The first time I dropped out of college, I was shell shocked. I remember walking around campus the last week as though I was nothing but a zombie. I couldn't look peers in the eyes, and I refused to talk to anyone for the last 72 hours before the dreaded moment. After I told my father, I felt a rock of disappointment in my chest that took 3 months to dislodge, as I slunk around the small town that I grew up in, unable and unwilling to show my face. I crafted stories of heroism and bravery to paint a picture of why I was no longer enrolled; as I began to become too scared to trust myself, and my instinct. I coped with this shame and disappointment in unhealthy ways, essentially proving true what everyone around me was thinking.
The second time I dropped out of college, I sent an email to my academic counselor, and never thought about it again. I made the decision based off of facts that my parents allowed me to springboard off their mind’s, and I moved on to my next goal. Actually, I believe that this is the first time I have talked (written) about it since it has happened, because it just has not been a big deal to me at all.
I believe the shift between my first experience and my second was due to a shift in my consciousness and my understanding of the cycle of growth. I have always been this way, but I was never able to explain away the shame of changing. Essentially, I have been a perennial dropout for the majority of my adult life. Besides two colleges, I have dropped out of four career paths, seven eating regimens, five sports, and countless other life goals. And I have never felt better.
In the beginning, shame would pierce my fingertips, and crawl up my veins until it reached my heart. From there, it spread like a wildfire with every beat to every limb, pore, and nerve. When those around me all seemed to set their lives in motion at a young age, and had the “stick to it-ness” that is praised in old school “How to be a Man” manuals, I was floundering like the first trout I ever pulled out of water, and I had the same fear as the nine year old who refused to be the one to kill it. Although few people told me, there was a negative aura around my life choices at the time. Disappointment grew as I flipped switches at a whim, as resentment packed on all of my uncharted, but once beloved paths.
I loved to sell the story of a falsified confidence, that I was dropping out to better myself, as if I was creating Microsoft (Bill Gates), or going to work in Hollywood (Ryan Holiday). Instead, I was going to go live at home and continue the same decisions I choose in High School. There was no confidence, I was scared and making it up as I go, but only now, after years of living with the consequences, do I realize that the choice I made was the correct one. Confidence comes in hindsight, after you risk it all in the moment. I can see now, and only now, that as in all things, change is necessary to grow. Being the same, and living your whole life with the same values, habits, goals, and viewpoints puts a cap on the potential of growth that lays dormant inside of you.
You see, I had to drop out, I had to kill those people inside of me for new ones to grow. I had dreams of being a teacher, but he had to die for the police officer Jason to emerge. Then, he had to die for the savant, who had to die for the writer, who will soon die for the new me that will emerge, like a phoenix from the ashes of all of the old selves that we must burn. These examples are just the speakable ones. I had to run, to cut and change, to drop habits, and people like a weighted backpack in order to continue on the escalator that is life. If I never did, If I let the fear of criticism and judgement that I knew would rain not only from all around me, but from inside to, stop me, then I would never have been able to be who I am today.
If we ask ourselves if we would be happy if we were the same exact person in the exact same situation in 5 years, we know that the answer is almost always a resounding no. So then why are we not just afraid of change, but we shame it? Why do we see people who have changed as frowned upon? As if we are destined to be shackled to the decisions we made and the person we decided to be for the rest of our lives.
At the time, I was shamed copiously for my changes. When I shifted my viewpoints to a peace first atmosphere, I was shamed by people who knew the Jason that I had to kill. When I shifted my goals, and left home, I was shamed by people who said I changed and that this wasn’t me. When I eventually kill the vegetarian, or the writer, or the health-freak, there will be shame that comes along with it too.
But we must let go of our preconceived notions of the stigma that changing and dropping out is a bad thing, because it is not. In life, we are provided a series of information at varying times. Your only responsibility, besides obviously being a good person, is to use the information you are provided by life to make the best choices possible. When new information comes up, you must use that to judge the scope of where you are, and adjust according. Ignoring new information because you have already decided on one thing isn’t just foolish, it is a recipe for guaranteed disaster.
There is no real shame, besides that false shame that is cast by others to cover their jealousy, resentment, or fear, in changing your viewpoints, or your beliefs, or even your habits. In fact, this is a sign of growth and maturity. Holding on to a habit, thought, or value just because it is how you have always felt or how you have always done things is the first step to stagnation. Should we quit whenever things get hard? Obviously not. But, should we assess the effort to reward ratio and analyze if what we are spending our time on is leading us down a path we want to go, even if that path changed from two hours ago? Yes.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once told us: “Allow your mind to change; be inconsistent; Never fear to contradict yourself.” This is a fascinating contradiction to what we are structured to believe. If a politician changes their mind, or backtracks on a previously held viewpoint, it is seen as weakness. But, as emerson tells us, we must never have that fear, because it is not weakness at all. In fact, being willing to admit that we were once wrong, but have since learned from those mistakes, and are taking the necessary steps to right them, that is strength.
“Individual minds as well are not bound by the shackles of reverence for consistency, but they must be brave enough to contradict tomorrow what they have said today. Respect is due to the inspiration of the moment.” -Emerson. We must be brave enough to contradict tomorrow what we have said today. It is not a sign of weakness, or an entrypoint for guilt, no it is bravery. To contradict yourself, to face the masses, and yourself, and say I have learned more than I knew yesterday is brave, and it is hard. Dropping out is not taking the easy way out, but in turn the very opposite. It is fearful to rock the boat, fearful to change and show face to a new you. It is hard to break old habits and preconceived notions and ideals you once held. There is no shame, and there never should be.
I have been a perennial drop out my whole life, and I guarantee that I will be as I move forward. Saying that, and accepting that there will be more things that I back out of brings me no shame. With that, we should all be dropouts. We should leave relationships that are no longer fulfilling, leave jobs that suck our souls, leave goals and life choices behind that we have grown out of. Because almost always, we have an ounce of control over where we go, and what we do. This control lies in our choices, in our momentary decisions. If you refuse to use that power, if you sign yourself into a hole because of habitual or societal discomfort, then that is where the shame lies, not in the reverse.
“The world’s greatest lie: ‘At a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate.’”