This is my chapter from the book Why Haven’t You Read This Book? and an opening chapter from my book, The End of School: Reclaiming Education from the Classroom.
I had near-perfect grades through high school, attended my first-choice school — an Ivy League university — on a scholarship, worked on a prestigious summer research fellowship, and, had I chosen that route, had the stars aligning to attend a top-tier graduate school. I was far from struggling in my classes — I had even designed the syllabus with a professor for a majors-only seminar I participated in and went on to take a graduate seminar as a sophomore. I was active on campus, participating in and leading several clubs.
In brief, I was an ideal college student.
Two years in and I dropped out. And this started with asking myself, “Why haven’t I dropped out of college?”
A Quick Disclaimer
Before getting into my personal story of leaving school, I want to note that I love learning. Most discussions over the relative value of staying in versus leaving school focus on whether somebody truly values learning. Advocates of the latter allow themselves to be painted as anti-intellectuals, people opposed to the liberal arts, hyper-practical handymen just concerned with what will be marketable in the future. Get rid of that idea right now. Learning and schooling are not the same thing. Sometimes the best learning takes place in school, but that’s increasingly not the case when opportunity costs are taken into account. Even more, classroom learning and schooling don’t have to be the same thing. You can drop out of college and still enjoy classroom learning. (In fact, you can get the learning for free by auditing classes.)
If you love learning but aren’t crazy about school, this chapter is for you.
College Over High School
I enrolled in college, initially, because I wanted to build things. This didn’t necessarily mean pursuing a STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) track — I just enjoyed the process of building, whether simple Legos as a child or organizations and idea-systems as a young adult. College was a step up from rigid high school and appeared to be a prerequisite for any kind of building I wanted to do.
Restless and anxious as a student of the No Child Left Behind-era in public schools, I wondered why we were spending so much time sitting in assemblies about the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) tests and how to properly answer multiple-choice questions when that had no bearing on what I wanted to learn about. Why were we focusing on some ridiculous state-enforced standards that the teachers themselves admitted were totally arbitrary? Why did we take several weeks per year to do these exams? Why were the classes I enjoyed getting cut back for the ones that were enforced through testing regimens? High school became little more than jumping through hoops for state administrators.
School took me away from the learning I wanted to engage in and made me focus on things I didn’t want. I loved learning; I just hated school.
I funneled this restlessness and anxiety into a drive to get into college. “I can focus on what I want to learn at college,” I told myself. “Once I’m there, I can really get into the weeds of everything I need to know to go out and build what I want to do.”
I was mostly wrong.
Once in college the anxiety moved from that which was enforced by school administrators trying to please state education bureaucrats to something less-formally enforced but perhaps more oppressive.
Everybody says that your freshman year is supposed to be uncomfortable. You’re supposed to struggle a little trying to find your place at the university, trying to figure out what you really want to do (because, you are told, your major will change several times, so it’s silly to be sure of what you want) and who you really are. Your restless desire for definiteness of place and purpose at school will go away, you’re assured. (Though this isn’t said explicitly, many college students feel this — that is why they join fraternities, sororities, and clubs at school, and study abroad.) The restlessness from high school wasn’t gone, but I just figured it would go away after the first year.
Competition Quashes Progress
Perhaps more alarming was what was happening to my classmates. Many were peers I had met through various activities in high school and who were, at the time, some of the most interesting people I knew. They told me about how they wanted to be entrepreneurs, poets, artists, authors, engineers, and more. They, like me, were going to school as a means to achieving that life for themselves. Still others were generally impressive people who could have achieved anything to which they had fully committed themselves.
These classmates, many of whom had gotten into college with their unique and varied accomplishments, became obsessed with competition, with one-upping each other so they could get the top-tier job or get into the top-tier graduate school. At first glance this should be no surprise, right? Of course students at a top tier school would be competitive. That’s what got them in in the first place, right?
Competition isn’t an inherently good thing, especially on the individual level.[i] The cult of competition tells us that we have to focus on one-upping each other for a limited set of laurels. At my college it was competition over either pre-professional tracks or graduate-school tracks. Everybody wanted to land the internship with Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch. Everybody needed to get the perfect GPA so that he could get into the best medical school. A student at another top-tier school told me that students in her classes would compete to keep their GPAs high so that they could go to “first-page” law schools (meaning, law schools that were on the first page of the US News and World Report rankings).
Competition can be a good motivator if you know why you are engaging in it. If you aren’t entirely sure why you are competing, or if your competing is entirely status-driven then competition actually quashes your ability to make personal progress.
