How to learn more by cutting class
I‘m in Portland right now, listening to the birds singing outside my Airbnb. This is my sixth spring break since starting school in 2011, and it might be my last one.
In a few months, I‘ll graduate from San Jose State. Sitting here on the brink of this huge transition, I’ve thought endlessly about the impact school has had on me for these past 6 years.
My teachers have helped me learn a lot, but I realized something a few weeks ago: All of the most enriching and challenging experiences I’ve had took place outside of conventional classroom settings. Some weren’t even at school. Or in the same state as my college.
There were many times I felt like my life was off track and I was running in place in my classes. I had no sense of control over my life, and a combination of mental illness and fear of breaking the mold kept me from creating the life I want.
I know some of you have felt this way. It took me a long time to get past the habits and thought processes that were keeping me in place. I want to share a bit of my journey here. Hopefully, you can be inspired to make some positive changes in your own life.
When I first got to SJSU I studied animation for two years before changing my major to journalism and joining the staff at The Spartan Daily.
There have been many opportunities for me to learn and push myself in both of these majors. As an animator, I got to join in a 24-hour creative sprint where four artists and I made a 30 second short in under a day. As a journalist, I got to run a college paper and speak at the Associated College Press convention about how to manage the digital transition.
Changing majors helped me learn my first big lesson. The Animation department at SJSU is full of the most driven, creative people I’ve ever met. The Animation student organization, the ShrunkenHeadMan Club, creates a sense of family within the department that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
But there was also an intense culture of overwork that made it really hard for me to find balance. I’ve always allowed my environment to affect me too much, so when I saw other people sleeping 8 hours a week, living off burritos and red bull, I figured I may as well do the same.
I remember one day in my painting class when the teacher showed us a new dent in the wall. It had been made earlier that day. One girl had worked herself so hard and slept so little that she collapsed on the way to her seat. Her head smacked into the wall on the way down, making the dent.
Every day I went to that class, the cranium crater reminded me of the dangers of unsustainable work habits. Soon after that, I went to the registrar and filed the paperwork to change my major.
More than a change of academic environment, though, I needed new people in my life. All of my friends in animation were driven and inspiring. A lot of them have since gone on to work with Disney, Nickelodeon, and a variety of other companies.
I had no such goals, though, and pretending that I did became exhausting. Also, they just weren’t the right people to help me grow. That’s not saying anything negative about them, it’s simply true that I wasn’t learning the lessons I needed to from them. So I found new people.
That was my first big lesson: When your environment and the people around you are not helping you grow, change them or suffer the consequences.
We all know people who stayed in a major or a group of friends they didn’t like. Are those people happy? Probably not.
Let’s fast-forward now to a year later. I had taken the foundation journalism classes and spent a semester as a staff writer for The Spartan Daily. I was about to start the first great challenge of my life — editing a college newspaper.
The list of lessons I learned there is endless. We had a lot of problems, including plagiarism, a disappearing website, and an administrator who was literally threatening to have campus cops drag us out of the building if we didn’t finish the newspaper layout by midnight.
The most important lesson I learned, though, was how to keep my ego in check (A lot of people would probably argue that I still need to work on this. They may be right) There were a lot of times that I let my status as an editor and my frustrations with bad writers get to me. I thought I was better than them, and there were definitely times I was disrespectful or arrogant. It happens to the best of us.
I learned how to get past this after I sent an email to a few staff writers about their attitudes and the problems I had with them. Thankfully, one of them was pissed off enough to come talk to me and another editor about it. It was in that moment that I understood what an asshole I can be. Since then I’ve tried to avoid being that guy and just talk to people when I think there are things we can improve on. I still get wrapped up in my ego sometimes, but I’m a lot better than I was before.
If I had continued studying animation, or if I’d decided to skate through the major instead of taking on a leadership role at the paper I would have never learned this lesson the way I did. That was my second big lesson: Once you put yourself in the right environment, you need to push yourself to get the most out of it. If you take the easy route you will miss incredible opportunities to learn and grow.
Fast-forward again to last semester — Winter 2016.
