“I am a College Dropout” or Learning vs Being Taught

I went to three different colleges in a period of three years. The first was a technical college I attended while I was still in high school. It was there I learned about design patterns. I was soaking in information and putting it to good use on my side-projects. When I wasn’t in class, I was building things using the technology I was learning in my free time.

I was learning, and the world was good.

Then I attended a private institution (read: a truckload of money) for a year and a half. But something was different. There was no enthusiasm in the room. We were learning things that weren’t put into real world perspective. It seemed like everyone was there for one reason: to get their degree.

So I dropped out.

Afterwords I decided maybe it would be a good idea to go back to a technical school for web development. The class met once a week for 4 and a half hours at a time. I’ll never forget the class period when we spent FOUR HOURS going over the <b>bold</b>, <i>italic</i> and <u>underline</u> tags.

I’m not even exaggerating here, we spent four hours going over those three tags. Then we were given another 4 and a half hour period to complete our test on that “unit.” I finished in 6 minutes, walked out, and never went back.

I am a college dropout.

For some reason I just happen to fit that “young entrepreneur” stereotype. You know the one, the guy who dropped out of college and started to build stuff online. I never really thought about it that way though, and this fact actually just dawned on me a few days ago.

The reason I never gave it much thought though, is because I never stopped learning.

The fact that I dropped out of college means almost nothing to me, and the reality is, it doesn’t actually matter at all. I’m not saying that degrees don’t matter, I’m just saying that what really matters is the fact that you’re learning.

That you’re bettering yourself everyday, that you’re pushing forward and trying new things each and every day.

A new technology comes out and you think it looks cool (like AngularFire)? You should go check it out. Don’t wait for it to become mainstream, don’t wait for a book about it to come out. Want to learn how to build an iOS app? Don’t wait until the class starts next semester. Start doing it now.

Just go start learning.


Which leads me to my next point, just what is learning?

The actual definition of the world baffled me when I first looked at it, in fact I was absolutely dumbfounded. Here it is:

learn·ing: the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught.

The thing that threw me for a loop is that “being taught” was included in this definition. In my opinion, there is a HUGE difference between learning and being taught.

It saddens me a little whenever I see a classroom full of people or a group of attendees at a Meetup, and you can immediately tell which people are there to learn, and which people are there to be taught.

The truth of the matter is that I love learning. And I can’t stand people that love being taught.

Learning vs Being Taught

I dropped out when the distinction between learning and being taught finally dawned on me.


Learning is an action. It is something that YOU go out and do because you desire to do it. You have decided to take the wheel and further your knowledge and experience.

You don’t wait for someone to show you the way, you go out and you find it. You’re not reliant on someone else’s initiative, you are driven by your own.

It might be scary at first, and it may come to you in different forms. If you can find a college or university that aligns with your vision of learning, then by all means it is a great idea. If you are there to soak in information, and then leave class and go soak up even more information, you’re in the right place.

I personally felt that I had a better learning environment when I was building my own side-projects and products. Learning AngularFire to build Kobra is a great example. I didn’t say, “oh, someone never showed me how to use a frontend JavaScript framework, I don’t know how to do that.” Instead, I said, “I want to do X, so I have to go learn how to do Y.

But let’s talk a little bit about the opposite a little too. Those that enjoy “being taught.”

When I was sitting in that classroom learning about <b>, <i> and the now defunct <u> my mind was absolutely blown when people started to look confused. You are in a WEB DEVELOPMENT CLASS. Instead of going out and learning the material, they expected every little piece of information to be spoon fed to them by the instructor.

They are not there to learn, they are there because they want someone else to teach them. They want someone else to tell them: “here, I’ll show you these skills and then you can go get a job.”

The important thing to note here, however, is that this is the fault of the individual, not the fault of the actual school or instructor. This is all about your individual personality. I’m sure that class would have been AMAZING if the people there would have shown initiative and been interested in learning.

And that really is the difference between learning and being taught: initiative.

Do you want to take your life into your own hands and learn? Or do you want to “be safe” and be taught?

However, Knowledge Comes from Somewhere, right?

I just said a lot of crazy things, and I may have offended some people. If I offended you, suck it up and keep reading.

