How Dropping Out Of College Can Save Your Life

December 2, 2013 — 23 Comments

“One has to kill a few of one’s natural selves to let the rest grow — a very painful slaughter of innocents.” – Henry Sidwick.

You, the ambitious young person, how many of your natural selves have you identified yet? How many of them are suffocating? Are you prepared for the collateral damage that’s going to come along with letting the best version of you out?

My victims:

Ryan, college student 1 year from graduating with honors
Ryan, the Hollywood executive and wunderkind
Ryan, director of marketing for American Apparel

All dead before 25. May they rest in pieces.

I am a perpetual drop out, quitting, abandoning or changing paths just as many others in my position would be getting comfortable. By Sidwick’s terms, I guess I am a serial killer. This “slaughter” made room for the exponential growth of Ryan Holiday, published author. But he better not get comfortable either. Because he too may have to be killed one day. And that will be a good thing.

Because the future belongs to those who have the guts to pull the trigger. Who can drop out and fend for themselves. If you’re reading this site, you might already be contemplating a decision like that. I want to show you why it might be the right call for you and how to do it.

The Big Myth

“It wasn’t quite a choice, it was a realization. I was 28 and I had a job as a market researcher. One day I told my psychiatrist that what I really wanted to do was quit my job and just write poetry. And the psychiatrist said, ‘Why not?’ And I said, ‘What would the American Psychoanalytic Association say?’ And he said, ‘There’s no party line.’” – Allen Ginsberg

Let’s get the big myth out of the way. There’s not much dropping involved in dropping out of school. When I did it, I remember walking to the registrar’s office — I was so nervous. My parents had disowned me, I needed to move to a new city, the girl whose job I stole hated me. Why was I doing it? I’d just helped sign my first multi-platinum rock act and I wasn’t about to go back to the dorms and tolerate reading in the newspaper about other people doing my work. I was 20 years old.

I’m here to drop out of school, I announced to the registrar (like I was some presidential candidate who thinks he literally has to throw his hat into a ring). In fact, as my advisor informed me, that wasn’t exactly necessary. I could take a leave of absence for up to a year and possibly more, without even jeopardizing my scholarship. I braced for the same condescending, paternalistic lecture I’d gotten from my parents. It didn’t come. These people were happy for me. And if I submitted the right forms, I might even be able to get course credit for the work. How’s that for a party line?

So I took the plunge, and like many big risks, it turned out that dropping out of school was more manageable than I could have ever anticipated.

What I Wish I’d Known

I get a lot of emails from kids who are on the verge of dropping out. They always seem so scared. And I empathize with them. I know I was scared when I quit. Even billionaires, years removed from the decision that has now, in their case, been clearly vindicated, still speak of the hesitation they felt when they left school. Were they doing the right thing? What would happen? Were they throwing everything away?

It’s the scariest and most important decision most young entrepreneurs, writers, artists will ever make. So naturally, they take it very seriously. But doing that — taking it so seriously — almost wrecked me.

I remember pulling into a parking space one day a few months after dropping out, stressed and on the verge of a breakdown. Why am I killing myself over this?, I thought. It’s just life. Suddenly, a wave of calm washed over me. I was doing what young people are supposed to do: take risks. There is no need to stress over anything so seriously, let alone school (as someone told me later, he’d gotten sick when he was in college and missed 18 months of school. He’s 50 now and a year and half seems like two seconds). I’m not going to starve. I’m not going to die. There is nothing that can’t be undone. Just relax. Relax. And I did. And it worked.

If I’d realized it sooner, I could have avoided many needlessly sleepless nights.

I also wish someone had given me some more practical advice:

  • Try to have a few months money on hand. It makes you feel less pressure and gives you more power in negotiating situations.
  • Keep a strong network of friends — college friends especially. The unusualness of your situation is a warping pressure.
  • Keep connected to normal people so you can stay normal.
  • Take notes! I wish I’d written down my observations and lessons for myself the first time I dropped because it wasn’t my last time and I could prepared better for round II and III.

Why I Did It Again (and again)

When I dropped out of school, I was betting on myself. It was a good bet (one that surprised me, honestly). In less than 3 years, I’d worked as a Hollywood executive, researched for and promoted multiple NYT bestsellers, and was Director of Marketing for one of the most provocative companies on the planet. I had achieved more than I ever could have dreamed of — the scared, overwhelmed me of 19 could have never conceived of having done all that. (Which is why I killed that younger version of me). Yet, I knew it was time to drop out again. The six-figure job had to go. It was time for the next phase in my life. What I had, just like college had been, was holding me back.

