Why I’m not going back to school

You don’t fly by your peers by sitting next to them in class.

I recently decided not to return to the University of Michigan this Fall.

I love college: great friends, nonstop fun, and a stellar educational experience all wrapped into one four-year package. College comes at a price, but I didn’t know what else to do with myself for the four years after high school. The University of Michigan, my dream school, made it easy when they offered me nearly a full ride. So why then did I dropout?

In March, I came to a conclusion that I couldn’t deny; school was hindering my personal growth which had been rapidly accelerating since I had arrived at Michigan. As much as I loved my classes, the amount of mindshare I had to devote to them was beginning to cap off the velocity of my growth outside of school. Having just dove headfirst into the field of Computer Science, I wasn’t going to catch up to the students who had been hacking away since puberty by sitting right next to them in class, doing the exact same things they were doing; it was time to do something different.

I had never even seen a single line of code before college.

I didn’t drop out because of money. I didn’t drop out to pursue a short-term opportunity. I dropped out because I didn’t want to move at the same pace as everyone else; I wanted to fly by my peers and maximize my personal growth. School only moves so fast.

How I came to this conclusion: Hackathons.

Just over a year ago, I had an intense conversation with my partner in crime, Raj. He wanted to drop out.

Having never even considered the possibility, I did everything in my power to convince him to stay. He decided to return concluding: “if college is a ticket to four years of fun, count me in.” I still think this is one of the best reasons to stay in college.

Speaking with Jack Dorsey, one of the founders of Twitter, on his visit to Michigan, I remembered the conversation I had with Raj and asked Jack why he had dropped out. He told me that he decided to leave school when he realized that it was no longer maximizing his personal growth. This was the first time I ever considered the idea of dropping out. Previously, I had always thought that dropping out was an optimization for a short-term opportunity at the cost of your long-term growth; Jack very confidently pointed out that this was not the case. Two hours later, we left on our first trip to PennApps, then the largest student hackathon in the world. This was just the start.

Shortly before our sophomore year, Raj and I decided that we wanted to travel to five cities: New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston. Entering the semester, we had no idea that we would actually even pull off more than one; three months later, we had travelled to 4 of the 5 (sorry, Boston). Every other weekend, we were out of town chasing some opportunity or building something crazy at one of the over a dozen hackathons we attended by the close of 2012.

I became addicted.

At a hackathon, I could do anything; in less than 48 hours, we could build anything we could imagine, pick up a new technology/language/framework faster than I ever thought possible, and every time I became a better and better hacker. The growth was seemingly limitless, and in February of 2013 I shared this discovery with 500 other hackers, throwing the inaugural MHacks.

How I came to this conclusion: Market Loco

It wasn’t just about the hacks. Throughout the year, we had been working on a project that ended up lasting much longer than a weekend. In December, Market Loco, a marketplace completely built on mobile phone numbers rather than email, hit an inflection point and really started to grow.

We looked back a week, a month, a year, and it was as if we too were experiencing hockey stick personal growth.

Learning a ton every day, the more energy we sunk into the product, the more users we had and the better we understood what we were doing. This was really cool. I was working on something I cared a ton about and learning significantly more than I could in semesters upon semesters of classes.

Before I continue, I must preface the following passage: I had already become extremely drawn to the tech startup world. Freshman year, MPowered Entrepreneurship recruited me, and sophomore year, Raj and I were running Startup Crash Course, a series of short workshops that helped arm students with skills to both work at and build their own startups.

Going all in on Market Loco was about more than an individual financial opportunity; I wanted to use startups as a vehicle to solve problems, and the shortest path to doing so was to start a startup.

If you want to do something, there’s no better way than to just dive in and start doing it — some fields don’t offer this luxury though, as one would not want premed students to just dive in and begin operating on patients. Startups, however, offer this in the fullest.

How I came to this conclusion: Autodidactism

There was still one thing missing: how do I learn what school teaches you and life doesn’t? Freshman year, I began dabbling in online courses. Hitting up Coursera, Udacity, and Walter Lewin’s Introductory Physics Lectures, I quickly came to the conclusion that the pros of these courses far outweighed every benefit of normal classes save for the piece of paper we call a degree. Sure, there’s a drop off when a professor isn’t directly in front of you to interact with, but

what if you could take every course from the top professor in the world at teaching that course?

I concluded that I could even learn the material I wanted to without attending school.

Finally, I realized that you could have almost all of the benefits of a school without even going there. You can audit classes, attend office hours, live right off a college campus, attend events, and yes, even party it up for welcome week. All without even being enrolled. In fact, I’m just rounding out my third welcome week before gearing up for hackathon season.

