I've been saying that college is obsolete for a very long time. I dropped out in 2000, because even back then I could see that it was a really poor value proposition. I didn't predict this because I'm some crazy genius, but because I'm willing to discard emotional attachment and stare plainly at the facts.
School is outrageously expensive, leaving graduates with a debt (or net expenditure) of tens of thousands of dollars-- sometimes even one or two hundred thousand. There are some things that are worth that amount of money, but for many people school isn't one of them. In fact, apart from very specific cases, I think that school is a bad thing, not worth doing even if it was free.
That's not to say that school has no benefits whatsoever. It does, and although I left with zero additional skills after my three semesters there, I had a good time and benefited from the social aspect. The problem is that you can't just compare college to doing nothing at all. You have to compare it to what you COULD have done.
Let's say that when you turn eighteen, it's a good idea to take four years to develop yourself. College is one way to do that. If we were to construct an alternative way to do that, what could it look like? One of the biggest weaknesses of school is how inflexible it is, so one of the greatest benefits of designing your own curriculum is that you could come up with one that uniquely suits you. That said, here's a plan that I think would benefit many people MORE than school would. Let's call it the Hustler's MBA.
1. Learn poker. To an outsider, poker seems like a form of degenerate gambling. It can be, but that's not its nature. One of the most valuable skills I've learned in life is how to assess hundreds of factors, choose the important ones, evaluate them to make a decision quickly, and then execute that decision. Poker teaches this extremely well. So does pickup, incidentally. Poker develops your logic like nothing else I've experienced, and it develops your math skills to a lesser degree. It also teaches a skill I can't quite define, but would best describe as learning how hard you can push. I've found all of these skills to be very useful in life.
Poker will cost you money at first. Let's say $5000 in the first year. After that you'll be able to make between $45-60 per hour for the rest of your life. That's about $85,000 per year, which adjusts for inflation because as money is inflated, the stakes to keep the game interesting will go up. You will also receive "raises" because you'll always improve as a player and be able to play better stakes. If you're dedicated to poker, getting this good is virtually guaranteed. I've been through the process and it's not particularly hard. Can school guarantee you a job that pays this well?
Besides being able to make $85k/year, you could also play for six months and make $40k a year. Ultimate flexibility. I don't think that poker is the best career in the world, because it doesn't give back to society, but I do think that it's an excellent backup plan. Knowing that I can always support myself playing poker gives me the freedom to work on big projects without fear.
2. Travel a lot. For the first year, learn a foreign language that interests you. Start with three months of Pimsleur tapes, then get a local tutor. That should cost about $1000 for the first year, and will yield results FAR greater than a class in school. After the first year your self-education will be paid for by poker, so start traveling for three months every year. That should cost around $8k at the most, probably more like $5-6k. When traveling, education comes to you in the form of perspective. You understand other cultures and other people, and will get to practice your foreign language in its native setting. I would also combine travel with watching documentaries about the history of that place. I learned a lot about Rome after visiting, and now I'm kicking myself for not educating myself first.
3. Read every single day for at least an hour. Books get lumped in with other reading like magazines and blogs, but they're actually far more valuable. The amount of value an author compresses into a book is often astounding. There are books I've paid $10 for that have completely changed my life. If you read for 1-2 hours on average, you'll read around a hundred books per year. I do this now and find it to be one of the most valuable uses of my time. Read at least 50% non-fiction, but fiction is good, too. In school you would probably read 12 books a year at most.
4. Write every single day. Write blog posts, work on a book, write how you're feeling, or write short stories. I don't think it really matters. Writing every day helps you develop and refine your thoughts, as well as learn to communicate with others. Almost any field you'll go into will require communication, so you may as well get good at it. After you write, record a video yourself explaining what you wrote. This will help with public speaking and conversation. After the first year at the very latest, start publicly posting your work. This teaches you to ship and to integrate feedback.
5. Learn to program, even if you don't want to be a programmer. Programming develops logic and efficiency, amongst other things. Even an intermediate understanding of programming will allow you to be a creator. Programming languages are the languages of the future, so even if you aren't a programmer yourself, there's a good chance you'll be working with them. Speaking someone's language is nice when you're working with them, right?
