Originally published on Thought Catalog.

Everyone knows you have to go to college to be successful.  Sometimes everyone is wrong.  Here are five reasons to rethink college as the best path to a fulfilling career and life.

1) It’s expensive.

Here’s a chart showing college debt and earnings for degree holders.

Guess what?  It doesn’t matter.  Charts and graphs and studies like this can’t help you make your decision about college for two reasons:  Because data can never show causality and aggregates are not individuals.

When it comes to causality, it’s pretty unclear college is doing the work.  Yes, degree holders on average earn more money than those without degrees.  People in Florida on average are older than people in the rest of the country.  Does Florida magically speed the aging process?  Degrees don’t magically make people more productive workers either.

College is a sorting mechanism more than it is a forming mechanism.  The types of people who get into and complete college are the kind who would command higher salaries anyway.  Some studies have followed people who attended Ivy League schools and others accepted to those schools but who chose lower ranked schools instead.  There wasn’t a difference in lifetime earnings.  In other words, Ivy League caliber people don’t need an Ivy League education to have high earnings.

As for aggregates and individuals, consider the following question: Are pickup trucks a good idea for 18-25 year olds?  Are they worth the cost?  How many studies would it take to prove it?  It’s obviously a dumb question.  There is no one answer for all 18-25 year olds.  Aggregate cost/benefit analyses for all 18-25 year olds buying pickup trucks won’t mean much to you in your highly personalized experience.  It’s just as ridiculous to come up with a single answer to questions about whether college is worth it for young people.

Data can’t do the work of deciding.  The only answer that matters is whether a particular path is worth it for you.  What do you want to get?  What are the possible ways of getting it?  What do they cost?  The cost is not just money but time, foregone opportunities, etc.  Whatever your decision, know why you’re doing it.  Which brings me to…

2) Most people don’t know why they’re doing it.

I ask high school students if they plan to go to college.  They all say yes.  When I ask “why” I have never heard anything but some variation on,

“Because I have to”, or, “To get a job”.

Then I ask what kind of job they want.  Crickets.  They don’t have any idea.

That’s perfectly fine – most teenagers don’t know and probably can’t know what they’ll be doing in ten or twenty years – but it’s pretty odd considering their entire reason for going to college is to get something about which they know nothing, including whether or not a degree will help them.

So the formula is, “I want X.  I have no idea what X is or what’s required to get it.  Therefore I’ll spend four years and tens of thousands of dollars on college.”  Maybe logic classes aren’t taught in high schools.

College may be a necessary or valuable way for you to get what you want out of life.  Then again maybe not.  The point is, you need to do some exploring and experimenting to find out.  You won’t know if your calling in life is marketing by sitting in a classroom and reading about it.  Spend some time around people who do it and see what it’s like.  If you love it, do you need a degree to do it?

The cultural narrative on college is, “Buy it!  Buy it!  No amount of cost or debt should factor into your decision, because it’s always worth it!”.  That’s a terrible way to make sound decisions about anything.  Remember the last time everyone was saying, “Buy! Buy! The price can only ever go up!”? (Housing bubble anyone…)

But maybe you’re going to college just for fun, which leads me to…

3) Most don’t enjoy it (and the parts they do enjoy can be had for free).

Parents and students tell me all the time that they’re unhappy with college.  Do you know what the number one complaint is?  Surprisingly, it’s not how much it costs.  It’s how much it sucks.

The number of young people who are bored in class and disappointed with the caliber of professors and students is staggering.  Students feel disengaged.  The part they like least about college is attending class and official duties.

If you sent a visitor from another planet to a typical college class and asked them to observe and report back to you what they thought they were witnessing they’d probably guess by the pained, dreary looks and lack of engagement it was some kind of penal colony or experiment where the students are being paid huge sums to endure fluorescently lit torment.  Nope, you tell them, these people are actually paying thousands to sit in the squeaky chairs and Snapchat their friends with a distracting TA in the background.

The things they love the most – parties, socialization, late night conversations, football games – can all be had without paying tuition.  Heck, if you really love a particular class or professor, I bet you can sneak into her class without registering and take it anyway.  I’ve never seen professors checking who’s current on tuition before the lecture.  They’d be thrilled to have someone in the class who was actually interested!

So why do people go?  Most don’t do it to stand out from the crowd, but to be normal; to blend in.  In that sense, it works.  But that might not be such a good thing…

4) It’s one size fits all in a world that demands customization.

Sure, there are lots of different majors and classes, but the approach is almost exactly the same in every case.  Follow rules, meet arbitrary deadlines with arbitrary assignments that will be glanced at by TA’s, passively listen to lectures and memorize answers you never need to know (because, you know, Google exists now).  

