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 is a media strategist and prominent writer on strategy and business. After dropping out of college at 19 to apprentice under Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, he went on to advise many bestselling authors and multiplatinum musicians. He served as director of marketing at American Apparel for many years, where his campaigns have been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube, and Google and written about in AdAge, the New York Times, and Fast Company. His first book, Trust Me I’m Lying—which the Financial Times called an “astonishing, disturbing book”—was a debut bestseller and is taught in colleges around the world. He is the author of two other books and is now published in 16 languages. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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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