6. Do something social. College is really excellent for making people social, and it's the one aspect in which don't expect my plan to exceed school. If you're a guy, consider getting into pickup. If you're a human, take group art classes, yoga, dance, or go to meetup groups. Social skills are some of the most important skills you can learn, and they can only truly be developed through social interaction. This interaction has to be in person, too... online chatting can be beneficial, but it's not enough. Traveling will help you be social as well, especially if you stay in hostels.
7. Eat healthy. When you eat healthy, your brain functions better and you're safeguarding its longevity. Developing yourself is at least as much about good habits as it is about learning skills. And like all habits, the earlier you start, the better. I'd say that the minimum to shoot for here is cutting out all sweeteners and refined grains. Besides the obvious health benefits, eating healthy will help you build discipline, which is an absolutely essential life skill.
8. Follow curiosity and spend money on it when necessary. These things that I've included so far are the baseline-- the new liberal arts education. They leave you plenty of time in your day to follow whatever you're interested in. Don't force it and try to learn investment banking because you think it would make a good career. If you're interested in butterflies, learn about butterflies. The rest of the curriculum is enough to make sure that you'll always be able to provide for yourself and will be a well rounded person, so consider this section your speculative learning. Maybe you'll find something you're passionate about, which will become your career, or maybe you'll just become a really interesting person who knows a lot about a lot of things. Either way is fine. Don't be afraid to spend money on tutors, classes, equipment, seminars, or travel.
9. Start a business after two years. With a full two years of self-education under your belt, you should have something useful to contribute to society. School makes you go from sheltered learning mode straight into real-world career mode. I think a better way is to have a transition, and to couple productivity with learning. Having that habit will ensure that you continue to perfect your craft as you get older. Your business can be anything-- a tech startup, publishing books you've written, giving speeches, making clothing and selling it online, whatever you're into. Read some business books before starting it and try to make money. One of the most common complaints I hear from graduates of traditional school is that nothing they learned was actually applicable to real life. Everything you learn from starting a business IS.
This is a modern curriculum that, on average, will produce people better prepared for real life than college. Obviously, it won't work if you want to be something that requires certification like a doctor or lawyer. The beauty of it is that it has a negative cost (you will make money due to poker, and hopefully your business), and can be funded initially with $5000 for poker. A few months into the second year, you will have paid off the poker debt and begun to self fund your life.
Will this work for you? There's no guarantee, but I see people work pretty hard at school, and if that same effort were put towards the Hustler's MBA, I think the chance of being self-sufficient and prepared for "real life" is about 90%. I'd estimate that non-lawyer/doctor college is somewhere around 50-70%. So, like anything, this plan is not totally foolproof, but I think it's a lot better and cheaper than the alternative.
There's a big taboo around telling people not to go to college. I find myself adhering to it, not ever suggesting that younger members of my family should drop out or skip school entirely. But maybe the time has come for us to look at college objectively, really quantify what goes in and what comes out, and evaluate it on its merits alone, rather than its historical value or its societal aura.
If you're new here and liked this post, you may enjoy my book on traveling as nomad, Life Nomadic.
I agree with you 100%. I am the mother of 4 boys, and although the oldest still has 4 years until he graduates h.s., I am not pushing any of them to go to college. Why? Because I have made very little money off my college education. The one job I had that paid the most and offered the most in the way of advancement was one I would have been qualified for when I turned 18 and would have been able to retire with full benefits by the time I was 38 (This year to be exact).
I challenge my children to find problems that need answers and to create business opportunies around them. Last year my then 13 and 11 year old boys created a business that was basically a handyman/lawn care business for senior citizens. No they didn't make a whole lot of money, but that wasn't the point. They learned business and people skills that will serve them well in the future. My 10 year old has his business plan for his organic vegetable farm ready and waiting for us to make the move to the acreage. Why should he go to college first if that's what he wants to do and it makes him happy?
My husband is the assistant manager at a farm retail store and most (90%) of his new hires are new college grads who can't find jobs in their fields. Imagine trying to pay back student loans, probably a car payment, insurance, and rent on $8 and hour. No thank you. I'd rather see my children do what they love whatever that may be. And if that is going to college, I sure hope they work their way through and pay cash.
I mostly agree with you. I have finished the university, and looking at how useless most of the things I have learned there are, I have some regrets for the time I have wasted.
