Off Road: Interviews with EA College Dropouts
The Offroad project has been working to both better understand, interface with, and treat Executive Dysfunction, and how to help EA college students struggling with it. You can read more about the project here, as well as the start of my overview and exploration of ED.
6 Minute read? TL;DR Please
Further distillation and generalization might make these insights seem trite, but I think it’s still worth emphasizing that to improve motivation and ability to decide what’s best for oneself, it helps to:
Be aware of alternative options.
Avoid unpleasant experiences.
Understand what you want and what it looks like.
Feel emotionally supported and seen.
A large part of the difficulty faced by those in college struggling with Executive Dysfunction is uncertainty along a number of axes. One of them is whether the “problem” lies within them—insufficient willpower, maybe, or poor study skills. Another is whether they’re in the wrong program, for example, or maybe something about college life itself, or specific class and grading structures, are unsuited to their personality.
The latter is how one of the Effective Altruists I interviewed who left college felt about his time in undergrad; after getting good grades in high school he found that college courses were not cognitively hard, but rather “distasteful” and “counter to dignity,” such as philosophy professors teaching their own books, or certain types of math being taught in a way that demotivated attendance and encouraged self-study.
Once his grades started dropping, his motivation did too, and so he switched colleges in the hopes that a better program would result in a better experience. When that didn’t help either, and he found more engaging material for free online, he decided college wasn’t for him and dropped out to pursue his own independent projects, which he believed would have a higher expected value for himself than continuing with his degree.
Another college dropout who found success beyond the university campus gave a similar story. “Knowing that being self taught is a viable path would have made the decision so much easier for me, and less emotionally fraught. It may not always be, of course, but for careers where that’s actually true, some guidance in how to be more self-directed while also learning how to seek mentorship would have been immensely helpful.”
Both of them cited a lack of emotional support for their decisions, which prolonged or exacerbated feelings of low self-esteem. Trying to brute-force their way through classes just led to faster burnout, even when it succeeded in high grades, and the contradiction between finding the material itself to be easy, but only being able to do it with enormous effort and cost, made any time they were unable to feel all the worse.
“I did still want to do research, which felt tied to academic life,” one remarked. “If I had someone to validate how useless much of school is, and help learning study habits for instrumental value, that might have gotten me through it.” But pleasing authority figures also felt anti-motivating, which added to his struggles.
“All I was interested in was physics, and my goal up until then was basically just to get to a high ranking university and demonstrate how smart I was. But once I got there I had no real idea of what my goal was, and the classes were very difficult, so I was struggling through most of them right up until the end, where I ran out of time.”
Yet again, pressure from parents and the lack of a sense for what other options there were made it hard for her to decide to quit on her own. Everyone she knew in college was similarly struggling, and it seemed those outside of college wouldn’t have understood.
“I knew a couple people who didn’t finish the same degree, and they ended up doing things that weren’t particularly interesting. I didn’t know anyone who dropped out because they wanted to do something else, or who ended up doing something cool after.”
She reported feeling oblivious to what her real motivations even were, having had no experience with introspection or talking to others about meaningful goals. “If I had more understanding of what I wanted, I would have either not gone or at least understood enough of why I was doing it to get through the difficult parts.”
Ultimately she’s glad she left university when she did, but said “I still have regrets about how it didn’t work out, given how valuable a degree can be, and am still uncertain if I will return to university at some point or not.”
There are a few things we can take away from this.
Each of the interviewees were unsure what their alternative options were; more broadly they were unsure whether they even had any alternatives. College seemed the only and obvious next step for them, so much so that finding the experience deep emotional difficult didn’t lead to them considering alternatives until months or years of struggle.
For those who have the skills to develop their own projects or create their own work, having more clear steps between being a college student and alternative career options could help make the decision easier, as could hearing stories from those who have taken their own path so that it’s easier to find potential similarities or differences in themselves.
Executive Dysfunction often manifests in context specific ways for many people, but often comes as a direct result of some aspect of their environment that feels “offensive” to some part of them. Doing work that doesn’t feel meaningful, or being taught material badly, drains their desire to engage, especially given that they can find other ways to fill their time more meaningfully. This is often an important signal for those struggling with a task they feel they “have” to do, while other forms of work are much easier to engage with and complete.
Getting external confirmation/validation that the bad parts are in fact bad can be helpful to pushing through them; feeling like the only one who feels that some aspect of the system is broken can drain will by making the individual feel at fault or unfit.
If someone lacks a clear understanding of what they’re working toward, or has not Introspected on their motivations and desires, they can find themselves in a confused or internally conflicted state over whether they should “push through” or “give up.”
Students developing a clearer sense of what success looks like, and what is considered a “reasonable” vs “unreasonable” struggle toward it, would likely make it easier for them to decide whether a particular endeavor is right for them.
Lack of emotional support, whether from family or friends or university staff, can also exacerbate the indecision period. This can be both due to expected condemnation or judgment if they leave, or lack of understanding of their true struggles if they continue.
Ensuring that students struggling have access to sufficient support can help both. This could be particularly difficult if college is seen as the only viable success path by those close to the student, such as parents or mentors in the field; it may actually be true for some career paths that are more tied to regulated certification.
These points are often worded as if college students are the only group to whom these points apply, but I believe anyone struggling with executive function or “motivation” in any context would find the above points valuable to them.