During my freshman year, whenever someone would ask me what I wanted out of college, I would respond, “a reason to drop out.”
- Looking for a Reason to Drop Out
- Changing My Mindset
Looking for a Reason to Drop Out
I think my desire to drop out was genuine but not rooted in the best reasons. I had been frustrated with school for a while because I felt like I wasn’t learning anything useful in my classes. Math was a drag, Literature was painful since no one else wanted to be there, and Physics was beginning to feel uninteresting because I impatiently wanted to work on an actual pressing problem. Only my writing class felt worth it. But how could I convince myself that improving my writing abilities merited $80,000 of tuition and 30-50 hours per week of my time? College seemed like a waste of time and money.
After internalizing the opportunity cost of school, I tried to self-study topics that could help me do good. I wanted to find projects I loved so enthusiastically that I didn’t need college to pursue them. Most of all, I wanted to work on something that could actually make the world a better place. I cared (and still care) a whole lot about improving the welfare of the 100+ billion animals living in hellish conditions in factory farms. I felt boxed in by school and incapable of doing any meaningful animal welfare work. How many factory-farmed animals could have been saved by my college tuition? How much time studying for classes could be better spent working at an effective animal organization?
My enthusiasm for the cause soon morphed into anger. While hanging out with my aesthetically enamored physics and math friends, I often couldn’t help but think, “Who cares about the beauty of physics when there are millions dying of malaria? Who cares about elegant math equations when there are billions of animals brutalized in factory farms?” I felt debilitated by how much I cared and how little I could do.
Telling my peers I wanted to drop out to do some real work sounded poetic. As soon as someone heard I was thinking about this, they’d put me on a Zuckerberg-Gates pedestal. I couldn’t believe how much respect and social capital was gaining. And I liked the feeling of having a plan to actualize my cause prioritization in the near future. Unfortunately, my relationship with college and coursework quickly became unhealthy.
Changing My Mindset
I might take a gap year, but I most certainly won’t be dropping out. I no longer loath classes. Some of the reasons I think my attitude has changed include:
Stepping Back from the Effective Altruism Community
I left the Effective Altruism (EA) community, which has alleviated my stress about overoptimizing my life and studies. In general, I think the EA community succeeds at encouraging young people to pursue ambitious, highly impactful projects. However, the push to work harder can be an infinite regress and feel overwhelming. I’ve often felt like I wasn’t doing enough. Given the example of several agentic EA friends, I accepted that dropping out of college (or taking an indefinite gap year) was the minimum bar for doing good. Doing less wasn’t an option.
I’m very happy with my level of ambition now. Although the pressure from EA felt overwhelming at times, I still believe it is generally good, genuinely well-intentioned, and not necessarily stressful for everyone. EA empowered me to become more ambitious and agentic in a way no other peer group has. And I think this is an awesome thing.
Reexamining My Relationship with Utilitarianism
I don’t feel as strongly towards utilitarianism anymore; I don’t feel like I ought to do whatever it takes to maximize utility anymore. Last year, I had a conversation with someone at EAG DC about detaching from my desires and how I was considering trying to become aromantic so I could become a better impact generator (I’m not even sure if it’s possible to become aromantic, but the fact that I considered it is telling of my unhealthy commitment to maximizing utility). I became less of a utility maximizer after reading J.C. Smart’s Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism and posts on the EA forum about moral demandingness and prudent utilitarianism. However, I was still devoted to utilitarianism, feeling a looming (sometimes crippling) sense of always being in triage. Reexamining my metaethics finally disabused me of my unhealthy utility maximization.
I have always claimed to be a moral anti-realist (there exist no objective moral facts), but I doubt I ever fully internalized what moral anti-realism meant to me psychologically. I felt the inward pressure of utilitarianism, yet I outwardly told people I didn’t believe in morality. How could I reject morality yet still feel its overwhelming demandingness? Why did these “ought statements” have so much influence over me even as I denied their existence? Last month, I finally decided to attempt to resolve these questions by reading Alexander Miller’s An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics. In the textbook, I came across Simon Blackburn’s notion of the Schizoid Attitude. Blackburn writes,
[People] have a schizoid attitude to their own moral commitments. Essentially, one is holding true to their morals while holding that those morals are ungrounded.
Reading about the schizoid attitude loosened the pressures of utilitarianism and helped me eliminate my incongruous moral demands. The bizarreness of utility-maximizing behavior no longer seems compelling. I still feel the moral force of intuitively good things, such as holding the door for people, donating a fraction of my income, and choosing an impactful career, but counterintuitive demands such as workaholism, becoming aromantic, limiting my time with friends, and extreme frugality etc. no longer hold sway over me. Recognizing my schizoid attitude towards ethics helped me release myself from the grips of utilitarianism.
As I moved out of a maximizing framework, I became more tolerant. I no longer feel (as) outraged when people eat meat (this could be due to other reasons. I imagine that new vegans are overzealous about converting all their friends, but over time they inevitably become less passionate because meat consumption begins to feel normal, albeit abhorrent), and I no longer get upset with my friends who care about the aesthetics of mathematics and physics.
I’m honestly excited about the coming school year. I’ve been more careful this year to choose classes that I will enjoy. Although I still have a romantic picture of what dropping out would be like, I no longer feel like I have to. I think I finally know what I actually want out of college.
I want to learn. I want to learn what I want to learn. And I think college might help me learn what I want to learn!