But there are two things I'd like to comment to your post, Tynan. First of all, I believe most people do not have the self discipline necessary to self educate - especially when they are 18 years old. As Arun says, higher degree studies help instill a sense of discipline, which I think most people lack naturally. For me, what you are saying might work now, when I am 28 years old. Would it have worked when I was 18? I doubt it, looking back I was completely clueless to how the world worked and what I need to do to succeed. And looking to younger people around me, I see the same lack of focus and purpose.
The second thing is - colleges have been around for hundreds of years, in some form. What you are outlining in your post has only become possible in the last 10 years or so. You say learn poker - easy to do now all by yourself, with all this information at your fingertips. Harder to do even 20 years ago, unless you ran across some mentor to school you. The same goes for learning languages. And travelling has become increasingly affordable only in the last decades also.
There will be changes in the way formal education works, but you have to give it some time. The future belongs to projects like khan academy, but it will take time to replace an age old system.
Hey, I already addressed the discipline thing in another post, but I do completely agree that this has only recently become possible. In fact, I think that back when colleges started, they were an insanely great idea. Back then it was VERY difficult to get access to information, so learning independently would be way more difficult than it is now. College was also cheaper relative to GDP, making it a good value. If I were blogging back in Jefferson's day, or even fifty years ago or so, would probably be advocatng school.
I think that one of the big problems with school, besides the rising cost, is that it just can't keep up with technological progress. The only school program I've seen that has done a good job with that is Stanford's program. I don't know enough about it to make an informed decision, but I could see it being possible that going to Stanford is worth it for a good chunk of people.
Stanford's not as great as I thought it would be. After graduating, I really wished I had been given the $200,000 instead, and set free to do what I wanted. I found myself yearning for freedom time after time during my undergraduate education. I actually had some of the worst teachers I've ever had while at Stanford.
Case in point, I took a year of Japanese at Stanford, but my accent and fundamental understanding of conversational Japanese was still terrible by that time. So I dropped out of the program the second year, followed AJATT.com's advice and self-studied with RTK, anime, and JUNK Japanese radio, and launched ahead of my classmates who were still stuck in 2nd year Japanese. AJATT's method is vastly more effective than the method they teach in language classes (yes, even at Stanford).
And I imagine this is true with many subjects.
I wouldn't be where I am if I hadn't gone to Stanford. That's for damned sure. But who knows where I'd be if I took the self-education route instead?
(Incidentally, I read Life Nomadic when I was junior, went to Japan that spring, and decided I didn't want to come back for my senior year. My parents held the money gun to my back, however, so I finished. And I'm glad they did. But now, living the nomad life, I have the impression that I'm learning way faster than I ever did at school.)
1. If everybody went out and decided to play poker for a year, almost none of them would make the kind of money you're suggesting. It is absurd to suggest that everybody is "virtually guaranteed" to make $45-$60 an hour playing poker. An ESPN article estimates the number of people making a living playing poker at 600 to 3000 a year in the entire USA. http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=lovinger/050111
2. So, you could buy tapes and study languages with a tutor. Or, you could pay for a college class - a similar cost, with more upside. Also, most people I've met don't have a few thousand dollars just laying around a year after high school to travel the world. But many universities offer junior year abroad.
3-8. I agree with most of what you suggest here, but there is no reason you can't do all of these things while in college. In fact, most people do these things in college, except probably #7.
9. Not everybody can start a successful business. The success rate of new businesses is less than 50%. A failed business can put somebody into bankruptcy. Are you advocating a society where half of us declare bankruptcy after starting a failed business, and have no college degree?
Your path to success is unique, but it is extremely exceptional. This will not work for everybody. In fact, it's highly unlikely to work for most people. You have suggested spending a year playing poker as "virtually guaranteed" to make people money. You often assume people have extra $5000 or more laying around to try things like poker as a career or traveling the world or starting a business.
You are more likely to succeed by getting the best grades possible in high school, then going to a school where you get a really good scholarship. Plus, the government guarantees loans for college. They won't guarantee loans for you to gamble or travel the world. Colleges often offer programs like a year abroad. You get a lot from college. Is it for everybody? Probably not. But I am certain that the extremely unlikely combination of playing poker, traveling the world, and starting a business gives you a monumentally lower percentage of success than going to college.
This video discusses loans the the GOVERNMENT give students and how it is driving our economy straight to the ground.
