Less than a year ago Y Combinator offered my friends and me the opportunity to pursue our startup by entering their program.
I wasn’t required to leave college for good, I just had to take a single semester off. But I knew myself. I wouldn’t be able to go back to the grind of classes after 8 months without them, regardless of the company’s success. A temporary departure would really be permanent.
I discussed this decision with family, friends, and mentors. The verdict was split, so I sought advice online. After reading a number of articles, I noticed a distinct pattern in the results: millionaire and billionaire entrepreneurs espoused the virtues of spending your late-teens/early-twenties outside the classroom. “Founders don’t need college,” I heard again and again.
Conversely, every resource I encountered that urged me to stay in school had a different tone — a motherly one:
A college education makes you more likely to get the job of your dreams. This is definitely true for most professions but was never enough to keep me motivated. The reward was too nebulous.
Many successful people have college degrees. This smelled of a dubious causal claim. And besides, “checking boxes” doesn’t make me happy.
A degree gives you a safety net to fall back on. This didn’t strike a chord with me because I don’t want to spend the better part of my youth constructing a safeguard. I want to do something I love — now.
I sensed I wasn’t hearing the full story. There’s something consoling about hearing someone else’s, albeit anecdotal, reasons for making a decision: it can make you more confident in your own. For a college kid with a knack for technology and a drive to create badass things, what value was there in higher education? I struggled to find an article answering this question in my own tongue. This is that article.
Academia and Autodidacts
Perhaps the most evident and oft-cited reason for staying in school is that the classes you take leave you with tangible skills. While this may be true, it misses the point — the most valuable courses don’t prescribe what to learn, but how to learn.
I often hear the adage from other students that liberal arts education is useless. They harp on their belief that a technical degree is more valuable than a non-technical degree, as if it conveyed personal or intellectual superiority:
A degree in [English/Sociology/Philosophy/etc.] doesn’t translate to skills in the workplace. Why not learn something practical?
This mentality is unabashedly narrow-minded and anti-intellectual. Every single field of study has intellectual worth, whether you appreciate it or not. Scholars have increased both the breadth and depth of human understanding in subjects they find compelling. Monumental discoveries often come from places where practical application is not immediately apparent. This is the point of academia.
Every discipline, by its very nature, has a different way of learning. Each gives you new ways to conceptualize entities and their interactions with each other. Alternative mental models are no more wrong or right, they’re just different, and perhaps incompatible. The analytical tools you gain through the study of a field are of far greater use than any degree.
You might argue that it’s possible to expand your knowledge of different disciplines outside of college. And you’d be right! You definitely can.
But you won’t. You won’t because it’s hard. You won’t because you don’t know where to begin. You won’t because at first glance, any field unrelated to your current fascination will appear boring. You won’t because it’s difficult finding time to explore topics unrelated to your job or startup.
School forces you outside your comfort zone. You may dislike a field of study, but it’s important that you study things you dislike for some amount of time to be a well-rounded person. Consider that many important innovations began at the intersection of multiple fields. In fact, all of the most valuable courses I’ve taken are unrelated to computer science.
Good students teach themselves. I’ll be frank: I rarely go to classes. Some would call me an autodidact — a self-learner — but I don’t believe there is such a thing. I’m always learning from someone else, whether it be a lecturer, the writer of a textbook, or the collective authors of a Wikipedia article. Each is simply a different medium, and everyone has their own set of preferences.
It would be dishonest of me to not address why I despise (and continue to despise!) specific courses: bad classes with bad curriculum taught by bad teachers are a waste of your time. The reasoning above is in the ideal case, when your courses inspire you to learn more rather than overload you with grunt work. Optimize for engaging classes with professors who will push you outside your intellectual comfort zone. Avoid bad classes at all costs.
Many of college’s most important lessons cannot be learned from books. School is a catalyst for experiences that teach you your physical, emotional, and mental limits. When combined with academics, an undergraduate program offers you the greatest variety of opportunities to acquire new skills, both from your fellow students and from faculty. There will never be another time — not even at a startup — when you will be surrounded by such a concentration of peers encouraging and enabling you to learn more.
You are not the next Mark Zuckerberg.
…and that’s okay!
Tech has a problem with cults of personality. It seems like everyone believes themselves to be the CEO of the next runaway billion-dollar venture.
However, many budding entrepreneurs go further, attempting to mimic the personal lives and decisions of those whom they idolize. But if you’re living your life as a shadow of another, you’ll come to realize that it’s self-defeating. There will never be the “next Mark Zuckerberg.” That’s not how it works.