That’s exactly what I did. I left and moved 2,000 miles away to write a bookIt was wracking and risky and hard for everyone in my life to understand. But I was prepared this time. I knew what to expect. I’d saved my money, I built up my support system and I refused to take it too seriously. Whatever happened, I probably wouldn’t die.

…and I didn’t. In fact, within six months I’d sold the book to Penguin for several times my previous salary and was securely on my new path.

Welcome to the Future

I, and the many people who email me, seem to have a funny habit: We repeatedly leave and give up the things that most people work so hard to achieve. Good schools. Scholarships. Traditional jobs. Money. We don’t believe in sunk costs. If that sounds like you, then you’re probably a perpetual drop out too. Embrace it. I have.

I know that I will do it again and again in my life. Why? Because every time I do, things get better. The trial by fire works. It’s the future. The institutions we have built to prop us up seem mostly to hold creative and forward thinking people back. College is great, but it is slow and routine. Corporations can do great things, but fulfilling individuals is not one of them. Money is important but it can also be an addiction. Accomplishments like a degree or a job are not an end, they are means to an end. I’m so glad I learned that.

On your own path in life, remember the wise words of Napoleon and “Trade space for time.” (Or if you prefer the lyrics of Spoon “You will never back up an inch ever/that’s why you will not survive.”) Space is recoverable. The status of a college degree, the income from a job — recoverable. Time is not. This time you have now is it. You will not get it back. If you are stuck in a dorm room or wedged into a cubicle and what you are doing outside of those places is actually the greatest possible use of you, then it’s time to drop out.

Acknowledge, as Marcus Aurelius writes, the power inside you and learn to worship it sincerely. It may seem counter-intuitive that dropping out — quitting — is part of that, but it is. It’s faith in yourself. It’s about not needing a piece of paper or other people’s validation to know you have what it takes and are worth betting on. This is your life, I hope you take control and get everything you can out of it.

This post originally ran on Thought Catalog.com. Comments can be seen there. I also recommend this post 15 Reasons Why You Should Drop Out of College.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

23 responses to How Dropping Out Of College Can Save Your Life

  1. Maybe I’ve missed it somewhere – but I haven’t seen you write much on the topic of student loans. It seems you had a scholarship (per your mention in the article). I’d be interested to see if and where your opinions would shift through the lens of someone with significant student loan debt (mid/post graduation).

    Not just in the context of this article, but how do loans factor into the grand schemes of a “career escape artist,” especially early on?

    • I’m not sure how it changes the equation. Sunk costs are sunk costs. (objectively, that is. I know how it might make the decision personally more difficult)

    • A person who drops out of college is a type of person who totally and completely embraces change. You have to be an active nihilist, if you are not, then you will be crushed by the world.

      I was in your situation, and what I did was I took 9 credits in my last semester of Junior year. With the other 6 credits ($1800) I spent that money on validating my ideas. Luckily I found an idea that worked, and i’m never been happier.

  2. Caveat Emptor: If you’re dropping out- have a goal or destination or something lined up. Ryan- As far as I can tell, when you’ve quit, it was for better prospects/because you had something you wanted to do, not because the going got hard or difficult. Important distinction.

  3. These are great thoughts even for someone going through a late in life career change. I tracked down Henry Sidgwick’s original quote in google books.

    To F. Myers from Cambridge, August 2
    … I always feel that I should like to [be] as many people as possible (the right sort of people—I am afraid I should not include a French enfant du silcle), if they would all live harmoniously and come out in the right weather in a sort of Dutch-barometrical way. Practically one has to kill a few of one’s natural selves (between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five) to let the rest grow—a very painful slaughter of innocents.

    From “Henry Sidgwick” By Arthur Sidgwick, Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick

  4. Ryan, I totally relate to what you’re saying because this is what I should have done, but didn’t. In fact, I did two colleges at the same time to end up working online, which I learnt by myself.

    I didn’t drop out, because I didn’t have the balls. I was brainwashed to believe that the only way to be successful is to get a college degree or two.

    My advice to 18 year olds reading this:
    Just start doing your own thing as you leave high school. Learn by doing. If you don’t know what your thing is go on a journey to discover it either literally or metaphorically.

