Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

Survey of Grown Unschoolers III: Pursuing Careers

When people opt out of K-12 schooling, what sorts of careers do they go on to?

This is the third in a series of four posts describing the results of a survey of grown unschoolers that my colleague Gina Riley and I recently conducted.  It is about the career choices of these people, who skipped all or part of K-12 and took charge of their own education.  In brief, we found that most of them have gone on to careers that are extensions of interests and passions they developed in childhood play; most have chosen careers that are meaningful, exciting, and joyful to them over careers that are potentially more lucrative; a high percentage have pursued careers in the creative arts; and quite a few (including 50% of the men) have pursued STEM careers.  The great majority of them have pursued careers in which they are their own bosses.

Before reading on, I suggest that you look back at the first post in this series, if you haven’t already read it. It presents the definition of unschooling that served as a criterion for admission into the study, describes our survey method and ways of analyzing the findings, presents age- and gender-breakdowns of the 75 grown unschoolers who responded and met the criteria, classifies them into three groups based on amount of unschooling, and presents a breakdown of some of the statistical findings according to those groups.

You might also want to look back at the second post in the series, which focuses on the college experiences of the 33 respondents who chose to pursue a bachelor’s degree or higher. It describes how they got into college without a standard high-school diploma or transcript and how they adapted, academically and socially, once there.

Now, in this third post in the series, I elaborate—beyond the statistical summary presented in the first post—on the careers that these generally young adults (median age 24) have pursued. The information discussed here came primarily from Question 4 of the survey, which read, “Are you currently employed? If so, what do you do? Does your current employment match any interests/activities you had as an unschooled child/teen? If so, please explain. Further information also came from a brief follow-up questionnaire in which we asked them to list and describe the paying jobs they had held, to indicate whether or not they earned enough to support themselves, and to describe any career aspirations they currently had in mind.  As noted in the first post, the great majority were gainfully employed and were supporting themselves, despite the difficult economic time in which the survey was conducted.  Now, I turn to the general conclusions about the types of jobs and careers they have pursued.

 They chose careers that are extensions of their childhood interests.

 By our coding, 58 (77%) of the participants described a clear relationship between their childhood interests and activities and their current vocation or career.  This percentage was highest for the 24 participants in the always-unschooled group (21/24 = 88%), but was high in the other two groups as well (see the table in the first post in this series).  The sample included professional artists and musicians who had played at art or music as children; computer technicians and programmers who had developed their skills in childhood play; and outdoor enthusiasts who had found ways to make a living that embraced their love of nature.

Here are three examples that are among my favorites—favorites because they are the kinds of careers that school curricula ignore, careers that can strike the fancy of brave young people not in school, who have time and freedom to follow their dreams.

 • Becoming a circus performer, starting a circus, and then becoming a tall-ship bosun.  One of our respondents, a 26-year-old woman who had always been unschooled, wrote:

At the age of 3, I decide to become a circus performer, and at the age of 5 I enrolled in an after-school circus program.  I trained and performed as a circus performer continuously until the age of 17 and on-and-off ever since. From the ages of 19 to 24, my best friend and I ran our own contemporary circus company. As a result of that, I overcame a strong fear of heights to work as a trapeze artist and learned a considerable amount about rigging so that I would be able to ensure my own safety in the air.

As my circus career has waned, I've tried a number of new things and the one that caught my full attention has been tall ship sailing. Working on the ocean is a very captivating experience and it employs the skills that I learned in the circus nearly every single day - skills like balance, hand-eye coordination, and even getting along with people in cramped living arrangements.

I am currently employed as a tall-ship rigger/bosun. …The job of bosun can change from ship to ship, but aboard training vessels my work involves maintenance as well as training and sailing. I am in charge of inspecting, maintaining and fixing the rigging, the sails, the deck and the hull. Additionally I am expected to be involved in sailing the vessel, leading a watch during extended periods at sea, educating the public about the history of the vessels and educating the trainees about sail handling and vessel maintenance.

I would like to sail and drive large sailing vessels around the world. I am currently studying for a 100T master's license from the US Coast Guard that would allow me to be the captain of a vessel of 100 gross tonnes or less. USCG license are graduated by size of vessel and area of operation so this is the first step towards a license for a larger vessel.