Chances are the job you’ll have in ten or twenty years doesn’t even exist yet.  That means the most valuable life and career skills are the very ones the classroom setting isn’t conducive for.  Adaptability, entrepreneurial thinking, creative problem solving, networking with people who can help you, etc.  In the classroom setting entrepreneurship is called cheating and networking is called missing class.

You can’t rely on your university to be your brand.  You are your own company, “Me, Inc.”, and you have to develop valuable skills and knowledge and find ways to communicate them to others.

The good news is, things you’ll really need to succeed are available in myriad forms, most much cheaper than the university.  Get a job.  Get a bunch of jobs.  Travel.  Talk to a lot of people.  Read.  Take online courses.  Write.  Figure out what you enjoy and practice it.  Work your butt off.  Anyone can graduate college.  It takes a lot more work to list what you want to gain and find the best way to get it.  Customize your life.  Don’t assume a degree can do this for you, because…

5) It doesn’t signal much anymore.

I overheard a classmate in college talking about how hard the test was (it wasn’t) and how many girls he wooed the previous night (he didn’t) and how hung-over he was (he was).  Right then and there I had an epiphany: He, like everyone else in the classroom, would probably graduate from this place.  Like me, they’d go on the job market and have the same degree.  Suddenly I felt the market value of my impending accomplishment plummet.

Let’s be real.  The only reason people keep paying so much for college is for the signal a degree sends to employers.  Sure, the other parts of the college bundle are great, but they can all be had in other, better and cheaper ways.  It’s the signal that keeps people buying.  But that signal is weakening and the value declining.

I talk to a lot of business owners.  They don’t care much about degrees anymore.  They want experience, proof of work ethic, and ability to quickly and coherently answer an email (only about seven people under the age of 25 have this ability).  College is the new high school.  Everyone does it, so it doesn’t make anyone stand out.  In fact, not going to college and having a damn good reason why might stand out a lot more.

Top venture capital firm Andreessen Horwitz specifically looks for entrepreneurs who were college dropouts, because it’s a good sign they are courageous and confident in their idea.  Google is one among many businesses to recently remove degrees from job requirements.

Get experience, gain confidence, learn what you like and don’t like, work hard, build skills, knowledge, and a network around your interests and goals.

College is one option among many.  Don’t do it just because everyone else does.  Those are the same people who bought a bunch of Beanie Babies as a retirement fund because everyone else was.

I have  a farm team.  Actually it’s more of a list, mostly mental but I sometimes put it in a spreadsheet.  It’s names of the handful of individuals I would work with in a heartbeat.  It’s been indispensable on numerous occasions.

Even before I started Praxis I often recruited from my farm team for projects or to recommend great people to cool opportunities.  The farm team consists of that very small number of extraordinary people who have the spark.  They also have amazing work ethic to go with it.  Most of them don’t yet know how good they are and how great they can be.  When you meet people like that, stay connected to them.  Find ways to send them ideas, engage them in activities, and encourage and aid their development in any way you can while remaining hands off.  When you need a hand or need to start a company, they are far more valuable than investment capital or a logo.

Every one of the people I now work with were on my farm team at one point.  I am constantly on the look out for new members for the roster.  At any given time there are half a dozen or so people. I wish there were more, but these are rare individuals.  These are people that I would work with any time I had the chance, and rely on to succeed under almost any circumstance.  These are people you want in the trenches with you.  They’re not necessarily friends or even people I am in frequent contact with, though they sometimes are.  What matters is the “it” factor.  They either have it or they don’t.  I think it can be learned, but by around age 20 it’s pretty hard to gain if it’s not been cultivated yet.

Asking myself whether or not someone belongs on the farm team provides a lot of insight.  The answer it usually pretty quick and easy but it forces me to ask myself why the answer was a yes or no.  The more I do, the more I know what to look for, and the more I know what to look for the more likely I am to spot it.

Write down the handful of individuals you’d work with on anything.  If someone gave you a million dollars to start a company who would you call immediately?  Maintain that list, add to it, monitor it from time to time.  You might need it.

The most common thing in the world is to hear someone complain about their job, their church, their school, or their neighborhood.  It’s almost a form of casual conversation.  In many cases people don’t actually dislike these things, but they just enjoy ripping on them for fun.  In many cases though there is a deep and genuine frustration, boredom, annoyance, anger, or pain.  Why don’t people leave?  Why not exit the situation for a better one?  It turns out this is one of the most difficult things to do.

