Doug did okay in high school, but like a lot of kids he wasn’t particularly turned on by the experience, and was irritated by the strict rules about incidental issues like chewing gum. He was a smart kid, made respectable grades, was friends with other good students who were on the conventional path through high school and on to college. But after turning 16, he transferred to the Open Campus high school to finish his diploma requirements in a place that had few rules about behavior, but serious consequences if students failed to take care of their own responsibilities. For perhaps the first time, Doug truly enjoyed the school environment in which he found himself. He never had any problem accepting the natural consequences for his choices in life, and he never chose to go on to college.
But Doug loved rock climbing. As a teenager, he had been introduced to the sport by some friends, and it quickly became a driving passion in his life. He practiced climbing the outcroppings that are found scattered around the Georgia piedmont region where he grew up, read about climbers and climbs in exotic locations, made himself an expert in ropes and the equipment climbers use, moved to the mountains of North Carolina for a few years to be closer to more challenging climbs. Over the years, Doug made excursions around the country to climb in the Appalachians, in the Rockies, in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Doug never earned a college degree, but he never stopped learning, and never lost his intellectual curiosity. He married a woman with a Ph.D. and continued friendships with the “good students” who had become doctors, lawyers, and professors, as well as other good people who might not have as many years of formal education, but who were energetic and ambitious.
To finance his own passion, Doug worked in restaurants, as a surveyor, in construction. He devised a business plan for leading expeditions to climb the Andes in Peru, and in order to make this feasible, Doug learned Spanish and earned certification as a paramedic. He worked for many years in a mountaineering shop owned by a local climbing enthusiast and businessman. Eventually, Doug purchased the business and provided high quality equipment as well as expert advice. Doug became well-known among the tight-knit community of serious rock climbers in the metro Atlanta area.
In 1996, the year the Olympics were held in Atlanta, organizers for the games contacted Doug, who had been recommended as an expert in the use of ropes and climbing gear. He was hired to hang cameras and other equipment from the ceiling of the basketball coliseum that served as the venue for many of the Olympic events. In taking this job, Doug entered an elite fraternity of some two dozen men in the world who do this kind of work. Every Olympics since 1996 and for several other large international sporting events, Doug has jetted to different parts of the world, often taking his wife and two kids.
Doug has built an interesting and rewarding career by following his passion, rather than following the conventional course set out for him in school.
Schools need to encourage students to pursue their passions. A curriculum should not be a narrow path to a predetermined end. It should expose doors that students can open. It should help to release human potential.
I began this short series of posts by asking, “How many people hate their jobs?” and by questioning the way schools encourage conformity over individuality. Doug’s story stands as an illustration of how one person who never accepted the narrow role marked out for him by others found success on his own terms. In fact, it was only because he insisted on pursuing his passion, and was willing to do whatever it took to make sure his life provided the rewards he wanted, that he was in a position to encounter the opportunities, and have the success he has enjoyed.