Thank you for your insightful thoughts and questions regarding my most recent education post. My favorite nervous prefrosh E wrote: “Before you scared the bejeezus out of me concerning Yale. Now you scared the bejeezus out of me in general. Where can I get a REAL education?"
This question and others like it from fellow knowledge-lovers who are frustrated with what one reader described as “recycled thought, recycled theses, and recycled teaching,” deserve a very thoughtful answer, and I spent much of this week turning over possibilities in my mind.
But an answer came to me, as most exciting answers so often do, as a complete surprise and while I was focused on something else entirely- namely finishing a 50 page chapter summary for my editor.
Let me just say that writing is a bitch. You stare at a blank page completely convinced you have absolutely nothing to say, or even if you do kinda have a vague idea of what you’d like to say, crafting those blobs of thought into a cohesive narrative seems about as likely as your being able to sculpt a life sized replica of the David out of peanut butter before lunchtime.
So in the face of no ideas, no outlines, and no hope, you just have to forge ahead anyway by convincing yourself that something good will happen eventually. Believing in yourself is a clichéd mantra, but a popular one because it is such an essential prerequisite for having the balls and audacity to turn passion into product.
And therein lies one of my main problems with the ‘idea’ of higher education. We seem to think that we need to do well on the SATs, we need to get good grades, we need to graduate from college in order to be PREPARED. But the truth is, you’re already prepared. You were born with a unique set of abilities and interests and with a completely revolutionary perspective. You, as you are right now, are capable of unrecycled revolutionary thoughts simply because you are the only you there ever has been or will be.
But traditional education thrives on enforcing the belief that you are not enough. How can you expect to accomplish anything if you don’t know algebra? If you don’t read Dostoyevsky? If you can’t speak 2 languages? If you don’t have a college degree? Until you do all of those things, you are still only in the prerequisite part of your life, acquiring the skill points necessary to qualify you as a person who is worthy of doing something real.
Frankly, that's bull...
I’m not saying that learning isn’t the brightest pigment in your creative palate- learning is profoundly powerful. But even if you spend 50 years amassing millions of shades of information colors, compared to Wikipedia you will still only be a Crayola 10 pack. And you’ll be so self conscious about what you still don’t have, you’ll never take the plunge and just start scribbling with what you’ve got.
Ask any four year old fingerpainter about their “creative process” and they will look at you cockeyed. They’re just painting. They have not yet been told how ignorant they are in the face of college-education requirements, so they’re free to follow their own truths.
“But oh how woefully uneducated they are! Heathens! What they really need is to sit still, listen and repeat!”
We listen and repeat and listen and repeat in different subjects and formats for the better part of 17 years. We fill in bubbles with number two pencils and try to prove we aren’t idiots. But no matter how many bubbles we get ‘right’ we feel like failures in the face of the impossible expectation of being human Wikipedias. We’ll never be ready. But guess what?
You have always been ready.
And any educational system or institution which focuses on how much you don’t know, instead of nurturing what you intuitively know, is a sham. Haven’t your best teachers been the ones who encourage and engage you with knowledge which, for whatever reason, enriches you? Feels relevant for you? It's not about the subject, it's about how you feel about the subject. And you won't always be able to rationalize why you are drawn to what you are drawn to- your creative unconscious is a vast and thrillingly complicated place and you need to trust in hunches and passions- you'll end up doing something exciting everyday instead of trying to force yourself to be interested in something that seems 'important' but doesn't have meaning for you.
You are the only expert in yourself. Start listening.
And this isn’t self indulgent self-help baby stuff. You are an extremely difficult subject- infinitely harder than college classes. Going to Yale was technically tough, but strategically it couldn't have been simpler: just take the tests, do the reading, follow the rules.
What makes writing or painting or inventing so hard is that there is no syllabus for the intricate caverns of your own brain. There’s no expert, no textbook, no study-guide for the midterm. All there is is you, and when you’ve spent 17 years focusing on how much you don’t know, it’s hard to have faith in what you do. It’s hard to have faith in a process which you can’t read about in a book because nobody has ever done it before. It’s completely uncharted territory, and the only way you’re going to figure out how to do it is to do it.
So now you know why I started out talking about self confidence. I was an A student all my life who went to a top college, but having the confidence to follow rules is completely the opposite of believing in your own unique vision.
The ingenious idiocy of persisting in exploring your ideas instead of memorizing others' is not taught in schools because it undermines their authority- the notion that a child could produce something marvelous by following through on their inspiration might make SAT prep courses completely obscolete.
And I'm not saying it's all a waste of time, but remember that tasks which are safe and predictable will never be anything but safe and predictable, while the completely terrifyingly unknowable challenges have the potential to change the world.
So although I don't think I'm going to change the world with my little teen memoir, I do feel like I've learned an enormous amount about myself and my creative process by forcing myself to write even when I don't have a good idea, even when I feel untalented, even when it seems like it'll never sound right, and even when I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing, because showing up and having faith in the face of self-doubt is the only prerequisite for creating something new and worthwhile.
There are a billion things you don't know, but you'll only discover something truly unique if you trust in yourself. And the best way, the only way to start, is to just decide you're going to do it without questioning yourself about how unprepared you seem. Everyone feels unprepared. If they don't, then they aren't taking any risks. And risks are the only way that crazy amazing ideas become crazy amazing realities.
So to answer the original question, "REAL education" is not something you can purchase or download or memorize, it is an active personal journey. It can be supplemented and illuminated by school, but the only way you're going to have the balls to think you can write a sonata or cure a disease or find a unifying theory of the universe is to challenge yourself as often as you can.
Give yourself every opportunity to surprise yourself.
Because everything else you can just find on Wikipedia.
thoughts questions comments?