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Here’s Why You Should (Probably) Stay In College

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As a software engineer at a VC firm in San Francisco, I interact with people who have dropped out of school (or are considering dropping out of school) pretty regularly. But now that I find myself a few years past my own graduation date, I’ve started to take a wider view of my college experience and reflect on how it has been useful so far in my career.

Last week Startup Search published a guide on dropping out of school. As someone that nearly dropped out (twice) and struggled to see the point in staying in school, a lot of the stories resonated with me. Yet, I decided to stick around and even earn a master’s degree.

In today’s tech culture, there can be a lot of pressure to drop out and embark on your career. There’s a lot of arguments that you can learn more by going down that path. But I realized that college became the most useful to me when I stopped focusing on the need for content to have practical utility. That’s when school truly became “useful.” Below are the top reasons I’m thankful I decided to continue my education.

College Opens Doors

Let’s get this out of the way: Whether you like it or not, graduating from a great university still means something to most people and they'll hold doors wide open for you if you did. Even if it is unfair, without the degree some of these doors are not held as wide open (or are shut entirely). Despite growing evidence that you don't need a college degree to do reasonably well in your career, especially in tech, it’s just a fact that it will make certain aspects of your life more difficult.

Increasing Your Problem-Solving Grit

College is a unique playground for the mind. If you're curious by nature, it'll be one of the best times for you to go and study something interesting for the sake of curiosity. I remember working on math proofs that would individually take upwards of twenty hours to solve. This helped develop invaluable skills.

The harsh truth is that most problems you'll encounter in professional life are actually not that hard. As a software engineer, most code I've come across requires far less brainpower to write than the brainpower required to solve a modestly hard math or physics problem. If you want to increase your overall problem-solving grit – or just like to be challenged – you benefit immensely from studying hard subjects that hold you accountable for achieving proficiency.

Developing New Mental Algorithms

As those familiar with computer science know, some algorithms are far more efficient than others at sorting and processing data. So if you can hardwire new algorithms into your brain, you too can become better at sorting and processing data. It wasn't the actual algorithms I learned in classes that enhanced my perception of the world, but rather the constructs required to understand new subjects.

For example, graph theory taught me to look at the world as a series of connected entities that form and cluster in predictable ways. Differential equations taught me to see functional relationships in my day-to-day life. Economics and game theory classes taught me to understand human nature responses to incentive systems. Even art classes taught me something: how you can design spaces to encourage or discourage behavior.

It isn’t exact proofs and models that have stuck with me. It’s how navigating them taught me to understand things in new and unique ways. This helps to distill and create your own mental models for interacting with the world and making decisions.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect Is Real

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a psychological bias that allows individuals with limited knowledge to wildly overestimate their competence in a given domain. Early on – as you wade into a new subject – your confidence is skyhigh before quickly dropping off into the "Valley of Despair" as you realize how little you know. If you're undeterred, you'll slowly climb out of the valley, and eventually back up to some point where you feel you understand the subject, but know where your limitations lie. This is an incredibly important process to go through over and over again.

College is a unique place to experience this in short and medium-term bursts without consequence. I failed my first graph theory exam miserably. But I knew that I had a passion for the subject, so I fought through to pass the class. Eventually, after semesters of dedicated study it became a cornerstone of my senior thesis. But had I been unwilling to enter the valley, this outcome would have never been possible.

Your professional life is not a place where you can take major risks like this that stretch your abilities. Every single semester I made sure to take at least one class that I felt was stretching my capabilities in some form or another. In doing so, I dove headfirst into the valley, knowing that discomfort was actually a friend. I'd trudge through the course, and climb out of the valley once again.

Elizabeth Holmes is the worst-case scenario of a dropout that’s never trudged into the valley of despair. She pretended to be a genius, lied when she couldn't produce a working product, and pretended to sail right over the valley to greatness. She'll go down as one of the biggest frauds of all time predominantly because she never was willing to have the humility to accept that she had more to learn.

Being a finisher is critical

Learning to complete something is an absolutely critical skill to learn and practice routinely. It should be obvious that this skill is mostly for yourself.

It’s an important skill to show to others as well. Back when I was considering leaving school, I remember reading a quote from entrepreneur and investor David S. Rose that effectively said he was unwilling to invest in dropouts, simply because he had no data to indicate they could commit themselves to completing something of meaningful duration. Fighting your way through hard courses and completing degrees signals to others that if they hire or invest in you, you'll deliver.

Learning To Make Yourself Valuable to Yourself

Most of my reasons for staying in school have little to do with landing jobs or gaining credentials. That’s because my approach to school – which has carried over to my career – was always to continue to make myself increasingly valuable to myself, not others. The goal has never been to become a tool for someone else. I want to set myself up to achieve my goals, pursue my passions, and live a fulfilling life. However, doing great work in challenging environments where you aren't in full control can make you far more valuable to yourself than the alternative. College is one of those environments, and only at the end did I realize by spending my time there I had also accidentally made myself useful to others in the process.

College was ultimately an imperfect place for someone like me. I often felt like a square peg fitting into a round hole. But if you relax your prior assumptions about what college should be and how it's failing to live up to your expectations, perhaps you'll start to discover some unexpected benefits of your own.

This article was adapted from Seth Kimmel’s The (Non-)Utility of College found here.