Wilderness aerial photographer.  This 21-year-old young man, who left school after first grade, had started a business of taking beautiful (I can say that, because I saw some of them) artistic photos of wilderness scenes from the air.  He wrote:  “Growing up with so much freedom was awesome! I did lots of outdoor activities including skiing in the winter and hiking/camping in the summer.  If I hadn't done it this way, I'm not sure I would have been able to combine the three things I really enjoy--outdoors, flying, and photography--into a business.” He wrote further that he started his own photography business when he was 15 years old and also, that same year, started paragliding.  The paragliding led to an interest in flying fixed-wing aircraft, and then he combined all three of his passions into a single business.

Assistant (beginning at age 18) to a famous movie director, producer, and screenwriter.  This young man, who was 20 years old when he responded to the survey, was unschooled except for kindergarten and 9th grade (he went to school that one year to “try it out”—he made honor roll and then left).  His passion for film started early.  By age 11 he was making YouTube videos with friends. He began taking community college courses in mass communication at age 16, and, at age 18, was in the process of applying to film school when a great opportunity arose—to be a local production assistant on a major film that was being produced where he lived.  His bosses liked him so much that they told him, “If you can get yourself to L.A., we’ll keep you on the show.”  One thing led to another, he became close to the famous director, and at the time of the survey had a higher-level job, in L.A., on the production side of another major film.  In response to our question about whether he earned enough to be financially independent, he wrote, “very much so.”  His ultimate goal is to direct movies himself, and he is working diligently toward that goal.

“Self-employed polymath.”  A number of respondents showed a readiness, even eagerness, to change careers as their interests changed—just as they had changed activities as their interests changed when they were children.  The extreme of this was one of the older respondents to our survey, 39 at the time.  He had experienced a mix of schooling and unschooling through tenth grade and then left high school for good.  He went on to a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a life that he refers to as that of “a self-employed polymath.”  He wrote, “As a polymath, what I do now is very much what I have always done (I mostly ignored traditional schooling, even when I was forced to go); I do anything and everything that catches my attention. Life is about learning, growing, and sharing your discoveries with others who want to learn and grow too.” 

His list of jobs held over the years includes, but is not limited to, the following: research & development consultant for a medical manufacturing company; clinical hypnotherapist; master practitioner of neuro-linguistic programming; director of tutoring services for a community college; wilderness survival, first aid, and bushcraft expert; PADI divemaster (scuba diving) instructor; martial arts instructor (Kung Fu, Judo, and Jeet Kun Do); and author of two published children’s books (and currently working on a new series of bedtime stories).

 They chose enjoyable and meaningful careers over potentially more lucrative careers.

 This generalization overlaps considerably with the previous one, about careers as extensions of childhood interests.  Unschooled children play, explore, and observe in the real world and find their passions.  Then they pursue those passions in adult vocations and careers, or they may find new passions and pursue them.  A number said that their life as adults was not much different from their earlier life as unschoolers, as they continued to play, explore, and learn. In response to our question about whether they were financially independent, many responded that they could support themselves only because they lived frugally, but they would rather live frugally and pursue their interests than make more money at a job that didn’t interest them.

The four case examples above illustrate this second generalization—about pursuing enjoyable and meaningful careers--as much as they do the first generalization.  Here are three more examples, however, in which the career reflects not so much the specific activities of childhood as a set of ideals, or social concerns, that began to take root in childhood. 

Greenpeace activist and community organizer.  This woman, age 28 at the time of the survey, was one of the more schooled participants in our survey.  She attended public school through age 13 and then refused to go anymore, and so was unschooled after that.  As a child she immersed herself in art, but she was also interested in “revolutions and wildlife.”  I suspect that her school refusal was itself a sign of her revolutionary spirit.  She went to art-college, with the support of a substantial scholarship awarded on the basis of her portfolio, and then taught art for a number of years.  But then she shifted careers to her other great interest and became a full-time Greenpeace activist, fundraiser, and manager.   In response to our question about supporting herself financially, she wrote: “Yep, I make a modest salary.  I didn’t exactly chose my job because it’s the highest paying. It’s more important to me that I spend my time ding something that benefits my community.

 Founder of an environmentally- and socially-responsible construction company.  This woman, age 30 at the time of the survey, had never gone to school but was homeschooled up to age “13 or 14,” when full unschooling began.  She wrote: “I am an owner/employee of a construction company….  The company is a direct reflection of many of my interests and activities as an unschooled youth-- for example, democracy in the workplace, environmental stewardship, construction and building, facilitation and project management.

