I remember talking with the head of the Computer Science department five years ago. I was stuck with a prerequisite that was going to extend my time in college by a whole year.

The class was on databases, and I felt I had a good understanding of the topic already. I had worked for several years in software, and knew much of the material that would be covered in the class.

I asked the professor if it would be possible not to skip the class, but simply to wave the prerequisite requirement so I could graduate on time. He said no.

“You know, Kevin, an undergraduate degree isn’t the right choice for everyone.”

I was three years into my degree at that point, and it was infuriated to hear that kind of dismissal. I took the class anyway.

On the first day, the teacher came in and threw up a PowerPoint presentation. In the bottom corner was the text:

I don’t have a degree.


I was not a good college student

I love learning. I was a voracious reader as a kid; I got good grades; I tested well. I like to think of myself as pretty good at the whole “self-guided education” thing. I’m the type of weirdo that browses MIT OpenCourseWare for fun.

But I was a horrible college student. I was severely depressed, and I was an alcoholic. Not the “frat party” kind of alcoholic. The polishing-off-a-750ml-bottle-of-Jack-Daniels-every-night kind of alcoholic.

I did well on my tests; I didn’t do the homework; and there were definitely classes I didn’t attend more than twice.

The biggest problem for me was one of ego. I thought I was smarter than many of my professors. I felt that they were deliberately rationing out material over the course of a semester that could be easily handled in a few weeks. I resented the course structure that felt like a complete waste of time.

I wasn’t entirely wrong. But that attitude wasn’t going to help.

We have a broken college system

College moves at a predictable pace. We set up material that the average student can manage in a semester, amidst a lot of partying and drunken nights out. This makes things easier to standardize, but for those who want to advance at their own pace, it’s a nightmare.

Let’s top that off with the fact that the costs of post-secondary education have skyrocketed, while the financial value has decreased.

(yes, yes, college is about “life experience” and “finding yourself”. You can’t measure its value based on employment! But I would submit to you that there are “life experience” options that are available for significantly less that $30k a year)

Let’s also keep in mind that we’ve been telling sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds that college is critical, and encouraging them to adopt staggering amounts of debt, while providing no financial education.

High school students are told to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt, when they’re least equipped to make that decision!

So who needs a degree?

So I cut and ran. I worked hard as a student employee in software, build open-source libraries, and did some contracting work. I skipped classes for a week to go to a developer conference in San Francisco and networked with other professionals.

For my efforts, I was offered a job working remotely that boasted a higher salary than my university’s average graduate. In your face, college!

I continued to develop my skills and learn on my own, and I’ve had a very successful career thus far. I’ve moved to New York, I work for Mashable, and it’s the greatest job I could ever ask for.

But I don’t have a degree.

And there’s a part of me that regrets that. There’s a part that worries it’ll eventually provide a ceiling to my career growth. I’m in a field that’s relatively friendly to us “or equivalent experience” folks, but there may be a limit.

I’d like to think I’m finally mature enough to understand the value of a formal education. It’s flawed, and there’s a lot of procedure that may be a waste of time. But there’s also access to a wealth of knowledge and direction that you might not get with self-guided education. The ability to have someone tell you “you probably ought to learn X” has immense value.

This would be the perfect time for me to go to college. I’ve learned some discipline. I’ve gotten over (most) of my emotional hangups. I want to learn, and I want to gain what I can from a degree program.

I would love to live in a world where college was something we all put off until our mid-twenties.

But unless I was willing to quit my day job, going back didn’t feel like a possibility.

The new wave of education

I’m going back to school — in a weird and exciting way. I recently applied to UW Flexible Option. The premise of this program is online education that’s not based on huge amounts of coursework. It’s based on competencies.

If you already know the material: great! You pass!

The idea here is to provide an opportunity for folks to apply their existing skills and knowledge toward an accredited degree. It’s comparatively cheap, it’s flexible, and it’s smart. The idea that we have the opportunity now to pursue a degree on our own terms is, frankly, amazing. And I want to be a part of that.

Shut up and take my money!

I’m the type of person that goes out of my way to use the “automated checkout system” in stores. Sometimes it takes longer, or is a bit of pain. But I like the idea, and I like to imagine some marketing exec pouring over the numbers and deciding “We need to invest more into automated checkouts! People love this!”

I want post-secondary education to be more like this.

It may turn out that having a degree won’t matter for my personal career.

But I want there to be a system where people can learn on their own terms, and receive tangible credit for it.

I want us to be able to decouple learning and expertise.

I want us to build a road, but not the roadblocks.