To make personal progress you must first focus on what you want to achieve and build plans on how to carry this out. The competitive mindset is the antithesis of this. The difference between the personal mindset and the competitive mindset is where the locus of change sits. In the personal mindset the locus of change is with the individual. If John wants to achieve X, then he must compare himself against what it takes to achieve X and make the proper plans to get there. In the competitive mindset the locus of change is with other people. If John wants to achieve high status at his prestigious university, then he must beat out everybody else. So his plans are determined by what everybody is attempting to achieve.
The great paradox of status-driven competition is that everybody’s focus is on everybody else. To get the most out of an elite degree you have to do the most with it. Doing the most with it demands that you do as much as some of the most high-status people who attended the schoolwhile not falling behind your peers, who are going for the same thing.
Colleges and universities are breeding grounds for this counter-progressive competitive mindset. By organizing people into peer-groups (graduation classes, schools, majors), schools encourage comparison between students and between achievements. With GPAs determining awards like magna cum laude and admission to prestigious honor societies, college fosters a mindset in which everybody’s success is governed by the actions of others.
I saw this mindset capturing my friends and peers. I began to see it creep into my own habits.
“This wasn’t how it was supposed to be,” I recall telling myself one day. I went to school to escape the competitive mindset of high school. I came here to gain the ability to go out and create the projects I wanted to create. I didn’t come here to write papers that could be turned into writing samples for graduate school or entered into competitions with classmates for awards that look great on a resume or that impress a recruiter.
Just Push Through It?
As my sophomore year took off I knew I had to pour my restlessness into something apart from school to prevent falling into this trap. A friend of mine was launching a startup whose mission resonated with me.[ii] I asked if I could pick up some extra work. He wouldn’t have to pay me; I would do the work in my free time. It would allow me to pour out my energy without giving in to the temptation to spend that energy competing for top graduate-school slots or places on Wall Street.
The ability to really work on building something outside of an academic context was refreshing, to the point of nearly being a new experience entirely. Like many students, I had spent the last several years putting nearly all my efforts into something related to school. Classes in high school were curated to impress a college-admissions officer. Extracurriculars were a cross-section of what I enjoyed and what would help me with admissions. For the first time in years, I was able to do what I had been working toward this entire time: build something outside of school.
After my sophomore year I was presented with a challenge: I could either finish out my next two years of school while working on the startup and my other goals on the side, or I could go all-in on one or the other. I opted to take a year off and focus on building the startup while pursuing my education myself.
Trying to balance school and a startup would only end in mediocrity. You can’t drive a new, radical idea like a startup (especially the kind on which we were working) with your efforts divided, aiming at two different futures. You can’t get the most out of your limited and expensive college education by focusing most of your time elsewhere. Trying to juggle both produces mediocre results compared to going all-in on one or the other.
After continuing my work for several months, I was forced to ask myself why I was even in college in the first place. I told myself I had gone so that I could have access to the resources necessary to build projects. But here I was building a project.
I told myself that’s what you need to do to get a job. But here I was with a (good) job.
I told myself that’s what you need to do to take full advantage of your education. But here I was getting a better education than when I was enrolled as a full-time student.
I told myself that’s what you need to do if you want a strong professional network. But here I was with a Rolodex worth more than the entire endowment of the university.
I told myself that’s what you do to discover what you want to do. But I knew what I wanted to do since I was a young child, and school just obfuscated that for me. So I dropped out.
What’s The Top Idea In Your Mind?
Probably the best part about dropping out was the mental energy that it freed up. Before I dropped out, I told myself I had taken time off to focus on the startup and other projects full-time, but my mind was still ultimately governed by school — or the eventual need to return.
Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham has an essay called “The Top Idea in Your Mind.”[iii] This is essentially the idea that governs most of your actions. The moment of clarity you have in the shower in the morning, Graham says, is an example of the top idea in your mind.
When you are trying to balance school and an out-of-school project, your project cannot be the top idea in your mind. When school is almost inevitably governed by competition, your own progress cannot be the top idea in your mind. If everything you are doing while on leave or on your gap year is predicated on the belief that you will be returning to school, it cannot receive the benefit of your full attention.
Lots of college students try to launch startups while at school. Some even succeed. But your focus shouldn’t be on whether your startup or project is successful for school purposes; rather, it should be on whether it is the best it can be. If you are just running it to pad your resume or to make your time at school seem more impressive, then you are running it for the wrong reasons and should just devote yourself fully to your studies.
(For this reason, I am skeptical of the obsession elite college students have with founding startups. It seems to be another indicator of a growing competitive mindset — seeping from the university into the startup world, one that has traditionally been defined by a contrarian streak.)