In conclusion, school was no longer giving me the highest ROI for my very finite amount of mindshare.

When I introduced the alternative of spending more time building something I wanted to see in the world, the opportunity cost of school became too high to ignore.

I loved my classes, my professors, and just about everything about Michigan; that said, going it on my own is what will allow me to have unbounded growth. I loved Michigan, but it’s now time to start the next chapter of my life. Although I won’t be at Michigan anymore, I’ll never forget the transformative two years I spent there that have brought me to where I am today.

Forever. Go Blue.


Concessions

I’ll concede that a few of the liberal arts seminars I took were phenomenal, and I’ve yet to see the socratic method effectively make it online. Also, nothing will beat the environment college provides to meet such a high concentration of high quality people from diverse backgrounds.

If you are in school to be evaluated or to have fun for four years, hell yeah! If you are trying to maximize your personal growth, school may or may not be the right place for you. Simply the fact that everyone else is doing the same thing leads me to believe that in most cases it is not optimal for school to be your #1 priority – I urge you to explore other ways to grow. If you are doing the same thing everyone else is doing, then you aren’t going to fly by them.

I loved my classes, professors, and enjoyed every minute of it, so I understand if you are willing to take that tradeoff.

FAQ

What do you see as the biggest benefit of school?

The best part of college is that you are surrounded by an extremely high concentration of smart, ambitious people. It’s hard to find this aggregation of talent outside of universities. Don’t take this for granted. Form meaningful relationships with as many people as possible. Evaluate every semester and make sure that you are in a position to meet a diverse set of people, not just people in your area of interest.

Should I drop out?

Maybe yes, maybe no. I think school is great for exploring what you are passionate about; however, it isn’t always the best way to pursue that passion. The biggest thing for me is that you shouldn’t drop out to get away from school; you should only drop out for an opportunity that you think would provide more personal growth than school. School has a ton of great benefits. Granted, you don’t have to be enrolled to enjoy many of those benefits — if money is an issue, take a semester off, live in a college town, and reap the many benefits that you can enjoy without paying tuition ;)
School provides a super relaxed, cradled environment where you don’t have to face the pressures of real life. This is both the best reason to be in school and the best reason to not be.

What if I’m not in CS/tech?

Go to a hackathon. Don’t hack? Perfect. Hackathons are actually for you. There has never been socioeconomic mobility of this magnitude before. If you begin attending hackathons, before you know it startups will be knocking on your door begging you to join them. As soon as you get to this point, shoot me an email (gailees@umich.edu), and I’ll help you find an awesome internship! That said, tech startups aren’t for everyone. I totally understand if you really feel yourself drawn elsewhere. A technical background just gives you the most mobility to work wherever you please. Regardless of what you want to go into, it’s an invaluable skill to have under your belt.
Apart from at least giving the whole hacking thing a try, the best advice I can give you is to take initiative and do something that your peers aren’t. Try out a few online courses, or, better yet, start something!

What’s the best way to learn?

There’s no better dictator of what you need to learn than life. School curriculums are a strong second, but come nowhere close to the experience that you gain when diving in and actively trying to solve a real problem you’ve identified in the world. Even if you fail, you’ll have learned a ton!

What’d your parents think and how should I approach my parents if I’m considering dropping out?

My parents would definitely love for me to return to school. To them, it’s the safer bet that I’ll have a good life. My parents are now pretty supportive of my decision though, although I’m pretty much on my own financially since I’m no longer attending school.
If you are considering dropping out, bring your parents into the conversation early. This is key. When contemplating a major life decision like this, it’s really important to have an open and active discourse with the people that matter in your life, especially your mentors. I can’t stress this enough. Reach out early and often. People care about you and want to hear about your life. Keep them updated!

Why did I write this post?

Currently on a plane back to Ann Arbor, I’m writing this not to tell you to drop out, but to explain why you might want to. Don’t get me wrong. School is awesome; in fact, I love it so much that I’m headed there for welcome week. Even though I dropped out, I might as well still enjoy the best parts.
This post is an attempt to somewhat thoroughly explain why I dropped out. I hope that it will provide valuable insight into the mind of a young entrepreneur as he evaluates the opportunity cost of school. I would really love any feedback you have. Feel free to shoot me a tweet or drop me a line: gailees@umich.edu

Thank you

The post was already pretty long, so I decided I would go a little more full form and thank some people for helping me grow along the way.

Raj/Shiva
MHacks Team

MPowered

Michael Gaiss, Wes Huffstutter, Dug Song, Doug Neal

Family