I Asked One of the Youngest Billionaires if I Should go to College. This is What He Told me.

This essay was originally published on my website.

Before we start I want to note that these are my thoughts and what I think is right. I may be wrong and if I am I’d love for you to prove me wrong.

Lots of smart people have written about why you shouldn’t go to college. But I’m giving it a shot.

Yeah, you read that right. I’m going to college despite the argument of many people of why people shouldn’t go to college.

I want to study engineering because I want to get the foundation of specialization in a method of thinking. I want to have one strong foundational skill that I can build on.

Many say college isn’t worth it. And I want to add perspective to this debate as an entrepreneur, immigrant, and optimist.

Richard Hamming said once, “If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work.” Hamming gave a talk titled You and Your Research, which has made me think about my decisions and future projects, especially for solving important problems.

The most important problems will require a more technical background and solid foundation where a combination of inspiration and a strong foundation will be key.

I asked Patrick Collision, one of the youngest billionaires and founders of Stripe, about what he thought about college. He said that teenagers like me (17) should keep learning for about 5 or 7 years before they commit to a plan of action of starting a venture. Learning does not mean college, it means going in-depth in your field of study to see the opportunities only an expert would identify.

Patrick Collison answering my question

I fell into the trap of starting and committing to ideas too early when I didn’t have the foundations. For instance, I wanted to create an app to translate Google Docs into other formats across the web. I needed to learn like 4 programming languages, API, authentication, and the list goes on. That just wasn’t viable, not impossible. I still want to do it and I’m learning to make it happen, but it’s an example of how you can fall into that trap. Exactly what Collison said about starting too early.

Hold on a second.

Why would Patrick say this? Didn’t he drop out of college not once, but twice? I couldn’t resist challenging him and asked, Don’t you see the contradiction here, why would he advise us the opposite of what he did?

He laughed and said that in certain fields the knowledge required is deeper, more specialized, and needs more study time and commitment. The learning curve is just too steep. He said we should be wary of starting too early, depending on the type of innovation we want to get involved in.

He also said that software forgives youngsters as you can get good at it by working and creating apps, websites, or programs. Patrick gave the example of how if he wanted to start a biotech company, he really couldn’t because of how much he’d need to learn.

Patrick makes a good point. But he forgot to say something he did. The two times he went to college, he was always working on projects. For me, going to college means I will learn and work on projects.

I will learn and create things. Hopefully, these ventures don’t take off because I won’t think twice [1]. I shouldn’t try to choose between college & working on projects but choose both. College and my projects should be related, and I should use college to leverage my projects and endeavors.

In college I plan on creating startups, working with professors on research, commercializing findings, creating patents, products, and anything that comes my way. The opportunities are limitless and I plan to find and take advantage of the opportunities that I can only find at college [2].

A big motivation for people going to college is “networking.” Is meeting people important? Sure yeah, but do you remember the time we’re living? We can meet anyone by clicking a button.

The networking thing isn’t solid enough and lacks independent thinking. Hello? We have LinkedIn and Twitter and whatever else. Others say they found valuable friendships and learned how to socialize with others. Sure? I don’t even know what to say about this. Perhaps it’s because I read How to Win Friends and Influence People. Just kidding (mostly).

College networking is more transformational than just meeting people. The connection is far different when you work and live with these people for four years, especially because of the intimate and emotional experiences with them. The emergencies, all-nighters to study for exams, parties, volunteering, heartbreaks, etc. They don’t happen online. They only happen in person, and usually in college.

You can be holed up working on projects and hustling, you can party and not care about grades, or you can have the best of both worlds.

There are other places where you can find these opportunities to meet people and learn how to talk to people such as working on a job, starting a company, going to events, and putting yourself out there. Sure, but not in a collegiate environment [3].

The Engineer Entrepreneur

Look, I’m going to college to learn something hard such as engineering and science. Something I can mostly only do there.

If I study engineering, I could come back and learn pretty much anything else. If I study soft sciences, I can’t really come back and study engineering. I also know that the best way to really learn engineering is to engineer stuff via building, and not necessarily in college.

I’m aware I may not like engineering, or perhaps I will change to study something else. We’ll see. I’m probably not going to be the “best engineer.” And that is OK! I probably don’t want to be the best engineer, it’s too hard and too risky. I intend to become a “double, triple, or quadruple threat.”

