You Have More Options Than You Think

A few weeks ago, around the time of the Reddit sale to Conde Nast, I read Aaron’s Swartz’s summary of his life to date, including a description of his brief high school experience: dissatisfied with high school, he quit. He was then officially “home schooled”, but he actually wandered off to teach himself and take some college classes.

This reminded me of my own (less interesting) experience, which I don’t think I’ve ever told online.

Although I had great fun along the way (and like Aaron I was not inclined to punt on education), and met some fantastic peers and a handful of wonderful teachers, overall I was quite dissatisfied with high school and in retrospect it was rather worse than it appeared at the time. The homeschooling ruse didn’t occur to me, but I found another generous loophole in the rules: by signing up for college classes, I was excused from sufficient high school hours to allow time to attend the college classes. The excusal was coarse-grained and ample, omitting as many hours of high school (every day) as needed to attend and travel to/from college classes (that met only 2 or 3 days per week). High school credit was given to make up for the time missed, so it was possible to take far fewer high school classes than usual and still graduate.

I signed up for classes at a local community college – over several semesters I took Calculus 1, 2, and 3, Differential Equations, Engineering Physics 1 and 2. I chose days and times to maximize how much high school I’d need to miss; then attended the college courses haphazardly. My expectations were low, but was I delighted to find the instruction was actually quite good. Moreover, the textbooks, while pricey, were of excellent quality: as a general rule the instructors who write textbooks are the cream of the crop – they explain the material with far more clarity then the median instructor standing in front of me.

This strategy earned me:

  • Excusal from >50% of the high school day in my senior year – many hours of free time every morning.
  • Freedom to arrive and leave the school campus at will.
  • 30+ hours college credit, all “A” grades, in traditionally challenging courses; this was a nice head start in college.
  • Classes worthy of the time spent attending them.

There was a cost, though, due to the unusual grading system at the high school. Many of the high-level classes were “honors” classes in which it was possible to earn an H grade, worth 5 points on the usual scale of A=4 B=3 etc. By taking fewer high school classes, I had fewer H’s , leading to a lower GPA. I ended up graduating 8th in my class of ~325, at least a few ranks lower than otherwise.

In retrospect, it was a great move; it turns out that after arriving at college, no one for the rest of your life will care about high school classes or scores… Of course this seems obvious now, but no one around me appeared to know this at the time.

I wish I had taken this approach much farther; perhaps I’d have been a 20-something dot-com millionaire like Aaron. Still, there is a general principle: you have more options than you think. You don’t need to walk down the same path as everyone else. Find something different and game-changing, and do it.