When dropping out doesn't mean screwing up

Wed, Oct 21, 2009, 01:00

You spend months choosing a course, long nights studying – and then you drop out. JANE RUFFINOon those who found success after quitting college

PICK THE odd man out: Steve Jobs, Walter Cronkite, “The Dude”, and Bill Gates.

Gates dropped out of Harvard but went on to become the world’s richest man. Cronkite left college when offered a job as a journalist and become the most important voice in America, and Apple founder Steve Jobs didn’t complete even one year of his degree but has done pretty well since.

The Dude, White Russian-swilling (also, fictional) sofa-warmer from The Big Lebowski, is the only one who never dropped out of college.

Most of us won’t be household names, or indeed have the means or brass neck to be professional lay-abouts. While we venerate climbers and applaud the success of the award-hoarders, the reality is, some of the happiest, most curious people take alternate routes to success.

Nathan Gordon packed in a funded archaeology PhD in UCD to pursue acting. “I was never going to be a brilliant figure in it. I felt like I was blagging it. With drama, I felt like I was being truer to a bigger part of myself,” he says.

So he wrote grateful letters of goodbye to the school of archaeology, then signed on the dole for the first time in his life, before taking a job in a gift shop. He saw the PhD as part of the process of working out who he was. “I don’t regret it.” He was soon cast in the role of Duncan on RTÉ’s Fair City. “My god, it was humiliating how bad I was, and how much I had to learn about acting for the camera.”

What Nathan Gordon had was breathing space, and RTÉ current affairs presenter Mark Little sees it as a positive element of the boom. It doesn’t have to disappear with the jobs market.

“The boom gave people a bit of space,” Little says. “More students take time off to travel.” Little never finished his journalism Master’s. “I knew what I wanted to do from age 11,” he says. “I wanted to be a war correspondent or a centre-forward for Liverpool.”

He spent five years at Trinity. “I would go into a course and be very interested and talk a lot, and then break the heart of the lecturer by getting the worst result possible. It’s not that I wasn’t interested; I was just focused on other things.” Namely, student politics and journalism, honing the people-skills that have helped him at least as much.

After graduation, he began the journalism MA at Dublin City University. “I never did the thesis,” he says. “I still feel guilty about it.” Mostly he regrets letting down lecturers he admired.

“To me it was a means to an end,” he says, “and the end came along in the form of a job at the Sunday Business Post.”

In some ways, Little credits his fulfilling career path to perennial underachievement. “Overachievers attach such importance to external verification,” he says. “Someone who bumps along the bottom – you develop a thick skin. People who are task-oriented don’t take failure as a personal affront.”

Mary Kate Geraghty left her course in medicinal chemistry at Trinity before the end of first year. She wanted to make a go at her band, Fight Like Apes, so she became one of the, on average, 20 per cent of science and technology students who do not progress to second year. “I think it’s preferable to get your degree and then do it, but we really didn’t want to be in college and wanted an excuse to leave.”

Music interested her more, and a European tour and successful album have followed, but she doesn’t consider her education finished. “I’d love to do history and politics, and make a living off the band. Or something in business, so if the band didn’t go well I could still stay involved.”

Prof Kathleen Lynch, of the UCD school of social justice, also cites this fear of failure. “It drives young people to believe that they have no value except in terms of success based on some really narrow terms.”

It discourages imagination, rewards convention, and encourages a workaholic culture. Besides, she adds, “Some of the most tediously boring people have perfect careers.”

Much of it is a result of a growing societal pressure. “There is this competitive culture that emerged, particularly in the boom years,” says Prof Sarah Moore, dean of teaching and learning at University of Limerick and chair of the Inter-University Retention Network.

“It’s been all about bigger and better, and excelling according to a schedule. There are different rhythms to success,” she adds. “We need to reconceptualise our notion of what success means and how it’s measured.”

Sometimes it’s just a skipped step along a conventional pathway. “Retention has been going down over the last few years, but it can be misleading to look at raw figures,” Moore says, “because we don’t always know how those people re-engaged with higher education.”

They usually do, even if not immediately. “There are skills needs within society and the economy,” she says, “But that has to be balanced with people’s own hopes and dreams.”

Gordon learned new things, too. He called himself an actor, but felt a little fraudulent, since he hadn’t had any paid work. But why? “While I was working in the gift shop, I was really irritated by the question, ‘What do you do?’ – by how we define each other by our jobs. Do you measure how right something is for you by how good you are at it? I don’t think that’s true.”

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT Turn on, tune in, drop out


Didn’t finish: Medicinal chemistry in Trinity College Dublin.

Did: Most of first year.

Since leaving college: Her band, Fight Like Apes, released a two-CD album, Fight Like Apesand the Mystery of the Golden Medallion. Also nominated for a Choice Music Prize.

Currently: Working on a new album.


Didn’t finish: PhD in the archaeology of the urban funerary landscape of 18th- and 19th-century Dublin.

Did: One year of PhD.

Since leaving college: Theatre work with Victor Feldman and Painted Filly.

Currently: Playing Don Juan in Don Juan in Hellat the Limerick Theatre Hub and Belltable Arts Centre; television role as Duncan on Fair City


Didn’t finish: MA in Journalism, DCU.

Did: BA in Trinity (Students’ Union president).

Since college: Sunday Business Post, RTÉ reporter, foreign correspondent (2001 TV Journalist of the Year), author of three books.

Currently: Co-Anchor of RTE’s Prime Time.