accidental dropout (part 1)

December 22, 2006

I’ve broken this into two parts, the first attempts to pinpoint the aspects of my child hood that set me up to a life of non conformity and the second begins as an adult when I’m beginning to think for myself. I’ve tried to make it as brief as possible but it’s been such a slow journey that there is a lot to include. I never had a desire to run out on mainstream life and I’m really missing fitting in with those around me. I just made (and my wife too after I met her) what I thought was one logical decision after another.

There’s always the dilemma in any drop out story of how far back to look for the seeds of today’s life. Not surprisingly I’m going to go delve back into my childhood for some of the route causes, it could be argued that to understand my life you need to go further back and understand the lives of those who went before me but this is just a blog post not a freaking autobiography.

In the past I’ve pinpointed schooling and university as two of the major institutions that push us toward obedience and despite having thought about this a lot I still struggle to pinpoint why they failed to properly break me in. From all appearances and by all accounts I was the perfect student all through my schooling. I was quiet, I did what I was told, I got good grades and I knew what the adults in my life wanted from me even before they did. I was ‘mature’ for my age according to school reports.

I was always perplexed as to why other children were rebelling against their teachers and parents, it seemed very clear to me where the power lay in these situations and I much preferred to minimise conflict and keep receiving all that life-giving praise. In fact now that I think about it I was kind of different, on days when we had a relieving teacher and all the other kids were running riot I just sat quietly at my desk and felt sorry for the poor relief teacher – who was so obviously failing at their job.

The only conclusion that I can come to is that because I kept my head down nobody realised I needed breaking in, no one tried to crush my spirit (until it was too late). It was a different story for my brother who obeyed the inner need to stick up for himself and got knocked back big time. Our father was a school principal too so the school environment was repeated at home.

It still doesn’t add up totally though because despite his experience my brother is still perfectly comfortable with anti-civ critique and the idea of dropping out. also have noticed that he naturally gravitates to situations that are outside the mainstream. He even reads this blog.

It may simply be that our mother was loving enough to us as infants and gave us such a strong base that we would always have a store of inner strength to cope with school. It certainly didn’t feel like it at the time, as a kid I felt deeply insecure, weak and pressured by my peers but looking back it’s equally clear that despite this I never actually compromised who I was at any stage.

Credit too to my father. He regularly gets a beating around here for his school masterly ways but via his belief in educational principles he always forced us to ask questions and I think the questioning attitude became a life long habit because of it. (it’s back fired on him now but that’s another story). He also used the word ‘different’ as a compliment. Someone who was a bit different always earned his respect. It doesn’t sound like much but it made non-conformity just that much easier to bear.

Fast forward to university. Architecture School was a much more overt attempt at breaking my spirit. It was pure misery for a long time and a shock to the system for someone who had always been the toast of his teachers to suddenly discover I was ‘wrong’. Of course by then it was too late, despite still feeling dreadfully insecure and despite still using the old tactic of keeping my head down I could not bring myself to change my value system to suit the new culture I found myself in.

The fact that I had suddenly gone from being the perfect student to a hopeless case in the space of a summer made it obvious something strange was going on. What’s more, my teachers’ cause wasn’t helped by the fact that a lot of them were complete nincompoops and holiday discussions with my educational expert father about their inability to observe basic teaching principles only further served to undermine my respect for them.

Much to my surprise I discovered myself in my final year designing a course that totally suited my interests, I got a bunch of good grades and an award for one particular project – all to the surprise of my classmates who had come to believe that I was one of the unfortunates amongst them who just didn’t have the right stuff.

Being a five year course there was a lot of flexibility in the final year but if you’d told me beforehand that I was going to do anything other than a middle of the road approach I would have said you were mad, I just felt so scared of everything. Mostly I think now it was an act of self-preservation as I tried to remove myself from the grasp of a bunch of people who seemed intent on doing me harm.

So I escaped that period of life and continued drifting. I say drifting because all I did after that was follow other people’s suggestions about what I should do with my life. The fact that that turned out to be getting a respectable job and beginning a career meant it didn’t look like drifting but I really lacked any sense of purpose and basically I was still terrified of getting it wrong.

I always look in amazement at people like Dan who is only twenty and already focussed on the important things in life but I needed a period to decompress and let the habits of childhood fade away. I hadn’t been broken but I had spent twenty years habitually obeying people and that takes a while to shake off.

I spent five years proving to myself that working as a professional was a bad idea, it might not have taken so long but I was still drifting and to start with I quite liked it. I had this real sense of elation at being able to do something genuinely useful after all that pointless hoop jumping that we’re put through in the education system.

Eventually though that feeling wore off as I went through three different employers in five years. The first were virtually incompetent and I left in frustration but the other two were far too competent, they saw in me someone who hadn’t been ‘finished’ properly and immediately set about making me prove that I would endure anything in order to succeed in my career. Fortunately I had a friend in a similar predicament so we swapped notes and charted a course out of there.

That’s the skinny version of my ‘career’ but I think that it’s significant that I just couldn’t be bothered with the effort required to turn myself into a thorough and competent professional. I was smart enough, young enough and white enough to succeed. I am creative and have pretty good people skills but I just didn’t care enough the future of my employer’s business or that thing called a career to put the rest of my life on the shelf for the benefit of… who? My bosses? My nation? My industry? the economy?

Go to part 2


  1. Great post mate. I’m just about to read part 2, but had to just drop you a quick note…

    It’s a story that that really resonates with me and has spooky parallels with my formative years, career and more recent decision to make my life my own and both get out of modern industrial civilised life and try to kick it a bit as I leave.

    Thank you.


    (now, on to part 2…)

    Posted by: Jim | 12/23/2006

    Jim, I’d love to hear your story, as I said in a previous post I think we can gather strength from each other’s experiences.

    Posted by: Aaron | 12/27/2006

    Ditto! The school stuff sounds very familiar, I was always keeping my head down, and couldn’t understand why anyone would rebel or bother to do anything apart from comply to please those around them.

    The realisation that our society uses people’s expectations to make us comply (and feel bad if we don’t) really frustrated me when I figured it out. I still have problems now when I work temp jobs – I hate the job, hate everything about it, but I still want to please my fellow co-workers – I don’t want to put them under any additional strain, so I comply. Until it gets too much, which is when I would just leave the job.

    I was gonna make a few more comments, but I’m gonna write my own little story soon, so I’ll add it all into there. On to part 2..

    Posted by: Dan | 01/06/2007

    hey man – thanks for the link – read your post/autobio and can only say that evolution depends on the misfit – “hopeful monsters” as we’re known.

    before I started putting signs on freeways I asked myself “What’s the most useful thing I can do to alleviate suffering?” Given the resources I had, I decided to collect warm clothes, put them in my truck and then drive them out to the poorest people I could find in cold places. took about three years but I managed to clothe damn near everyone in the northwest sierra madres (mexico). woulkd love to get back to it, but right now america needs more help than the villages. peace -scarlet

    remember the question, “What’s the most useful thing I can do with the resources I have?” I doubt the answer will be “working for the man”.

    Posted by: scarlet p. | 01/12/2007

  2. […] « dropping out and going home accidental dropout (part 1) » accidental dropout (part 2) December 22nd, 2006 Go to part […]

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