If you want your own personal progress or the progress of your startup or project to be the top idea in your mind, you’ll have a very hard time being on leave from school. You’d be best served by dropping out.
So Why Haven’t You Dropped Out Of College?
I recount my personal story because it isn’t a story of somebody who struggled with school or who went in with a multimillion-dollar idea already rolling. I recount it because I have met hundreds of students in the past several years who feel the same way I did — anxious, restless, their purpose obfuscated by school — and because I want to defend the idea that unless you have a very compelling reason to be in college, you are best served by dropping out.
Why do most people go to college?
Before getting into specific reasons, to understand why most people (i.e., middle- and working-class people) say you should go to college in the United States today, we have to first understand the history of college education and the desire to “be successful.”
The idea of achieving success in the United States has, over the last century or so, focused on some conception of “the American Dream.” While the stereotype is two-and-a-half kids and a picket fence, as Americans started moving to the suburbs it generally became a struggle for the middle class and the working class to move into the upper-middle class. Those engaged in this struggle found hope in attending college and universities. Spurred by the the postwar GI bill, pundits and politicians alike propagated the belief that a university education would lead individuals and families to prosperity. The successful of the day were likely to have had college educations, making it appear as if a college education was a milestone on the path to success and stability.
All the while, as more people went to college and then into the workforce, the postwar economy started to pick up, not slowing down until the 1973 oil crisis. Baby-boomers grew up during the greatest expansion of the U.S. economy since the Gilded Age, then after many of them got out of college (and after the 1970s disruption), they saw the economic picture brighten once more in the 1980s and 1990s during the Reagan and Clinton eras (culminating in the dot-com bubble of 2001).
The idea that more higher education meant more success was intuitive enough for the boomers and they saw a strong correlation between higher education and economic growth during their lifetimes.
But this gets the process wrong on both counts.
Universities and colleges weren’t causes of aristocracy and wealth; they were products of aristocracy and wealth. Aristocrats didn’t send their children to universities to make sure they got the tools necessary to stay aristocrats — they sent them because it was essentially several years of leisure and only the most well-off could afford such a lifestyle.
The university was never intended to train people for high-wage jobs or to lift them up the economic ladder. At best it was an institution to train the clergy in the Middle Ages and then academics in the industrial age. This is why liberal-arts schools place such heavy emphasis on academic subjects — they were designed to create professors.
As global wealth increased through the Industrial Revolution, aristocrats who were already comfortable in their wealth had two options for their children who were coming of age: A) send them to work, or B) give them some leisure among their same class. The university evolved into an institution to help young aristocratic men to transition into adulthood by moving away from home and studying subjects only the most well-off had the leisure to study. The backgrounds of elite American universities make this obvious. Princeton has “eating clubs”; Penn has “the Philomathean society”; and Yale’s secret society culture is a relic of this era.
This isn’t a conspiracy. It’s simply saying that the universities were never intended or designed for the use to which Americans of the mid-20th century put them. Agricultural schools of the antebellum era did start training people in practical trades, but even their growth was ill-suited to preparing people to create value in order to climb the economic ladder.
The postwar boom that the baby-boomers experienced in their youth was also not a product of a more-educated workforce. Immense technological growth from World War II, the rise of the semiconductor and information theory, and artificial growth stimulated by the Marshall Plan in Europe and American efforts to rebuild Japan were more likely causes of this long- and short-term growth. In other words, the gears of economic progress were in motion long before the boomers were even born, let alone before they attended school. PayPal co-founder, Peter Thiel, notes in Zero to One:
Whether you were born in 1945 or 1950 or 1955, things got better every year of the first 18 years of your life, and it had nothing to do with you. Technological advance seemed to accelerate automatically, so the Boomers grew up with great expectations but few specific plans for how to fulfill them.… Since tracked careers worked for them, they can’t imagine they won’t work for their kids, too.[v]
The myth that more formal schooling means more success is exactly that — a myth. The United States is a culture that has been built by those who didn’t wait for four years before taking on life: Thomas Edison, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, Howard Hughes, Buckminster Fuller, Larry Ellison, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, James Cameron, Travis Kalanick, Mark Zuckerberg, and Harrison Ford are just a few examples.
That smarter people, on average, tend to go to college today, or that people with higher pay, on average, went to college can be explained by a simple selection bias. The cultural mythos we build around college propels smarter people and those more likely to achieve high pay in life (these are not always the same thing) along this path. They likely would have been successful without college.
With names like those above, why don’t you start asking yourself, “Why haven’t I dropped out of school?”?