I must respectfully disagree with some of your points above.
Point One: The stats you quoted from ESPN include all the people who are not properly learning to play poker but gambling recklessly. I have no detailed studies, but I am convinced that this skews the results badly. I used to teach commodity futures and currency trading. Many of my students came from the poker and blackjack communities. Very few of them had been successful at it. To a person, their risk management skills were sub par to non-existent. Once some good risk management habits were hammered into them to use with trading, they were consistently profitable traders. Most interestingly, several of them found that applying the risk management concepts learned for trading to their poker playing also improved their poker performance.
Point Two: Buying language tapes versus going to school gets same results with more upside. The last two language courses I took at the local community college were taught one from Rosetta Stone and one from Pimsleur materials. We had to pay for the study materials, and the instructor just tracked our progress. Not seeing the greater upside. I was not taking the courses for a degree, just to learn the language.
Points Three to Eight: Indeed, all of these things CAN be done while in college, but at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, plus books and lodging in many cases. All of that must be paid for at some point by the student. Tynan's way, the payment is done up front and the learning benefits are immediately applicable to real life. This is not often the case in a college environment.
Point Nine: True, not everyone can start a successful business. You miss the point. I have started or been an active investor in four small businesses. The first three failed, even though two made a profit for a time. I learned more from the three failures than I ever would have learned from easy success. My current business is doing well. Time will tell if I have finally learned enough to make a go of it long-term. That will give me a 25% success rate. You only need to succeed with one. As long as you are careful to avoid ruin by risking more than you can afford to lose in the business, it is the learning process involved in starting a business that is important, not whether any individual business is successful.
Your last Two Paragraphs: Tynan said that playing poker might cost $5000 the first year. That doesn't mean you need the entire $5000 at the start. Low-stakes games require far lower buy-ins than that usually. The point is that you must expect to lose your pile the first few times you play until you learn the skills to be a profitable player.
As to which way is more likely to succeed, that depends heavily on how one defines success. Assuming success to be earning enough money to support a $60K to $70K per year life style, I doubt that college makes this that much more likely, particularly in a slow economy.
You talk of government guarantees for college loans as if the student never has to pay them back and as though being saddled at age 25 or so with high tens to low hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt was a thing to be aspired to. That same 25 year old will spend decades working to make the bank that funded the guaranteed loan rich. By educating themselves as Tynan suggests, they would have far lower debts if they had any at all.
Finally, By adopting a low-cost lifestyle and getting even an $8/hr job, one could save enough starting capital to embark on this sort of an education. It is a matter of learning to think, "How can I?" rather than, "I can't."
I agree with most of what you say, but there is one problem..... like it or not, there are still quite a few career paths that are completely closed without a college degree. Even in that, to reinforce your post, it doesn't really matter what the degree is IN - just that you have one. I'm a lead developer for a Fortune 500 company, and happen to really enjoy my job. But if you want one just like it, and you don't have a BS or BA, don't even bother applying. You may have been developing in multiple languages for the last 20 years, but that doesn't matter.
The only problem I have with it is the idea that any random person can magically become a poker expert enough to make $85,000 a year doing it in less than a year.
That's just not how it works. (Yes, I've tried.)
Wow there are some excellent comments here. The advice on programming languages are golden.
One thing that might be worth pointing out is that Tynan might have written this for the ambitious 18 year old, who is criticized for even thinking about a different path. There's a stigma out there against choosing to pursue anything other than University, and lowering that stigma might help some of these 18 year olds, on the edge, even their thinking and choose what's good for them.
University can be a valid choice for a lot of people, but there are other choices, and people who might want to go after these choices.
So. I am a decent poker player. Where can I go to start testing my skill and build up to playing for $85K? Casinos? Online? I am serious. I would love to dedicate some time to become a professional.
I think number 8 is a bit understated. I'd hazard a guess that your 'baseline' came about because you spent time pursing interests way back when. Not to say that pursing all interests are equal. There are plenty of things that wont net you 85k a year. But a better approach, I feel, would be to discover your own baseline skill set, and round it out with poker and programming rather than play poker, learn to program, and then round it out with following your curiosity.
