To College Or Not To College?
A Reality Check On Your Options.
Including The Ones Nobody Told You
A 15 minutes read that can solve you hours, no YEARS of taking the wrong direction
by Ton Bil, life coach helping powerful people remember how powerful they are
Chapter 1: Our choice of study is life defining (or is it?)
What age are you? 14, 18, 28? At some moment in life, many of us feel we must choose for a study.
We have finished our secondary school. Maybe we have been travelling or working for a couple of years.
We have heard that a degree or diploma at the next (post-secondary) level will help us advance in life. Maybe it does.
It better should be in the direction we want to be going.
Our choice will partly determine what avenues in life will open and which ones will close for us. Only partly, because life can take unexpected turns.
So, is our feeling that we “must” correct?
After all we can still become a car mechanic after a study in Economics. Or an economist after a study in Car Mechanics. The latter option may sound weird. We’ll get back to this later.
Now, do we really know that we want to be a car mechanic – or an economist, or whatever it is that we fancy? Or when we’re not so sure, are we even able to choose a certain study?
If we have chosen our study, do we maybe choose a gap year first?
If the pressure of making such decisions makes you nervous, I understand.
Facing our anxiety, we have options like:
- worry for a long time, look at many options and try to figure out what we really, really want;
- or the opposite way: ignore information and stick with our first idea of what to study;
- if we still don’t know: ask for advice, hoping we asked the right person;
- if we still don’t know: postpone the decision, hoping it will be handed down to us.
Is this how awful choosing a study that suits us must be?
Can’t we be more clever than this?
Oh yes, we can. We can focus our attention on the choice at hand. Acknowledging that we might maybe take a gap year, and so on.
In fact, we can learn how to better make this type of life defining decisions.
9 False beliefs about study choices
Whenever the choice of starting a certain study is presented to us, we need a lot of clarity. Yet, the truth is: we are easily misguided. There are a number of persistent ideas on this type of decision, that seem logical but that we need to investigate better.
Here is the list of common false beliefs: they seem to make sense, but they do not:
1 We need good advice.
(Sorry, but no, advice won’t help, for many reasons.)
2 It’s a one-time decision.
(Yes, it seems like it, but it is not.)
3 We know what will make us happy.
(Yet, we are bad at forecasting our own happiness.)
4 If we get it right, we’ll be happy forever.
5 If we get it right, we’ll be successful.
(O no: statistics & stories fool us.)
6 Our talents and dreams will tell us.
(Yet, our beliefs and fears block us.)
7 We are free in what we choose.
(However, culture, peers and marketing fool us too.)
8 We are clever and logical if we want to.
(Ha, we wish! Our hidden cognitive biases fool us.)
9 When we get it all right, we will be alright.
(Well no: our study and work are not even about us.)
Bonus: the 10th false belief
10 Institutions’ brochures, websites, and open door days will tell us all we need to know.
(They won’t. It’s very biased information. Even the students we may speak to: they’re not those who have left disappointed, for instance. They are the appointed tour guids. We may likely end up choosing the study with the best Marketing Department.)
We need clarity and truth
Did you let that sink in? Our courage to ever choose might sink with it. Our worries might rise to the surface and dominate our feelings around the choice. So we need more clarity and truth than this.
First off, let us look at the alternatives to studying that we have. That will make us worry less.
“Clear thinking requires courage rather than intelligence.”
(Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz)
Chapter 2: Our 5 excellent alternatives to studying
Maybe we have a dream job in mind, and we’re looking for the right study to arrive at that kind of job. This sounds simple.
We must just understand that no study will ever guarantee us a certain job. The other way around: yes… if you never enrolled in a dental school, you won’t become a dentist. (Let’s hope.)
Maybe we have a dream subject to study, and we’re not sure what job we aspire. That’s even simpler, when it comes to a study choice.
So, a certain job perspective can be a reason for us to study. It seems then that we now need to find the best college or university for us.
However, there are a few really interesting alternatives to going to university or college that often go overlooked.
- Gap year
- Learn on the job
- Part-time studying
- Home studying
- Explore our talent
1. Gap year
We can go traveling, do odd jobs or volunteer work. Actually, we could do anything and thrive.
It’s often parents or other adults that advise against a gap year. You might hear something like this:
- “You will lose a year of your life, enter your career later, and earn less money.”