A Disclaimer: Don’t Be Cheetos-Dude
Before looking at the reasons that might be holding you back from dropping out of college, I want to issue a quick disclaimer: dropping out of school is traditionally maligned because the alternative in most people’s minds is to become “Cheetos-Dude.” We all know Cheetos-Dude. He’s the slacker who sits at home eating junk food and watching television when he has work to do. He’s the guy who dropped out of college because it was too hard for him. He has a dead-end job because he’s not willing to put in the work he needs to get a better job.
If you want to be Cheetos-Dude, by all means go ahead. This chapter isn’t for you, though.
If you want to be more than Cheetos-Dude — if you feel like you see Cheetos-Dude all over your college campus, like you’ve been cheated by the college mythos, like you might be able to do more with the freest years of your life — keep reading.
The best way to prove a stereotype wrong is to live differently.
“I’m not like those you named.”
Naming industrial titans, famous actors, and the men who built Silicon Valley isn’t entirely fair, and it is exactly what the culture that glorifies college propagates. Like only those rare geniuses can go without. Maybe you thought about dropping out of college, but thought to yourself, “Yeah, but I’m not Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg,” or you had a family friend tell you, “Yeah, it made sense for them, but you aren’t them!”
Get that idea out of your mind entirely. It’s absurd, unfair, and not constructive.
At it’s core this is a double standard. It’s a double standard that tells college dropouts, “You won’t be successful unless you reach the status of the megasuccessful.” Even more egregiously, it tells them, “If you aren’t successful, you have nobody else to blame but yourself because you decided to drop out of college.” It overlooks everybody else who didn’t go to college and are moderately successful (and also forces somebody else’s definition of success on you, but that’s another topic entirely). It overlooks the college dropout who is just as successful as the banker down the street, the engineer next door, or the teacher one block over.
Nobody tells the college graduate, “You better be as successful as [the president of the United States, the chairman of Goldman Sachs, the CFO of Deloitte]! If you aren’t as successful as [arbitrary standard I choose], then you have nobody else to blame but yourself because you decided to go to college!”
You don’t need to be a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg or a Harrison Ford to drop out of school. You don’t need to abide by the double standard of the mythos built up and enforced by the boomers against their children. For every not-Steve Jobs or not-Mark Zuckerberg, there are dozens of not-Barack Obamas or not-Larry Pages. Next time you are hit with this justification for not dropping out, just flip the script.[vi]
“I need a job.”
If you ask most people why they went to college, they will likely tell you that it was so they could get a job. They didn’t necessarily know what job or even what kind of job they wanted, but they just knew that they should go to college if they wanted to get a job.
This is absurd — although not entirely their fault, considering how much teachers, parents, and guidance counselors probably pushed the “you need a degree if you want a decent job” dogma on them.
Going to college to study an indefinite field to get an indefinite job for an indefinite future sets the building blocks for an indefinite life. Going to college without knowing what you want to get out of it or what kind of job you want to land just sets you up for not being in the driver’s seat of your own life.
If you are sure of what you want to do and absolutely need a degree to do it (which pretty much just leaves lawyers, doctors, and academics), then go for it. But if you aren’t sure, going “just because” sets a dangerous precedent for your own life.
That might sound like high-level abstract talk but the idea that you go to college to get a job is absurd on the ground-level, too.
Employers who require college degrees don’t do it because they necessarily think that those with college degrees are more likely to be valuable employees. Instead, this hiring practice is a relic of the pre-Internet era. It’s an HR-move that helps companies sort out applications that are more or less likely to be worth looking at. If you were hiring in 1990, when college graduates were much fewer and when there was really no other way to verify a candidate’s basic abilities like writing and showing up to work, a degree might have told you much more.
If you’re hiring in 2015, when degrees are a dime-a-dozen and when Google is at your fingertips, college tells you considerably less about a candidate. It doesn’t do a great job of sorting high-value candidates from low-value candidates when Jack, who showed up to class twice-per-semester and was always hungover, has the same BA as Sally, who showed up every day and never went out during school.
Richard Bolles’s perennial bestseller, What Color Is Your Parachute?, goes through the basic steps for getting hired in a changing economy. Recent editions have included a chapter called “Google Is Your New Resume.” What Bolles gets at here isn’t that you need to be careful with what you post on social media, but rather that your entire portfolio of work is now available with a simple Google search of your name. If you want to be known as a designer, you can put up a site showing off your design work. If you have done sales, you can upload your sales decks to Slideshare. If you want to show off all your work generally, LinkedIn is the fastest-growing professional network in the world.
“Yeah, but lots of companies require BAs to get hired.”
The BA requirement just shows that a candidate is a minimally viable candidate. It doesn’t say anything else. A strong set of work experiences or a record of having created value in the marketplaces shows more than a BA does.
