Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Why Finishing College Might Actually Hurt Your Career

I was thinking about all the people who never finished college and went on to great careers.  Just look at this list off the top of my head

  • Bill Gates

  • Steve Jobs

  • Michael Dell

  • David Geffen

  • Larry Ellison

  • Mark Zuckerberg

The list could go on for quite a while. In thinking about this I actually think this is not entirely a coincidence.  On that list are some of the most powerful and influential people in our modern business world.

Now in any sort of argument like this it is important not to confuse cause and effect.  It could easily be argued that all these people would have been successful whether or not they completed college.  It is not the fact that they DID NOT complete college that they were successful.  It is merely the fact that successful people will be successful no matter what.

While I certainly believe that may be partly the reason, I'm not sure there is not some level of causation.

One of the things I have been thinking about lately is how our society is organized and how it has created certain outcomes.  One of the things that is readily apparent to me is that our society is not geared to produce creative thinkers.  Our education system is very rules based.  And rules are in direct opposition to creativity.  The more rules you put on someone the more you constrain and limit her creative side.

We have created millions of students who know how to follow the rules and conform.  We use standardized test to measure performance and emphasize rote memorization and regurgitation over creativity and original thinking.  Those who are able to excel at these things are the ones who do well in school but they are not necessarily the ones to change the world.  You cannot change the world if you are constrained to thinking like everybody else and by following the rules that others have laid out for you.

I am not trying to be negative about our education system.  I am someone who benefited greatly from the current system as my strengths lie in taking standardized test and in rote memorization.  I therefore excelled in school.  But I am also not (yet) lighting the world on fire like the list above.  We as a society have emphasized this type of learning and environment to produce exactly what we wanted; a group of workers who would excel at doing exactly what was asked of them.   This was exactly what was needed for the majority of jobs that we created during the twentieth century.  Factory workers need to follow instructions exactly.  So do accountants (the last thing we need is "creative accounting".

So while I think our education system is great at producing this type of worker, it is not so great at creating the Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.  As we move away from a world where the good middle-class jobs are no longer available in the factories of Detroit but only via the screens of Silicon Valley, can our education change with it or will we be doomed?


  1. Those guys are flukes. There's no way that most people can be successful without a good college education.

  2. You ought to check out the book, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? Almost sounds like you are quoting there. =D

  3. You are crazy if you don't think it is important to get a college education.

  4. Thank you!! Finally someone else who feels this way!!

    She wasn't saying it's not important - just our education system sucks and doesn't allow for creativity. Our schools just prepare our kids to work in 9-5 day jobs without any creativity.

  5. Interesting topic. I wish I never had finished my degree. Now I am 80k in debt and not even using my degree. I was always told that you needed a degree in life to become someone. Actually, it seems it is the opposite sometimes.

  6. Timothy,

    It is probably true that for quite a few people, college is unnecessary. But I tend to think these people would have been great no matter what. For many people (myself included) college provides some great opportunities.

    In the spectrum of people in the world, I tend to think that college is only necessary for the middle of the pack. There are too many people who go to college, who like you, don't use their degree at all. This is just a waste of both time and money

  7. If your goal is purely making money, sometimes a college education can hurt you - a liberal arts degree won't get you a high paying job out of college. An education, some would argue, gives you a worldview, a perspective, and a set of life skills that perhaps some of the people on this list doesn't have quite yet.