I am also the president of a small non-profit that works to support the use of alternative materials in construction through the development of technical guidelines. I am the project manager for our technical guideline project and coordinate with our diverse teams of supporters around the world. My interest in regulation and policy development, as well as a commitment to support the use of environmentally friendly alternative materials, are both directly connected to interests and projects I undertook as an unschooled young adult.

I completed a series of internships over 3 years … during which I studied permaculture, natural building, community facilitation, and conflict resolution. …

 “The main advantage of unschooling was that it supported me in understanding myself clearly, and helping me craft an adult life that is meaningful to me. I do not identify as ever having stopped unschooling-- I am continuing to learn as much as I did as a youth. When I was 15, I was studying microscopes and nuclear particles, and now I am studying non-profit bylaws and building codes, or training for a marathon. I am 30 years old, and I have been practicing how to run my life, be motivated towards my own goals, think creatively about how to solve problems, and seek out what interests me for 20 years. I find myself consistently in an advantageous position compared to my ‘schooled’ peers…

Urban planner, with focus on non-motorized transportation design.  This 30-year-old person, who was entirely unschooled from K-12, self-identified as gender queer and preferred not to be classed as either male or female.  After completing a bachelor’s degree program, this person held jobs that reflected the person’s interests in planning, management, and urban development.  These included assistant town planner in a small city, administrative assistant for a public health department at an Ivy League university; research assistant for a project involving bicycle transportation (while a graduate student); program coordinator for a low-income housing non-profit; and post-graduate research fellow for the Bureau of Transportation at a large city.  This person wrote:

My goal is to build a career in either bicycle and pedestrian transportation planning/policy or in human factors engineering. … My interests have typically come in short, intense cycles. I figured this out when I was about 16 and started researching career options that would let me change projects every few months. At 17 I discovered urban design, which has acted as a thematic connection for a lot of my more passing interests over the last decade. As a topic it connects to some of the things I enjoyed as a teenager - theater set design, model building, textile design, ecology - but it took moving from the rural areas where I grew up to [name of large city deleted] before I really understood what it was that interested me about design. My path since then has been twisty but generally linear. I studied pre-architecture and drafting at community college, got into architecture and urban design at college, wrote a thesis on post-socialist urban planning policy in Vietnam and Hungary in undergrad, worked in a town planning office for a while, and got interested in my current specialties of non-motorized transportation and qualitative research methods for analyzing travel behavior once I started grad school…” 

 A high percentage chose careers in the creative arts.

As I noted in the first post, by our coding, 36 (48%) of the 75 survey participants were pursuing careers that we categorized as in the creative arts—a category that included fine arts, crafts, photography, film, theater, and writing.  Remarkably, 19 (79%) of the 24 participants in the always-unschooled group were pursuing such careers. The observation that the always-unschooled participants were more likely to pursue careers in the creative arts than were the other participants was highly significant statistically (p < .001 by a chi square test—look back at the table in the first post in this series). I could speculate about possible reasons for such a higher concentration of creative artists in the always-unschooled group than in the other groups, but, truthfully, your guess is as good as mine.  Here, as illustration, are three examples of respondents pursuing such careers.

Production manager at a large theater company.  This 29-year-old woman, who was unschooled for all of K-12 but had gone on to a bachelor’s degree in theatre arts, wrote: “I am a working artist and the production manager of [a major theater company in New York]. I feel like the way I was raised led directly to what I do now. The tools I learned as a child-- to pursue new ideas/interests/knowledge, to creatively solve problems, to actively participate in my community, and more--have helped me greatly. It's actually pretty much what I still do, just in the context of a grown-up life. The organizing, lighting design, dancing, making things is exactly what I was doing as a child and teen.”

To our question about financial independence, she wrote:  “NYC is a hard city to live in, but I have been financially independent the whole time since graduating from college in 2008. I have never had trouble finding work. I gravitate to experimental performance and work with/for a lot of artists. My fees are not high. But it's worth it to me to work on projects that I find interesting and believe in.”

Textile artist/crafter and entrepreneur.  This 21-year-old woman, who was unschooled for all of K-12 and had pursued no higher education, wrote:  “I’m a self employed artist/crafter, I sell online and locally. I am absolutely doing what I was interested in as a child! I've always been making things, I love what I do.”  In response to our question about financial independence, she wrote: “Yes I became financially independent at age 19 and have maintained that (now 21) It is very important to me to make a good living and I feel very proud watching my income rise little by little each year. As an unschooled adult I felt pressured to succeed professionally because people doubted I could/would, also to show my younger siblings what that looks like for us.