Many employers are changing their hiring copy slightly in light of degree-inflation. “BA or equivalent work experience” has started appearing on the websites of those who do require BAs. CEOs and hiring managers tell me this is because they realize the degree doesn’t teach more than what some time in the field can teach.
Even more, degree requirements are disappearing entirely for companies born in the digital era or those trying to keep up with digital-era companies. Uber — founded by UCLA dropout Travis Kalanick — is a $51 billion company (at time of writing) that employs full-time business people, customer experience agents, and software engineers on every continent. Uber does not require a degree for many of their business positions.
“Okay, well, I’m going to figure out what I like and want.”
Going to college to “discover yourself” or to “figure out what you want from life” are common reasons given by those who want to encourage more young people to attend. This overlooks a few facts:
1) This is a very expensive way to figure out what you want.
2) This is a very time-consuming way to figure out what you want.
3) This isn’t a very good way of figuring out what you want.
College is expensive. Everybody knows this. I don’t have to type out the statistics on the average cost of a four-year undergraduate education here because it has been repeated so often it is almost cliche. It’s easy to say “College is a great way to discover yourself!” when you aren’t footing the bill.
And even if you don’t have to pay a hefty price tag for four years of college experience, it’s still four years of your life. The opportunity cost of college — or the cost of all those activities that are forgone by spending your time in college — is mind-bogglingly high. Recall the “equivalent work experience” requirement from above. That, if not more, is the opportunity cost of college.
Bill Gates returned to Harvard for a semester after launching Microsoft. If he had stayed in school instead of going back to Microsoft, his opportunity cost would have been the creation of all the wealth and value his tenure at Microsoft produced, and he would probably be considerably worse off for it.
The idea that college is a good place to figure out what you want is deeply flawed because it is an environment and institution almost entirely isolated from the real world, without real consequences for failure or success, and without real incentives (i.e., prices, profit, loss) influencing it.
To get an accurate picture of what you want from life (i.e., the time you spend in the “real world”), you are best served by spending time in the real world. If you are like I was and are coming out of 12 years of compulsory schooling, you probably don’t have a good idea of what the real world is like. Your past decade-plus has revolved entirely around school and what comes after school.
The best argument I’ve heard for using college to figure out what you want is that it provides a safe environment for you to try out different things and fail at them. If you fail and fall, you won’t fall that far and you can get right back up and try something else, the argument goes.
But even this defense assumes too much of college. For many students, failure at school is tantamount to failure at life. Even those with a strong individualistic streak find themselves comparing their relative success in school to that of their classmates. They identify their success in life with their success as a student.
Failing at something in the real world isn’t entirely bad, either. Most successful entrepreneurs fail at several ventures before they succeed. Most successful artists are rejected many times over before they get their break. Experiencing failure in the real world (and not the sanitized version of it found in college) might be good for many people, so long as they have the resolve to rebound from it. Attempting to avoid failure also puts a creative strain on the individual and provides an incentive to create and innovate in ways that would be difficult without this incentive.[vii]
“I want higher pay.”
“Studies show that going to college increases lifetime earnings by $1,000,000!”
You’ve likely heard this line repeated by pundits or high school guidance counselors. The message is clear: if you want higher pay, go to college.
But these kinds of studies are subject to a very strong selection bias.
The type of person who was more likely to attend college in 1990, 1995, or 2000 (the earliest time frames you could use for projecting lifetime earnings) is probably somebody who was moderately middle class, moderately intelligent, and moderately competent, at least. This person is then compared with the average student in the same age range who decided not to go to college — a less-impressive individual. The first person would have likely succeeded whether or not he went to school!
For a full analysis of earnings in light of schooling, researchers would have to follow twins from birth, making sure they had the same IQ and competence when they graduated high school. They would have to control for every variable influencing the individual’s decision to go to college. No such study has been done.
The same kind of statistical logic can be used to justify going to an elite college over an average college, except here the poor logic has been hit with counter-studies.[viii] Turns out that people who attend elite universities aren’t necessarily going to earn more than their peers at average universities because earnings are more than a reflection of education status.
Recall what I said about the degree being a sorting mechanism for hiring. At one time this was also the case for giving raises, especially at the executive level. Getting an MBA would always be justified because it would bring a raise. As more people get MBAs and as more ways of comparing candidates arise, this is no longer the case. What was once considered a no-brainer is now highly contentious. What has happened to the MBA is an omen for what is going to happen (and is starting to happen) to the BA.
“I need a network.”
College is said to be one of the best places to develop a network and get to know people who can be professionally helpful later in life. Whether it’s a fraternity brother with business connections you can call on for your jobseeking son or a classmate that you decide to co-found a business with, colleges have traditionally been hubs of networking gold.