I was miserable. I felt like I wasn’t learning anything in school. My teachers were very stuck in their old ways. This was especially bothersome in my broadcast news class. Every time I questioned one of the teacher’s directions, her response would be the same — do it because that’s how it’s done.
In my history class, we were assigned to write an essay by plugging facts into a template. No analysis or insight required, just put the right words in the right blank space to get an A.
I was frustrated. I became grumpier every passing second because the lessons were counterproductive to my intellectual growth. The pressure was building and I felt an implosion coming.
So I did what any rational person would do: I grabbed some friends, got in a car, and drove two days straight to Standing Rock, North Dakota.
That was the most important week of my life. Seeing the camp and meeting the water protectors in person changed the way I think about resistance.
My biggest takeaway, though, was that I had learned a lot more in that week than I learned the entire first two months of my classes.
And that’s major lesson number three: If you think you feel like you’re not learning anything in school. Cut class and go somewhere else.
This is not an invitation to cut class and go get wasted. That’s stupid.
But if you see an opportunity to learn and grow that requires you to miss a few days of class. Go for it. Your grade might suffer, but your soul will flourish.
I have always struggled with fear and anxiety. Habitual overthinking and second-guessing often make me the biggest obstacle to creating the change I wanted.
That choice to drop everything and drive across the country to Standing Rock changed my life, though. I finally accepted the facts that I am free to do whatever is best for my personal growth, and that only I can define what is best for me.
I also think a little piece of my fear froze solid and broke off while I was out there. Twenty below zero was a whole new kind of cold. That and the passion I saw in everyone’s eyes there had a huge impact on my spirit.
There were many brave people there who had given more than I ever could to the #NoDAPL movement. But I played a small part. I helped build a strong wooden shelter to protect people from the cold. If I had decided to stay in San Jose, I wouldn’t have been able to help and it would have taken slightly longer to build that shelter. I won’t pretend I’m a hero for going out there, but I know I made a tangible impact, however small it was.
Your actions define your impact. On the world, on other people, and on yourself.
If I had chosen to stay in class I would never have learned the power that I have as an individual. I would never have looked into the protectors’ eyes and learned what centuries of pain looks like. I would still be sad and anxious, sitting at a desk wishing I could be anywhere else.
We only have so much time in this life. I know you’ve heard this from a thousand other writers, and we say it because it’s the truth. You have one life, and every choice you make defines the experience that you and the people around you will have.
Your actions define your impact. If you allow the structures of society to dictate your actions, then society will define your impact. Following the rules only allows you to change so much.
On the other hand, if you follow your heart and do something crazy — especially if you step outside your comfort zone — you will define your impact.
I felt that I wasn’t learning anything constructive in school. Instead of simply suffering through it like a lot of my peers, I put myself in an environment where I would really learn something about myself and other people.
The sad reality is that it’s impossible to have your intelligence — or your value to society — validated without approval from an educational institution. We place so much value on that fancy piece of paper that we forget about the experiences that help us grow. Instead, all of the focus is placed on forcing your mind into a standardized mold so that you can say you are educated.
Our society overemphasizes the importance of individual-oriented classroom learning and undervalues activities that foster creativity, community, and connection.
We are told that if you indulge your happiness or creativity for even a second, then you are throwing away your future. Stay in school, live at the library, and sleep when you’re dead. That’s the mentality.
If you don’t force yourself to grow outside of the classroom, though, you are not educated. You can memorize all the facts and formulas you want, but if you don’t connect with people or relate your knowledge back to the real world then you can’t truly consider yourself to be educated.
All of the most validating and enriching experiences I’ve had in the last year happened outside of a classroom. And they could only happen because I made the choice to deviate from the academic path that is so neatly drawn for us at birth.
I’m not the most radical activist, the smartest student or the even most driven person. But I can guarantee you I’m happier than many other young people because I had the courage to blaze a trail into unknown territories.
Due to these changes I’ve made in my actions, I am having a greater impact on the world, other people, and myself.
I did it, and so can you. Get out there and make sure your actions will have an impact you’re proud of.
Can you think of a time when you took a risk that helped you grow? Let us know in the comments. Don’t forget to tap the heart, and follow me on twitter @JeremyCummings3 or Instagram @so.tall.im.in.space. Thanks for reading.