Forget Grades, Break Rules, Build Things

I graduate from college in 2 months and I'm horrified.

Well, not really horrified, that's a bit of an exaggeration. It's a frustrating combination of excitement, nervousness, and anxiety balled up into one, conflicting emotion.

I'm excited because I'm applying to some awesome jobs that carry with them great opportunities. I'm laying down a path for my early adult life and starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I'm ready to explore, ready to see what the world has to offer and ready to see a return for all the hard work I've been putting in.

My anxiety, however, stems from the unknown. I can hear the buzz of a train in the distance, but have absolutely no idea where its going and how fast it will get here.

So, how did I get here?

In this essay, I'll share with you some things that I learned while on this journey.

Forget Grades

Academia pressures students into following the extrinsic motivation to achieve high grades. You work hard to get an A, the "A" on that paper feels good and you continue to chase that good feeling until you graduate.

I could never be motivated in that way.

In fact, the harder I pushed myself to get good grades, the less I enjoyed learning. I became frustrated with trying to impress my professors and my growing resentment of academic structure was becoming a barrier for me. School just wasn't fun for me anymore.

I did, however, develop a hobby that counter-acted this sentiment. Between classes, I would hang out in the library cherry picking through the stacks, reading whatever interested me or grabbed my attention.

Interior Design, Journalism, Architecture, Urban Planning, Computer Science, Wolfe, Vygotsky, Calvino... what began as checking one or two books out a week, turned into 10 to 20 books. I couldn't stop, everything was interesting to me except school.

This experience led me to better understand the engine that drives my intrinsic motivation to learn. It was also an eye-opening realization on the nature of the university grading system. I spent so much time at the library reading, that I forwent studying for my actual classes. The more I learned, the lower my grades became.

It was at this point when I stopped equating grades with learning. I maintained passing grades in my required classes, got great grades in electives that interested me, took on a few internships, and magically, school started becoming fun and exciting.

Break Rules

My favorite assignments in school were ones that were deceptively open. By that, I mean a project whose prompt carried with it a general direction, but weren't bounded by any specific restrictions.

I was given an assignment once where I had to draw a 'self-portrait' of myself. I handed in a drawing of a square (this is what happens when Josef Albers is your aesthetic hero).

I had another project where the task was to create the packaging for a doll. I brought in a box of sand with an action figure buried at the bottom, holding a slip of paper with a link to my portfolio. The package, I argued, was intended to be delivered to my freshman dorm 4 years ago. To truly find out who I was going to become, I needed to dig.

Okay, at least I tried, right?

Needless to say, "Self-Portrait as a Square" and the box of sand didn't go over so well. But, that's not to say I didn't learn. I found out first hand how difficult and uncomfortable it was to break the rules, but how satiating it was to try something new and risky. The same thrill I felt when stumbling upon an interesting book at the library, I had in submitting projects that could potentially fail me (luckily they never did).

Sure, there are times you need to play by the rules (scholarships, graduation requirements), but the byproduct of trying something new, at times, can far exceed the value of the grade.

Meet People, Build Things, Do Stuff

During the summer of my senior year, I had an existential crisis of sorts. Don't worry, I'm fine now, but at the time I was very conflicted.

I was writing my undergraduate thesis on web design, and how to use aspects of storytelling to create meaningful user-experiences. But at the time, I had never built a web application. This was a massive philosophical dilemma for me.

Who am I to write my thesis on web design when I've never made a web site? What does that say about me?

It just so happened that earlier in the year, I befriended a classmate of mine, who happened to be a web developer. We would meet from time to time and shot ideas back and forth of things we could build. We eventually decided to design and develop, from total scratch, a nifty web app called Showhaus, an open directory for local, independent music.

This experience of taking an idea and turning it into a reality gave me an immense amount of momentum to continue my thesis. Moreover, it gave me the confidence to actively pursue jobs in interaction design and say, "I'm a designer".

I also learned that part of the reason that kept me from making ideas happened was...myself. To break that wall, sometimes you need to find someone else, a partner-in-crime, to reassure your capabilities. You'd be surprised at how much more you can create with someone supporting you by your side.

Meet people, keep in touch, and don't let you get in the way of yourself.

If it Wasn't Challenging, It Probably Wasn't Worth it

All in all, you're in college (or grad school), to learn about yourself. Dig deep, put time aside to find out who you are and how you work because that's one thing academics won't do for you.

This is not easy.

Spend your college years pushing yourself, doing things that might make you feel uncomfortable. You'll eventually forget about the weird stuff that didn't work out, but at least you'll have the peace of mind in knowing that you did it.

In the end, these failures will most likely be drowned out by the one or two more spectacular things that you ended up doing, things that maybe wouldn't have come about if you hadn't gone through the experience of trying something new.

Luis Queral is a Design Intern at Figure 53