But is it the best place to acquire a network?
As a young person, the most valuable kind of network you can acquire is one that is vertically diverse. This is a network with lots of different people who are at more advanced stages of their careers than you. These are people who have built up social capital and are willing to go to bat for you when you most need somebody to go to bat for you. These are people with reputations and connections who are willing to listen to you. They’re how you will most likely get your first job or two and how you will propel yourself forward. They’re the ones who can connect you with VIPs (e.g., celebrities, investors, potential mentors).
The best way to actually acquire a vertically diverse network is to go out and work somewhere. Working at a high-growth startup is one of the best ways of doing this because it is high-risk and high-reward. If the startup succeeds, you gain the connections and laurels of being on a successful team. If it fails, you have at least gained the professional connections of those who joined you.
College provides you with lots of people at the same stage of life as you, although they might have different interests and backgrounds. As you get older, you will likely diverge a little, but not terribly. You’ll stay in the general professional range as most of your peers. Your strongest connections will be with those in your immediate social circle, then your major, your school, your university, and your interests (e.g., sports, competitive clubs, etc.), in descending order. You may meet a few alumni, and you’ll know some professors, but they’ll be outside your field and won’t be of much help to you after you graduate unless you pursue a career in academia.
A horizontally diverse network can be useful, for sure — the PayPal mafia primarily went to two different schools and were almost all in the same age range — but it isn’t as powerful as a vertically diverse network for early professional life.
The best way to acquire a powerful professional network is to put some skin in the game and go out into the professional world.
“I need social interaction.”
“The college experience” has become synonymous with everything from branching out into new social circles to reenacting Animal House every other weekend. Despite what liberal-arts professors will declare every year in articles at Inside Higher Ed and the Huffington Post, college is, for many students, a consumption good. They’re looking to get a certain experience out of college and are paying for that experience. Especially if you come from a more limited upbringing or social background, the idea of going to a university and getting to know different people with a plethora of backstories can be exciting.
Just like the professional network, we have to ask ourselves if this is the best way of acquiring this experience.
Want to know how you can get the college experience without all the debt and opportunity cost? Just move to a college town and participate in intramural clubs and competitions. Plenty of people do this. They either move there hoping to become students someday but never enroll, or simply go for a few years to experience the life and culture with no intention of enrolling. It’s an easy way to get a big part of why most people attend school in the first place.
But maybe you aren’t just looking for the parties and the sporting events. Maybe you’re looking to expand your social networks and looking for new experiences.
If you’re a bright, driven young person, it isn’t easy to go out and meet new people, especially if you are forced to do so through some other obligation. School forces us to meet each other by placing us within certain social confines. Work can do the same. Joining a high-growth team that requires a dynamic young worker is one easy way of expanding your social networks. Another is actually forcing yourself to meet people.
In The Four Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss challenges readers to ask for the phone numbers of several strangers of the opposite sex. Even if you aren’t actually interested in dating them, he says, asking for their numbers will make it much easier to initiate conversations elsewhere in life. Putting yourself outside your comfort zone allows you to shed the self- and otherimposed blinders that keep you from realizing just how easy many supposed difficulties are to overcome.
So go out there and try meeting four new people, using nothing but looks alone. You’ll be astonished at how easy it is. Even if you get rejected, you’ll learn through failure how to adapt your ways.
“What if I just want to learn?”
Let me be clear: I am not opposed to education. It is my love of education that drove me away from school. In a culture as thoroughly schooled as modern America, where most everybody has gone through compulsory K-12 education and more are going through seemingly compulsory college education, it can be difficult to differentiate between “education” and “school.” It can be even harder to differentiate between “school” and “classes.”
Not all education is schooling, and not all classes are schooling. For some people, classes are the best way to learn, but this doesn’t mean they have to be enrolled in school in the traditional sense. For many, education and schooling are at odds with each other, with schools designed to produce a different result than what the individual wants to get out of his education.
If you are looking at staying in school because you want an education, you again must ask yourself, “College compared to what?”
You need not be a radical autodidact to find that school does a terrible job educating. From social pressures to majoring in “marketable” subjects to putting assignment minutiae before learning as a whole, schools create and reinforce incentive systems that make it difficult to focus on education first and foremost.
The great thing about the rise of the Internet is that it has lowered the barrier to entry for so many fields. Your cell phone has more human knowledge available to it than all of the libraries of Harvard circa 1960. You just have to find a way to sort out that knowledge. This is what MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) like Coursera try to do. By having experts sort through and organize the available knowledge in a variety of fields, MOOCs make education open to anybody with an Internet connection. With degree-mills like the University of Phoenix taking advantage of this technology, “online education” gets a bad rap. People imagine somebody who didn’t have what it takes to get into a “real college” sitting at home and doing their courses in their underpants. Whether this reputation is deserved is beside the point. What matters is this: if education matters to you, can this serve as a viable alternative?
