The Steve Jobs Myth of Being a College Dropout

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You better be Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs if you drop out!

There’s a perception, especially outside Silicon Valley, that if you drop out of college, you must be doing it to become the next Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. If you don’t, then you’re a failure and threw it all away when you could have graduated with a nice Stanford or Princeton or Penn or Michigan degree and gone off and landed a traditionally successful job.

The idea isn’t entirely without merit. It’s grounded in a public perception that we have of dropouts. They’re people who are either so lazy, poorly put-together, and unmotivated that they can’t get through their college years without spending most of their time sitting on the couch eating doritos and playing Call of Duty so much that they flunk out of all of their classes, or they’re so enamored with an idea that they leave to spend time on pursuing it fully, and get caught up in it.

If you drop out and don’t run a billion-dollar idea within a decade (or less, it seems), you’ve failed. The ultra-competitive mindset between dropouts in Silicon Valley is testament to this. You may achieve comfortable upper-middle class status that your cousin with an elite degree also has, but you aren’t Zuckerberg or Gates, and that will be held against you.

Any professional shortcomings you come into? Well you should have finished college.

Having a hard time getting that mortgage? Well you should have finished college.

Trying to figure out the craziness of providing health insurance to employees? Well you should have finished college.

The obvious flaw in the bias is that it isn’t applied the other way to college graduates. Warren Buffett is a college graduate, but you never see people telling college grads that they’d better be as successful as Warren Buffett, or else they wasted four years of their life.

We hold a double standard against college dropouts because they defy the narrative we and our parents and their parents have reinforced for over two generations: that college is the easiest path to a successful life. The individuals who defied this narrative before — Jobs, Zuck, Gates, Ellison — set the bar extremely high. People fall into an either-or mindset.

Even worse, the bias doesn’t allow a lot of space for middle-ground.

What about the bright young person who knows they’ve been caught up in being too competitive to really allow their strengths to flourish?*

What about the young person who has an insatiable hunger for building and creating a path for themselves outside the classroom?

What about the young person who feels that they can provide a better education without paying four years of their life or tens of thousands of dollars?

These individuals are overlooked, even though they do exist. The ultra-competitive landscape of college makes it difficult for a young person to identify what they are truly good at and pursue it fully. Semester schedules put life upon a just-too-neat track. The class catalog can provide only so many options for education.

There are young dreamers, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs out there suffocating in the higher education system. These are individuals who would otherwise pursue the crazy ideas — the ideas not rewarded by a classroom context, or the ideas that their schools haven’t allowed them to follow yet. Will some of them become Jobs or Zuck or Gates or Ellison? Maybe, but we would never know if they pursue traditional paths for traditional laurels. They would benefit greatly from dropping out, but the Steve Jobs Myth that their families and friends reinforce keeps them in there. And we all lose for it.

*This was certainly much of the case in my experience, and for many young people who pursue elite higher education. Once I stepped outside the system and stopped setting my path based on it, I was able to focus on a number of options I didn’t even know were available to me.