Self-employed piano and violin instructor and aspiring performer.  This 28-year-old woman, who was homeschooled to age 10 and unschooled after that, had two jobs at the time she responded to the survey.  One was that of self-employed web designer, a business she had maintained for about ten years.  The other—and more significant job to her—was that of self-employed piano and violin instructor, which she had been doing for about seven years.  Concerning the latter, she wrote:“This is my career path, and I have built it all myself…. I currently have 31 students. I teach one-on-one private lessons, teaching pieces/songs, theory, ear training, music history, composition, technique, performance, and share my passion for music. I love my job!” 

In response to our question about financial independence, she wrote: “Yes. I run my own business, and it brings in enough income to comfortably sustain a living in the expensive area of [name of city deleted]. ‘Making a good living’ is very important to me. But the way I look at making a good living is as follows: Being financially responsible for my own life and affording the things that are important to me. And most importantly, doing this in a way that brings me joy.

In concluding her response to our career question, she wrote: “I love my current career as a music teacher, but I am also aspiring to perform with my band as a second career path. I play bass and sing in this band, and next week we are heading in to the studio to record a full-length album that we raised the money for through a Kickstarter campaign. … We are continuing to work toward our goals with this record, making touring plans for 2014, and looking over an offer from a record label.”

A high percentage were entrepreneurs.

As I noted in the first post in the series, respondents were coded as being entrepreneurs if they had started their own business and were making a living at it or working toward making a living at it.  This category overlapped greatly with the creative arts category, as many were in the business of selling their own creative arts or services.  Overall, by our coding, 40 (53%) of the respondents were entrepreneurs.  This percentage, too, was greatest for those in the always-unschooled group (63%), but in this case the difference across groups did not approach statistical significance.  A number of the case examples presented above are also examples of entrepreneurship.

Sociologists who have studied work satisfaction have found that the kinds of jobs and careers that are most satisfying to people are those that involve a great deal of occupational self-direction.  One thing that is eminently clear from our study is that the unschoolers who responded to our survey had, overwhelmingly, chosen careers very high in this quality.  They were, by enlarge, working for themselves or in work environments where they were their own bosses.  No big surprise here:  People who opted out of top-down schooling, where they would be the underlings doing work dictated to them by others, generally opted out of that in their careers also.

 A high percentage, especially of men, chose STEM careers.

We had not initially thought of coding the careers to see how many were in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) category, but did so after the question was raised in a comment on the first post.  We used the definition of STEM published by the National Science Foundation (here), which is broader than some, and includes social sciences as well as natural sciences, technology, engineering, and math.  However, we only included people in the social sciences if they were conducting research in that realm and/or were doing applied work that made use of technical aspects of a social science.  As we did with other analyses, Gina and I first coded independently and then compared notes and resolved differences in discussion.

Overall, by our coding, 22 (29%) of the 75 participants were pursuing STEM careers.  When we broke this down by gender (leaving out the person who did not wish to be classified by gender), we found that 13 (22%) of the 58 women and 8 (50%) of the 16 men in the sample were coded as having STEM careers.  Despite the relatively small number of men in the sample, this difference in ratio is statistically significant (p = .030 by a chi square test).  Apparently, the tendency for men to go into such careers at a higher rate than women, which has been well established for the general population, occurs among unschoolers as well.

The majority of those in STEM in our sample were in some aspect of engineering or computer technology, but the sample also included an archaeologist, field biologist, math and science teacher, intelligence analyst, and four involved in various aspects of medical technology.

In the next and final post on our survey, I will examine the grown unschoolers’ overall evaluations of their unschooling experiences.  What did they like and not like about being unschooled? What was their social life like?  Would they unschool their own children?  Are there any who wish they hadn’t been unschooled, and, if so, what are their regrets?

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What are your thoughts and questions about this aspect of our survey?  What unschooling experiences or relevant career experiences—positive or negative—have you had that you are willing to share? This blog is a forum for discussion, and your stories, comments, and questions are valued and treated with respect by me and other readers. As always, I prefer if you post your thoughts and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions, if I feel I have something useful to add to what others have said. Of course, if you have something to say that truly applies only to you and me, then send me an email.

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For much more about the human nature of self-determined education, see Free to Learn.

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).

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