I Almost Dropped Out Of School

August 1, 2013

I just made the biggest decision of my life thus far.

Sure, there are decisions I've made that seemed like big ones at the time. But they weren't. Where to go to college? That wasn't a decision. My dream school was the first one I got accepted into, so the choice was clear. What to study? There was only one career that I wanted to pursue at the time, so that wasn't much of a decision either. It wasn't until I was faced with the prospect of dropping out of school that I really had to take a good, hard look at myself and decide what's best for me.

Let's take a step back and look at my academic career up to this point. Three years ago, I entered Northwestern as a film major. I wasn't too passionate about the academics, and my grades were pretty bad. The next year, I discovered my passion for programming and my grades shot upwards during my first year as a computer science major. But it's been a steep decline ever since. Sure, I still do fine in my CS classes. But the unrelated requirements don't motivate me at all. I was on the verge of failing 3 classes my junior year simply because I couldn't motivate myself to care about learning things that didn't relate to my life or my interests.

The academics at Northwestern don't align at all with my life goals. I've always been more successful outside the classroom than inside it. For this reason, I had always thought I would stay in school only until a better opportunity came about.

And then it did.

I've been working all summer in San Francisco with a small 10-person startup, and I'm having the time of my life. Many people on the team became close friends in a matter of weeks, and I'm passionate about the product I spend most of my time building. There's nothing I'd rather be doing with my life right now. Nothing.

One day, someone at the company asked me if I'd like to stay with them full time when the summer ends. I was overjoyed, and I told him I'd strongly consider it.

This was my shot. This is what I had been waiting for all along.

What I didn't realize is that this would be the start of a 2-week roller coaster ride inside my own head.

For a little while, I was on the verge of dropping out of school. At one point, I was literally on Northwestern's website, ready to download the form I needed to withdraw from the university. Why wouldn't I? I had the opportunity to never take another exam again. I had the opportunity, as a 21 year old, to make a starting salary higher than most people ever reach in their entire career.

Not wanting to jump to a hasty decision, I decided to talk to people just to make sure I wasn't crazy. I talked to people that I trust, as well as people that I don't know very well. People inside and outside of the tech industry. People who graduated college and people who dropped out.

There was a pretty overwhelming consensus about what I should do. Most people thought I should take this opportunity. This is clearly what I'm more passionate about and this is clearly what I'm more successful at. So why not go for it?

But there was something holding me back. For some reason, I still couldn't take the leap.

A couple nights before I made my decision, the CEO of the company told me about his own experience dropping out. About how he believed it was the best decision given his situation. And then he said something really powerful to me.

"Everything you've been doing in the past few years has been leading up to this moment."

It's true. I had entered an industry where most of the relevant skills aren't taught in a classroom. An industry where skills and work experience far outweigh a degree. An industry that glorifies dropouts.

Successful entrepreneurs always say that the vision and the culture of a company is set by the first 10 people. I had the opportunity to be one of those first 10 people. I had the opportunity to make more than enough money to live a very comfortable life in San Francisco. Even if the company went under, I could easily get another software engineering job or go back to school. I win no matter what.

It all made sense. It was the perfect chance. I just needed to talk to one more person before I made this decision. Someone who I knew would give me the opposite perspective. Someone who would make sure I've considered absolutely everything. I needed to talk to the person who brought me into the startup world in the first place.

I went into that conversation pretty certain how it would end. He was going to convince me to go back and finish school. He was going to say that I'll regret it if I drop out.

But he didn't.

He admitted that he went into the conversation with the intention of pointing me back towards school. But, after hearing my whole situation, he said that staying in San Francisco sounded like the best option for me.

That should have made this decision the easiest one I've ever made. But somehow, it didn't. After that conversation, I only felt worse.

Almost everyone I talked to was telling me to drop out of school. All the logic in my head was telling me to drop out. If I still couldn't make a decision, something was holding me back. There must be something in a dark corner of my mind that I was missing.

Then I thought back on a conversation I had with a very good friend who still goes to Northwestern. She was one of only two people whose opinion I value who didn't think I should drop out of school even after I explained my whole situation. I didn't agree with any of her arguments, but still, it was enough to get me to consider what my life would be like if I went back to school. It got the ball rolling.

A couple days later, one of my fraternity brothers drove me down the coast in his car, and we spent the entire day talking about my decision. Even though he fully supported my idea of dropping out, he got me thinking even more about all the great times I'll miss out on if I cut my Northwestern experience a year short. That wasn't enough to sway me, but it got the ball rolling even faster.

And then it hit me. I realized what was holding me back from dropping out. I realized why I couldn't go for what seemed to be the clear winner out of these two choices.

There's been a trend in the past couple years in my life. I constantly get passionate about things, but a ton of effort into them, and then get excited about something else before I can finish. I jump from project to project, from organization to organization, frequently with nothing to show for it. My life has turned into a series of unfinished projects because I'm awesome at starting things but terrible at finishing them.

I don't want college to be my biggest unfinished project. And for that reason alone, I'm going back to school.

I didn't choose the best career move. Spending the next year working will benefit me way more than another year in school will. I didn't choose the more enjoyable option. Doing work I'm passionate about is much more enjoyable than doing homework. I didn't choose the logical option, and I didn't choose the suggested option.

I chose the option that would develop me the most as a person.

Working for a startup in San Francisco is one of the best things I've ever experienced. But it's not the best. Northwestern University is the best thing I have ever experienced.

I hate the academics. I always have. But that never stopped Northwestern from being the best three years of my life. I didn't let the things I hate stop me from having an amazing time. Instead, I worked around them. I made the most of the experience. I wanted college to be awesome, and I made it awesome.

I want to do that for another year.

I want to finish what I started.

I'm going back to Northwestern in the fall.