I don’t think the primary difficulty in exiting a soul-sucking situation is for fear of the unknown.  In many cases even the unknown would be better than the known frustration.  I don’t think it’s primarily because society places a (too) high level of respect on loyalty.  I don’t think it’s primarily because of the illusion that we can “change it from the inside” or play the role of reformer.  I think these are rationalizations people give for why they stay.  There is a more fundamental reason people stay in bad situations.  Staying means you get to play the role of two cheap, easy archetypes with quick rewards: the critic and the martyr.

It’s incredibly easy to be a critic.  Hardly any effort is required to sit at the back of the room, arms crossed, and look indifferent while making an occasional sarcastic comment to the person next to you.  Critics get friends.  They get quick points and rally a small band around them in every setting.  Every company has the critic and his cadre of cronies who circle around to hear his latest jab.  Every church has the member who has meetings and conversations to discuss their concerns and troubles.  Critics enjoy a weak form of respect and they are never alone.  Even in a happy crowd as soon as one critic peels off and stands apart, too good for the activity, he attracts others who don’t want to be duped or fooled.

Being too cool is easy.  Actually making good on your critiques and leaving that which you claim to be above is hard.  The role of critic is not a bad one, but it’s dangerous.  It’s dangerous because it’s so easy.  The way caffeine is easier than getting more sleep.  Both have valuable and enjoyable uses in the short run or in certain situations as a kind of jolt into reality.  But in both cases the long run effect is incredibly deleterious to your health.  If you only ever play the role of the critic you lose the capacity to exit or create.  You are no longer the one in control of your life.  You are a victim of and a slave to that which you critique.  You need it because without it you have nothing.

It’s a little harder to be a martyr, but not much.  To play the martyr is to stay in a painful situation, which may sound hard but is much easier than doing things you love.  Unpleasant things naturally find their way to you upon waking in the morning.  Most disciplines are unpleasant at the outset.  Most jobs are.  Most new people are a lot of work to befriend at first.  The easy route is to give just enough of an effort to stay in a situation, but never fully engage and never simply exit.  Complaining about your boss or professor and how mind-numbing your day was is an easy way to get the attention of others.  If the critic gets cheap popularity, the martyr gets cheap sympathy.  Everyone feels bad for the sufferer.  When you feed off of that sympathy and choose it over the much more challenging work of finding situations that don’t make you suffer, you seek the same caffeine-like quick fix as the critic, and with equal danger.

I’ll use an example I’m very familiar with.  I’ve met many young people who hate college.  They’re bored, the classes are useless, the tuition is costly, the experience as a whole makes them feel dull and depressed if not openly angry.  Calculated as a purely economic decision it makes no sense for them to stay.  Four years, tens of thousands of dollars, and a very weak network and set of skills and knowledge gained at the end.  They can think of myriad ways to get more with less.  But that’s not the only cost.  To exit means to quit playing the role of critic and martyr.  Those come with a lot of easy points.

Worse still, once you exit you forgo the chance to play those roles again.  When you complain about your job or rip on your boss you won’t get laughs or sympathy.  You’ll get condemnation.  “Well it’s your own fault.  I told you not to drop out of school!”  It’s the same with churches, cities, and any other situation you can exit.  Exit means giving up the cheap benefits of the critic and the martyr and adding the cost of social approbation.

It’s easy to see why so many people stay in crappy situations they clearly hate.  It’s easier.  No one gets mad at you for staying.  You get cheap popularity and/or sympathy.  You are not accountable for your feelings.  It’s always the fault of the bad situation you’re in.  This is one of the most tragic traps a human can trip.

The power of exit is at the core of human freedom.  It is the first step on the road to genuine fulfillment and self-actualization.  Once you embrace it – and the only way to embrace it is to exercise it – you begin to find, paradoxically, that it needn’t be used as often as you thought.  Sometimes just knowing that you are in a situation by choice and could leave at any time is enough to re-orient your outlook to a more productive, positive one.

If you want to live a great life you have to create it.  Creating is learned.  It’s not free.  To become a creator you have to first let go of the critic and the martyr.  Yes, critique can be the eye-opener that leads to exit and creativity.  Yes, martyrdom can bring the pain that leads to the same.  It’s not that you’ll never play those roles, it’s just that you can’t live in them.

If you want to create a good life you have to first exit the bad one.  Exit alone is not sufficient.  Indeed some people get addicted to exit much the same way they can to critic or martyr.  Always leaving what’s not working but never building what will.  Still, exit is indispensable and far more powerful than attempts at reforming bad situations.  Reform is fundamentally submissive and reactive while exit is empowering and leads to the creative and proactive.

