Monday, September 7, 2015

Unexceptionally Exceptional: The Meaning of Success

This is the first of a three part series exploring what success is and means, unschooling when the going gets tough, and finding joy in the simple things. The text is from a talk I wrote for the Northeast Unschooling Conference, and I've broken it up here into more manageable post lengths. Look for parts two and three on Thursday and next Monday! 

As I was preparing for this talk, I found myself thinking a lot about what success means. What it means in this culture, what it means to unschoolers, and what it means to me, personally.

Culturally, the most common middle class narrative of success runs neatly from elementary school and high school, through college, and straight into a well-paying office job.

Unschoolers, obviously, have strayed from that path right near the beginning. And I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all questioned whether that’s really the best--or the only best--path to follow. After all, as soon as you start re-evaluating the place institutional education holds culturally and in each of our lives, it’s a pretty natural step to start wondering if that education is really seeking the right “results,” or if we want to be focusing on different goals.

But, I often wonder if we haven’t just replaced one set of expectations with another one, which, while less rigid, still falls far short of encompassing all the ways that humans can create their own versions of success in this world.


It’s a day a couple of weeks ago. I’m curled up in the corner of the couch, knees tucked underneath me, the television playing something I’m not watching in the background. I’ve spent most of the day caught in a negative thought spiral of failed attempts and disappointments. In other words, it hasn’t been a good day. “I’m a loser.” I say. The words slip out without my thinking them through beforehand, but in that moment, I believe it. It doesn’t matter that I don’t want a degree: I’m supposed to have one, aren’t I? I don’t have a “real” job, and despite the fact I’m earning a small amount of money doing something I care deeply about, or that ongoing health problems have gotten in the way of outside work, it seems like something I should have. It doesn’t even matter that, at the core of all my beliefs about people and politics and everything else lies the belief in equality, and that there aren’t--or at least definitely shouldn’t be--any ranking of people based on how well they’re “winning” at capitalism or success or anything else.

But in that moment, I’m convinced that I’m a failure.

Those moments are just that: moments, and ones that pass. But I’m reminded of how strong cultural messages are by how easily I can get caught up in (and dragged down by) those narratives, especially in moments of emotional difficulty and uncertainty. Unschoolers or not, I think many of us can’t help but be affected.

In the unschooling community, ideas about success are different. I usually feel like people consider me pretty successful in unschooling spaces: popular blogger and speaker definitely falls under the range of well-thought-of unschooling endeavors, right alongside world travel and entrepreneurship.

Writing, writing, writing...

It’s nice to see other accomplishments beside the typical college to good career track being recognized for their validity. But, the things that are viewed as successful by some vague yet very much felt unschooling consensus are things that, well, look good. Things that are somewhat performative, public, and easily seen. It’s the public intellectuals, the travelling writers, the startup superstars whom it seems we’re most proud of.

I think it’s no coincidence that the word “performative” was the first one that came to mind for me. Unschooling is often faced with such harsh criticism from uninformed non-unschoolers, and even legal difficulties in some places. When people first learn about unschooling, they don’t usually get an image of the type of lifestyle many of us have lived and are living. Instead, they see one of chaos and ignorance and maybe even neglect, You mean you don’t teach the kids anything?? How will they ever become productive members of society??

With that type of outside reaction, I suppose it’s unsurprising that the lives of teenage and especially grown unschoolers can get turned into performances of success, most clearly seen in what and who we choose to talk about. Individuals become not just themselves: uniquely flawed and skilled people with their own lives to lead, but results. A product of a pedagogy, instead of simply people who’ve lead a different lifestyle. We broaden the definition of success, yes, to include more varied options. But we still want it to look damn good.

I don’t think it’s a deliberate choice, or a deliberate ranking of some pursuits as more important than others, yet regardless of intentions, it can sometimes feel, as a grown unschooler, that you’re caughts between a dance of sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementary pressures to prove unschooling success in one way or another, whether that means more mainstream or counter-cultural narratives. And when none of those paths looks like one you want to take, it can feel really difficult.

My sister, Emilie is a musician, a martial artist, an amateur Arthurian scholar, and a writer of fantasy fiction. I think she’s pretty impressive, as does pretty much anyone who knows her. But unlike my own life and work, which I’ve chosen to share in a very public way, her pursuits are much quieter. She’s an excellent writer, but she only shares her writing with a select group of trusted friends. She’s very close to getting her black belt in Ninjutsu, and her teacher, who’s moving, wants Emilie to take over her class. Her accomplishments are real and important, but they’re not necessarily ones that receive much recognition outside of the specific groups in which she practices her skills.

She makes adorable plushies, too.

Many people, unschooled and not, lead quieter lives, with less outgoing passions. In holding up the unschoolers doing TED talks or getting into prestigious colleges as the pinnacle of unschooling success, I feel like we might just be missing an opportunity to discuss, and to truly embrace, a vision of truly unique life learning. If we mean it when we say that all interests are valid and important, then we must follow that belief through to it’s natural conclusion, which would be that all life paths, as long as they’re not harmful to others, are also equally valid, no matter how they might look to outsiders.

If we’re to do that, it seems that we need to be making a lot more space in discussions of success for people whose success doesn’t follow the most popular forms.

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