I started writing this as a comment in reply to Adam Bossy's post The Paradox of Self-Education. The comment became so long that I decided to turn it into a post here on my blog.
I grew up wanting to "be everything", from astronomer, to musician, to entomologist, to geneticist, to Navy SEAL, to writer, to geologist, to computer scientist. Hell, even meteorology (the study of weather, i.e., what the weather man does) fascinated me! I was home schooled through high school and never spent a single day in public or private school. (I actually ended up teaching myself through high school because my parents were busy teaching my younger brother and sister.) This gave me great freedom to study anything that happened to interest me. Over the course of a year, I probably switched between being totally engrossed in a dozen different fields. But in my teens, I realized that "being everything" wasn't a career path and just knowing a little bit about many different fields wasn't going to pay the bills. So I picked the most developed of my skills and went into IT.
Now at 26 and no college degree, I'm working for a software start-up doing a whole variety of things (programming, sysadmin, tech support, editor, you name it) and I run my own small but successful web hosting company. My interest in many other fields has not changed or decreased in any way. The only thing that has changed is my ability to spend ANY amount of time exploring them.
While pondering many of the same points as Adam does in his post, I came to the conclusion that it's our bills and our standards of living that are holding us down. By living paycheck to paycheck we make it impossible to take six months or a year off from work to explore some new thing that has peaked our interest. Socially, we're expected to follow the same routine advancement in our current field from one position to another, making a bigger paycheck and being able to raise our standard of living that much higher (thereby putting us back to where we started and resulting in yet another desire for a raise and advancement).
I went from spending upwards of $2,500 a month down to $800 a month by making lifestyle adjustments. "Do I need cable TV?" No, I have the Internet. "Do I need this two-bedroom, 1,500 sqft apartment?" No, I'm a single guy and the rent is a huge part of my paycheck -- 400 sqft will do. "Do I need to drive into work?" No, I can take public transportation. "Do I need this $5 coffee every day?" No, a $.50 green tea will suffice and it will be healthier.
My goal now is to continue living frugally so I can set aside a big enough bucket of money to get me through one year without work. Then, when the time is right, I'll spend a year learning something of interest, possibly making small amounts of money on the side. When needed, I'll start working and hopefully keep repeating this process. If something I do makes me tons of money, great. If not... well it's not about the money.
The pursuit of knowledge is to me more important than all the money in the world. Sure, money would make that pursuit easier, but life isn't easy. This is where I feel society gets it wrong. We put money and status first and education and knowledge second, using the latter to obtain the former. Imagine a society where the pursuit of knowledge defined our standards of living. (Oh no, what would happen to all the ads?!)
If we're willing to sacrifice our high-strung lifestyle for the ability to spend time learning and increasing knowledge, then we can accomplish amazing things, both individually and as a society. A world pursuing money and status has all the reason to fight amongst themselves and start wars, but a world pursuing knowledge and advancement has all the reason to maintain peace.