The martyr, the critic, and the coward belong together.  Leave them behind.

It is possible to have ideas without action.  It is not possible to have action without ideas.

In my personal habits I am a very action biased person to the point of impatience and occasional recklessness.  Yet in the bigger scheme I place far more importance on the role of ideas over action, theory over practice.  Not because I think theory without practice is good, but because I know action without ideas is impossible.  Thinkers can not act.  That’s a tragedy.  But actors can never not think.  If they believe they are just acting and not philosophizing they’re simply doing bad philosophy.

All action is based on theory.  My friend Steve Patterson summed this up nicely:

“Human action is an expression of philosophy. Every decision we make is inescapably framed and guided by our ideas about the world. Sometimes these ideas are clearly communicated by our actions; we write a book or create meaningful art. Other times, our ideas are so silent we aren’t even aware of them; they become a kind of subconscious framework for our actions.”

When you act you do so because you have ideas about your present condition, beliefs about a preferable future state, and beliefs about how the action will bring it about.  Those who brag about acting over thinking are admitting to taking actions based on unexamined ideas.

There are two main ideas underlying all action, and both need to be examined.  The first is an idea about an end state one wants to reach.  The second is a theory of causality about what will bring that end state.  An end state that is actually bad, or that the actor wouldn’t actually enjoy if they reached is is troubling.  It’s the dog that catches the car.  Many activists or “doers” imagine they want what they are chasing but they have not put any difficult, disciplined philosophical work in to examine their desired end, and to get to know themselves and see if it’s truly a desirable state.

Theories of causality are even less examined.  So many well-intentioned people imagine a better world.  Even if they’re sure they’d want to get there, many lose patience with theorizing and want to just do something.  Doing something can be an integral and valuable part of forming a theory of how to get there the way experiments help shed light on physical phenomena.  But if the actor doesn’t regularly stop to theorize, incorporate experience as feedback, adjust causal assumptions, and repeat, the action is useless or worse.

In our society you get points for doing something.  If what you want is noble and you’re doing something, you’re applauded.  Never-mind that you may lack any understanding of physical, economic, or social realities that can cause your action to result in nothing or even the opposite of your goal.

It is for this reason that I cringe when I hear people praise either ideas or action at the expense of the other.  In fact, I think the only camp that really does this are the activists.  The thinkers talk about the importance of ideas, and many may be too fearful or lazy to do any real-world testing, but they don’t typically claim that action is worthless.  The self-proclaimed doers often vociferously vilify philosophizing  as a waste.  They do not realize that their denunciation is simultaneously an announcement that they are acting on unexamined and often bad ideas.  By decrying philosophers they don’t separate themselves from philosophy, they just become bad philosophers.

Practice without theory is not an option.  For this reason it is incumbent on all action-biased people to engage ideas with ferocious seriousness.  Ideas not acted upon may be sad, but action not contemplated can be utterly disastrous.

Think clearly; think boldly; think big and you can achieve big results.

Agere sequitur credere.

Violence is the least civilized and most extreme reaction to any problem or situation.  Even if you believe it warranted in some cases, it is universally seen as a last resort when all other methods have failed.  Even then there had better be a really good reason to use violence.  A mere, “Because I wanted something and couldn’t think of a better way to get it”, or, “Because she wouldn’t do what I said”, or, “Because I’ve done it that way before” don’t pass moral muster.

The one distinguishing feature of all governments is the use of force.  Every other function and activity governments engage in are not unique to governments.  Only the formal monopoly on the initiation of violence sets governments apart.  There is nothing a government does that is not backed by force.  Government is force.  Whatever ones belief about the necessity or goodness of government, this definition is not controversial.

Given our two premises above, a very simple conclusion follows:  Any government action ought to be viewed with extreme caution, skepticism, and as a last resort for the most pressing and important problems.  The burden of proof should always be on advocates of government action to prove it superior to any and all other scenarios.  And that should be a weighty burden.

This burden of proof is important not only because is government action is at bottom violent action, but especially when we consider that government has worse incentives than other institutions to get and keep things right.  (See Public Choice Theory).  Everything we know about the history of government plans and programs and laws, and everything we know about politicians, bureaucrats, and the political process ought to add to our caution and skepticism.

Note that this is not an ideological argument.  I am making no claims about the number of things that warrant government action.  You may believe it is a great many things while I believe it is nothing at all.  The only case I’m making here is about where the burden of proof should be when discussing any government law, regulation, tax, expenditure, or action of any kind.

