May 07, 2014, 9:04 PM — I’m having my house painted. House painters tend to talk while they work and these guys are outside my office window. So I have become an unwilling eavesdropper. And much of the conversation I'm listening to focuses on regret about the choices that led to this life spent on a ladder propped against a house earning a marginal income. I realize that this unscientific observation isn't statistically relevant. But I have heard the phrase, “If I’d stayed in school ...” voiced so often in the last few days that I can no longer ignore it. It makes me want to open my office door and shout, “Stop making excuses! Mistakes are useless unless you learn from them!”
It isn’t the choice to drop out of high school or not go to college that led these painters to this low-paid fate. It is their choice to dwell on regret that did. They are no longer teenagers but they don't have to spend their lives at the mercy of a mistake they made when they were. Lots of people – myself included – didn’t graduate from high school. Many go on to lives of crime or disappointment. (75% of U.S. crimes are committed by high school drop outs.) But not all of them.
In fact, there are lots of IT jobs that don't require a college degree. Many coders are self-taught or went to a code academy (often a 12-week class) to get that skill since many high schools don't teach coding or, if they do, consider it an elective. Neither a college degree nor money for tuition is needed to attend App Academy's coding school, for example. (Though you will have to prove you’d make a good coder.) And these jobs top CareerCast's list of the best jobs that don't require a college diploma, bringing in an average median salary (per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)) of $41,307.
I personally know people who went from high-school to Harvard without stopping to get a high school diploma along the way. I graduated from U.C. Berkeley after bypassing high school. Johnny Depp dropped out at 15 to join a rock band, a choice that turned out well for him. Mark Wahlberg dropped out at fourteen and went on to get into a lot of trouble. But he managed to turn that around.
I have yet to find anyone who tracks how many people drop out of high school and go on to graduate from college or achieve enough professional success that dropping out doesn’t matter. But I have met lots of them. Every day, 8,300 people drop out. And only some of them let it define the rest of their lives. Tisha Green Rinker, senior manager of school counseling at Connections Academy's, a virtual K-12 school, told me (when I was researching another article), “I’ve seen pregnant kids who dropped out at 15 come to us, get a high school diploma, and go on to college.”
And if not graduating from high school doesn’t guarantee a life of crime or a missed chance at attending college, then merely not doing well there certainly doesn’t. There is a lot of noise directed at young people that seems to say that if you blew it in high school, you blew it for life. I’m sure things come easier to the valedictorian who was also the star athlete. But that doesn’t mean that being a crap student in the eleventh grade means you will have a crap life. Just pull it together.
It might even be cheaper to go in through the back door. That’s what the community college system is there for. A lot of my fellow students at U.C. Berkeley transferred there from a community college. In fact, some universities have programs that guarantee admission to students of some community colleges. Diablo Valley College, for example, guarantees admission to some UC campuses for students who qualify.
I didn’t say any of this to the painters. But I’m saying it here: Past choices are nothing more than that. Don’t let them define your future. Wherever you are now can lead to where you want to go if you do something about it.