Not true. Living without studying is not losing a year, it is just spending our time the way we want. What better thing to do with our life anyway?
As we will see below, the gap year may very well advance our career in unforeseen ways. Including what we’re going to earn later on in life. Don’t believe people with a crystal ball.
- “The younger your mind is, the faster it learns. Use your youth well, and study!”
Young brains don’t learn “faster” or “better” than older brains do. The idea has been proven wrong.
- “You may lose the “hard work attitude” that has brought you where you are now.”
Maybe yes. And just as probable is the risk that we lose our “hard work attitude” when we’re overdoing it in our next study.
- “We will miss you, and you will miss us.”
Maybe so. They don’t want to see you go. This is about comfort zones: comfortable as they may be, they’re holding people back. Don’t fall into this trap of emotional sabotage.
- “Ones you have lived a “free” life, you probably won’t go back to society, and live the 9-5 life.”
Could be, but you learn a lot of skills when you live “outside” the environment you are used to.
Positive reasons for a gap year
Let us look at it differently and sum up a few positive reasons for a gap year.
- We find time to relax, unwind and explore.
We have finished a maybe stressful secondary school and exam period. Too many people in our society get a burn-out when they are pretty young. They are stressed about study and work all of the time.
This doesn’t serve them well. Nor does it serve their environment.
A long enough time without pressure lets them breathe again.
Also, during a gap year we explore options that we might never do once we get in a steamroller of study and career.
- We get to know ourselves better.
We will see if the interests we think we have are really that attractive.
Imagine Ronald, who has always been interested in marine life, so he goes off and finds himself an odd job as a diving instructor at a holiday resort.
Three weeks in, much longer than he has ever spent on his leisure activity, he discovers that the excitement has worn out. He liked diving for a couple of days, but not for the rest of his life.
Now, he has new knowledge about himself that will help him shape his future choices.
- We get to know our study and work options better.
Following the example of Ronald, he discovered a few more interesting things.
A diver colleague at the holiday resort had studied Business & Law. She got her degree, but then she found that the common careers in this field of study were not for her.
Her other interest in life had always been diving. So she now helped holiday resorts in many places around the world with the legalities around entertaining guests in risky sports – like diving.
This way Ronald discovered that Business & Law was not only applied in the corporate world, as he had thought up to then. He now considered that study is an option for him too.
The point is: we go to places, we learn new types of work, we meet people with other ideas and experiences than our own, we see how things are done differently in other parts of the world, and so on.
- We learn skills and show cultural awareness, and courage.
Our experiences during a gap year can be a real add-on to our resume, and not a dreaded “gap”.
We’ll meet challenges that are new to us and that we’ll have to tackle. We’ll meet a great variety of people.
We’re bound to build our personal and interpersonal skills.
Just like going to study, a gap year needs planning and preparation too. The pay-offs can be huge.
2. Learn on the job
Instead of going to study, we can work. All work will teach us new skills, new knowledge and insights. We can learn in any job. It may not always be what we want to learn, or the newness may fade away.
When we think about work, we can also think of volunteering or doing an internship in a direction that has our interest. It could even be military service, if that exists in your country.
When we work, we start with practice, we’ll get the theory later. We can study after gaining experience in the field.
This order makes a lot of sense. When we have real-life experience with a certain job, this helps us when we study.
Suddenly, we are capable of understanding the theory better, because we have the examples in our minds. Also, the whole theory becomes more interesting to us.
Let us take Jane for example. Jane has done work on a farm, and learned about animals and food crops, the varieties, their living conditions, their diseases, and so on and so on. She also got quite handy with tools, and she learned when to do what, according to weather conditions.
Now when Jane wants to take up a “real” study, this all comes in very handy. She might benefit from her experience when she decides to study Agricultural Sciences, Biology, or even Meteorology.
Because let’s not forget: farmers are very sensitive to the weather – they look at clouds, they feel the wind, they sniff the smell of rain…
So when she studies Meteorology, and the subject is “cloud formation,” she is learning faster and better because she already knows clouds from intensely looking at them and trying to predict the weather!
3. Part-time studying
The common idea about studying is that it is an “all-or-nothing”-type of activity. Yet, many studies at universities, colleges and the like, can be done part-time.