But one of the claimed advantages of college is that it allows you to focus on studies and nothing else. You can be a student full-time and not have to worry about paying the bills or going to work, the story goes.
This might be the case, but that doesn’t mean it is desirable.
Education and work shouldn’t be easily divisible. Creating and enforcing an artificial barrier between the two just distances education from its application to our lives and makes us view work as a mere necessity. Both education and work are necessary and both have major impacts on how we structure our lives.
Balancing work with education makes it harder to compartmentalize both, allowing for applications from one to travel to the other. Studying Bertrand Russell’s philosophy of work can be great when you aren’t working, but it can have life-altering impacts when you are working. Getting a good grasp of economics can appear valuable in the abstract, but it can mean the difference between staying in your current job and launching your startup when you are working.
It’s time that we rethought the idea that education and work are to be divided. We get the most out of both when we experience them concurrently.
For some people academia is the best place both to learn and work, and they feel comfortable in school. If you are still reading this chapter, you probably aren’t this kind of person (or you have a morbid curiosity of why people want to tell others it is okay to leave school). If you are this kind of person, great! You’ll do great in school. Go become a professor. Just don’t tell others they have to follow your path.
“My parents won’t let me drop out.”
Parents of young people are some of the most ardent believers in the American collegiate mythos. They saw progress happen as more people got college degrees. They saw their friends go off to college and come back to phenomenal jobs. They saw college work.
Or so they thought, at least.
Even if college was the ideal way for a young person to take control of his life in that generation, this doesn’t mean that it would be for a later generation. Like every generation before them, the boomers are afraid to let their children participate in something they — the parents — view as risky.
Their objections are motivated by love and concern — but they don’t have to constrain you.
One of the best ways to prove to your parents that you will not fail to achieve anything or be motivated in the real world is to take a leave of absence from school. Take a semester or a year off; get a job at a fast-growing company; find a mentor; or travel the world successfully and show them that you can not only take care of yourself outside of school, but you can flourish while doing that. Once you do this, their resolve will likely weaken, and you will be able to convince them more easily that you should drop out.
If they’re still adamant, and you are sure you want to drop out, go ahead and do it anyway. Don’t do it to be hostile or confrontational with your parents. Do it to show them that you are behind your commitment 100 percent. Do it to show them that while you respect their opinions, you can think for yourself. Do it to enforce your ownership rights over your own decisions. Even if they are upset and angry in the moment, they’re likely to come around as you flourish without school.
“I want to drop out. I just don’t know where to start.”
Okay, you’re ready to get started, but you don’t know where to turn. You may not have a mentor you can call on immediately to ask for a job, or you don’t have your own idea that you can launch.
Getting started is hard. Just as in physics, an object at rest requires action by an outside force before it starts moving. Once you start moving, you’ll be astonished at how easy it is to keep moving.
If you’re looking to drop out and take control of your education and your career, but don’t have a project to jump into immediately, your first goal should be identifying something you think you would enjoy. But how do you know what to pick?
Think about the things you hate.
Now think of all the jobs you could work in where you would be doing those things you hate as seldom as possible.
Find a company near you that you think does something interesting and inspirational, a company for which you would be happy to wake up in the morning and go to work. Find the highest-ranking person in that company and write an email explaining your background, experience, and reasons for wanting to work there.
Make your request clear: let me work for you.
If you must work for free first, do it (see below). Even if it is just a few hours per week, working for free and doing good work will not only ingratiate you with the team but it will also put them in a position where, as time goes on and your opportunity cost rises with your increasing skill and experience, the company will be forced either to offer to pay you or find a replacement for you. Turnover costs are high, especially at startups, and replacing good talent is incredibly difficult even at entry level. Making yourself indispensable is your first step towards landing a job.
But how to make yourself indispensable? If you’ve been in school your entire life, you probably lack even the most basic workplace skills. How are you supposed to compete with people who might have more experience, connections, or a degree?
The most valuable skill is basic competence.
From executive vice presidents to summer interns, organizations often have a difficult time finding people who will do what they say they will do, show up when they say they will show up, and do their work well.
If you can approach your work singlemindedly for a short period of time and make yourself indispensable, you’ll never have a hard time getting a paid fulltime job.
If you have a skill, especially one in high demand like coding, sales, or a trade, simply make that clear when you email someone about work.
“But what if I don’t get a reply?”
