Why you shouldn’t just go to school

This post winds a bit, so bear with me.


Walking on an island off the coast of Brittany, with Romain and his mother.


It’s going to start with an update: I’m in Brittany! Staying with my friend Romain! Whom I met last summer in Ireland! He’s amazing! We’ve been doing almost nothing but having a wonderful time and playing copious (holy gods, copious) amounts of music (Celtic, of course – he plays flute, I play…well, let’s say backup instruments – harp, guitar, piano, and flute/tin whistle, at the moment) and extremely Breton things, like going to a Fest Noz, which means “party night” in Breton, and is basically a huge dance, and making crepes, and going for rambles to see old chapels nestled in the nooks of the Breton hills, hiking up to sacrificing stones older than orthography, and speaking a lot of French. It is preposterously fun, and I can’t stress enough what I said in my last post: the people you meet while you’re busy having fun finding yourself can be incredible, and you might just discover that you’ve made a lifelong friend.


My 6th crepe! (The others were…slightly less successful.) Romain, Breton to the core, made the batter, and the ones his mother made on the crepe stoves were sans doute the best crepes I’ve ever had, and I worked in a creperie for four months.


One of the things that is always important to remember, tangentially, is that you are probably a lot more lucky than you think you are. I am, certainly. The other day, I was complaining to Romain about my main point of angst, which is that I am not only currently without a place where my stuff is all arranged like a house, but also I feel rather homeless – displaced. When I was 17, my parents started getting divorced, and my mother and I moved out of my childhood home. I grew up on an acre of land covered with trees and gardens and places to make forts and have adventures, surrounded by the smell of loam and the softness of lilacs and the heat of mint in summer, and the joy of heartbreaking beauty that the meadowlarks bring with them every spring. There are no words to express how thoroughly I wish I could go back there – not just back to that house as now, but that house as then, and cover my aching heart with a balm of hyssop and rotting apples. But I can’t. I keep searching for a place, but I haven’t found one yet, and I’m not entirely sure that I ever will. This is one of my main anxieties in the world, and one of the things that tends to come up in conversations (usually the one starting with, “So where are you from?”). Anyway, I was talking about this with Romain, and he looked at me, and he said, “You can always come back here, as home.” That sentence echoed in my brain, and I heard the voice of my Emergency Backup mother, Robin, saying that same thing: “You always have a home here.” And I remembered my dad, who tells me whenever I’m around that I’m always welcome there, and I can stay as long as I like, and my mother telling me that no matter what, no matter where she is or what she’s doing, I always have a place to stay with her. I remembered the second family I stayed with in Ireland, who gave me a standing invitation to go back and visit them, and one of the families here in France who have done the same thing. And I realized that though I do not have a home of my own – a place to hang my skillet, as it were – I am blessed with a dozen offerings of homes, and all the people who are behind those. I am not a poor, sad wastrel – I am enormously lucky, gifted with a plethora of friends so good they could be family. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that sometimes, life gives you a perfect moment, and then says to you, “Alright? So quit yer bitchin!”


The first lilacs I’ve seen in bloom this year. I grew up with a lilac bush outside my kitchen windows, and so they always mean spring and home to me.


One of the many people who has given me a standing offer of a home when I need one is my darling and dear friend Willow, who called me this morning just because she missed me, forgetting I was in France. It was five in the morning my time (I think that’s something like eight o’ clock at night in Colorado, where she is), and we wound up talking for two hours (no Mom, don’t freak out – we used Skype). After about an hour and a half, we got to talking about school. I finished getting my degree in December (Linguistics, University of British Columbia, just because you were wondering), but she has never been one for school, and so she’s struggling through hers. Speaking with her about it reminded me of a conversation I’d had with Patrick, the husband-unit in the second host family I stayed with here in France. He’d asked me where I was in school, and I said that I had just finished my degree, and when he asked what I wanted to do with it, and what I could do with it, and what I thought of it, I realized that my answers to those questions weren’t especially upbeat. They tend to be things like, “Neuroscience, but I don’t know if that’s the thing for me” and “The only thing you can do with this degree is get another degree” and “Most of it was a loadf of bull”. I don’t feel I chose the wrong degree in the sense I’m not a linguistics person – I really am a linguistics person. But I’m not entirely sure that I got a degree I can love. Why did I choose linguistics in the first place, then? Was it because I felt it to be right for me? Or was it rather that I love noticing differences in people wherever I am, and noting things about them – which includes their way of speaking? Was it that I adore making observations and conjecturing possible reasons for those? Was it that sound is the sense through which I most easily perceive beauty?