The tempo of our advancement will probably be less than for those who study full-time. We have more time for other activities, like work and hobbies.
Part-time students are often less involved in student life, but this is not necessarily so.
One variation that will make “room” in our calendar as in our head: to take a break during a study. For instance, after graduating as a Bachelor. We can leave college, or even become active in a student association. After some time, we can re-enter college and proceed with our Master programme.
To interpret the word “part-time” a bit differently: spending our time as the party animal of local student life, we might be parted with our funds before we have our degree…
Part-time studies bring another balance between life and study expenses and opportunities for earning an income. We may well use this to our advantage.
It can be worth checking if your subject of choice is taught in a part-time format somewhere. Not all studies at all institutions can be done in a part-time format. Quite the opposite, actually.
4. Home studying
The difference between a study we do at home, or one we do at a university often is quite broad. It’s about meeting other students, and living student life.
Curriculums are often very different. We will often have less practice hours when we study at home.
A great advantage of home studies is the great variety we can treat ourselves with. We just choose a subject that has caught our interest.
Starting with Computer Programming for beginners, we take Music Theory, followed by European History. Why not?
The great variety helps us to learn, to develop study skills. Most of all, we’ll better know what every study encompasses. So if we’re ever going to study at a university, we have a more precise idea of what the subject of study actually is.
Many subjects can be studied at home, for no cost at all. There are even universities that offer a great variety of studies online for free.
So, not choosing a “formal study” doesn’t mean we will be losing anything. Quite the contrary!
5. Explore our talent
We have all heard the stories of (famous) people who “flopped” or “dropped out” and became very good at what they did. People like Kanye West, Mark Zuckerberg, Lady Gaga, Ellen Degeneres and Steve Jobs, to name a few.
Dropping out of high school or college almost seems “natural” to artists, athletes and entrepreneurs. Of course all of them had great talent, and worked hard.
If this is you, you probably already know what your talent and deepest interest is.
The chances of “failure” as an artist, etcetera, are huge. It’s not a bad idea to have a backup plan.
Still, pursuing a “career” as an artist, athlete, entrepreneur or the like is a serious option. Or whatever your true talent has been pointing you towards – probably for years already.
6. A terrible 6th option: a dependent relationship
We can choose to enter or stay in a dependent relationship. This may feel comfortable at the outset.
For instance: we can depend on our parents, or we can depend on a romantic partner. We might even have the opportunity of depending on some private or state funds.
They will supply us with what we need to live and get by. At the same time, we kind of stay being a child. So: we get what we “want”, yet it steals our life from us. On the very day we want to get our life back, this may have become very difficult.
“When you have two alternatives,
the first thing you have to do is to look for
the third that you didn’t think about,
that doesn’t exist.”
(Statesman Shimon Peres)
Chapter 3: We can choose a study now and change course later
We all have heard from people who had started some study with great enthusiasm, then stopped before they had finished.
These stories are often told as a warning, with an alarming tone. We might as well “freeze” and decide not to start at all…
But that’s far from necessary. Overall between 1 out of 5 or 6 students don’t finish their first study, and change course. They either quit “study-land”, or they move to another “lane” – be it in the same institute, or somewhere else.
Personally, I finished my first studies (Economy) because I was made to believe I needed the grade. (I am not sure if I ever really needed and used it.) Then I got to work, and did my second studies (Psychology) part-time, going to college in the evenings.
The financial consequences of changing course can be hard. This of course depends on the costs of studying and the financing system or resources we have available.
Point of the matter is this dilemma:
- Wait to choose until we’re sure what we want? How much more time may that cost, and what are the opportunity costs of that time?
- Continue a study that we’re no longer interested in, in order to work in a field that we’re not interested in, in order to make a living – for what?
The only way out of this dilemma that I can see, is to just ignore it.
So: if you choose to study: go study. If you want to change: go change! If you want to stop: stop!
No matter what they say.
Do you remember the example about studying Economy, after you have learned to be a car mechanic? We now have a view on this reality.
It could go like this: after school, we start working in the garage of an uncle. Or we enter military service. Whatever happens, we learn to become a car mechanic. Simply because the subject has our interest.
Yet, we have another interest, and that is: economy. So at some point we start that study. Because we can.