Knowledge doesn’t just come out of thin air. You can’t just decide to “learn” and then you understand everything. You still have to get that knowledge from somewhere. It could be online, the documentation for a piece of software, blogs like this one, or in school.

The distinction I’m trying to make here between “learning” and “being taught” is a mental one. It has to do with your desire, your initiative, NOT where you receive the knowledge.

I just happened to respond better to knowledge I learned while working on my own projects, not in school. In fact, this is so true, that if I ever decide to go back to school I will be attending Business & Marketing instead of Software Engineering.

Once you decide that you really want to LEARN something, then you have to go discover how to learn it. This is what I was talking about earlier when I said learning is an action. It is the act of discovering information and knowledge.

Two people could be sitting in the same classroom and have two very different experiences if one is there to learn and one is there to be taught.

So, do you want to “learn”? Or do you want to “be taught”? The decision is yours.

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  • http://justinmcgill.net/ Justin McGill

    Funny thing Matt – I went the exact same way you did and feel the same way. I really don’t even care about college education when looking at a resume…I want to see it in use!

    • http://mattkremer.com Matt Kremer

      I agree! I’ve applied to a ton of jobs that “require a 4 year degree” even, and it has never come up once. I don’t put any schooling on my resume, and they never ask. Along that point, I wish more people would feel comfortable applying for positions that “they don’t meet the requirements for.” Step out of your comfort zone, and you’ll be surprised what happens!

      • http://rags2rankings.com/ AmandasAbroad

        Thank you for writing this comment (and the article!). I’ve always felt too intimidated to apply for jobs that require a degree. “No golden ticket, no job” is how I thought it would always work. I never even thought to at least give it a shot. From now on if I think I can handle the work, I’m going to give it a go. Thanks :)

        • http://mattkremer.com Matt Kremer

          Hey Amanda, glad this struck you! A good rule of thumb is to ALWAYS give it a shot. If you think a job looks cool and you’d like doing it, the least you can do is apply. I’ve gotten 8 interviews with companies without even giving most of them resumes. And if I did give them a resume, I just left the education section off entirely.

          Three of these companies even flew me to the other side of the country at a moments notice. Show passion, show drive, show determination. A candidate can have all of the qualifications in the world, but if they have no drive, they are utterly useless to an employer. Just having that drive can give you the leg up.

          If you’re interested in some concrete statistics about the phenomenon of people not applying for jobs they’re “not qualified for”, check out this article (specifically targeted at Women, but definitely applicable to Men too):


          • http://rags2rankings.com/ AmandasAbroad

            Thanks, I will! :)

  • Shawn Hartwell

    Brilliant! This is a topic of discussion that I’m fanatical about. You don’t even want to know how many times I’ve discussed my views on traditional education with friends and family

    I think there is clearly benefits to both approaches to, “learning,” being that if you’re self-motivated to learn the concepts on your own but like to have a sort of mentor, being your professor, that can help explain the more complex concepts than there is nothing wrong with that, but like you said…

    Most people want it spoon-feed into their brains. These people don’t have the proper motivation to get things done and I’ll bet you that they’re the type that will have problems finding or maintaining a job after graduation(if they even make it that far!)

    My plan is to use college and uni as networking opportunities where I can meet people who’ll be great assets to benefit me in the future and that I have something to offer them for their future. If I get a degree in the process of that well…that’s just icing on the cake!

    • http://mattkremer.com Matt Kremer

      Definitely, college is a great place for networking. That’s honestly the only reason I keep my Facebook and LinkedIn accounts, so I can “keep tabs” on my friends and people I’ve met in the past and see where their at. Remember, “Your network is your net worth.”

  • http://CandaceDHenry.com/ Candace D. Henry

    Thank you for writing this. I went the same way as you and never looked back. Great article!

  • Mariusz Klimek

    Interesting thoughts Matt. But from my experience and observations I learned that you also need the basic intelligence and persistence to learn yourself. I saw many people (myself included) with initiative to learn something on their own that just crashed into walls. Walls made by “no idea what to do next” and “walls of, you’re not intelligent to jump over that wall”.

    But I agree with you completely.