As I’ve mentioned before, right in the middle of my college career, I dropped out. It wasn’t permanent – I only ended up taking a year off – but it was still completely life-altering. And not because I traveled or “found myself” (because I certainly did neither of those things), but because I learned a shit ton about what I actually might want from life. I learned a lot of very specific skills from working various jobs and testing out a lot of new hobbies and activities, but the most important things I learned during my time off were really about myself, and my future. Sounds pretty corny, right?
But the thing is, when I made the decision to drop my school schedule, I had no real plan. I hardly even had a desire to drop out. I was doing okay in my classes, but I was in a major I didn’t really care for. I had just broken up with my on-campus boyfriend, and didn’t feel like seeing him around and trying to convince him I was ~totally fine~ while I was clearly flailing, academically, romantically, and otherwise. Most of the reasons I dropped out were personal reasons that, if I had addressed properly, probably could have been solved in ways that didn’t have me falling behind in my college career, and spending thousands of dollars on a yoga teacher training program when I decided on a whim that it was “my calling”.
But taking that time off – making those mistakes, losing the money, making more money, and generally just beginning to get some sort of grasp on what kind of life I’d like to live post-school – has made me a better worker, a better student, and a better person.
I learned a lot of different things during this time, but these were the most important pieces of dropout wisdom I took with me once I returned to school a year later.
1. It is okay to have no idea what’s going to happen.
When I stopped going to school, I felt deeply insecure about the fact that I had no picture of what I wanted my life to look like. The foreseeable future and the entirely un-seeable future were both question marks, and I didn’t know how to explain that to anybody. I didn’t even know how to explain that to myself. I felt uncomfortable with the fact that I had made such a huge decision to drop out of school, especially because I did it without even having a small plan. I felt insecure about the emptiness of my future. But the thing is, when you’ve got a year of nothingness in front of your face, like a blank word document, and you stare at it long enough, you’ll eventually start to fill it up with something. I ended up signing up for a yoga teacher training, and taking a job nannying full-time for a little girl who is one of the best friends I’ve ever known in life. I’m a planner in nearly every sense of the word, but letting my life figure itself out for once was more liberating than anything I’ve ever done. I know am definitely saying this from a place of great privilege, because although I was working full-time, I was also still 19 and living with my parents, so I carried almost no financial burden. However, the fact that I somehow navigated through my school and career roles for the first time in my life while simultaneously discoverin something I was truly passionate about gave me hope that someday, when I’m without a safety net, I’ll be able to figure it out then as well.
2. It is okay to change your mind.
I said a lot of things definitively during my time off from school, mostly because I felt like I had a lot to prove to people. I wanted people to know I had a plan, or at least a dream. However, I wish I held my tongue a little bit and didn’t say “I’m definitely doing this,” or “I’m definitely happier this way,” before I had really had time to decide if those statements were true. I wanted everyone to know I was totally fine and had it all figured out. I told people I was “soOoOoOo much happier!!!” since I dropped out, when the reality of the situation was that I still felt totally lost. I told people how I’d “found myself” in yoga, and never felt more fulfilled than I did when I began working as a full-time nanny, even though both of those things grew old for me quickly. My credibility was kind of ruined two months later, when I told all of those same people how I was feeling like a burnt-out mom at my job, and kind of already itching to get back to school. I learned that it is okay to change your mind a lot, and you don’t have to justify or explain it to every single person each time you do. Your decisions are yours – that’s it.
3. It is okay to simultaneously regret a decision itself, but not actually regret making it.
I was so proud of myself for finding enough ~enlightenment~ or whatever to drop out of school and stick it to the man by becoming a yoga teacher. LOL, look how that worked out. I sometimes do regret my decision to leave school for that year – it put me behind in my studies, and didn’t really bring me much further emotionally than I wish it had. (Truthfully, I wish I’d taken a year off before I started school, but this is another topic.) Even though I don’t think I’d take the year off if I had the chance to do it all over again, I am still kind of glad I made that terrible decision. It taught me a lot about what I wanted – and more importantly, it taught me about what I didn’t want. My future is still pretty open-ended, but I did figure out what passions of mine were best kept as hobbies, and which things I actually wanted to pursue as a possible career. I also learned something I’d never realized before – I really value my education. Before my year off, I definitely treated school like a chore, or an obstacle on my way to the future. Now, going to class and learning something new is probably my favorite thing to do with my time. I realized that sometimes in the working world, life gets so busy you hardly have time to learn – I want to soak up every second I have left of being surrounded by professors willing to answer any question I have about the world. I’m definitely grateful that my time off changed my perspective in that way.
4. It is okay to just slow down and think.
I put really important parts of my life on pause because I was so panicked about finding myself and planning my future. If I had consulted a few trusted and certified Grown Ups in my life before withdrawing from the university and signing up for my yoga training so quickly, I might have gotten the advice I really needed: slow the heck down. It sounds so corny, but I really do need to remind myself often that I’m not in a race to figure my life out before the person next to me. I definitely have a competitive streak, and I also tend to lean on the Type-A side of things, so I find myself constantly stressed about having everything perfectly and properly planned. This stress only increases as I watch my friends and peers accomplish things so gracefully and effortlessly around me. Instead of acting on frantic, ill-conceived plans to temporarily trick people around me into thinking I had some sort of future plans (i.e. becoming a guru-level yoga instructor, eventually opening some sort of green juice bar with my rock-climbing husband and our kids, River and Wheat Thin), I should have just been honest with myself and everyone else, and shrugged my shoulders when I was asked about my major, or my career plans, or any of that other stuff that made me feel so uncomfortable in my skin. If I had been able to accept that this shit is all a long learning process, I might have been able to calm down and slow down long enough to actually start figuring it all out, instead of getting distracted by all of my attempts to sugar-coat my confusion.
For me, a lot of anxiety surrounded the fact that I was in school with no real future path, and no real idea of what I even wanted my life to look like — I just wanted to push through it all as quickly as I could so I could just be there already and see how it all worked out. It is hard to decide whether or not a decision was a good one when it hasn’t been fully realized yet – but dropping out and taking that year to explore what life would be like post-school really helped me understand where I was heading: nowhere. Nowhere in particular, at that point in time, at least. And for the first time, I’m okay with that. I’ll find yoga, or nannying, or writing, or some other job I like to do, and be okay. I’m almost certain I’ll be okay.
Mary is the summer Media Fellow at The Financial Diet. Send her your summer intern stories (your lessons, failures, triumphs and good advice) at firstname.lastname@example.org