The Outlier’s Guide to Education — Part 2

Meet Baby Ariel. She has her own website, brand deals, fashion line, burgeoning music career, and, oh yeah, she is only 17 years old. But that isn’t doing her justice. She is where she is today, because she spent the past three years, since 2015, producing content on Musical.ly.

Don’t know what Musical.ly is? Ask the nearest 14-year-old. For those who don’t know a 14-year-old, Musical.ly is a social networking app for making and sharing music videos. The app was a pivot from a failed education startup. Ironically, it is a massive education tool for millions of teens and young adults. Not traditional education, but rather education that is fun and practical. Too social media for you? How about running an online business? Or leveraging internet arbitrage? Or building a community, competing in a major (e-)sport, and becoming a streamer? These are all alternative forms of education. College is a good choice for some, but it isn’t for everyone.

What Is Education? And, More Important, What Is the Point?

Is education about learning specific information? Is education learning how to solve problems and creatively approach different situations? Or is it simply about Technically, it’s all three. But not all types of education are equal.

At a more basic level, why do we learn things and solve problems? For some, learning is its own reward. Understanding what the golden ratio is and how nature follows it is awe-inspiring. However, many topics aren’t necessarily enjoyable for everyone. Most people wouldn’t learn calculus just for fun, so that means there is value in it. Being able to financially support yourself as an engineer is one good reason to learn calculus. But that’s not the only reason to get an education: Enjoying life and making a positive impact on the world are the two other primary reasons.

That’s the end goal. Enjoy life. Make a positive impact on the world. So how does the school system’s traditional education fit in? Historically, it made sense. Information was concentrated with particular people and in books. To get that info, we had to either go to where the books were or talk with these select few people. Because knowledge was less accessible, simply having it was more valuable. Thus, gatekeepers had a lot more leverage and importance. School became the way to access information that is important to success and progress. But this simply is no longer the case. We don’t need to travel to find books. Everything is in our phones. We don’t need to ask a gatekeeper for access to an expert. Millions of people offer their thoughts and expertise free online for anyone. The internet has made information near ubiquitous. There are no more gatekeepers in the traditional sense.

However, there is still value in traditional schooling. For example, becoming a lawyer or doctor requires immense knowledge and experience. An advanced degree is an efficient method for learning these jobs where actual lives at stake. But for many occupations, traditional schooling is not the only path. And are we sure it is even the best path?

Education for Outliers

Want to learn marketing? Instead of learning about marketing theory from a textbook written before social media existed, why not learn marketing by using what you know? Instagram. The goals can vary: gaining followers or earning money. Starting a Shopify store and pairing it with Instagram content is one option. If you don’t want to lose money, you’ll have to learn about product selection, marketing, customer relations, and more. You may not know the theory, but you’ll be a practitioner. Who would you rather hire: the woman who got a 4.0 in computer science, or the woman who made meaningful contributions to 43 open-source projects on GitHub that were used in industry? That is the power of an outlier’s education. And it’s better than traditional school, because it’s practical and directly translates to the real world, because it is the real world!

This is true for becoming a writer/journalist (Medium), a videographer (YouTube), salesperson (dropshipping), a data scientist (Kaggle), and so much more.

Let’s dig deep into one example. Some people make a living from playing video games. These people are learning valuable skills in community relations, storytelling, and product selection. Professional gamers play the games they think their audience will be most interested in. And the best gamers spin compelling narratives while they play to keep viewers coming back. But more than that, playing video games builds skills and work ethic. Like with any other sport, even those who don’t go pro still learn valuable lessons about life, hard work, and business. Don’t believe me? Take it from one of the top streamers making a living gaming and inspiring young people across the globe.

Prominent Twitch streamer Ninja streamed with Drake (yes, the rapper) and JuJu Smith Schuster (NFL receiver). This one-hour livestream had more than half a million people watching at the same time. Seems crazy, right? Well, it is right now. But in five years, it will be the norm. How? Well, there is zero difference between watching someone play video games and watching someone play basketball. In the future, universities will even offer scholarships for gamers like they do for athletes. These ideas only seem weird because you didn’t grow up with them. But your kids will.

This new industry is being called esports. And it’s a good move for JuJu as well. Optimistically, football will last until he’s in his thirties. Then what? If he builds a community around his livestreams, that’s a foothold for his post-football brand and income stream—and for those who aren’t the best gamers but still love games. Take solace in the fact that just as the sports world has created a plethora of supporting jobs for various skillsets, so too will esports.

Speaking of Income, Let’s Talk Money

In 2017, student loan debt crossed $1.3 trillion and 44 million borrowers in the United States. Among the class of 2016, the average student with debt owes $37,172.

Let’s Walk Through the Economics

The average total cost for public in-state university in the United States is $24,610 per year for a bachelor’s degree. Over four years, that is $98,440. This varies by school type:

Source: College Board, Annual Survey of Colleges

By going to college, we are saying that over the course of our lives, this four-year investment is worth more than an alternative path. But what exactly are we giving up? From a dollar perspective, let’s say we make $25,000 a year over those four years. By choosing college over working, we are making a $200,000 net decision. We pay approximately $100,000 for college and lose out on making $100,000 from working. This should give us pause before making the decision to attend university.

Higher education is linked to higher earning potential. So, for many, college is the right choice. But for many others, it isn’t. The point here is that student loan debt is becoming a larger issue in society. It is important to spread awareness and cultural acceptance of alternative forms of education that don’t leave us burdened with debt. But beyond getting a job, there is another more subtle reason people go to university: The social implications are huge.

What About the Peer Group?

The other reason school is so important historically are the social ramifications. School provides an instant peer group — people in the same phase of life with similar interests and concerns (theoretically). Love photography? Join your high school photography club. Enjoy running? Try out for the track team. Enjoy creating podcasts about cars? Eh…that might be too niche for school. This is where the internet comes in and how it disrupts our current social structure.

Want to meet people who take photos of architecture just like you? Search for local photographers on Instagram, DM 100 of them, then go meet the three who responded.

Have the running bug? Search Meetup.com for running groups that meet three times a week.

Want to learn to code? Join an eight-week coding bootcamp with other people motivated to dedicate 10 hours a day learning alongside you.

The internet has enabled us to find people who share our interests in a far more nuanced way than being put into a high school with 500 other kids who just happen to live in the same school district. Our social lives are becoming internet first. It’s time our education reflected that.

So, should you go to college? Maybe. For some, the negatives outweigh the positives. For others, college makes perfect sense. The point is there isn’t one right answer. Understanding the benefits of both paths is important before making a life-changing decision. Don’t just do what everyone else does because it’s what society says is right. Actually think. Then you might realize that the best path for you lies somewhere in the middle.