The time to be “just a punk,” as graphic designer Aaron Draplin once told me, goes by very, very quickly. The limited time offer of childhood is never going to come back, or move any slower as time goes on. Not only does your innocence, inexperience and innate curiosity about the world seem to slowly wither away as we get older, our relationships fall away during the transition into adulthood as well. Tim Urban revealed this stark reality in an excellent blog post called The Tail End where he mapped out all of the time that he had spent with his parents throughout the course of his lifetime:
“It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.” (Read the full post at WaitButWhy.com.)
Despite the fact that your entire life is ahead of you at age 18, the looming shadow of time is and already has been passing over you. With a mere fraction of your life over in an instant, it’s easy to wonder where all of the time went. Memories of your parents, childhood friends, and teenage mischief…at 40 years old, you’ll probably find yourself asking, “Where did all that time go? What has become of life as I live it now?”
Those who do get to ask such nostalgic questions at least have experiences to look back on and yearn for. Whether or not you’re happy at 40 years old is for another time and another piece of writing, but if nothing else, I’d like to have a youth that is worth looking back on and smiling about when I get there.
“Okay, so why did I just spend the last 2 hours copying notes from a PowerPoint presentation? It feels like a massive waste of time, but I’m not sure…”
The simple answer—that the entire goal of childhood and youth is to make the transition into adulthood, and for that you need education—is an accurate assessment. By 18, you should be able to function as a member of society, and that involves education and time spent learning. Is that enough of a justification for the 13 years of public education?
Enter “Parkinson’s Law”, an article published in The Economist in 1955. The article states the “commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In essence, if I give you an hour to clean your room, you will end up using the entire hour to clean your room, despite the fact that it may only take you 20 minutes of real time if you didn’t get distracted by old knickknacks that you found under your bed. Goofball.
The public school system perfectly exemplifies Parkinson’s Law. If administration tells a teacher they have a 90-minute class period to teach the students to solve a linear equation, the teacher will somehow find a way to use all 90 minutes so it doesn’t look like they are wasting anybody’s time.
Though it might only take 30 minutes to teach someone to solve a linear equation, if the teacher only used 30 minutes and then let the kids sleep for another 60, that would show that the school system as it stands is a big waste of time. To avoid such a catastrophic exposure of inefficiency, the work thus expands and fills its allotted time. Welcome to wasteful bureaucracy!
Now it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because, yes, the work did get done in 90 minutes which seems to mean that the work actually takes 90 minutes, and that any less would be insufficient for the task. This is of course, not true. Despite the reality, you won’t hear many educators acknowledging the fact that a large proportion of the school day is busy work to fill an eight-hour day.
This isn’t unique to students and schools, either. How is it that every single person working an office job needs exactly eight hours to complete their work? Is it really realistic to think that every role in a company takes exactly forty hours a week to fulfill? Of course not. Work varies, and so do people. What may take me four hours will take an expert two. Nonetheless, given an eight-hour work day, we’ll find a way to stretch a simple task to fill the entire day so that we are 1) not bored and 2) not fired. This is not efficient or effective.
One remedy to this issue is to change the way we educate entirely, which would require an entire other book to explain.
What can you and I do to solve the problem for ourselves if the institution has no interest in fixing itself?
Drop out without dropping out.
I cannot advocate for dropping out of high school or college without sufficient reason and justification, but I will advocate for you to minimize the damage that school might do to your life and happiness. That is, reduce the time that you have to spend in the institution and allow yourself to spend more time educating yourself and enjoying the life that you do have, whether you’re still in childhood or you’ve left to go into the working world. There are a couple ways to do this:
Go the **** home.
The talk “Go The **** Home” by Pam Selle is easily one of the most important five minutes of information anyone in the workforce or at school can hear. Applying this to school, you have eight entire hours at the institution every day. We all know that those eight hours are not filled with learning: you could be finishing up your homework during school and not have to take anything home. Although it takes a bit more effort during the school day, when that last bell rings: go home, and don’t bring school with you.
Get a side hustle.
Your side hustle might be developing your own curriculum to educate yourself in a field that you’ve always wanted to learn about. Maybe you want to start a side hustle that resells hot shoe releases to make some money on the side. Perhaps your side hustle is your writing, and you want to finish the book that you’ve been working on. No matter what it is, please get a side hustle. Something that you do outside of work and school that actually means something to you. Unless you are seriously passionate about school (which most of us are not), you should have something else to work on that you’re much more interested in and excited about.
Having a side hustle is important because you’ll actually have something to come home to. It might actually make sense to fill your day with homework once you get home because you have nothing else to do with your time. Change that! Get a side hustle, go home when the last bell rings, and get your life back.
Avoid the point of diminishing returns.
There comes a point in school when you’ve gone past the point of diminishing returns in that your extra work will no longer lead to extra results. For example, you might study for a test for 20 minutes and get an 85. If you hadn’t studied at all, you might have gotten a 50, and therefore, 20 minutes of work added 35 points to your test grade.
Now, let’s say you study for six times as long (2 hours), and you get a 95. Still, compared to not studying at all, you have improved your grade by 45 points. You would expect your returns to multiply by six as well, but you didn’t get six times the improvement with six times the amount of work.
This can be loosely described with the “80/20 Rule”, (no, I did not make the math match precisely in the last example) which in this context would say that 80% of the grade can be attributed to around 20% of the studying that you did. Applied to our own education, it would be smart in many situations to stop after completing the meaningful portion of the studying we might usually do, understanding (through experimentation and trial and error) that all of the extra studying may not lead us any further than we’ve already gone. This wastes less of our time and allows us to pursue other more important ventures and subject matters.
Of course, there are plenty of situations in which you can and should ignore the 80/20 Rule and put in every ounce of work that you possibly can: for example, in any athletic endeavor. It makes sense if you are competing directly against somebody else that the goal is simply to achieve the best possible performance, regardless of whether or not you are “efficient” in doing so. But for school? Chances are, there’s no good reason to spend excessive time studying for such little result in the end, when you could be putting that time into much more effectively educating yourself in meaningful and positive ways.
School is pretty wasteful, but it doesn’t have to be. Just because it’s not a very efficient or effective way for you to learn the things you really need to learn does not mean that you should drop out of high school or college in a literal sense. Rather, minimize the wastefulness in your own life and pursue with that extra time and energy an education that will lead you to better places than your classroom busy work will.
Drop out without dropping out, and by the end you’ll have your diploma, possibly your degree, and a real education to back it all up (that which you obtained on your own in your free time).