Why Students Should Take a Break from School
8 min read | Note: Notice any discomfort that may come up. I encourage you to sit with it. Growth does not happen in comfortable mediocrity.
My journey has taken quite a few drastic (and wild) turns.
I went from a pre-med student to a college dropout, to a personal coach. It’s been terrifying, exhilarating, and liberating. If you’re a university student and have been feeling a little stuck or confused about your path moving forward, read on.
Predictions vs. reality
My Korean-Canadian family doctor is such a badass woman, proactively monitoring my cholesterol levels every 6 months (since I was 7 years old) while holding space for my emotional and mental needs. I’ve always been and still am excited for our chats when I go see her. She’s like the god mom I never had. And when I was 9, I decided that I was going to become just like her.
10 years later, I was on the right track for medical school. I succeeded in academics and student leadership roles in a world-class university. Everything was going well… until I got really sick. I became so mentally ill that I eventually had to drop out of university.
Looking back, I was good at school, but I didn’t enjoy it. I wanted to become a general practitioner like my doctor, but I hated the path to getting there. I enjoyed some of the activities, but I overcommitted myself trying to prove that I could “handle it.” For the most part, I felt suffocated, anxious, and exhausted in university. I was working towards the future while destroying myself in the present, constantly grasping and chasing.
It took years of declining mental health and a wakeup call in the hospital for me (and my parents) to realize, this wasn’t working for me. It was not bringing me any joy or satisfaction and I needed to do something different. Very different.
To be clear, I don’t advocate for students to drop out of school. If that’s where you’re at, that’s cool and I wish you the courage to follow through with it. But I never actually give this advice (and people have asked for it) because there are too many factors involved.
What I do advocate for is taking a chance to do something that excites and terrifies you.
Take a Break from School
Take just one semester, and do something different. Just for 4 months. Take that time off and figure out a way to intern for a company you love. Build that organization or business you’ve been daydreaming about. Resume your courses online while you travel the world. Or heck, don’t even do anything education or career-related. Volunteer and live on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Commit to a long-term meditation retreat on the other side of the world.
Returning to campus and studying semester by semester feels “safe.” Everybody else is doing it. The next 4-5 years is mapped out for you. This is what your parents want. But “safe” doesn’t necessarily make you grow. Growth happens when you push your boundaries, expand your ideas, and get uncomfortable. No need to do something unconventional, just for the purpose of being unconventional or non-conforming (because I totally have and regretted it). But if conforming doesn’t feel good, CHOOSE out of it. CHOOSE something unexpected, maybe a little “irresponsible.” CHOOSE something that you’ve maybe dreamed of and considered but brushed off thinking, “nah, that’s not possible.”
Well why the hell not?!
If it’s legal and not a literal death trap, what’s stopping you?
Will your parents disown you? For doing something different for 4 months? Probably not. Does it cost way too much money? It may require an investment, but so does formal education. Will it be scary and unknown? Probably, but not any scarier than the real world.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, uneasy, and/or anxious with where you are right now, can you afford to NOT take a chance and try something different?
The greatest transformations usually stem from inspiration or desperation. Don’t let yourself hit self-destructive rock bottom (like I did) in order to finally decide to choose yourself. Let this be your inspiration.
Okay… but what if you know you should do something but don’t know what to do?
I like to start with journaling to help me through transitions. So here are 5 sentence completions to get you started. Read them out loud or write in a journal. List the first 6-10 things that come to mind at every (...). Don’t hold back.
- If I had all the time/money/ease, I would…
- If I was 80 years old, looking back on my life, the coolest things I would’ve experienced are…
- I want to feel… and what would make me feel that way are…
- Some of the ways I want to grow are… and what would help me grow in these ways are…
- I’ve always been curious about… and I could dive into it by…
And Address the Objections
Our evolutionary brains like safety. We’re wired for it so change feels super unsafe. Here are some possible objections your mind will immediately create (and how I reason with them).
It’s too expensive.
How much does university tuition cost? How much is cost of living? How much will avoiding joy or becoming depressed cost? Unless you already consider yourself, “financially empowered,” there are many ways of re-allocating money, saving money and creating long-term income. You can learn from financial planners or online resources. Money is energy. Where are you putting it? How are you generating it?
It’ll slow down my career.
It’s 4 months. You’re 22 years old (I assume - though no matter how old you are, it’s only 4 months; life goes by fast).
My parents will be displeased.
I grew up with Korean-Canadian immigrant parents. A bachelor’s degree was unquestioned. My mom went bonkers when I transferred from Science to Arts. But by the time I had to drop out of school, they understood that this was what I needed. I realized that parents want us to be healthy and happy. They think that getting a degree as soon as possible and getting a job will make us healthy and happy, especially if they come from poor/competitive societies where bringing food on the table is difficult. Understand where they’re coming from, and also realize that I’m not suggesting you drop out of school. 4 months of unconventional self-education won’t kill you (or your parents). Marinating in dissatisfaction, anxiety or depression might.
Back to You + the Feels
So… what do you think? Actually, before you start thinking - breathe.
Deep breath in… And out…
What is your gut saying? What is it that you truly desire?
I’ll be up front with you right now. Doing something different is TERRIFYING. You will feel like a fraud. You will feel irresponsible. You will question and doubt yourself even after you’ve made the decision. It takes such resilience and strength to repeatedly build up the courage to follow your gut. To walk to the left when everyone else is walking to the right.
I felt ashamed when I took a semester off school for my health. I felt devastated when my mom flipped her sh*t when I transferred faculties. I felt self-hatred when I dropped out of school. I felt like a fraud when I started coaching clients. And next month, I’m doing something unexpected again - I’ve decided to go back to school to do a coaching diploma. I too, feel nervous and scared. And at the same time, I know it’s what I need in this next chapter of my life. So I’m there with you, feeling the feels and taking action with uncomfortable courage.
I challenge you to take 4 months off the regular routine, and do something different. Something that will ignite joy, excitement, and growth.
Choose courage over comfort.
- Take 15 minutes out of your day today (or right now) and journal on the above 5 sentence prompts.
- Brainstorm a list of things you'd like to experience. Get weird, Imagine the craziest of things. Don’t hold back.
- Take the smallest first action. What is one small thing you can do right now to make this a reality next semester? Just one. It could be calling up a friend to talk about the possibilities. It could be reaching out to me for guidance on this transition. It could be booking a flight or writing 500 crappy words for a program application. Just one.