We see the opposite more often than not.  A new regulatory apparatus or war or program is proposed and who is placed immediately on the defensive?  Nine times in ten the burden of proof is placed on those who oppose the action.  Surely this is an illogical and dangerous default.

I’ve been particularly surprised to see this in the case of proposed ‘Net Neutrality’ regulations.  This is a special case indeed, because it is a solution for a mostly nonexistent problem.  It’s not a time of crisis where people are so scared and desperate for any action that they suspend skepticism and gobble up whatever is proposed.  Internet users aren’t experiencing some kind of widespread horrors that have them storming the gates demanding change.  The proposed body of regulation would do nothing for consumers in any way easy to identify, and doesn’t even pretend to solve any kind of major, commonly felt problem.  It’s inside baseball among tech companies jockeying for position and running to that state to do it.  It will without question make the internet less dynamic and slow innovation, but even if it only did what advocates claim it would still not be any wonderful change from the status quo.  Surely this is a case where the public at large would respond with, “What is this new set of government activities and regulations being proposed and why should we listen?”  Surely the burden of proof is on those proposing this vague and confusing web of regulations.  Apparently not.

The conversation seems to have taken on a decisive tone.  Everyone knows NN is needed and warranted.  Any objectors must make an airtight case and must be highly credible persons.  Only then, maybe, can we discuss it being tweaked or slowed, or possibly stopped.  There is an air of inevitability about it, as with many major government actions, and skepticism isn’t aimed at the policy, but of anyone who doubts it.  Be skeptical of the skeptics, not the proposed action.

Worse, the skeptics themselves seem to accept the burden of proof as rightly belonging to them.  Those who best understand problems with government and are most skeptical of it are busy policing each other, trying to ensure everyone makes the best possible case.  They have to be sure not to offend.  They have to be sure to address every possible angle.  They can’t have a single weakness in their argument or thinking.  They can’t afford lazy logic.  But if we stop and consider what’s being proposed – an increase in government action (by definition violent action) – why should skeptics have to prove themselves?  The burden of proof ought to be entirely, squarely on advocates of the action.

Notice that I am not advocating for status quo bias.  I don’t think anything new or different in society ought to be treated more skeptically than the status quo.  It’s not about the newness of ideas or actions.  It’s about the type of action proposed.  When a raw exercise of force is the solution those advocating it ought to have the burden of proof.  This goes for existing instances of force-backed solutions as well as new ones proposed.

What reasonable person would say that force should be the first resort, or that action backed by it needn’t be considered or scrutinized more than any other?

unnamedNothing is guaranteed.  There is no plan or path that can ensure the kind of life you want.  There are only opportunities with varying degrees of risk.  And sometimes the least risky opportunities are also those least likely to result in fulfillment.  The great success stories are the result of daring expedition and pursuit of unique goals.

There was a time when a college education was something of an adventure.  It was exclusive, not easy to get, and signaled something special.  Leaving your home town for a university was a big deal, a great expedition.  This is no longer true.  Going to college is not difficult today.  It’s not elite or rare.  Most young people can easily travel and live away from their home towns and many have even before college.  Today, college isn’t much of an adventure.  In fact, it attracts some of the most risk averse individuals, and perhaps paradoxically the higher ranked the school often the more risk averse its students.

There is a small but growing number of young people who see this and they’ve got the itch.  They go to college only to realize it’s a warmed over version of all the years of safe, institutional schooling they’ve just completed.  No one will question their decision to go.  No one will call them crazy.  The risk of flunking out is as minuscule as the risk of standing out.  The sense of adventure is gone, replaced with a sense of perpetual adolescence and paternalistic planning.

Those with the itch for real adventure realize that no one is going to give it to them.  The prefabricated social life and conveyor-belt career track isn’t enough.  If they want to embark on a daring expedition, they’ll have to do it themselves.  The great secret is that it’s far easier than anyone imagines.  All the resources exist already within arms reach.  Anything in the world you want to learn or do, anyone you want to meet, any personal challenge you want to give yourself, any skill you want to devote yourself to: they’re all doable, without anyone’s permission.

The world is waiting.  It won’t be found on dorm room couches.  It won’t be found in cinder block classrooms.  It won’t be given to those who simply follow the rules and don’t upset the apple cart.  It will be discovered – it will be created – by those daring enough to seek adventure and live life on their own terms.

The geographical territory of the earth has been largely discovered.  But we’re only on the borderlands of human potential.  It lies before us vast, untamed, full of mystery and possibility.  It will be explored by those brave enough.  No special qualifications are needed beyond courage, self-honesty, a hunger for self-knowledge, and willingness to break the mold.

The great expedition of our age is the self-created journey; the self-directed life.


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