I write a lot about the benefits of unschooling that I’ve seen over the years for my children, so I thought it would be fun this month to switch it up and think about the benefits of unschooling for me. Parents definitely benefit as well!
We started unschooling in 2002, and looking back, one of the biggest changes in my worldview has been my definition of “success”. It’s so much bigger now. Moving to unschooling really challenged me to re-evaluate my life goals, both my personal ones and my parenting ones.
What makes a successful life?
Success is one of those words with layers (you choose, onion or parfait 😉 ). On the surface it’s about reaching our goals—certainly we’d all like to accomplish the things we set out to do. Yet underneath, it implies the attainment of wealth and social position. And deeper still, that the only goals worth actively pursuing are ones that result in one (or better, both) of those outcomes. When we buy into that perspective of success, it means that we quickly discard goals that don’t hold the promise of wealth at the end.
I grew up learning all the conventional, at least in North America, markers of success: a large home, fancy cars, name brand clothing, sunny vacations. And though it’s slowly changing, my experience is that this is still the dominant perspective. So for many, chasing success means choosing and accomplishing goals that result in the highest earnings attainable, which in turn allows them to purchase (sometimes through debt, against future anticipated earnings) those symbols of success. Certainly, some personal satisfaction is gained as those luxurious items meet, and often exceed, their needs, but I think there is also the satisfaction of showing others that they have “won”: competition is a significant part of the picture.
And school is all tied up in this conventional path to success: finding jobs with high earning potential typically means jobs that require additional schooling i.e. a college or university degree. And getting into college means a high school diploma, with higher and higher graduation marks needed as more students compete to get in. Of course, doing well in high school means spending grade school mastering the educational system i.e. getting good at taking tests. I bought that story. I lived that story.
But having children, and later considering unschooling, led me to question the repercussions of that path. I began to deeply wonder, does achieving conventional success lead to happiness? Because it didn’t take me long to realize that enjoying one’s time on this planet is definitely a worthwhile goal. That soon led me to distinguish between the fleeting happiness (distraction?) of being able to purchase new things and live very comfortably (is there meaning to life beyond being physically comfortable?) that would need to be continually fed (when is enough, enough?), and a more soulful contentment with one’s direction in life. A feeling of meaningful accomplishment, of having a positive impact on those around you. A sense of satisfaction that runs deeper than the ups and downs of day-to-day happenings.
Pondering that further, I came to see that rather than choosing goals specifically for their potential monetary success, it was more important that the goals a person is successfully accomplishing having meaning for them. And while the school path may more directly lead into pursuing conventional success, the unschooling path better encompasses the learning, both about themselves and the world, and encourages the mindset that leads to the pursuit of more personally fulfilling goals. How? With unschooling, the focus is on doing things that interest them, that bring them joy, on accomplishments that are much more likely to bring them personal satisfaction and a sense of meaningful achievement. Over and over.
Neither course precludes the other: I took the conventional path and here I am, living a decidedly unconventional life. And an unschooling childhood by no means prohibits one from achieving conventional-looking success (though it will most likely be done from a completely different perspective, simultaneously fulfilling their personal goals), no matter how often fear motivates strangers and relatives alike to proclaim that your unschooling children are doomed to work low-paying service jobs forever. And I had a hard time writing that because there’s nothing inherently wrong with choosing to work those jobs either, but I think you get my point.
For me, it’s come to be about personal choices. Maybe they are choosing a larger home because it gives the family room to spread out, space to pursue their projects, to find some needed privacy—those are all valuable, personal, meaningful reasons. Same with choosing a smaller home—it’s about the individuals involved. Same for fancy cars. Maybe it’s their passion, maybe they love restoration, maybe it’s about the high performance, maybe it’s about design. I’ve learned not to judge others’ choices just because they aren’t the same as mine. Because they aren’t mine. I’m not inside their heads, their thoughts and feelings and history, whatever brought them to this point in their lives.
The point is that, instead of placing societal expectations above their own desires, unschooled young adults are making choices—work, career, jobs, hobbies etc—based on their own interests and needs, which, through unschooling, they have gained lots of experience doing. Goals are an amalgamation of interests and dreams and personality and passions and circumstances. It’s about being successful at whatever they choose to pursue, rather than pursuing success in and of itself.
Pursuing success for its own sake is more often a hollow victory because it has no deeper meaning for the individual than the dollars, or the trophy. Satisfaction is short-lived and you’re back on the treadmill, needing another hit. It is the essence of external motivation, looking outside yourself for something to meet your need to feel successful. Whereas when you love what you’re doing, when you enjoy the work as well as the result, you discover a deep well of internal motivation. Deep and lasting satisfaction lives there. In that world, most days feel successful.
It’s so easy to dismiss the advice to find work that you truly enjoy, love even, as unrealistic. Most people don’t enjoy their job. Conventional school has trained most people to believe that work—and school is presented as work for children—is not fun. That’s what weekends are for. Even in the dictionary, work and fun are antonyms: opposites.
But with our unschooling experience, where we choose our activities and actively pursue things we enjoy, in other words, we regularly have fun—I’ve come to realize that not only do we learn better, we also perform better. Learning or doing, we find ourselves immersed “in the flow” of the activity more often.
I’ve come to see that when an opportunity presents itself, it really is okay, valuable even, to ask yourself if you think it will be fun to do. When it’s fun, you will enjoy it. You will, without feeling put upon or taken advantage of, put more effort into it. And when it feels like play, your mind will relax, open up, and slip into the flow, giving you more opportunity to make new and interesting connections: whether it’s a piece of art, a chunk of programming, or a business proposal. When it’s fun, there’s a better chance of spectacular results. Of success.
That’s my long-winded way of explaining how my definition of success grew beyond the conventional one, from a focus on attaining wealth and social position, to a focus on accomplishing whatever goals are meaningful to the individual. And it’s one of the most valuable insights I feel I have gained from moving to unschooling. 🙂