I’m sitting here with a degree, able to write this retroactive list of things to do, and I charge you now to try to think about your degree, or your wish for one. Rather than thinking, “What field am I interested in?” think “What is it about the world that I love, and that I am curious and passionate about?” The answers to those two questions look like they could be the same, but they aren’t. Your answer to the second should be diverse, but each thing should be very basic: like, if I were to answer that question, I might say that I love music and sounds, but while I’m passionate about those, I’m also passionate about knowledge, and about interacting with people, and about getting to know an environment by looking at its plants, and that I spend a lot of my mental free time imagining and designing spaces, and that I’m very curious about basically everything. Do those facts add up to linguistics degree? No. Do they add up to a degree at all? Not necessarily! In fact, as nice as it is to have the credentials and also to have had the motivational setting to work in, because I’m a naturally curious person I might have found answers to my questions – and thus, more questions to ask – without getting a degree at all. And if you look back at that list, it’s clear that my interests are not all in line with one thing to do – I have many different fields that I love. University couldn’t give me the depth of answers I desired in all these areas, though: the important thing I feel that it gave me instead was a way of thinking and a knowledge of where to find answers. Now, I feel much more able to come up with well-formed questions. Unfortunately, however, not only did my degree not cover all my interests, but it also did not even cover all the interests I had in linguistics, and many of the things I was taught were things which were easy to find fault with. One of the flaws with many curricula is that theories go out of date faster than they go out of fashion, especially where they are being taught. After two grueling semesters of phonology, my professor said, “This isn’t what we think now. The current understanding says that all these things you’ve learned are wrong.” Wait, you’re telling me that I paid you to teach me something that isn’t even true!? Excuse me?!

One of the most frustrating things about this degree as well is that it hasn’t given me a day job, which is sort of what I had hoped. (Had I known I’d be getting a useless degree, I would have done something amusing, like a double major in Medieval and Classical studies. *sigh*) In fact, on my resume, the most impressive things – the things I’ve done which will, in the end, get me a job – are the months I’ve spent away from school, volunteering! Apparently, being responsible and helping people and being able to follow instructions are more important in entry-level jobs than being able to write a good research paper! Who’d a thunk it?! An important thing to remember about academia is that it produces more academics, not necessarily people ready for the working world. I consider myself to be, in many ways, an amateur academic – and I’m perfectly happy about that. But I also think, for this reason, that it is absolutely absurd for everyone to go to university. If you want to do something that involves you getting a degree, go do it. Have a great time. But if you are like my friend Willow, and you want to make art and have a coffee shop and write children’s books, just f*^$ing DO IT ALREADY. You might need to take a class here and there to get your footing when you’re not sure how to, I dunno, draw hands, or market a children’s book, but there are loads of people in the world who have created resources that you can just go and read, or watch, or whatever, and learn that way. School ain’t cheap, particularly in the States, and as much as you want to go off and learn about Shakespeare and study trees, for gods’ sakes (and your poor parents) remember that school is NOT the only resource you have for finding answers and pursuing passions. One of my favorite bloggers has a double BA in (I believe) Scotch Gaelic and Scottish harp playing (my hero!!), yet she has gotten basically her dream job heping build tiny houses by having built a tiny house and blogged about it. There is no better teacher than experience, and you can’t gain experiences without going and doing something. You don’t need travel to do this, you just need to get your head and your hands immersed in your passions. If you haven’t gone to college or university yet, no matter whether you think it’s the right thing for you or not, ask yourself, “What is it that I love doing? And what is it in the world that I am curious and passionate about?” Once you have answered those questions (and don’t forget that the answers to them will change throughout your life – some of the most successful people I’ve met, who are happy and interesting and have a beautiful home and a world of opportunities, are also people who have or are in the process of changing their jobs completely), ask yourself, “How and where can I best learn more about this?” and “What is it that I need to do in order to get to where I want to go?” If you want to be an EMT, you will have to go to school. But before you do, why not volunteer at the hospital for a while? See what you think? Because something I’m learning is that the bulk of the work you will do when you get the job you’ve dreamt of is not such stuff as dreams are made on. It is either maddeningly dull, or else it’s a kind of interesting you didn’t expect to have and aren’t exactly prepared for. Gods forbid that you go into a degree thinking you’re on a clear path to your dreams, only to discover, like me, that you can’t just jump into those dreams when you get your certificate, and that much of the training you’ve done has nothing to do with your dreams either, and also, sadly, which I’m pretty sure I will discover if I pursue neuroscience, that the thing you thought you wanted to do involves a lot of things you hate doing.

But this post is not just specific to degrees: it also is important to stop and think about your passions and to ask yourself how you will pursue them in your life, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. So stop whatever you’re doing now, and think, “What is it that I’m passionate and curious about?” and see if the answer to that is in line with what you’re doing. If not, ask yourself, “How can I pursue said interests?” The most important question, though, particuarly when it comes to getting a degree (though really, it’s for everything you do, everything) is to think to yourself, “Why the hell am I doing this?” If you answer any way other than, “Because I genuinely want to” or “Because I must do this in order to get where I want to go”, find a way to stop doing that thing and get yourself on your passion track. You will do nothing so well as that which you are passionate about, and you will never be happy if you neglect your interests.



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