When we’re young, we dream of being superheros, firefighters, pilots, movie producers. We have our entire lives ahead of us, and the possibilities are endless. As we get ushered through school, we quickly learn that the path that we’re incidentally on doesn’t have much room for dreaming.

The path is this: make it to 12th grade, graduate, then pick a major from the list of options and go to college so you can get a job.

Throughout our entire lives, everyone around us is on the same path, doing the same things, working towards the same goal. On this path, we must pick one thing to be. Some of us can pick to be an engineer, some can pick to be a teacher, some can pick to be a therapist. We are discouraged from picking multiple things, even if we are interested in multiple things. It’s not realistic to be a writer who takes photographs, produces videos, and runs a soccer league on the side, because there is no specific track in school that teaches this.

“Realistic is the most common path to mediocrity.” Will Smith

Anyone who veers from the set path is perceived as a “failure” and a “dropout”. For this reason, it doesn’t seem like there are any options other than failure. And no child–rightfully so–wants to be perceived as a failure.

We learn a lot in school, but one thing we don’t learn is that we have the ability to choose something else. We don’t learn that if we are bored by a subject in school, it would be objectively better for our growth to ignore that subject and focus our energy on learning something that does naturally excite us.

We don’t learn that education is about genuine growth and challenging ourselves to be better. Education is not about how we are perceived by our GPA, extracurricular activities, standardized test scores, and volunteer hours. The scale is the same for everyone, because the goal is the same, and so is the path.

But people are not the same. Pick any two 22 year olds and ask them their ambitions, and it will be apparent that each human has their own individual agenda.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

In school, we receive positive feedback for being average. I’m not referring to the C average grading scale. I’m referring to the average modus operandi for a student. The one in which people strive to get ‘A’s, follow the curriculum, and do what they’re told so they can be seen as “above average”. Being average is being normal. This educational approach is the “average” way, since most people do it. For some people, being normal is good. For others, it is bad.

The opposite of average is exceptional. To be exceptional is to choose activities that make you feel alive, school or not. It is to let the growth of yourself drive your educational choices. Exceptional people put their own development above the grade system in school. They are not defiant to the grade system in school on principle, but they use it when they can for their benefit, only following the curriculum when it lines up with their own personal development goals.

In school, we receive negative feedback for doing things that are different.

Throughout high school, Neil Degrasse Tyson was very influential for me. I made it my mission to meet him one day and have a conversation with him. His objective mindset about the universe fascinated me and kept me up at night.

During college, I found out that he was coming to my school to speak. This was my chance. I got my tickets, then found out I had a calculus final exam during the talk. This final was worth something like 30% of my grade for the semester. I talked to my teacher about making up the exam and going to the talk. I thought surely they would be happy for me, since I was incredibly excited about the talk, and my exam could be rescheduled while the talk couldn’t.

He told me no. So I got in contact with the math department director, and made my case. Colleges brand themselves as the places where big ideas are talked about, and where people go to learn. Surely I couldn’t be the only one who saw that attending this talk was more beneficial for me skipping it to take the exam. I could easily take the exam a day early, people have done that before.

They would not budge. They told me that I would fail the class if I missed the final. It felt like I was being threatened for defying authority.

I skipped the talk and took my final.

The passive, victim mindset that had rewarded me with good grades in school for all my life took over. I got a 40% on the final and failed the class anyways because my mind was at the Tyson talk, engaging with big ideas about the universe and extraterrestrial life, and the importance of curiosity about the natural world.

Writing this gives me great remorse. I wish I could go back and tell the math department director to f*** off and get out of the way of my learning. Since when did educational institutions prioritize rules and structure above *education*? I felt baffled, powerless and utterly frustrated.

Now I know this has been the case far too long.

School kills creativity and enforces conformity. It is not the place people go to be exceptional and unique. School is where people go to be average and normal. They go to follow directions and sacrifice their own imaginative ambitions for a realistic track.

Do not let a system outside of yourself drive your education. Put your own interests, goals and passions in the driver’s seat, and you will live with no regrets.