If I was sitting in on the Hustler's MBA whiteboard session I would honestly recommend putting a year of juggling in. I've spent a few years practicing and it has been by far the most valuable learning experience I've ever had. The respect I now have for what is possible and how we learn is far greater than what I previously ever had, and this is coming from someone who can make a comfortable living from playing an instrument. Not to mention the people I have met and the multiple countries I have traveled to directly because of it.
The point is that I can see a lot of people having a similar take on whatever area it is they chose to sink significant time into.
As a final point spend 5 minutes watching technical juggling or putting the word 'siteswap' into google. In the same way poker is perceived as degenerate gambling, juggling is probably is a lot different to what you think it is.
Please, tell us more about the unknown side of juggling in the community section.
Good call.. I'd be interested in that, too.
Most times I completely agree with you, Tynan, but this time, I must raise a couple of objections. First, regarding the expense of school, the average earning power of college graduates over a lifetime is so superior to the average earning power on non-graduates over a lifetime that the expense is one of the best investments one can make. Recently, there was an a podcast over at Freakonomics about that very point. Here's a link to the transcript: http://www.freakonomics.com/2012/07/30/freakonomics-goes-to-college-part-1-full-transcript/
It is often remarked how many people with college degrees cannot find work, but a closer look shows that when college grads cannot find work, the situation is even worse for non-college grads.
Third, without a college degree, no one takes you seriously. Now, before anyone gets mad... Of course there are exceptions, but they are few. But a cold-bloodedly sociological look will show that opinion generally holds.
Finally, I do not think there is a serious educator in the US who does not think our college (and K-12) system is not seriously flawed. It is not geared to handle really bright, creative people, and like you (Tynan, and me, to tell the truth), we tend to drop out and do our own thing.
I did that too. In my resume, I say that my life reads like a Jack Kerouac novel.
So though I disagree with your initial statements, I like where you went, and I do agree. There are ways of achieving an education superior to the one you get in college. Even so, for the intense student, determined to maximize his or her experience, college will be a gorgeous time of life. When I returned to school as an adult, I did so to get myself a "proper gentleman's education." That was my quip, but it belied the fact that I was serious. I learned Latin and Greek. I am now getting ready to publish my first novel. Before college, I was not equipped to do that. I am now. It was a life transforming time. I stepped up and out of the working class box and started to become a serious professional.
So there is another objective look. The argument can go the other way. Like I said, usually I think you're pretty ....ing brilliant, Tynan, but there is more to this one than meets the eye. :)
Last, I bought myself a Sony NEX 5N. It was your recommendation that swung my decision. Awesome camera!
Check out this post I wrote a while ago, debunking the myth that you make more money by graduating. It's not perfect, but it puts that common argument in context. I'll listen to the freakonomics one when I have the chance, too.
There's also the sticky issue of causality vs. correlation. If you took the group that PLANNED on going to college but forced them not to, and then compared them to a control group of people who weren't going to go anyway, the college group would still earn a lot more. Why? Because they're from wealthier families and are more ambitious. I do believe that college adds a bit to earning power, primarily because, as you say, some places won't look at you without a degree, but I think that advantage evaporates in the face of the high costs associated with geting that degree.
On the other hand, I do agree that school CAN be a big resource (as you've proved through your own experience). It wouldn't be my personal choice, obviously, but if I was back in school now, I think that I could use it a lot better than I could back then.
Thanks for the thoughtful post.
I read your earlier post. Interesting argument. I am in no position to analyze the statement that stock earnings have historically generated 11% increases per annum, but I thought the S&P average was about 6%. Yet, this is not my zone. I decided against investing in other people's businesses a long, long time ago and decided to invest in my own--exclusively.
As you noticed, the demographics of college goers are cooked data. They do not represent a cross section of society. They tend to have advantages. I do hope you do check out the Freakonomics link. It's thoughtful and entertaining.
Now, back to work with me! Going offline before I get distracted any more!
Hmmm...while I DO think you make valid points, I definitely think you are the exception rather than the rule Tynan. For example, I feel pretty confident in saying that MOST people who decide to go to college are far more ambitious than those who don't. Yes, this is a major generalization, but if we were to compare your success, knowledge, ambition etc to the "typical" college dropout, I think we would find that you are an outlier.
