 'going back’ to finish, but I’ve never really wanted to commit the time or energy (and if I’m being totally honest, I hate the idea of having someone else tell me what I need to/should/am required to learn and in what order).
Ultimately, I just don’t value a degree in terms of 'knowledge’, I only value it in terms of 'dedication’…and I do think dedication is massively important.
In my case, later in life, I was presented with the opportunity to write a book (a few actually), and in many ways I have since looked upon writing that book as my 'degree’ (because getting it done was mostly about showing up, doing the work, and having the dedication to see it all the way through).
But that whole 'official college’ thing itself, just didn’t work out for me.
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Kevin has a day job as CTO of Veritonic and is spending nights & weekends hacking on Share Game Tape. You can also check out some of his open source code on GitHub or connect with him on Twitter @falicon or via email at kevin at falicon.com.
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