After his first year at UofT, Jeff made the decision to drop out of school. He spoke at Campfire super late-notice and was dope. I haven't had much of a chance to chat with him personally, but his tweets are pretty fire. Thanks so much for letting me feature this, Jeff.
My family moved to Canada from Korea when I was 8. Most people with similar backgrounds will understand that there’s a lot of pressure to study hard, go to a well renowned university, and work at a well paying job. For most of my childhood, I believed that to be the only way to be successful. I mean, I knew that there were gifted kids who went on to become musicians, artists and athletes, but if you wanted to succeed in something that wasn’t art or athletics, academia was the way to go.
A lot of this changed when the barrier of entry into building software significantly dropped. Now you had people like Mark Zuckerburg and others building incredibly successful companies from their literal and metaphorical basements. For many - including myself - they became a figurehead of what you could accomplish without a university degree. Being obsessed with technology and the internet growing up, I had a lot of respect for these people and admired them, but from a distance. I never thought I’d have the confidence to be able to take such a leap of faith, so I just did what I thought was safest, and went to university.
After only one year, I ended up dropping out. I can remember the endless thoughts I wrestled with to make the decision over a year ago. I relied a lot on articles, blog posts, and studies to help me understand the realities of dropping out - how it financially benefits you, how to nail interviews without a degree, how to teach yourself skills. Looking back, those teachings were incredibly valuable.
However, no one seemed to talk about one aspect of dropping out - an aspect that I have been, and still am struggling with. No one was talking about the emotional impact of dropping out.
On the outside, my life since dropping out of university has been great. I get to do what I love the most for a living, for a company with benefits that I sometimes can’t even believe is real (free catered lunches and unlimited vacations?!). I’m making a lot more money than I could’ve possibly expected to at this age, which lets me live in a nice condo smack in the heart of downtown Toronto, and enjoy everything the city has to offer. I am so grateful for being able to live the life I live, but not everything was great for me emotionally.
The first 6 months or so after dropping out was very tough. I was still a kid, and felt rushed into adulthood - having to learn how to sign a lease, get insurance, properly budget myself, pay off student loans, cook for myself, all while starting work full time where imposter syndrome haunted me day and night. It also didn’t help having no family anywhere near Toronto, since my family was still in Edmonton.
Gradually, it really took a toll on my mental health. It ended up in some very low points where I’ve broke down, overwhelmed with responsibilities, lacking in confidence and clarity, and feeling generally very lost. I began keeping to myself, having little to no energy outside of work, and worst of all, I stopped designing as a hobby altogether.
Then, it went on to affect my physical health. I wasn’t eating right, was losing weight, and at one point, had a collapsed lung. I hit rock bottom in April. Thankfully, my mother flew in to see me, but it was undoubtedly one of the toughest times in my life.
What made matters worse in that period is something that still affects me today. Dropping out of school made me feel like an outlier. I felt like I didn’t really fit in anywhere.
I’ve asked many of my older friends, colleagues and family about where they met their closest friends today. Most of the answers were in university. But it’s usually through many years of meeting people, growing closer to them, growing apart, that you find and build close relationships.
With the exception of a few friends who are still very dear to me today, I grew distant from most of my friends. I admit I could have tried harder to not lose touch, but it gets tough to do that when you no longer have what you shared together - school. I sometimes wonder if I would’ve become lifelong friends with them if I knew them through many years of university.
It also got much harder to meet new friends. In the few university parties that I got invited to (which got less and less frequent), I often felt like I didn’t belong, in a crowd of people who all shared something in common except for me. Or I wondered if I just became too self-conscious and boring.
What is nice, however, is that I met so many great friends who are older. Some are present and past colleagues, some are friends I met through the industry. But, ageism is still undoubtedly an issue, and I sometimes catch myself wondering if these people see me as just a kid, both as a friend and a designer. So, I end up lying about or holding back my age most of the time. It makes me feel like I’m caught in this in-between state of being a kid and an adult, like some sort of man-child.
Things got much, much better as time went on. It’s not to say that I don’t face any of the problems anymore, but I’ve embraced so much of it, and that’s why I’m able to write this.
Over the past 18 months, I built in front of myself a wall, so that people could see how the choices I’ve made has worked out great for me, and not the realities of it that I struggled with.
But I think back to myself growing up, and I’d like to think that reading something like this would have helped. I don’t think it would have changed my decision, but it would have helped me better understand and prepare for it. It also would have comforted me last year in knowing that someone else has been through the same - it would comfort me now, even.
So, I write this for myself, to be able to put into words my fears and my struggles. I write this for my friends, so that they can get to know me past the facade I put up. And lastly, I write this for anyone who is considering making the decision I made, or anyone who just wants to know that someone’s dealing with the same thing that they are.