Live your life. Don’t attempt to become the “next” someone else — be the next you. I bet that your own ambitions are more interesting.
Startup culture is antagonistic toward this mentality. I know of those who scour Hacker News/TechCrunch/their watering hole of choice for the precise steps they must take to turn their fledgling company into a unicorn. If you don’t have an elaborate five-year plan, you’ve already failed.
Screw that. You don’t need a “life plan.” You probably don’t even want one. College is an invitation to discover yourself. Take advantage of that.
Why the rush?
The socially inept drop-out entrepreneur has become something of a cliché in modern media. Dropping out to build a business is fashionable.
Some brilliant individuals have capitalized on this trend by encouraging the best and brightest to prematurely end their formal education. Most notably, the Thiel Fellowship selects a handful of students each year to drop out of school for two years in exchange for a grant and mentorship that helps them pursue their (usually entrepreneurial) passion. I have many friends in the Thiel Fellowship, believe the program selects high-quality candidates, and applaud the Fellowship for making it more socially acceptable to drop out of school or bypass it altogether.
I do not, however, agree with the program’s fundamental thesis. These programs do exactly the same thing as the track-based college education system they oppose: they provide a thin veil of external validation. An award — a degree — does not mean you’ve “made it.” The hard work remains to be done.
I’m under the impression that the Thiel Fellowship is looking for students who can’t wait to drop out and are searching for the final straw that will push them over the edge. However, if that last push comes externally, it might be for the wrong reasons. Ask yourself if you’d be making the same decision if you received no validation whatsoever. If you would still drop out, then, almost paradoxically, programs like the Thiel Fellowship might be a good fit for you.
I speak from experience and observation when I say that if you’re going to make a company, you can probably prototype it while in school. If it begins taking off and classes are getting in the way, that’s the right moment to call it quits on college.
Don’t pigeonhole yourself, though. There are countless other projects to work on while still attending classes. In my first 3 years at UC Berkeley, I built an app in our student-run incubator, threw the biggest hackathon to date, and developed a bunch of open source software. I consider all of these to be instrumental to my professional growth.
There’s no reason to wait until graduation to begin working on the things you love. Team up with friends for class projects. Build something — anything — even if it isn’t a business. Hold an event or fundraise for a cause. Conduct research under a professor. Use your campus’s resources to your advantage. All that matters is that you do something that you care about.
Yet, the most important thing I did in college is intangible: I found a community of friends that challenges me everyday. Surrounding yourself with the right group of peers is the crucial element in making your undergrad experience fun and worthwhile. Invest time into your relationships. Life outside of collegiate social bubbles can be isolating. When you enter the real world, your friendships are what you’ll hold dear.
Life is short. Your youth, being a subset, is shorter. You owe it to yourself to have a little (more) fun.
There are a lot of activities you can only experience while at school. I think many who promote dropping out miss the fact that we’re human. We are not solely motivated by perceived long-term rewards. Here’s an abbreviated list of things you’re guaranteed to miss out on should you decide to leave college:
- Meet people your own age with different world-views or ethnic/financial/geographic/political backgrounds.
- Enjoy more free time than you know what to do with, leaving room to adventure (or just eat cheesy sticks and play video games).
- Join one of a million student groups, or start your own.
- Live in a fraternity, sorority, cooperative, or any other student-centered community.
- “Expand your mind” in an environment where it’s socially acceptable.
- Use your summers to sample different work environments through internships, travel around the world, or spend valuable time with friends and family.
- Watch dance, choral, theater, and other kinds of performances featuring your classmates.
- Build awesome stuff and meet life-long friends at collegiate hackathons.
- Wear sweatpants every single day.
When I chose to turn down YC in order to complete my undergrad degree, the decision surprised everyone. However, no one was more surprised than myself. I spent my whole life itching for a justifiable opportunity that would take me out of classes once and for all. Yet once I was afforded it, I reneged — not out of fear, but out of understanding.
I’ve become accustomed to explaining my reasons for staying in school. Generally, it’s the first question others ask when they hear that I was on the verge of dropping out. But rarely do they ask how I feel about the decision. I’d say this is a much more important question. Well, how do I feel, a little over half a year later?
I’m happy I’m still in college, and I can’t fucking wait for senior year.
Alex Kern is a software developer, entrepreneur, and student at UC Berkeley. He helps run @CalHacks, @StartupBerkeley, and @KairosSociety Northern California. This article originally appeared on Medium.