Can You Drop Out of College Without “Throwing Your Life Away”?

Media strategist, writer, and college drop-out Ryan Holiday questions whether college is just an expensive way to go through the motions.

Ryan Holiday: For me going to college was just an assumption that was made and there was no challenging whether – if you're smart and you do well in school you go to college because that's how you're successful life. And I think that's true for a lot of people. And I really liked collage. The decision to drop out was not one that I took lightly and I don't think it's necessarily – I didn't drop out and then figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I had a job offer to be a research assistant to work at a talent agency in Hollywood. I had these offers and I did the math and I said hey if these were my offers the day after graduation I would have considered college a success. So that's why I personally dropped out. And a few years ago I wrote an article about dropping out of college and sort of what that experience was like and how it shaped my life. And the funny or scary thing is that it now ranks really well on Google if you search the phrase dropping out of college. And so I get a lot of emails almost every day at like 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning some kid who's not happy with college comes back to his dorm room, they Google that phrase and then they email me. And a lot of times they want me to tell them that it's okay to drop out of college. And I usually don't, one, because it was such a terrifying decision to make and it was so unpleasant. I mean my parents didn't take it well and it was so hard that I'm not glib about recommending it to other people. But also I think Mark Zuckerberg, again, didn't drop out of college to create Facebook, he created Facebook in college and then he moved to California for the summer and it was doing so well that he decided not to go back. I think Bill Gates' story is similar. Most of the really successful college dropouts used the platform that is going to a university, it's using the status of being a student. They started something and it got going quickly enough that it didn't make sense to continue going to school.

So I think college is a great default. It's not a great default if you're going to be $200,000 in debt at the end of it, but it's a great default to sort of figure out what you're doing. It's a safe place to experiment and learn things. I don't know what I would tell my own kids. It seems crazy to me that I need to do 18 plus years of savings to pay for this for them. But I do think that quitting college and dropping out of college to do something different are inherently different things. If I get an email from someone and they say I'm failing all my classes; I want to dropout just like you did, I say no you need to figure out why you were not successful in school and solve that problem before you strike out on your own where you have even less of a safety net.

I do think though, and people have made this argument about Peter Thiel's foundation, which creates fellowships that encourages kids to drop out of college, I do think questioning whether college is the right choice for you is worth doing and I do think the stigma about dropping out is worth reducing as well. When you drop out of college and your parents go you're throwing your life away; how can you do this? You can't say it worked out for Bill Gates because the response is you're not Bill Gates. And really you can be successful without a college degree and it's not as hard as people think and we shouldn't make it incredibly hard for a 20-year-old to bet on themselves and to make them feel like they're throwing their life away for trying something different.

College is currently considered a (privileged) default of the American education system. A bachelor’s degree is now looked at as not too different to a high school diploma. Just a few decades ago, having a bachelor’s degree was a guarantee of getting a job, but now, there is no such distinction. So a college degree can be helpful, but it’s no surefire way to getting the life or career a person might want.


There are plenty of people getting by without these degrees. In fact, some people are doing just great. Both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are college drop outs. Ellen DeGeneres dropped out after just one semester. Media mogul Russell Simmons too. Steve Jobs. Oprah Winfrey. F.Scott Fitzgerald. Richard Branson never even finished high school. These are some of the most respected, innovative and wealthy people currently alive.

Ryan Holiday, media strategist, brain behind many of American Apparel’s ads, and author of Ego is the Enemy, also dropped out of college. He got a job offer while at school, and as student loan is a financial grenade on the rest of your life, it’s a decision he saw logic in.

Not that it was easy for him. Dropping out of college is like choosing to end an era, the time of education, summer breaks, weekends off, and furthering one’s mind. It isn’t a choice to be made lightly, as Holiday stresses. It took a long time to make the choice, and it affected his family life. While college has a huge price tag, we aren’t all geniuses or magnetic charmers, so it’s a choice to think over, and think over again, while staying in school to do the thinking. The important part is the question: should I go to college? Should I be here?

Being a college student carries a certain cultural value; it symbolizes that this person is trying to become a more well-rounded version of what they are, is dedicated, and is looking to make their future better. The drop-out hall of fame is a seductive prospect, but remember that Zuckerberg wouldn’t have conceived of Facebook if he hadn’t briefly gone to university. These institutions are amazing places to network and meet likeminded people, and can be a springboard to success – whether you’ve done four years or four months.

Ryan Holiday’s most recent book is Ego is the Enemy.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.