I want educators to say “We need to invest more into this!”

And at the very least, I can get that stupid piece of paper.

Yesterday, it was announced that the U.S. Supreme Court had affirmed the right of Hobby Lobby to deny insurance coverage to its employees for Plan B and Intrauterine Devices, on the grounds that compelling the company to provide those services violated its owners’ religious freedom.

Let’s bypass a religious discussion, shall we?

I’m not interested in having a religious discussion, nor a discussion about what consistutes abortion, nor a discussion of a woman’s right to choose. If you’re looking for a flamewar on those topics, there are fields and fields of internet for you to battle over. I’m interested in something that I hadn’t realized prior to this case:

The Affordable Care Act mandates that women’s preventative health care (including contraception) must be made available without cost-sharing (i.e. no copays, deductibles, etc). [source]

This no-cost-sharing policy confuses me. I’m certainly all for providing coverage for women’s preventative care — mamograms, HPV testing, and yes, birth control. But prohibiting a copay on these treatments, when the requirement is not extended to other preventative health care, seems to be a confusion of values.

What do we want to cover?

It seems to me that social legislation, in its best form, should reflect our social values. I’m aware that legislation rarely gets passed without yielding a bit to third-party interests, but let’s be idealistic for a second:

Let’s say that we have decided we want to provide health care to our citizens. Note: “we”, not “the government” should. Even if it’s via employer mandates rather than taxes, we’re all risking our own earning potential when we elect to pass these laws.

Now, we can decide what treatments we want to favor: whether we want to incentivize preventative care, to reduce costly treatments down the road. Maybe we want to provide entirely free care to victims of sexual assault. Perhaps we want to ensure we offer the best care to children, so that they’re in the best of health when they enter the working world.

Here’s a big one for me: let’s provide the best incentives to the people with conditions outside of their control.

I have epilepsy, so ignore me…

I’m absolutely partisan in this discussion. But I have a chronic condition for which there is no cure. I will be on medication likely for the rest of my life, and I am paying prescription and neurologist copays out of my own pocket. I can’t drive, and that limits where I’m able to live while maintaining a good quality of life.

I’m fortunate in that I can take a generic drug, with a small copay. And the seizures that I have — while they prevent me from working, or even really getting out of bed for a few days — only happen about every two years. I’m fortunate to have a good job that allows me to work from home when necessary, and provides me with sufficient pay to treat my condition.

There are many people who aren’t so lucky. Chronic conditions like epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, hypothyroidism… these are all conditions that are non-preventable. And treament/management can range wildly in cost. These are not copay-free treatments; Plan B is.

So why sex?

When we provide birth control without a copay, we are giving it favored status over other types of care. It’s true that birth control can be used to treat hormonal problems, like polycyctic ovary syndrome. It’s also used to treat acne. And, perhaps most commonly, it’s used for recreational sex.

If we’ve really decided that it’s more important to subsidize recreational sex than treat chronic conditions, then I guess that’s fine.

If only there were an abstinence option for seizures.

I haven’t worn glasses in over two years. My eyesight hasn’t gotten better. I just sorta stopped wearing them.

It was an easy enough decision to make. When I wore glasses, I always found myself taking them off when sitting at a computer or having a conversation with someone. This of course meant that I was leaving them behind all the time — at restaurants, at my desk, anywhere. Eventually, my frames snapped, and I just didn’t bother to get them replaced. I mean, is this really a fun way to live?

Over the last few years, my vision has gotten a little worse. I’ve found myself zooming in on webpages rather than bothering to get a prescription. The image above is exaggerated; I have a relatively low prescription, but it’s enough to be a minor annoyance. But it wasn’t enough for me to actually deal with the problem.

The Little Irks and Quirks

I suspect we all have little things like this — annoyances that could be fixed with a little effort. If we just picked a “laundry day”, rather than waiting until the hamper was overflowing, life would be easier. Keep the floor clean, so we’re not tripping over stuff in the night! Dare I say it: we could even consider washing pots and pans immediately after cooking!

They’re all minor things, and yes, those are all examples of things I don’t do. But my quality of life isn’t impaired by not developing any of these good habits. Trouble is, it can be really easy to lull yourself into more and more bad habits as time goes on.

Until it’s a mountain!

Stack up enough of these minor inconveniences and you can find yourself struggling to get out of bed. Sometimes putting in a little bit of effort to improve your day-to-day can really pay off. So I walked up to Chinatown yesterday and got myself a contact lens prescription. I haven’t really worn contacts before, but suddenly I can see stuff again.