People could say to us: “If you change course, or if you stop your study completely, all that you have done so far, is being lost.”
Here are 4 ways of looking at that loss:
1. Everything that we learn stays with us. It makes us who we are. Nothing gets lost.
2. We can combine our study with something else that has captivated our interest. No harm done.
3. We can leave our study, start to work (or do military service, or travel and volunteer, etcetera), and choose again later.
4. We can understand our studying as part of our Education permanente. I’ll explain.
It’s French for permanent education. Or better: continuous education.
The world of work, the description and requirements of jobs change without an end.
Also jobs are not stable: we may start as a car mechanic, later work as a job coach for released youth delinquents, and continue with becoming a probation officer.
All the time we will study new things, learn new skills. Education does not end after 4 years of study.
Good thing: employers in many countries pay for this “éducation permanente”. For good reasons.
Once we’re in a career of some sort, we don’t know where we will be going next. But we can almost be sure there will be a “next”. And to get there, we will be “transferred” with some supplementary education.
That is life taking its course. As long as we are choosing for what we value and have an interest in, that is not a bad thing.
“Every day brings new choices.”
(Author and coach Martha Beck)
Chapter 4: Our success depends on this
Finishing any study gives us better chances on the labour market. Or that is what statistics say. We would think this is our way to have what people call “a successful career”. That does not sound too bad, does it?
Now, we have all heard “success formulas” for life. It seems that a college degree is part of it. Others will say: “It’s not what you know, but whom you know”.
There are those who say we need to focus on working hard, as the main ingredient for success. Stepping out of our “comfort zone”, or having “the right attitude”.
Cultivating will-power, or finding our inner compass, being proactive instead of reactive, keeping learning, and on goes the list.
Any success formula should be of little importance to us. Here’s why:
1. What one person calls “success”, is the other person’s nightmare.
It would make for a strange and painful game, if we were with 1,000 people. Imagine this.
Every round, a person shares their nightmare job (“Oh, to work in a bar with all those drunk people…!”) and we wait for someone to shout out: “I’m doing that and enjoying it!”
2. “Success” quite often means things like fame, social status, money earned… The history of humanity shows that those things don’t make us happy.
One very important factor in happiness for the majority of people is: close relationships. If that is you too, you could factor that one in in your important life decisions.
3. Worst of all, following a formula means that we don’t make our own choices. It sounds as though we believe that someone else knows how we should live our lives, in order to attain what they define as success.
Or they have first succeeded in convincing us what “success” should be for us, and now we’ll do what they say is good for us. This, in my humble opinion, is a recipe for disaster.
A different take on “success”
Let’s look at success from a different angle. Could “success” mean for us that we succeed in what we want from life – knowing that what we want from life is changing over the years?
So that “success” is not some “end state”, but rather us enjoying the voyage? Whether that voyage includes fame for us, or not. Whether we go on our path having no regrets. Or we spend much time with friends and being a good friend ourselves. Or all of the above?
Do we agree then on a definition of “success” as: “enjoying living our lives our personal way”?
If so, then we get back to the question: what does this success depend on?
Are we open to becoming a bit analytical, when in the end it will be very practical again? The above definition requires this:
1. We live our lives. That is quite an engagement. It’s not like: “I’ll just adapt, I’ll do anything, I’ll have my pass-times and I will die one day.”
2. Our personal way. This is about taking responsibility. Making choices, even when we don’t know the outcome. It means we use our individual capacities, our talents.
Our own particular values guide us along the way. No longer our peer group, nor our parents, are the main source of our orientation.
3. Enjoying. We have this life, and we can enjoy it. What that means to us, does not matter so much. The main quality is: that we are capable of finding joy. This too changes over our life time.
Example: at the age of 14 I enjoyed listening to music with my elder brothers. I thought maybe I’d become a musician. When I was 34 I very much enjoyed teaching business to international students in Amsterdam. And now at 54, I enjoy being a coach.
But let me stop here. We don’t need another “formula for success”.
To the contrary, we better develop our own take on this issue.
When it comes to our study choices, we now know that it all depends on us. On how much inner clarity we have developed. On how well we deal with insecurities, desillusions and the unknown.
