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This article is based on a talk I gave at Venture Cafe Rotterdam, in which I argue why formal education fundamentally fails to educate leaders. In the past couple of months, I gave this topic more thought and refined some of my ideas. You are reading the result.
Where I’m coming from
I was born the same year the first McDonald’s opened doors in my country. One of the first symbols of capitalism crossing our borders after the fall of the communist regime. Many things changed, but one that did not was education. The same dense, unappealing curriculum, taught from dusty books wore by many generations of students who endured them before us.
Throughout the beginning of my formal education, I was at best mediocre. And so it came that every year that passed, school and I grew further apart. I was not doing well in class, yet I had a great way to understand how the system worked. I was quick to realize that it was not studying hard or asking questions about the topics I was curious about that would bring me good results. Quite the opposite, I was in a constant game of guessing what topics would be on an exam, superficially connecting concepts, using plastic phrases that would please my teachers. It is sad because it worked. By the time I finished high school, I had one of the best GPAs in my school.
My dream was to study at one of the best universities in the world. I truly believed they would understand education is more than crunching information and regurgitating it after a few weeks. They would know studying and learning are two very different concepts. I was wrong.
The First Spark
Being young and overall clueless about the world, I wanted nothing to do with school. I found myself spending all my free time creating various, now embarrassing, YouTube videos. From Mafia movies with guns and VFX explosions, to cheesy comedy pieces inspired by foreign TV channels that I got my hands on.
Creating and carefully crafting my films was a way out of that school mess I so much despised. I felt special doing it; for the first time in my life I was passionate about something. I was learning, not studying. When I turned 15, an opportunity showed up to move to Los Angeles for the summer. I was to join a program made possible by Warner Bros. and USC– at the time the best film school in the world. Needless to say, I was ecstatic.
All summer, I woke up and went to bed thinking about my movies. The camera angles, the cast, running around town to get film permits and lock locations. I was everywhere but in a classroom; in a way, the city was my classroom. Surrounded by 80 or so people with the same dreams, coming from all over the world, working together to create the very best pieces of film we could. I was genuinely happy. This experience sparked something in me: it fundamentally proved there was a better way to learn. It showed, to me at least, that the folks at home got it wrong. I needed to get out.
A Cold Shower
I made it my main objective, if not my life goal, to get into one of the best schools in the world. Of course, I was naive in my thinking. The tuition fees of most ‘top schools’ were out of my realm. And even though to this day I am in love with filmmaking, I followed my brain and the advice of my family to go to a business school instead of a film school — maybe this deserves a post on its own. Most importantly, it was one I could afford that offered the same promise I was set on: to take part in world-class education, to learn not to study. I went to the Netherlands.
I’d like to make it clear: the following experiences have nothing to do with my study program, nor are they specific to my university. Counting opinions of friends from San Francisco to Bucharest, I believe the next paragraphs are equally applicable to any business degree or university out there.
A room with close to 500 students. A PowerPoint presentation longer than I imagined possible. Locked in courses, taking everyone from A to B, usually by means of long multiple-choice exams. My first year of university started with the promise that we would be ready to tackle complex business problems in international environments. That was something I refused to believe.
I believe the biggest issue we face today is that we assume education is a production line. Taking components from station A to station B, and you better pray you look no different from the other components. Formal education is preparing people for a world that does not exist anymore. When Henry Ford was blowing minds with his assembly line, there was a real need for replicable pieces. One worker was injured or did not want to work? No problem, there are hundreds just like him.
Today, we live in a different world. One in which workers on an assembly line will soon be seen in pictures in a history museum. One where our passions, creativity, and will to better the world around us will prime in front of our mechanistic aptitudes. You want to know who the 6th President of the United States was? Hey Siri.
Crafting Your Education
To the benefit of business school, and other non-technical majors generally, there is plenty of time to pursue your passions on the side. I took this to an extreme. At the time of writing this post, I am 6 months away from graduating and have not attended a class in more than a year. Most people will take this badly: what’s the point of wasting your time in school then? The reality of this is simple. When you are 20, there is no better place to surround yourself with smart people and open opportunities than a university campus. Notice I did not suggest you have to be enrolled.
I believe that in this day and age, it is up to you, each one of you, to craft your education by what you do besides your studies. For me, this meant refocusing my energy into learning computer programming and running two organisations. For the past 12 months, all my work has had nothing to do with studying business, but to learn as much as I could about technology. And trust me, I learned a lot more about business in the process than any business school course ever taught me.
End of Class
My work today is fueled by my passion, just like in the days of film school. I made it my goal and obligation to share my thoughts on what makes good education and empower others to build and create. I surrounded myself with amazing people, who share this mission.
I am in no position to give advice, so please do not regard my thoughts as such. The past couple of months were humbling for me. I learned how powerful it can be to work in a team driven by a transformative goal. I will continue on this path, of crafting my own education: out of my experiences, the people I meet, and my successes and failures. Indeed, this was the only thing that ever made me learn, not study.