In 7th grade, my parents told me I was adopted by my dad, meaning the man I knew as my dad up to that point was not my biological dad. My reaction was to put in our VHS copy of Look Who’s Talking. Movies were a language for me from an early age. When Kirstie Alley softens her heart to John Travolta at the end and lets him essentially become the talking baby’s father, I realized that the dad I knew was my dad, and this new information actually didn’t matter at all. It never upset me again.
The movie Goodwill Hunting came out in 1997 when I was a senior in high school—and it blew my mind. As I remember it, I was the most charming guy in school and everyone — my fellow students, my teachers, the school’s administrators, local politicians– just adored me. As we all know, memory is 100% accurate so you will have to take the previous sentence as concrete truth. Goodwill Hunting was a Dead Poets Society drama bred with the crude comic stylings of a Kevin Smith movie. It packed an emotional punch unlike anything I had experienced. It reminded me of how connected to movies I was and how much I wanted to make them.
I will go off to a prestigious film school, I told myself, and I will take the movie-making world by storm!
Approximately three years later I dropped out of college.
* * *
The following is a list of people in history who don’t have a college degree:
- Bill Gates
- Albert Einstein
- Ansel Adams
- Lebron James
- Lucille Ball
- Paul Thomas Anderson
- Louis Armstrong
- John, Paul, George and Ringo
- Will Hunting from Goodwill Hunting
The following is another list of people in history who don’t have a college degree:
- My mom
- My dad
- My dad’s six siblings
- The guys I worked with at the City of Fort Collins Water Department
The difference between these two lists is that the people on the first list had some sort of genius or special talent that propelled them to fame and, often, great fortune. They are creative masters, computer wizards, and amazing athletes.
The people on the second list are also all great people, and very smart people.
I have many wonderful relatives who never earned a college degree. My dad was one of the smartest people I knew. After working several hard labor gigs—he worked on the railroad and a couple of oil rigs (no, he was not born in 1883)—he eventually got an associate’s degree at a local community college and worked his way up the water treatment ladder in my hometown. He was a natural at chemistry and chemical engineering, even with little formal training. He was a real life Goodwill Hunting. Well, minus the violent abusive past.
* * *
During my childhood, two important societal messages became ingrained in me:
1. Smoking will kill you.
2. If you don’t go to college, your life will be a failure.
The message about college was not implanted into my mind by my parents. My parents just wanted me to do what I was good at, to do what made me happy. It was the outside world that sent that message. Society was telling me of the failure adulthood would be with no college degree. Society was also telling me not to worry about the financial part of college. Just borrow the money. It’s good debt.
Go to college, whatever the cost. Just go.
Many students finish high school prepped and eager to attack the next academic step. Another set of students don’t do well in high school, graduate or drop out, and get a job at a gas station or their uncle’s construction company. I occupied a space somewhere between those two groups. I was a fairly good student, I was smart and I had something resembling talent. But I was not a genius. I also was not street-smart and I didn’t have a knack for the construction trade.
After four semesters in college, I dropped out. It was not that I had to relentlessly pursue my life long dream of making movies; I dropped out of college because it wasn’t right for me at that time. I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t fail out (my grades were actually good), I quit.
At age 21, I didn’t really know who I was. I was uncertain and unfocused. College is a dangerous place for the uncertain and unfocused. Tuition money is wasted, majors are changed multiple times, and important life decisions are left in the hands of an immature person who isn’t ready for it. (That immature person was me.)
* * *
There are many pitfalls for a college drop out. Falling into a social group that never challenges you to better yourself is one of them. I have always been drawn to people who are more educated than myself. If I was not going to pursue higher education, I was at least going to spend time with an educated crowd. As an adult, the majority of my friends have advanced degrees, and most of those friends found high paying jobs post-college. I placed a lot of importance on surrounding myself with educated, thoughtful people.
