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By Cameron Chang

I’ve withdrawn from college twice. The first time was during my freshman year in 2009. I was attending a private college, and, like most of my friends, I was paying a premium in college loans. I had no idea what I wanted to do, I had no idea who I was. I couldn’t justify having so much student debt just to have an expensive piece of paper. Much to my parent’s dismay, I left. It was an incredibly difficult and anxiety-ridden decision. My mind was overtaken by fear: What will my family think? What will my friends think? What will happen to me?

Despite my fears, there was a small voice and a curious feeling that always seemed to be present throughout the whole process. It seemed to say, “Take the leap of faith.”  It was scary — really scary. But it was impossible to ignore. Little did I know, learning to follow that inner voice would be one of the most important lessons a 19 year old could learn. There was no way I could have known that leaving college (for the first time and the second) would set the foundation for more personal growth and adventure than I ever would have thought possible.

I learned that the most important thing you can do, especially if you don’t know what you want, where you’re going or even who you are for that matter, is to invest in yourself.

Here are some of the things I did to invest in myself:

The summer after I left college, I was completely lost. Not only lost, but terrified. Somehow through the inner turmoil I managed to remember that my best friend’s father had been a long time practicing Yogi. I reached out to him and he brought me to a Kundalini Yoga class at the local ashram. It helped me relax so much and the practice touched me so deeply that I decided to become a certified Kundalini Yoga Instructor.

After becoming a certified Yoga instructor, I volunteered for two years as an assistant to the lead trainer of the teacher training program I graduated from; learning more of the nuances and subtleties of practicing and teaching Yoga from a mentor in the apprenticeship model.

Then I traveled to Australia and did a 30-day backpacking course with the National Outdoor Leadership School and learned how to survive and navigate in the harsh and unforgiving terrain of the Outback.

I also went to Yoga festivals in Florida and New Mexico and spent a few weeks in Spain.

How did I afford all of this? I worked for it. I worked full-time for my father as an electrician’s apprentice earning $10 an hour. I lived at home and saved for each of my adventures.

I consider leaving college one of the best decisions I ever made. Sure, I understand that leaving college is not for everyone. But in my own experience, by not going I emerged with more maturity, perspective and practical skills than I ever would  have received in college. How do I know? Because I decided to go back to college. And when I went back, I realized that once again I was mindlessly following the pre-established path that was laid before me by those that came before me. During my second stint I realized that I wasn’t feeling that same spark of creativity and adventure that I had before.

College wasn’t teaching me how to think or how to be creative, it was being used as a meal ticket. James Altucher, author of the National Bestseller, Choose Yourself, writes a great deal about the shortcomings of higher education, “I would argue that college is a way to avoid learning how to think. If I want to learn how to play tennis, the best thing to do is go out on a tennis court and play tennis. If I want to learn how to drive a car, I better get behind a wheel and drive. If I want to learn how to live and how to think, then the best thing to do is begin living my life and thinking my thoughts instead of still having my parents pay for my life and my professors giving me my thoughts.”

It might seem like it, but I’m not against college. If you know you want to become a doctor or lawyer, then it’s the only possible choice. If you know you want to be a chemist, then yes, you have to go to college, it has it’s obvious utility. But just getting a degree because it seems like “the thing to do”, that’s a mistake. It’s a mistake because you’re going to limit yourself in two ways: you’re going to incur debt (on average about $28,000) and you’re going to waste precious time and energy, time and energy that could spent growing, discovering, learning, traveling, basically anything.

Never before have there been so many educational opportunities right at our fingertips—and they’re free. Take a course at Khan Academy. You can take online courses at Yale, MIT, Harvard and many other institutions—for free.
You can undergo an apprenticeship like Robert Greene talks about in of his book, Mastery (a must-read for anyone aspiring to greatness).

For example, I know a family friend who wanted desperately to become an equestrian lawyer. Lacking traditional opportunities, she decided to look up an equestrian lawyer in the phone book, went to the lawyer’s office and offered to work for them for free. After a year or so of working for free at the firm, her boss lamented that she could no longer work for them for them as an unpaid employee, now she had to make her a paid employee. Now that is a bold move. That’s someone who is willing to take risks and look foolish because she wants practical experience and knowledge.

Greene explains the apprenticeship model, “Practical knowledge is the ultimate commodity, and is what will pay you dividends for decades to come—far more than the paltry increase in pay you might receive at some seemingly lucrative position that offers fewer learning opportunities. This means that you move toward challenges that will toughen and improve you, where you will get the most objective feedback on your performance and progress.”

If you’re unsure about your direction, don’t waste the best years of your life trying to force yourself to conform to what everyone else is doing. Don’t fall victim to the bandwagon fallacy. Just because everyone around you is getting hired at corporations doesn’t mean that has to be what you want, and it also doesn’t mean that it’s right.

It might seem like a crisis, but not knowing what you want is such an amazing opportunity. By not going the traditional route, you have the freedom to be much more creative. By not having the safety net of a degree, you’re almost forced to find new and creative ways to make your way in the world.
As Yogananda said, “You must not let your life run in the ordinary way; do something that nobody else has done, something that will dazzle the world. Show that God’s creative principle works in you.”

Maybe you won’t dazzle the world, but you can and should dazzle yourself. Invest in yourself and do something extraordinary. Learn to follow your own still, small voice and have the courage to see where it takes you. Enjoy being young and enjoy taking risks. Steve Jobs said it better than I ever could, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Image: Nicholas Swanson