I have a recurring dream that goes like this:
I’m driving down a road and it comes to a stop. There’s a cliff and a vast abyss that separates the road in half, and the only way to get across is by zip line. Not an ordinary zip line, like on an excursion in Costa Rica. It’s more like a deadly ski lift. The lift goes back and forth from one side of the abyss to the other, and you have to jump off the cliff and grab onto the next lift that comes around, hanging on by your hands for dear life.
There are quite a few of these zip lines running parallel to each other across the abyss, with dozens of people plummeting across each one. Half of them manage to survive, but the other half lose their grip, fall off, and die.
In the dream, my mom is with me and she’s trying to teach me how to hold onto the zip line so we can get across without falling. It’s like the Titanic, watching all these people flashing past me, some of them surviving but others falling to their death. Except in this case, Jack Dawson is played by my mom, not Leonardo DiCaprio.
Each time I have this dream, I always make it across, but I’m trembling with fear and feverishly struggling to maintain my grip. However, the recent times I’ve been having this dream, there’s a different ending. I found a detour. Before the road ends and the cliff appears, there’s a hidden side street that curves around and eventually brings me to the other side. No abyss, no slippery hands, no death trap. I get to stay in my car and reach my destination. No zip line bullshit necessary. I let everyone else hurdle themselves across the abyss while I take a detour.
For most of my life I’ve taken detours. I started college full-time when I was 16, before finishing high school. After I graduated high school, I was sick of college already. I joined Praxis. I worked at a digital marketing firm with no prior, relevant experience. I graduated from the program and moved back home for a couple months. Then, I got a contract position in D.C. Once that was over, I moved back home again.
It was a couple years of back and forth and nonstop anxiety and stress. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I prove to myself and everyone else that I can support myself without a college degree? Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this. I was jobless again and people I respect and care about were telling me to go back to school.
Then, I was offered a full-time senior level position with an exciting salary at a great organization. But I turned it down. Everything about it was all wrong for me. The role, the organization, the city, all of it. I would’ve hated it. But that wasn’t the point. I was so happy, because I finally accomplished what I set out to do. I proved to myself that I didn’t need a degree to be offered a valuable role and a competitive salary. That was all the motivation I needed. I didn’t even need to tell anyone about it.
Regardless of all of that, I was still stuck in a minimum wage job and living with my parents. I was surrounded by my friends who were in college and I felt like I needed to do my family a favor by finishing school. Everything I was working towards to prove myself I didn’t need a degree to define my future, I let go of because of the voices around me. I fought the voices for so long and I was drained. I decided to play along with the college charade like everyone else and see where it got me.
But I couldn’t even last two semesters. It was torturous. I told my therapist that I felt stupid. I was in the fast lane to reaching the life I wanted, but I let myself get sucked back into the college vortex. I was better than that. I told her that after all the valuable professional experience I’ve gained over the past two years, my brain is no longer wired for sitting in a classroom. She told me, “No, your brain was never wired for it. School was never for you. You knew that about yourself, but you had doubts. Sometimes you have to go backwards to go forwards. And that’s okay. Now you’ve drowned out the voices.”
College is a dangerous zip line. A conveyor belt. You spend these formative years of your life in a degree factory, hoping to come out debt-free, employed, and unscathed. You graduate and ultimately have little to show for yourself. People are so distracted by the hundreds of others like them jumping off the cliff, hoping that their grip is strong enough to make it to the other side, that they completely bypass their other options. Other detours.
I could drone on and on about why universities are a painful waste of four of the most valuable years of your life and why colleges will eventually die off, but I’m not here to preach. I don’t want to be a slave to explaining myself.
Whatever strenuous decisions I’m facing in life, whether it’s my education, my job, or my relationship, I won’t stay on the dangerous zip line just because everyone around me is. Don’t be intimidated by other people’s opinions. There is always a detour available, a hidden path waiting for your footprints to make their mark. It may take a while, but if you remain obstinate and unshakeable in the relentless pursuit of what you love, even if you’re still figuring out what that is, you’ll find that path.
“‘Understanding hard choices uncovers a hidden, normative power each of us possesses,’ the power to create reasons. It’s in the process of making difficult decisions that we ‘wholeheartedly become the distinctive people that we are,’ by saying to ourselves, ‘Here’s where I stand. Here’s who I am.’”
– Kelly Barber