    If you are at college right now and you know it’s not your path, please don’t just stay because you’ve invested so much already and you don’t want it all to go to waste. The sooner you move on the better.

  5. One more thing, as you say Ryan, don’t take the decision too seriously, because you’ll panic and not make a decision, which will still be a decision, but not one you made.

    The only bad decision is the one you didn’t make.

  6. Very inspiring Ryan. The part that really caught my attention was, “Corporations can do great things, but fulfilling individuals is not one of them. Money is important but it can also be an addiction. Accomplishments like a degree or a job are not an end, they are means to an end.” I have found that to be true throughout my entire life. One question I have though, is do you think you will every get to a point when you are complacent and no longer feel the need for change?

  7. Great article Ryan. Two points/thoughts.

    First, what’s great about your points here is that you talk about proactively killing your identity. Recognizing that the time is approaching where this self will be holding you back before it actually is, and there is significant growth /marginal benefit to be gained from killing that identity and moving on. Most people will not kill that identity until they absolutely have to, i.e. growth is 0 for quite some time or is becoming negative. However, in many situations people are so afraid to kill that identity at all that they never do, holding on to an extent that it is pathological (for an extreme example see: http://lonelyvirgil.net/)

    Second, your points above have some close similarities, but also some distinctions from a part of The Art of Controversy by Schopenhauer that I was reading recently. Whereas your concepts here focus more on your identity as a specific type of person, Schopenhauer gets down to the idea of the core self (unchangeable), and the multiple selves that are in constant struggle.

    “…While he can be only one thing thoroughly, he has the disposition to be everything else, and the inalienable possibility of being it. If he has made his choice of one thing, all the other possibilities are always open to him, and are constantly claiming to be realised; and he has therefore to be continuously keeping them back, and to be overpowering and killing them as long as he wants to be that one thing…” (full essay here, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10731/10731.txt)

    Question: You’ve “killed” several Ryans. What’s your clue that it’s time to kill the next one?

  8. Hey Ryan! Tiny glitch, the link to your book in the “left and moved 2,000 miles” is a relative link without proper http:// so it’s pointing back to your website.

    Otherwise great post! Thanks for writing.

  9. Hey Ryan, (sorry for starting this off with the same thing as everybody else)
    I was just wondering what your thoughts were for young people (I’m only 16) who aren’t actually sure what they want to do with their lives. I’ve thought I’d study medicine in college, but I’ve realised that I don’t feel that passionate (or whatever) about it and could probably get a lot out of doing something different (in any kind of other field). Anyway, it would be much appreciated if you could give some of your thoughts on this
    Great blog though and this is a great article!

  10. I’m an artist and wrote a children’s book. I also have done outreach for ages. I went back to school for graphic design, and found the teacher to be far less compassionate than expected. When she could jump in and teach a little more, to help students to succeed, she chose to relax a little and let them fail. I don’t want to be that kind of a designer. I think the heart has a lot to do with true success in life. Do you give advice to struggling artists, or assist with channels for contacts? I was awarded a top prize at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Tokyo, and have been offered a few contracts with well known companies, like Norwegian Cruise Lines and the Grand Hyatt. I did what was required and have art photos for attachments, available on request. I am thinking to drop out of college again, today, and just found this article on the internet. It is 3:40 am.

  11. I landed up here after googling about this topics. I am a computer science engineering. I had loans but I paid that with my money(I do web security consulting ,bug hunting) . I made money all day and night, made a lot . In the way I lost interest in my college courses. I don’t have any idea what I want to do (may be consulting ,bug hunting or freelance programming ). Totally confused . Ryan any comment on my situation ?

  12. I don’t know what to do I am an electrical engineering student and am interested in UAVs but my college sucks
    1.No clubs
    2.Rote learning like u have never seen before
    3.truly pathetic condition of teachers snatch away their notes they are at same level as students
    4.Unhealthy conditions for inculcating good innovative conditions
    I had a keen interest in electronics and computers it’s all gone after coming to this college idk what should I do I want to undo what has happened to me any comments

  13. Hey Ryan, this was such a good read! I have always been a person who has welcomed change. I jump from activity to activity and people would always view as me quitting or not trying hard enough but it was simply me getting bored and wanting to do something different. I am now a college freshman and see that this is not what I want to do, I am basically wasting time. I have a plan of action that I will take but I wanted to know more about your 3 year journey after dropping out.

    I would really appreciate a response.

    Thank You =)

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