The college degree is little more than a signal that somebody can get through a minimum amount of work over a short period of time. It is used by employers in lieu of anything better to show that a 22-year old, who has thus far spent the entirety of their time in school with maybe a few side jobs and a few summer internships, can stick through some bureaucratic hoops, can learn a few processes, and is at least worth putting a little bit of time into from the company’s perspective.
As more people get degrees and as the bar for admission to degree-granting institutions drops, this signal to employers becomes weaker. “The college degree is the new high school diploma,” gets nods in agreement at barbecues and HR meetings because there’s intuitive truth to it.
You can do better than this, though. Just as the student who spends all four years working jobs and putting together a portfolio and expanding his personal network stands a better chance than the one who shows up hungover to class every morning, the optout who does hard stuff is more likely to succeed than the guy who coasted through four years at even an elite school.
Do Hard Stuff For Your Career
When I meet a fellow college dropout or a college optout, I always want to look for what they spent that time doing instead of sitting in a classroom. My own personal rule of thumb is that they should be doing something at least as hard as coasting through the remaining time at their former school or a school they could have gotten into.
Why would I, somebody who has written a book advocating leaving school, even cast an eye here?
Unfortunately, leaving school does not always mean that somebody is a trailblazer. The phrase “dropout” has negative connotations because of those who can’t do hard stuff. They can’t even do relatively easy stuff like get through a few years in college.
I am looking for those who not only can do hard stuff, but who thrive on doing hard stuff. I want to find people for whom boredom isn’t just coasting through life, but for whom boredom is torture.
In the age of personal websites, LinkedIn, and Google, doing hard stuff can prove to be a positive signal to potential employers, business partners, and investors alike. Building a personal project and launching it, putting together pitch decks for friends’ companies, or even writing and publishing a book has never been more accessible than before.
Even with being more accessible, these things are still harder than most degree programs.
Getting from idea to product is a hard process for a lot of people. They get stuck in a preparation mindset. They think that they either need credentials, approval of others, or investment before they can get started.
Those who can not only get started but who can also ship a product are able to get through a minimum level of grind that most of their peers have not exhibited themselves capable of doing.
That is hard stuff. Do it — put it out there in the ether — and keep moving forward. Opportunities will come your way.
Do Hard Stuff For Yourself
There’s also a case to be made for doing hard stuff for yourself, not for your career and not for signaling it to other people.
If you are a high-caliber young person — especially one who performed well in school — you are probably an objective-oriented person. You set your mind on goals and you shoot to achieve them with intense focus. Assuming this is something you enjoy doing, you’ve probably experienced that odd feeling of successfully completing a process to get to a goal and finding yourself feeling, “that’s it?”
Setting goals and objectives is an important facet to progress. Too many high-caliber people fail to do so and find themselves moving from one project to another. But being too objective-oriented can result in failing to see the forest for the trees.
With more high-caliber young people, I find that it isn’t setting objectives that ultimately move them towards fulfillment, but it is rather the process of getting to those objectives.
Setting and hitting easy objectives doesn’t feel fulfilling not because the objectives aren’t significant but because the process of achieving them isn’t hard enough.
Choosing to do hard stuff can be a fantastic motivator towards achieving personal success (or, avoiding failure).
“Easy for you to say. Some things are really hard and not fulfilling, like providing for a family of four on a minimum wage!”
Of course, you don’t want to do any hard things. If something is too hard and the stakes are too high, you’ll be frustrated, angry at yourself (or worse, others), and stagnating in your own personal growth.
Instead, choosing hard things and breaking them down into achievable chunks is a better way to go. Choosing something that has high enough stakes where you can’t just flake out and choose to not work towards it but low enough stakes that won’t destroy your ability to get work done is important.
This is one of the emphases of our Personal Development Projects (PDPs) through the Praxis experience. Participants work directly with their advisors to find hard stuff to do, to break it down, to stay accountable to somebody else, and to achieve milestones in that process.
In one of his weekly emails to participants, our CEO Isaac left them with a note that is becoming increasingly obvious to me as I work with more participants and work more on myself:
“Boredom is worse than failure.”
Boredom breeds stagnation and stagnation breeds a failure worse than that which comes from failing at an exciting project.
Choosing challenging work is rarely boring and, when it is, getting somebody else to hold you to your own standard of success is an easy way to overcome that boredom.