How Do I Convince My Parents to Let Me Do Something Other Than College?

This is a written transcript of a portion of an Ask Isaac podcast episode where this questions was asked.

The first thought when I read this question is you shouldn’t be trying to convince anyone to let you. You are free to do what you want to do, especially once you are 18+. You don’t need to have that permission-based mindset. “I have to win them over. I have to convince them to allow me.”

You’re free to do what you want to do.

Now, once you acknowledge that, “I’m completely free. I could just not go to college right now. I could leave home. I could pack up my knapsack and do whatever I want to do. I am utterly and completely free. There is no power or moral law in the universe that obliges me to do otherwise.”

Now that you have that freedom… now you can start talking about it in costs and benefits. OK, if I do that, what are going to be the costs to me? Am I willing to bear those costs? Are there ways to mitigate those costs? Then you can have an honest conversation about what you are willing to put up with. But do you see how it puts the locus of control on you right away? No longer are you able to blame. “Well my parents won’t let me.” Well, that’s irrelevant. You can do what you want to do. You may find that your real reason is “if I did it, my parents wouldn’t support me financially, and I am not willing to live a lifestyle that’s beneath whatever amount of income – and I don’t believe I can bring that amount of income in myself without my parents’ help.”

Now that’s an honest admission. And that’s one that many people don’t want to be true of themselves. They want to be such rugged individualists that they’re not willing to compromise their dreams just to have a certain amount of money or financial safety net. So, they tell themselves stories. “My parents won’t let me.” But that’s not the truth, and the quicker you can identify the true reason that you’re being held back, the quicker you can overcome it, or work around it, or work with it.

I do know people who truly care more about material comforts than going and pursuing something like that, and the quicker they can be honest with themselves about it, I think, the better they’re going to be. So, it’s not about you convincing them to let you do something. It’s about deciding what’s going to be the cost. If your parents are going to disown you, hate you, not help you, not support you financially in any way, you have to determine what that’s worth. That’s a pretty horrible thing.

But you have to decide if it’s worth 4 years of doing something you mildly dislike, or maybe something you absolutely hate, so that your parents are happy. So, you have to ask yourself questions like what matters more, your happiness or someone’s happiness with you?” And again, I’m not advocating “yeah, screw your parents,” because, I think, at the end of the day, they want you to be happy. They’re just always going to lack the imagination – any other person besides you – is going to lack the imagination to understand ways that you might be happy, that they haven’t thought of before. And only you can find those.

So the easiest practical advice I would have is to start small and say, “Hey, Mom and Dad,” and again don’t approach it like “I need your permission,” and say, “Mom and Dad, I have been thinking,” and let them know this is not some spur of the moment thing and ate some Cheetos with your buddies and was like “I don’t want to go to college”.  Say, “Hey, Mom and Dad, I’ve been thinking and I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and a lot of examining my own life, and making priorities. I am going to take a gap year.” Whether you’re already in college and you want to take a break or before you go – Say you haven’t gone yet, “I am going to take one year and I have very clear goals. I want to experience two different kinds of work (paid work), live in two difference cities, or whatever it might be. I want to earn X amount of money. I want to gain a particular skill like a programming language. I want to become an expert on this. Or whatever…”

You’ve got a couple things that you say. “I am taking one year to do the following things, because it’s really important to me. And I think if I don’t do this now before I go into college and get roped in on a path, I’m always going to regret it. I’m always going to wonder. Furthermore, here’s a bunch of evidence and research that shows people who take a gap year, perform better in college and perform better after college, etc.” Frame it as… not this once for all. Frame it as “give me a year.” And at the end of that year, we’ll see where I am and we’ll see what I want to do next, but I need this year.”

Now, if you want help from them say, “I would like to propose to you… you were going to pay X for college… I propose you to pay less for that but you help me in the following way.” And be prepared if they say, “No,” and to be on your own. Do it anyway. Make up your mind how bad you want it, and what you want to do. And tell them in a non-confrontational way “this matters to me.”

If they see that spark in you and they see that this is so important to you and that you’ve thought about it clearly and you’re calm and rational about it, and you’re going to do it with or without them – this is like raising money for a company, by the way. The best pitch for an investment is, “this is what the company’s doing. It’s going to do the following. If you get on board it can do it faster and you can benefit, but it’s going to happen with or without you.” It’s so much better than “Oh, my gosh. I have this great idea. It won’t go anywhere, though. I need your help so bad or else the whole thing is not going to work.” It’s not as strong of a pitch in my opinion.

Anyway, “This is what I’m going to do, Mom and Dad. If you can help me, it would mean I could do the following. If you can’t help me, I’m going to have to do X, Y, and Z. I’m going to have to get 3 jobs to make it happen. And I’m totally prepared to do that. I don’t want you to be unhappy with me. I want your support. I want to be able to lean on you.”

Open it up and remind them that if they shut you down, they’re basically shutting down a line of communication and support to you emotionally. If you say, “I want to be able to come to you if this is hard and struggling with it, without you saying, ‘See, I told you so. You should have gone to college,’ I want that. I don’t want you to be upset at me for doing this, and I understand if you are but this is where I am coming from.”

I think if you present it like that, you have the highest chances of results. Again, it’s up to you what you want to do. You don’t need permission, but you need to understand the costs and benefits you’re willing to internalize and calmly and passionately share with your parents what it is that you want and have a clear idea. Not just “I don’t want to go to college.” Because to them, going to college means you’re making some sort of progress. To you, even if all you do is wander around for a year and do nothing, and that’s possible that it could give you more progress than college, but in their mind if you at least say, “I want to do X for a year, or two years, or whatever,” and at the end of that year if they’ve seen you grow and change and you know you don’t need college and “I’ve got this cool job, and this and that,” you can be like, “Hey, Mom and Dad, I’ve decided I’m going to take this further.”

You’ll have more courage. They’ll be more comfortable with it by that time. It will be much easier if you can get yourself to a position where they are excited about you having that one year.

If you want an awesome way to spend that one year, working with amazing startups and getting rigorous, self-guided personal and professional development, coaching, and a portfolio of projects, check out