A diploma is a dunce hat in disguise.
— Peter Thiel
How can this be true? There are plenty of successful people — including Thiel — who have college degrees. There are entrepreneurs with multiple degrees who run successful, multi-million dollar businesses. There are intelligent, happy, fulfilled people with degrees. How can people who are so successful be included in this?
Success is an idea that only makes sense within certain contexts. To be a successful entrepreneur does not make one a successful athlete, and being a successful athlete does not make one a successful parent. Being a successful student, too, does not make one a successful entrepreneur or intrepreneur.
It’s this academic framework that is the most interesting. Plenty of successful entrepreneurs were terrible students, but plenty of other successful entrepreneurs were straight-A students. Why are some straight-A students terrible in the marketplace, while their peers with abysmal grades are far superior?
To get at the core of this, one has to understand what drives success. Why these people want to get good grades, or achieve their goals within a framework helps us understand why there are great students who are wonderful entrepreneurs, and why there are great students who resent the marketplace and can’t perform within it.
Schools are particularly good at training students to jump through hoops and to pass arbitrary lines that the school has laid down before them. An arbitrary number of quizzes must be passed in order to get a grade, a certain number of classes must be attended, and a certain number of questions must be answered. Students who are good at doing these get gold stars, good grades, and accolades.
Students who don’t get through these hoops get pushed to “development” classes, are passed over at opportunities by administrators and teachers, and are generally disparaged in the eyes of the academic community.
It’s no surprise then that many students strive to be good students. They want to achieve because that’s what they’ve been told to do, and to do otherwise will harm them in the eyes of their peers and superiors.
This type of success-driver is harder to identify when it is hidden behind extracurricular activities and leadership positions. “Surely if this person founded 3 clubs and is president in 2 more, they want to simply win, right?” Not necessarily. When the system they are so good at performing in incentivizes resume-building leadership, it is no surprise that this type of student will pursue those things for the sake of checking off those boxes.
It’s within this context that many students are successful. They go about the motions that school sets up for them, get good grades, get into the Ivy League school they’ve had their eyes on for years, and continue to jump through hoops there. They are excellent students and can be excellent employees — but as soon as the framework starts to fall apart and the hoops disappear, they’re left grabbing for straws and attempting to find some way to meet their idea of “success.” When they can’t do it, things come apart.
John Taylor Gatto describes these students as victims of “the new dumbness,” noting their existential crises are a consequence of their former success:
When they come of age, they are certain they must know something because their degrees and licenses say they do. They remain so convinced until an unexpectedly brutal divorce, a corporate downsizing in midlife, or panic attacks of meaninglessness upset the precarious balance of their incomplete humanity, their stillborn adult lives.
These successful students may make it big in a large corporation, a government position, or as an academic, but rarely as an entrepreneur — somebody who must be prepared to watch things come apart and strive to fix it in ways that aren’t described.
Contra the Hoop-Jumper is the Liberator. The Liberator is a student who may excel at school — she may get great grades and impress teachers across the board — but the reason she excels is not to simply excel, but it is to free herself of the restraints that schools place upon her so she can be free to do what she wants.
The Liberator recognizes that the structure of schools places more attention and more restraints on students who do not excel, and she finds these restraints to be a nuisance, so to best avoid them, she excels at school. By excelling, she frees herself of instructors and extra assignments and has more time to go do her own thing that she finds fulfilling.
It is not from academic success that the Liberator finds fulfillment (unlike the Hoop-Jumper, who will look at a report card, a college acceptance letter, or a diploma and say, “I am successful!”), but it is from the things that she engages in outside the academic framework. Freeing herself from the framework is simply a prerequisite to getting what she wants.
The Liberator is, in this way, a deeply entrepreneurial person. She invents her own success outside the academic realm, and navigates her way through the academic realm only as necessary.
This explains how many successful entrepreneurs can be college dropouts or college grads. The dropout views the system as such a nuisance that he doesn’t tolerate it any longer and leaves to achieve his own success outside of it. The graduate views the system as a prerequisite barrier, but not as a sufficient condition for success.
When things come apart, the Liberator isn’t left grasping at straws for validation; instead, they go out and invent a solution, a new paradigm, or question to be answered. Their entire worldview is entrepreneurial.
The unfortunate thing about schools — K-12 and postsecondary alike — is that they are, by their nature, designed to reward the Hoop-Jumper. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the world needed more and more Hoop-Jumpers, but the new economy requires more people to be entrepreneurs (or intrapreneurs) than ever before. Next time you strive to ace a test, ask yourself, “Why do I want this? Do I want this to jump through a hoop, or to liberate myself?” If it is the latter, maybe ask yourself why you are even there.