Scott Adams says there are mostly two paths to a remarkable life. He advises:

If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.

2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

That’s what I intend to do. A good example of complementing skills is Patrick Collison who combines coding, leadership, and business. He’s a great coder but probably not the best in the world. The same with leadership and business. When you combine these skills that are rarely found together, you get someone like Patrick Collison.

I already have the entrepreneurial mindset for ideas and adaptability.

I’ve been a person who started businesses and selling things since I was a little kid. I’d sell Panini World Cup stickers at school to my friends. Sometimes I wouldn’t even finish my album because I’d sold so many of the stickers. I’d sell cheese to companies, friends, my mom’s clients, anywhere, or anyone. That’s how I was.

I was an entrepreneur before the word entrepreneur became buzzy. I didn’t even know the word because I knew no English.

Then, when I moved to the U.S. at 13, I started more companies, including a digital marketing agency. I was always doing. I was always learning (Read my Journey through High School).

Some skills I’m improving are public speaking, writing, speaking different languages, finance and economics, big picture-oriented, international leadership, and boldness.

I’m more like Andrew Carnegie and Cyrus McCormick category who commercialize and innovate with technology, and not necessarily invent the technologies. Although I want to be more of an entrepreneur than a technologist, it will be extremely useful to get a solid background and put the effort to do so.

In the era of leverage, we don’t need credentials, money, or distribution. As long as you solve a problem people care about, you can get started at any age, come from any field or country, need little or no money. Just start and use free distribution channels like social media to reach people.

A friend pointed out an interesting point. He said that you don’t need a degree (including engineering) to change how society functions or build something yourself. But you do need a degree if you want to work within what society has built, because the structure requires it.

I want to work within what society has built to positively change how society functions.

Engineering and science are fascinating and being able to use them to create and build things is my dream. Not only build but also research. I look up to people like Pasteur who engaged in research and engineering inventions. I’m as passionate for fundamental science questions as I am for innovating with technology.

Should You Go to college? Think For Yourself.

I’m going to college in a weird, transitory time. Perhaps students in 5–10 years won’t have to go to college because someone made a better system. Who knows?

Or maybe people will skip college and go to graduate school. I don’t know. I don’t have the answer.

But what I do have is my answer. Going to college is a personal question related to your goals and ambitions. Ask yourself, What the hell do I want to do? If you don’t know, ask people who know you (parents, family, friends, etc) to tell you what you’re good at or what they see you doing in 10 years.

They know you. That doesn’t mean they’re always right, but they can give you a valuable hint where to look and go.

Once you have something that you want to do (or at least some idea), see and think for yourself whether going to college makes sense.

If you want to do business, going to college isn’t as valuable as starting a company, and so on.

And again, going to college to meet people and network isn’t convincing as you can meet exceptional people on the internet. I don’t buy it. However, you could make a different type of relationship, usually more meaningful.

Most important of all, think from first principles and think for yourself.

What does that mean?

Ignore the mainstream, especially those who have not accomplished the goals you want to accomplish. If you want to become a doctor, why would you listen to an entrepreneur? If you want to become an entrepreneur, why would you listen to a lawyer? If you want to become a physicist, why would you listen to a venture capitalist? [4].

Thinking for yourself does not mean ignoring everyone and thinking you’re smarter (you’re probably not). For me, I know I don’t know shit.

Therefore, I can form a hypothesis and try to prove it wrong. Ask people in the field of what I want to do or people who are where I’d like to be and I ask them to tell what they think and/or what they did to get there.

So what, am I going to college? Yes. Should you go to college? Maybe Not. Think for yourself and critically consider critically about yourself and your goals like I outlined above.

Notes

[1] Dropping out? I don’t know. There are some ideas where timing is everything so I won’t limit myself to what “think twice” means.

[2] I can do most of these without college. Some of them might be easier to do in college. Many things except working with professors can be done outside of college, and even working with professors happens more often outside of college than you might think.

[3] Perhaps the startup scene in San Francisco is close (teen/early 20’s dudes/gals living in a co-working space in bunk beds and partying when they’re not ‘working’) but that’s about the closest and only decent comparison out there.

[4] There’s a difference here between thinking laterally and taking the right advice from the right people. Lateral thinking is a great gateway to success. I use it often! Be wary.

Thanks to Avthar, Salman, Adam, Zain, and Scott for reading drafts of this essay.

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