The Most Important Thing I Learned In College
This is not an anti-college rant. I’m glad I went. I loved college. I better have, because I stayed there for 7 years. And I’m planning on going back for a PhD, which means another 5 to 6 years. Then research for who knows how long. So I’m definitely not against higher education. Other than for the people who end up dying in beer bong accidents or who are driven to nervous breakdowns, which is to say, the outliers, I believe everyone who goes to college is better off for it. Everyone. That is, until you look at the costs.
If college were truly free, then I think college would be great for everyone. I also think it would be great for everyone to live in whatever type of house they would like to live in, wherever they want in the world, drive whatever car they want to, eat whatever they want to, and do whatever they want with all their time. But try as governments might to convince us to the contrary, all these things come with a cost, and so does a college education. Even if one has scholarships and all expenses are paid, there is the question of one’s time and opportunity cost–the time one spends in college when one might have been traveling the world, starting a business, or reading books.
I own a business. I write for publications like Forbes and Entrepreneur magazines. I’ll be speaking at a TEDx event next month. I have a beautiful wife and two above-average children. We live in Hong Kong. I think if we were to take a survey of 100 random people, most of them would say I’m moderately “successful,” whatever that means to them. And I assume many of those same people, were they given my educational details, would conclude that some part of my success, perhaps a large part of my success, is due to the 7 years I spent in college getting a graduate degree. But that’s not the case at all. Everything I’ve accomplished I could have done just as well, perhaps better, had I not gone to college.
- My business. I wasn’t trained on entrepreneurship at college. I was trained to work at a Fortune 500 company, and even there my training was minimal.
- Writing. Other than a creative writing course and general courses on writing and grammar, I have no formal training as a journalist.
- Speaking. I gave a few presentations in college, but I was never trained in public speaking.
I have never once had the experience of confronting a challenge in my business and thinking “Boy, I’m glad I went to college and took Class ABC, because if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have a clue what to do right now.” Any success I’ve had in the three areas above have come from mentors, books, practice, opportunity, and God. That isn’t to say I didn’t learn anything in college, or that everything I learned in college was useless. I enjoyed Dr. Hansen’s database theory class and Dr. Liddle’s programming classes. But with all due respect to those men, whom I consider friends, I could have walked away with just as much after a day or two doing tutorials on Codecademy, had such a thing existed back then. The same goes for almost every college course I’ve had. I could have received the same knowledge in a much shorter period of time, at a much lower cost, and likely in a way that would have been more customized and suited to my particular needs, somewhere else.
This is me. Someone else might have a completely different experience, although I suspect at least 5 to 10% of college students are just like me. But there is one thing I learned in college that I couldn’t have learned anywhere else–I now know what someone who has gone to college knows. This has been invaluable to me. As a business owner, when I’m hiring someone to do bizdev and I can choose between an MBA coming straight out of school and someone who has 6 months of schooling and has sold pest control for the past four summers, I know the MBA degree should be ignored. The person with the MBA might be the better choice, but it’s not the MBA that makes him or her the better choice. When I hire a programmer, I know that having a college degree in programming isn’t what I should focus on. I know that GPA isn’t something I care about. I hire people who know how to get jobs done, and I can test that in ways other than by looking at their diploma.
For other employers it’s different. How do you know if someone is a good accountant? How do you know someone will make a good civil engineer or geologist? Companies hiring people for those roles have to depend on degrees and grades because they don’t have much else. They can’t look at a website the way I can to judge whether a web designer is worth hiring or not. But there are more employers who are in my shoes than there were 10 or 20 years ago. For many professions a degree is not worth what it once was.
Would I recommend anyone go to college? Yes. If you want to go to college, I think you should go. If you’re going to have a complex the rest of your life that prevents you from being successful at anything because you’ll always regret not having gone to college, I think you should go, although I think it would better if you could get over the complex. If your career path requires it, I think you should go. That is, if you want to be a doctor, I wouldn’t recommend trying to rebel against the system. But if you’re not sure you should go, I would think long and hard before signing up. And if you want to be an entrepreneur, I would likely try to talk you out of it.
Why then, am I glad I went, and would I do it again? I’m glad I went, because of this important thing I learned–that a college degree ain’t all that. I’m also glad for what I did learn in my classes, even though it came at great cost in terms of time and money. I’m glad I have doors open to me because of my degrees, like being able to go pursue a PhD and not have to work around not having other degrees. And I’m glad I went because I care a lot about education, and I would like to change the system of higher education. I would like to see a college that does graduate successful entrepreneurs who look back 20 years later and say “Wow, I’m sure glad I went to college.” I have specific reasons, unique to me, that make me glad I went, and that are motivating me to go back. But if that’s not you, and you’re thinking of starting your own business or joining a startup, take it from me–just go start that business. Join that startup. You won’t get the degree, but you’re about to get 100x the education.
Are you an entrepreneur? Did you go to college? Are you glad you did? Why?