Whether we want to carve out our own path or not. As well as taking on whatever life or God or fate or samsara is throwing at us. Are we open to an adventure or rather not? Are we open to enjoyment on our personal terms or rather not?
“Money is human happiness in the abstract;
he, then, who is no longer capable of
enjoying human happiness in the concrete
devotes himself utterly to money.”
(Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer)
Chapter 5: Big life decisions – and how to choose the best
Let us – just for a short moment – look at different types of decisions we will have to make in our life.
Because life will keep throwing challenges at us. For some of them we need to make – at some point in time – big life decisions.
- They have a long-time impact. What we choose today, we will still remember in 10 years.
- Every alternative has its pros and cons. The choice options can not be “weighed” against each other, so there is no optimal solution.
- These choices are open-ended problems. We can not know the outcomes, because those outcomes are dependent on many other factors.
- Career decisions
Are we going to work for this company in this job, or is the other opportunity “better”?
- Residency decisions
Where do we want to settle? Which continent, country, city, street and house? Or don’t we settle now, and go for a world tour?
Do we stay at home, or move in a residency for elderly people? And when? And where?
- Relationship decisions
Is this the “right” person for us, or do we go? Are we better off as a single person, or starting dating all over?
- Parenthood decisions
Do we want to become a father or a mother? With this partner or another? Do we want one or more children?
The process of attaining clarity
As we have seen, with the subject of choosing a study we need clarity. This is true for other big life decisions too:
- Trying to speed-up the process of clarification, forcing ourselves to choose, is not helping.
- Asking ourselves to “make up our minds” does not allow for self-knowledge to develop.
But just letting time pass isn’t bringing us any further either:
- Not choosing is a choice in itself.
- Putting off the decision doesn’t make it go away.
- Trying to get clarity from others will not lead us to the best choice for us.
So the question becomes: what can we do to obtain the clarity that we need in order to make our choice – at any given moment.
This “doing” is not one single task, one single shot. Rather, it is a process.
For us, it may be the first time we consciously find ourselves confronted with a big life decision.
Yet, we are not the first people on Earth who go through such a process. So we may as well learn this process.
That is why I developed a short and highly insightful training. The training teaches how to make study choice decisions – and other “big life decisions”. It is all about learning the steps in the process. We would hope that adults learn this “naturally” when they get older. This is not the case, however. Many adults are not good at making big life decisions.
As we see, hard choices and big life decisions will keep coming on our path. We need a few good skills, such as:
- How to recognize when we are facing a big life decision
It’s too easy to be “captivated” in a scheme of ignoring the choice. And if we’re following the trodden path, will we be happy to get where everyone before us has gone? In fact, it is not easy to focus ourselves on the real decision to be made. Yet, this is necessary for our success, as defined above.
- How to grasp and evaluate the options
Maybe there are more options than we have recognized so far. Maybe some of their pros and cons are hidden from us. Maybe the true value in an option is not easily seen. Can we even imagine what our ideal outcome would be?
- How to do introspection
The options are what they are, but who are we? Do we know how to figure out what is important to us? Do we know how to distinguish reality from our beliefs about reality? Do we investigate ourselves how we would function in different circumstances, etc.?
If you like the gist of this text, you may also like the training that I have for you. It’s titled The Crazy Tiny Training On Making Big Life Choices.
- Self-study, so you can do this at your own pace
- Online, so you can access the training anytime, anywhere
- Best investment of 6 hours of your time
- Become the wisest and most proficient in making hard choices of all or most people around you (yes, including adults)
- Beat your uncertainty and doubt
- Develop ultimate clarity for yourself
- Bonus: 1-on-1 video coaching session with me
You can sign up here, when you’re interested, with no obligation.
- To College Or Not To College?
- photo courtesy YWAM Orlando, under a creative commons license on flickr.com
- Where to go from here?
- photo courtesy Michael Pollak, under a creative commons license on flickr.com
- Changing course is always an option
- photo courtesy Robert Karma, under a creative commons license on flickr.com
- If we do NOT want to go to hell, what turn should we take?
- photo courtesy Julie Falk, under a creative commons license on flickr.com
- To each their own definition of success
- photo courtesy Chris Madeley, under a creative commons license on flickr.com
- Contemplating big life decisions, we need some serious skills
- photo courtesy Jason Jacobs, under a creative commons license on flickr.com