Goodwill Hunting caused many people of my generation, including myself, to have a skewed view of the undereducated. It tells you that it’s okay to not go to college as long as you are a mega-genius at something and can build an exceptional career doing it. Everyone loves the storytelling trajectory Will Hunting’s character takes in that movie. But what about his best friend, Ben Affleck’s character, Chuckie? No one admires him. He’s going to wake up tomorrow and he’ll be fifty, and he’ll still be demolishing brick buildings, drinking and watching Patriots games. That movie reduces the life of a hard working, non-college grad to a waste of time and oxygen. He is the type of person that the viewer, specifically a 17 year old viewer like myself, does not want to end up like.
The truth is that life is not as dramatic as Goodwill Hunting’s depiction. It is not so black and white. There are several different types of people who never receive a college degree. There are chemistry geniuses like my dad. There are quiet, simple men who happily work construction their entire lives. There are people like my mom, who has worked as a physical therapy aid for thirty five years and is content with what she does. These people are part of a wide spectrum. But where do I fit in?
The strange thing with my life is that I’ve always found myself somewhere between my Ph.D. friends and my uneducated family members, between Will Hunting and his loyal friend Chuckie. I’ve had to navigate the winding road between book smarts and street smarts. I don’t always quite fit in with the street smart crowd like my dad and I don’t always quite fit in with the academia crowd like my close friends.
At first, navigating this road was difficult and confusing, like being lost on a mountain road at night…during a snowstorm…with your gas tank running on empty…and your windshield wipers malfunctioning…and your headlights—okay, you get the idea. I felt inferior. I felt like a failure. I felt small.
When you live your life in a world that insists a person must earn a college degree to be successful, your feeling of self worth can be damaged when you don’t achieve said degree. That is the most impactful effect dropping out of college had on me as a young adult. I felt like I failed to do the one thing everyone is supposed to do. A debilitating regret slowly set in, but somehow did not motivate me to rush back to school. I drifted through my twenties working jobs that paid the bills, but never moving forward.
Finally, at age 30, I woke up.
I was having a conversation with a good friend over dinner. I was complaining about my job and my life in general. It was one bitter, pessimistic sentence after another. Eventually my friend had his fill of it and interrupted me. He was tired of hearing me complain. He was tired of hearing me play the victim card, as if life had dealt me this hand that prevented me from succeeding. He told me I was stuck in this rut because I chose to get stuck. Then he told me that if I really wanted to, I could choose to get myself out of it.
His words hit me at a gut level. I could choose to alter my course. I could choose to shed the post-dropping out baggage I had built up over the years. Soon I actually started to like who I was. I took pride in my ability to relate to both my higher educated friends and the blue-collar people I knew.
I finally figured out how to focus on what I was good at. I took an inventory of my talents and my goals and I made a plan to actually build a career. The higher education side of me knew I needed to go to school. The practical, street smart part of me knew it had to be something streamlined and fast. The Goodwill Hunting side of me knew it was time to do something with the natural talents I’d been ignoring for a decade.
I enrolled in a two-year film and video production program and mapped out a way to make a career for myself as an editor. I finished school and started a business with a classmate. A month after graduation I joined romantic forces with my Ivy League educated future wife. She is a neuroscience post-doc at Oregon Health and Science University. She did her undergraduate work at Brown University and earned her Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Her academic prowess has always been a turn on for me.
I stopped comparing myself to other people who I once considered ahead of me in life. I stopped beating myself up for a decision I made when I was horrible at making decisions. The regret gave way to self-reflection. I no longer looked at the twenty-one year old version of myself as a failure, I looked at him as an unprepared young guy who needed perspective so he could get his life together. At thirty years old, I finally gained that perspective.
I got my life together.
Nick works in film and lives in Portland.
Next week: avoidance can be a good thing. Follow us so you don’t miss out:
Image: “A man standing on his hands from a lying down position.” Photogravure after Eadweard Muybridge (1887)