How a Lack of Choice Inhibits Success

UPDATED: October 19, 2017
PUBLISHED: October 19, 2017

I was technically an adult when I graduated high school and entered college, but I didn’t feel much like one. After years sitting behind a desk, having to ask permission to do just about anything, I felt directionless. I’d never had autonomy over my own education. I was clueless what to do with it. I attended a big university—my options were endless. But instead of buckling down, I perfected the art of drinking without dying and fell deeper into confusion about what I would do with the rest of my life. I squandered my college years partying instead of studying. By the time college was over, it took several more years (and a lot of trial and error) before finding my passion.

It seems irresponsible to take so long to figure out your life’s path, but it’s not all that uncommon. As a mother in my 30s, I know dozens of college grads who erratically change jobs, are underemployed or still searching. A 2016 LinkedIn study found that millennials change jobs far more than their parents, averaging four job changes by 32. I know straight-A students who are waiting tables, working temp jobs or who have moved back to their childhood homes. In fact, living in your parent’s basement, figuring out what to do with your life post-college is almost anticipated these days. The trend seems to be getting worse for younger college grads.

Related: If You’re Searching for Purpose, Ask Yourself These 5 Questions

Last year Fortune published an article titled, “OMG, Young Millennials Are the Job Market’s Biggest Losers” about the so-called inexplicable epidemic of individuals ages 20 to 24 struggling for work, regardless of the economic recovery. Society routinely attributes this epidemic to millennials being entitled and well, lazy. But what if our education system is partially to blame for all of the time spent exploring (or, uh, floundering) through the young adult years? Because if we didn’t have time to flounder when we were young—to make our own choices, experiment or even fail—for many, it’s bound to happen eventually.


Preparing kids for the future now starts much earlier. But I couldn’t help but wonder if it was doing the opposite of its intended goal.


Today there’s even less freedom of choice in our public schools than when I was a student. When my daughter went to kindergarten a year ago, I quickly learned this truth. There was barely time for recess or socialization for 5-year-olds, let alone games, naps or learning through play. Even in the youngest year of public school, there was almost no time for exploration at all. A recent study from the University of Virginia confirms the increase in early academics and decrease in play time to be drastic. The new common core standards—a response to the No Child Left Behind act—and heavy testing means there simply isn’t time for skimping on schoolwork at any age, no matter the consequences, which to my own family felt severe.

My own child quickly felt the pressure of modern-day schooling. She was expected to sit still for most of the day. She got in trouble for twirling her hair or moving her legs out of “crisscross applesauce” position. She hated school and often complained of being bored, tired or frustrated at day’s end. And if eight hours of school work weren’t enough for a kindergartener, she brought homework each night that she was expected to complete. Preparing kids for the future now starts much earlier. But I couldn’t help but wonder if it was doing the opposite of its intended goal.

Related: How to Make Sure Your Children Become More Successful Than You

Brooke Armstrong, a staff member at the Sudbury School of Arts and Ideas in Baltimore, a nontraditional education model that emphasizes a child’s autonomy of learning, believes it is. While studying elementary and middle school education at the University of Delaware, Armstrong says she became aware of the atrocities taking place in education. It nearly drove her to change career directions when a professor introduced her to the Sudbury model, which she says “made sense in a fundamental way. The radical idea of recognizing children as complete, valuable human beings and trusting them to figure out their own education on their own terms answered all the uneasiness I was feeling about traditional education.”

In Sudbury schools around the globe, (there are about 60) there is no curriculum. Children ages 5 through 18 decide how to spend their day, from climbing trees, to reading books, to studying for the SATs or even playing computer games. They also have the power to vote on how the school is run. In fact, they have just as much power and authority as the staff. To some, the model might seem extreme, even irresponsible. Armstrong says autonomy should not be diminished—it’s the foundation of every life skill. She believes the freedom serves children by building confidence, allowing them to discover their passions and practice being an adult—skills that are absent in traditional education.

Related: 4 Stages for Building Grit in Your Children

“Autonomy is a basic human right that children are stripped of in school,” she says. “Convicted criminals have more autonomy throughout their day than kids do. It’s so damaging because it drills in the belief that the child is not capable, and that they shouldn’t trust themselves. Their thoughts and feelings and opinions and decisions are all questionable and in need of validation from some outside authority. How can we expect a person in conditions like that to grow into a thoughtful, capable, engaged adult?”


It’s not that academics aren’t important. It’s a competitive world. But perhaps choice is equally important.


Perhaps we can’t. Because it’s true that today’s young adults seem paralyzed. They’ve spent so much time thinking inside the box, they’re terrified to step out of it. Although we imagine competitive modern schooling to be the path to get ahead in life, perhaps it’s the naturally rebellious ones—or at least those who’ve had more experience making their own choices—who are better off in the long run. Because when it comes time to cut the cord, they’ve already been breathing on their own for a while.

It’s not that academics aren’t important. It’s a competitive world. But perhaps choice is equally important. After all, most successful individuals are masters of their domain. They aren’t experts in everything, just their area of interest. So it’s hard to believe that an atmosphere stripped of personal choice until the age of 18 leads to engaged learners or successful people later on. Motivation and freethinking are essential skills. But the space for choice is slim to none.

As for the future generation, we might just be raising the best bunch of desk-sitters and test-takers there ever were. But life doesn’t happen on paper. The biggest question of all is what comes next. How many of them will have the answer?

Related: 7 Things You Need to Do to Be a Functional Adult

Sarah Bregel is a writer and mother based in Baltimore. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Headspace, Babble, Parents, Good Housekeeping, Vice, Vox, The Establishment and more. Find her on Facebook to keep up with her work.