Getting Through “The Dip”

Joel HammonUncategorized

Two boys sitting on a couch at PLC, one leaning forward with two thumbs up, the other lounging back


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In a perfect world, young people would choose self-directed education, figure out what they want to do with their lives, use their time well, make progress on goals, do things on time, make friends, never struggle or screw up, and walk off into the sunset confident and in control of their lives.

Successfully taking responsibility for your life and education, especially when coming right from a challenging traditional school experience, more often looks like this:

two trend lines, one is straight, and the other is super messy
Photo credit: Image by Bernard Goldbach

What I’ve learned from my time working at Princeton Learning Cooperative is that this “messiness” is the rule, not the exception. Mistakes will be made, commitments broken, time will be “wasted.” The process often involves much weeping and gnashing of teeth for parents new to self-directed education. 

But the PLC staff doesn’t panic about all this “mess.” Why? We know it often is an essential part of the process of kids taking responsibility for their lives. We’ve seen young people go through this messy middle time after time and come out shining on the other side.

Seth Godin wrote a short, wonderful book about this hard middle part called The Dip. It is a guide for when to quit and when to persevere in any undertaking. Seth says that quitting something just because it is hard is counter-productive. If the benefits on the other side are worth the struggle, you should continue. 

For PLC’s first three years, we lived through this kind of struggle—not a lot of teen members, not a lot of money coming in, and not a lot of momentum. It would have been incredibly easy for us to quit at any point during that time, and no one would have questioned the decision. We recognized early that despite the hardships, PLC was working because the lives of the young people and staff were better. Since we knew the other side was going to be great, we just had to get through “the dip.”

It works the same way for a teenager when they have meaningful control for the first time over the decisions that affect their life. If a young person and a family can make it through that dip, through the hard part, they will benefit tremendously from feeling in control of their time. They will know how to use their time and energy more effectively to get what they want out of their lives. It is definitely worth all the trouble.

Here’s what PLC’s staff keeps in mind when we’re working with a young person and family in the middle of “the dip”:

  • Long-term thinking: Any given day can be a challenge. The goal is to focus on the child’s long-term well-being and development. Many people compare an ideal version of school where everything is going splendidly to “the dip” as a person gets started with self-directed education. They conclude that giving the young person responsibility for their education is a failure and nothing important is happening. If you examine that conclusion further, you often find the school experience was not that great. If you ask, “What were they in fact learning, not what could they have been learning?” the answer is “not much” or “nothing.” Plus the kid was miserable. Even if not much academic work is done during “the dip,” kids are smiling again. Their lives are improving and self-direction at PLC is working.
  • Focus on the relationship: Many times if school has been a challenge, families often fight about homework and grades. As a result, family relationships may be damaged. We are big fans of the line from The Self-Driven Child: “Son, I love you too much to fight with you about homework.” Caring about the health of your relationship more than completed math worksheets will likely lead to better long-term outcomes. To repair that relationship, it’s better to focus on doing things together that you both enjoy instead of fighting about what kids are not doing academically.
  • Timelines are often artificial: People often get locked into traditional education’s timeline without realizing that much of it is artificial. Nothing is magical about age 18 as the time to move on to the next stage of life. We’ve seen PLC kids be done with high school at age 15 to go to college full-time. We’ve also seen young people need more time after what typically would be “graduation” before moving on to more adult activities. For example, you can avoid math for a year or two if you need a break and then catch up in a short time if you are motivated for your own reasons like attending college or learning computer programming. Timelines should be based on the kid’s interests and abilities and not on traditional and arbitrary expectations. 

It’s not always straight-forward and “clean”, but we feel the benefits of self-directed education are worth the “mess”.