← Chetan Surpur

To Those Who Want To Drop Out of School

I get it, I really do. I’ve complained about school just like you have. There’s a lot to dislike about the current education system, and if you feel you have an idea and the drive to change the world all on your own, it’s very tempting to just drop out and pursue your passion exclusively.

But unless you either a) are an intellectual genius, or b) have an undeterrable love of learning and discipline of steel, or c) are born lucky enough to win the lottery, it’s probably not a good idea. You’ll just end up stunting your long-term growth.

I’m not saying you won’t be successful. I’m sure you can name plenty of people who dropped out of college, or even high school, who are insanely successful. Who knows, you just might be one of them.

The real reason is this. Unless you’re a rare exception, you probably don’t really know what you want to do for the rest of your life, and you’re about to put all of your eggs in one ultimately short-sighted basket. Flipping it around, staying in school will likely give you the most long-term flexibility to pursue what you really love, rather than what you think you love right now.

You may give everything else up to become successful in what you want to do right now, but can you be sure that’s what you’ll continue wanting to do for the rest of your life?

That’s the question I was faced with when I was in school. In case your situation is anything like mine was, let me tell you my story. Perhaps you can take advantage of the lesson I learned about keeping options open, without having to make the same mistakes I made.

I started making apps in high school, and I got really good at it by the time I was in college. The feeling of creating something out of nothing, something actually useful and sometimes even delightful, was exhilarating to the point of addiction. As much as school pushed me away, writing software drew me in. I constantly found myself wondering how something like differential equations would ever help me in what I really liked to do (building apps of course!), and I grew resentful of my classes.

Fortunately, my upbringing had fostered in me a need to do well in everything, and I still learned the material enough to got good grades. But outside of the bare minimum requirements, I didn’t take any advantage what school offered, since I was so interested in the app scene.

I thought I would make apps for the rest of my life; after all, it felt so natural and fun.

One thing to note. I’ve always held a latent interest in artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive science, but I had long since given it up because it was so much easier to make quick, tangible progress in web and mobile development. Still, AI and psychology were my favorite classes in school, and they were the only ones I looked forward to. And yet I remember working on a little time-management app while sitting in my AI class, ignoring the interesting things the professor was saying, knowing I could just cram for it later. That’s how addictive the whole thing was.

Then I graduated from college. Almost immediately after entering the industry, I found myself bored of app development. Everything started feeling like a repeat of something I had already done. It was like playing with Legos; putting pieces together to create something unique was fun, but only up until a point. My intellectual curiously started to crave something more challenging, something more fulfilling.

Maybe it was finally being free of mandatory, curriculum-based learning, or maybe I just matured, but I began to thirst for knowledge. You know that feeling that you get when you truly, deeply understand something? It’s something you don’t get if you’re just trying to pass a test, or when you’re hacking components together to make something useful. That satisfying feeling of true learning, a feeling I had totally ignored throughout school, I wanted more and more.

And that’s when I started to really fall in love with artificial intelligence, in a much more deep and permanent way than anything else I had enjoyed. Whereas earlier the daunting depth of the field had kept me at bay, now it was the same endless potential for learning that pulled me in. I wanted nothing more than to understand everything I could, and through the immense power of AI help change the world in a fundamental way.

Today, I recognize it not just as my life’s work, but as my life’s calling.

It’s too bad that I wasted the opportunities I had in school to learn deeply all that I could in a setting whose sole purpose is just that. It’s not entirely my fault; the school system sucked at engaging me and encouraging in me that desire to learn. But at the end of the day, I’m thankful that despite everything, I went through it. I gained important knowledge that I surely wouldn’t have on my own, regardless of how painful that process was. If not for school, I would be far behind in my ability to think, to be disciplined, and to work on as challenging of a problem as AI.

I really enjoyed building apps, but there’s no way I would have known that my true calling would be something else entirely. Only by making myself invest in school and balance my attention did I ensure that I kept my options open, until I could grow enough to discover what I really wanted to do, and actually be able to start making progress on it.

Don’t cut yourself short. You’re young, you have your whole life ahead of you, and there’s a lot to do and a whole lot to learn. Keep doing what you enjoy most right now, keep fueling that fire. But don’t let it completely consume the rest of your potential.

You don’t yet know what else you have in yourself.

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. William Butler Yeats