Be persistent. Send an email every week insisting on an interview and emphasizing that you can prove your worth. Worst-case scenario? You don’t get a reply and learned how to be persistent in emails. Best case? You land the job.
Send emails to several companies. Showcase your work. Make your request clear. Don’t ramble about different things you could do. Ask if you can work with them.
This will be your first step towards escaping school and being in the driver’s seat of your education and career.
A Modest Proposal
Every year thousands of families will open up their pocketbooks and tap into the sacrosanct savings fund that many parents set up before their first child was even born: the college fund. As they prepare to send their high school graduates off to college, they’ll shell out thousands of dollars to universities, companies, and textbook publishers — maybe symbolically giving the money to the student first, but with the clear understanding that it can then only be given directly to the universities. This money will support the student through the college years and help him launch himself forward into stable adulthood, offsetting any student loans he may need and making life a little bit easier.
Perhaps more romantically, the money is to provide the young person opportunity. Any good parent wants to give his children the opportunity to become their best possible selves. The most obvious and safest path to this in the mind of the boomers is to attend college. Go and learn about the world for a few years; try something new; and at the very least, even if you don’t find a job on graduating, you’ll have a good experience and a degree under your belt.
But this is the romanticized vision of the college experience. As I’ve said, in a world of so much more information, so much more (cheap!) connectedness, and generally more opportunities for ambitious young people, there’s a huge opportunity cost to just taking the college-as-success pill no-questions-asked.
But even more, there’s the huge financial cost to the college savings fund. If the purpose of saving up so much money ($10,000, $20,000, $50,000, maybe upwards of $100,000) is to use it so that your child may learn how to become a successful adult and be exposed to the experiences that will mold him as such, giving that money directly to a college is one of the worst possible things you could do.
Imagine that rather than giving this money to a university to cover tuition, parents instead took the money and gave it to their child as a “coming-of-age fund.” The stipulations are simple: the newly christened adult can spend it on whatever he would like. If he wants to spend it on college, he is free to do so. But he is also free to spend it on a fancy car, a down payment on a house, traveling around the world, or seed-funding his own company. It would give him the freedom to explore his options without feeling pigeonholed.
Would some people take the money and blow it? Absolutely. Would others make something greater out of it than if they had spent it on college? Absolutely. What matters is that these young adults would actually be treated as adults and given the freedom and responsibility to deal with freedom and responsibility.
Even in the worst-case scenario, where a young person blows the money on sheer thrills and gambling, he would still learn more about himself and about managing money than if he were subsidized to sit in an academic bubble for four years, where he rarely felt the pain of spending $10,000 per semester so the university vice provost to the assistant secondary dean of diversity student life could afford a new Mercedes-Benz.
The college savings fund appears to be a great idea in the abstract — a sort of safety net to help push children of boomers onto the path to the middle class — but when considered with the opportunities it closes off and the other ways the money could be spent, it is a vestige of a risk-averse generation. Giving young people the opportunity to spend large sums of money however they wish would teach them more about themselves, the world around them, and the opportunities they do and do not have better than going to college simply because that’s what they’ve been told to do.
You Do You
Ultimately, the decision to drop out of school is a highly personal one, which can be fraught with waves of emotions thanks to a culture that glorifies the collegiate experience. I did not write this chapter to convince you to drop out of school if you love school. I wrote it for the people who, like me, feel that they can get something more out of the best years of their lives. I also wrote it because the cultural narrative around school is mind-bogglingly unfair. If you announce you are going to college, not a person will tell you to check yourself and make sure you aren’t making a rash decision. If you announce you’re going to drop out of school, you’ll get stern talking-to from your parents and an email from your aunt you haven’t seen in years; your friends may refer you to the school therapist. I want to flip that narrative.
Be very discerning about what you do while you are young. Being 18–25, with little debt, no mortgage, and no strong familial commitments gives you a level of freedom that very few other people have. You can try many things, take many risks, put a lot on the line without losing too much.
Leaving school isn’t easy, and it is different depending on where you live. Being a dropout in Silicon Valley isn’t as interesting as being one in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. People may discount you. People may not care. Prove them wrong. Make them esteem you by doing good work.
[i] For more on the destructive nature of competition, see Zero to One: Notes on Startups, Or How to Build The Future by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters (Crown Business, 2014).
[ii] Full disclosure: the friend later employed me at his startup for several years.
[iv] For more on the idea of mimetic theory, visit www.imitatio.org
[v] Zero to One, 68–69.
[vii] For hacking failure, see: https:/medium.com/on-breaking-the-mold/failure-is-overrated- hacking-failure-for-success-e7b0c08591f9