(I’m going to leave out the part about “owwwww my eyes are not used to this why is everything so blurry wait where did the lens go where is it where is it seriously” because I don’t think that necessarily supports my point)

What are the little quality-of-life changes you’ve been putting off? Something you can take a crack at?

You know what would really help me write this post? A good cup of coffee. Let me go ahead and brew a pot real quick. Then, I’ll probably do some freewriting, so that I’m more “in the zone.” I don’t want this post to come off as rambly, so I should probably get that out of my system. And actually, maybe I should write a quick outline for this post first. Then I’ll be sure I can really nail it.

Or Maybe I Could Just Do It

This is an unhealthy condition that I’m going to title “fauxductivity.” Mostly because wordventions are the sign of a true thoughtrepreneur.

Alright, but seriously.

I talked a bit earlier this week about an idea that I had for a video series, which I’ve codenamed Project Greenfield. I talked about my uncertainty as to how to move forward. Whether I should spend time trying to write character bios, or whether I need an outline.

I spent hours questioning whether or not I could use a narrator. I had an idea for what he could say, but I didn’t know whether a narrator would fit the feel of the story. So maybe I need to read up more on the genre, so I can make my stuff fit better in that sphere, …

This is the Horror of Fauxductivity

It’s possible to spend hours, days, even years working on “the thing that will help you do the thing you want to do.” Maybe you’ve been saving up money so you can buy a super-fancy camera, because then you can start making videos. Maybe you’re waiting to get through school, so then you can start working on your novel.

Most of the time, these barriers are artificial.

Will these things help? Yeah. Probably. Having a lifetime of experience and knowledge is likely a useful tool for just about anything you want to do. But they’re addons, not barriers. Usually you’re going to be far better off if you dip your toe in the water of what you enjoy first, and work on improving it second.

You don’t need to wait for conditions to be perfect before you get started on something. It’s far too easy to get so wrapped up in being fauxductive, that by the time you really feel ready (and you never will), you’ll have forgotten what you were so excited about in the first place.

I started writing a script…

I’m about six pages in.

It has a narrator.

The narrator doesn’t work.

I’ll get rid of him when I write a second draft.

I know more now about the story now than I ever did.

And the next draft will be even better.

What are your barriers? Are you being fauxductive?

This is a bit of an embarassing statement, but I’ve stopped reading fiction.

When I was growing up, I was a voracious reader. I sped my way through so many Hardy Boys books (certainly over 200 of ‘em); I gobbled up biographies. But I think my true love had to be Star Wars fiction. I can’t tell you how much of my brain is storing pages and pages of Star Wars canon that J.J. Abrams is about to invalidate. But we’re getting off topic…

I find myself listening to audiobooks far more often than I crack open a real-live…well, Kindle. But I’ve made my peace with that. As a programmer who stares at words for ten to twelve hours a day, I think I’m entitled to relax and close my eyes for a bit while I read.

As long as I’m avoiding abridged versions, it’s not too hedonistic, right?

Am I Getting Old?

I’ve noticed myself curling up and listening to personal finance books. To memoirs. To self-improvement texts (and if you’ve ever delved into the SI genre, you know this is a pretty masochistic tendency. So many of them are awful!).

Non-fiction is something that’s not typically targeted toward children. I’ve never come across One Fish, One-point-two-five Fish, Compounded Annually, or The Zen Guide to Tummy Time. I suppose Bossypants has some appeal to teens, but I think we can all agree that Tina Fey is the immaculate exception to every rule.

But I do find myself wondering if my tastes in books have simply matured. Whereas I now consider coffee to be one of the basic food groups, as a kid I found it bitter and dry. Is my literary taste similarly evolving? Is non-fiction the literary equivalent of the broccoli I rejected as a child?

What About Movies?

In complete contrast with my trend toward non-fiction, I still can’t quite dig in to documentaries. I enjoy them from time-to-time, but I’d much rather sit back and watch Walter White subtlely indicate his transformation.

This irks me a bit. Am I perhaps becoming less empathetic? That I can only really appreciate fictional characters on the screen, rather than on the page?

I’m not so sure. One of the things I adore about film and television is the subtlety of well-portrayed characters. While a narrator can tell us “Jim is upset,” it’s virtually impossible to oversimplify in this manner when we see a character furrow his brow, bite his tongue, then shrug it off and offer a semi-convincing smile.

Perhaps the absence of a narrator on a screen forces us to imagine characters complexly. Or, more likely, I’ve lost a bit of my childhood imagination.