How school failed us


I always loved school.

Did I just lose you? If so, that’s okay, see you next time.

Ahh, you’re still here. Great. Anyway, I really the learning, the acquisition of knowledge, the new and different subjects every year. Sure it could be a pain, having to deal with endless homework, subjects that I had no interest in, and the general administrative stuff that goes into just getting through. But on the whole, I enjoyed the process, and I did quite well.

The problem was that I think I enjoyed it a little too much. I received a lot of validation in school, but it was validation of what I’m now realizing was a very dangerous kind:  I felt validated when I did what I was told.

I got an A+ in rule following

I was a really good rule follower. You give me a rule, and boy, I followed it to the letter. While I’ve talked about how I’ve rejected doing things “just because”, with school that never really seemed to apply. I was given homework and I did it, and then I got a good grade. Validation! I mean, doing well in school was the point, right?

If someone would have asked me, perhaps back in my sophomore year of college, why exactly I wanted to get good grades, I would have had two very unsatisfying answers to this question:

  • Because it will help me get a good job.
  • Because that’s just what you do.

Disappointingly, no one ever asked me that question, because perhaps if they did, I might have started to realize at a much earlier age how unsatisfying those answers were. Personally, I think everyone I knew just assumed #2.

The problem came at graduation. I had no plan. No one was giving me any work to do! How can I be validated now? I was lost without other people telling me what to do. I did not know how to handle this. And while one can certainly chastise me for not thinking ahead myself, one can also wonder how I could get so far without having to think ahead!

How I became a professional tool

Over time, I have come to feel that our traditional schooling tends to promote obedience over creativity, alignment over individuality, and auto-pilot instead of healthy questioning. You are taught to be a good employee, basically. Once I realized this, I confess I got a little irked. Where was the class on financial literacy? Where was the class on entrepreneurship? Where was the class on having healthy and fulfilling relationships? Where was the class on making your own class? Where were all the things I really needed to know? Not in any class I went to, that’s for sure.

I’ve been employed pretty much continuously since I left school. And I confess that I have the same tendencies in my job as I did in school. But the job only (“only”) takes up 40 hours a week. What about the rest of the time? What about your emotional life? What about your spiritual life? If you’re used to being told what to do, it’s easy to become helpless in all areas where you’re not told what to do.

And the system loves it when you’re aimless and helpless. That’s perfect, because it means that you can be sold things (and ideas). “Stay in a job you hate.” “Buy a car so you look cool.” “Get married to someone who isn’t right for you because you’re scared to be alone.” Make no mistake, there are people who are profiting off of your aimlessness.

How to break free of the validation trap

It’s been a constant struggle for me to find my own way. I’ve spent years without a road map trying to figure out how to live when no one is telling me what to do. How do I know when my desires are mine, and not the product of some commercial I saw on TV? If you’re at all like this, you’re among good company. But what can you do?

  • Question your feelings of validation. What makes you feel like you’re a “good” person? Is that feeling reliant on you being obedient? Or is it based on the person you are, the creativity you bring, the fire you light? Keep asking this question. When you feel validated, ask where it’s coming from.
  • Cultivate validation from within yourself. I think peer support is quite important, of course, but it can be too easy to get in the habit of relying on someone else’s validation rather than a boss’s or teacher’s validation. You need to be able to find validation in what you do, and by “do” I don’t mean a job, I mean how you manifest the person you are.
  • The most important thing you can do is to start this process today. Don’t wait. Otherwise a few decades will have passed and you will be wondering why you are really “successful” at your job, and yet feel like you haven’t achieved anything meaningful in your life.

While it’s unfortunate that I didn’t get the life lessons I needed from the classroom, there is no point to looking back with regret. No one is a victim here. We all have a responsibility to move forward with the path that is unique to us. And no one’s going to validate it until we do.


My experience is only mine. I went to a relatively undistinguished school in a relatively undistinguished town, and I am a sample size of one. I’m hoping that your experience with school is different. Maybe your school was just plain awesome and had actual classes on self-actualization. I can only hope so.

Also, I don’t blame teachers at all, at least not most of them. I believe that they are casualties of the system too, forced to teach to the standardized test, to cut out their most creative methods of reaching out to kids, and to deal with soul-crushing bureaucracy. I have many friends who are teachers, and I see them struggle to keep their own spirits bright after dealing with the system too. They are in this together with everyone else.

But enough about me. Do you feel like school failed you? Or did you have an environment that allowed you to thrive?

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