You are right that school is totally inflexible, but I think most people are undisciplined and need rigidity in order to actually extract value from school. I have two degrees, one of which I don't use at all (engineering) and the other of which I probably didn't really need in hindsight (MBA), BUT I'm still glad I have them. I not only learned a lot academically, but college actually instilled a sense of discipline that I never had before (I breezed through high school).
So, while I think you make great points, I also think that most people don't have the type of laser focus and discipline that you do. And for those people, the investment in school makes more sense.
"I feel pretty confident in saying that MOST people who decide to go to college are far more ambitious than those who don't."
I would have to (respectfully) disagree with that. Many of the people I went to college with were there only because it was expected of them by their families.
The ideal of 'higher education' has been incredibly diluted over the past century. In the first part of the 20th century, the only people who went to college were people who were seeking knowledge. So many people in college today are seeking - to borrow a political mantra -'4 more years' of easy living. In many ways, college is like a final four year vacation for most liberal arts students who will eventually graduate and have to learn a real skill set for a job they don't care about.
I think the biggest and strongest argument that is missing from the Hustler's MBA is that people need to be seeking what it is they WANT to do. It amazes me how many people spend all of this money on college only to graduate and still have no clue what they want to do.
For what it's worth though, professional degrees, including engineering, science, medicine, and to some extent law, are the exception to all of this and good cases where undergraduate and graduate experiences are good and necessary.
Have to disagree with this, a persons discipline is unique to them and often is influenced by what they are doing vs. what they wish to be doing. I know quite a few friends who went to college only to party and drop out...now saddled with debt and trying to figure out how to make it. I've other friends who never went to college and are wildly successful. There are so many extraneous factors at play...its rather hard to separate a quality like discipline from the ether without getting false positives.
Well, this plan is obviously for people who are focused enough to want to take their futures in their own hands, so I don't really see that as being a problem.
I think that it's really important to make a distinction between different types of dropouts, too. I don't think that I would be particularly accomplished compared to the average dropout who left school to work on something else, rather than because he couldn't hack it, didn't have the money, etc.
I'm an outlier, I think, but I'd like to piggyback on your post. I come from a family of educators and went to an excellent high school. I had the discipline - but I had no idea I had it. College was not really about learning but about social expectation and social grooming.
I dropped out of school during my sophomore year of college. I was a little bit scared to do it, but I followed through because I was certain that I didn't want to get a normal job or do anything else that would make use of a degree. Dropping out was one of the best decisions I've made, and it pushed me towards the life that I really wanted to live.
However, just because dropping out was right for me doesn't mean that it's right for everyone, or for you. I think that the school system is trending towards obsolescence and is a far worse value proposition that it was in previous eras, but that doesn't mean that it's worthless or that it's not the right choice for a lot of people. You might be surprised to find out that when people email me to ask if they should drop out, I tell many of them that I think they should stay in school.
When I talk about dropping out of school, by the way, I mean dropping out of college. Unless you are home schooled or have a very good plan for learning useful life and social skills, I think that at least completing high school is a good idea. I also think that taking some college is a good idea for many people. Going for a semester is a fairly small investment of time to figure out if it's a good fit for you, and you can also completely disregard course guidelines and take interesting things like Chinese and scuba diving.
If you're in high school or entering college, the most important thing you should realize is that you alone are responsible for your education and your life, and that you should use the next four years in the best way possible. Forget about labels like graduate and dropout, and focus on what is best going to prepare you for the life that you want to have.
I found your site via browsing Ramit Sethi's Delicious bookmarks. Love it. I know I'm not offering a whole lot of value, but I resonate quite a bit with your writing and was hoping you could share some insight about what you'd do in this situation:
Throughout college, I played online poker professionally and operated a coaching and staking business. I continued playing until recently, and am currently two years out of school. I devoted so much time to poker that my skills in other areas are lacking. However, I have been studying HTML, CSS, PHP, and MySQL and have landed two clients for basic web design. I don't want to draw into my savings any further, so I am looking to work at a company where I can build my skills and work with passion.
I'm unsure how I can expect any company to hire me based on a two year resume gap filled with a career that many people would consider "pure luck." Resumes typically don't matter if you can demonstrate a great level of skill in an area, but as my best skill is currently still exploiting tendencies in a game of Heads Up Texas Holdem, I'm a bit stuck for ideas.
Any advice would be greatly appreciate. Thanks in advance for spending your time even reading this email.