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Why Draper University Won’t Work (But Could)

August 28th, 2013 · 36 comments

draper

School for Heroes

Every morning, the students at the Draper University School for Heroes recite an oath:

“I will promote freedom at all costs.”

“I will do everything in my power to drive, build, and pursue progress and change.”

“My brand, my network, and my reputation are paramount.”

This school was recently founded by the famed Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper (pictured above). Its goal is to produce “innovators” who do the “great things they are capable of.”

It’s also an idea that I am convinced will fail. And it’s what’s missing from this oath that underscores why.

Innovation is Fueled by Mastery

The program at the Draper University School for Heroes focuses on soft skills. There are classes in idea generation, painting, networking, and, for some reason, first aid and suturing.

There’s nothing wrong with maintaining a robust network or hearing inspirational speeches about being the change you want to see in the world. But this is not nearly enough if your goal is producing impactful innovation.

In researching my last book, I interviewed many people who ended up making a real impact on the world, including innovative biologists, agriculturists, and education entrepreneurs. The common trait they shared was expertise. They each started by putting in a lot of work to master something hard but valuable. It was this mastery that gave them the insight and ability needed to do produce real innovation.

As currently structured, Draper University focuses on young people, who, for the most part, do not yet have any expertise. Some have even dropped out of school in their eagerness to get started in their quest to do something big. Draper would applaud this boldness. I think it’s premature.

If you fire up a group of college students to go start companies and change the world the result will likely be yet another consumer-facing start-up focused on the needs of twentysomething Californian college students (to ape George Packer’s recent critique of the Valley).

By contrast…

If you want Google you need a pair of guys who were well along in Stanford’s PhD program and who were well-versed in the state of the art Information Retrieval literature.

If you want Microsoft you need a nerd who obsessively honed his programming skills and was willing to spend sleepless months mastering the opcodes of the first microprocessors.

If you want to sequence the human genome you need an entrepreneur who first spent a decade working in academia and at the NIH mastering the latest advancements in biogenetics.

And so on.

In other words, I support the vision of Tim Draper. The soft skills he teaches are important. We need to be reminded and encouraged to take risks and think big.

But I disagree with his choice of a target market. For the most part, the people most poised to really make a difference are not the eager college students currently occupying the bean bag chair-equipped lecture halls of Draper U, but instead are more likely to be found among the senior doctoral candidates and recently tenured professors at the world-class universities that happen to be within spitting distance of Draper’s San Mateo campus.

What’s missing from the oath of Draper University, in other words, is a commitment to putting in the hard long hours necessary to master the fields from which the next big innovations will surely arise. The soft skills are meaningless without something hard to back them up.

36 thoughts on “Why Draper University Won’t Work (But Could)

  1. John says:

    Great Post Cal. I think you should open the Newport University where the first 6-8 years of college are used to build the “hard skills” that students will need to be successful and the next 2 years are spend on inspiring them and encouraging them to be bold.

  2. Will says:

    Based on the examples of companies and the “spitting distance” comment, it sounds like you’re saying that you need to become a doctoral candidate in order to master a skill and become an innovator, which I strongly disagree with. Bill Gates dropped out of college, but it was his pursuit to master a skill on his own that allowed him to create the successful Microsoft. Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison followed a similar path, having never graduated from college, and Henry Ford went to a business college rather than a university.

    Higher education can be a way to master a skill and become an innovator, but it should not be implied that it is the only way.

  3. KNZ says:

    This is precisely where the New Zealand secondary school national curriculum has screwed technology teaching – they’ve subordinated the expertise component to all the soft skills. Instead of first learning how to use the tools in a structured manner on set projects, thereby getting a feel for what is possible, the curriculum demands they start with brainstorming problems and ideas for solving them. Insane. It’s no wonder most hard materials technology teachers have opted out of that part of the curriculum in favour of teaching the units designed for community college vocational programmes. This problem of deifying the soft skills and ignoring the importance of learned expertise isn’t just at the university level, it is also creeping down the system.

  4. EaY says:

    I wonder what Draper’s motivation for starting this organization is. Call me a cynic but it seems like:
    (1) if he sells this this experience enough (and he’s doing a good job so far) he can start making a profit from the swarms of kids who will pay good money for the experience
    (2) he presumably gets first pick of the students’ start ups to invest in, as well as adding them to his network in case they have any good start-up ideas in the future

  5. Takeshi says:

    Have to disagree here. There’s still a lot of opportunity to be had in the consumer internet and mobile apps space, and the younger generation who grew up using the technology are in a good position to disrupt it. Technology has progressed to a point that it provides a lot of opportunity to disrupt traditional industries, even without deep technical knowledge. I wouldn’t underestimate the efforts of Tim Draper, who himself is an expert when it comes to entrepreneurship and what is needed to succeed as an entrepreneur.

  6. Richard says:

    Interesting – that sounds a lot like anecdotal evidence though. Is it more likely that a recently tenured professor will develop the motivation to launch a startup, or that a young and motivated person will develop the skills to master a subject? Either way the success rate will be low, but the difference is probably an order of magnitude.

    It’s also possible that “I will do everything in my power” includes working hard to master a field once it has been identified as a high-potential market that’s worth spending time on. I don’t know what goes on in the classes though.

  7. Ahmed says:

    A similar course was in MICA, India by Prof. Gautam Raj Jain, he had excellent academic credentials and a desire to nurture ideas and entrepreneurship in the country. The admission to the course was based on the originality of the applicants idea and the students were then provided support for developing it, along with the regular course work. However, the course had to be shut down after three years, as most of the students were unable to follow through on the ideas they had submitted. I was a student of this course and though the admission process was tough enough to ensure only the real hardworking people got it, sometimes the skills needed to succeed in business and the world are just not the same.

    Ideas do have the power to change the world, but those ideas need an eco-system to thrive, and that is what most entrepreneurship schools miss out. While, I do not completely agree with the post that mastery is essential to create a successful enterprise, I do believe that, ONLY an idea is never enough.

  8. Patrick says:

    At what point do they need mastery? He is targeting young people – granted I know very little about the program. Perhaps he can drive them into mastery, while at the same time pushing the innovative-mind upon them. Do you suggest they go to a standard university to get their “mastery”, and then go into a program like this? Or when should they go into a program like this? Fresh out of high school seems like a good time to me.

  9. Mark says:

    Hey Cal – you should check out Zen Pencils. You’d like it.

    http://zenpencils.com/comic/90-ira-glass-advice-for-beginners/

  10. Mariya says:

    I think you’re right about the process. I have a couple of friends who did the program, and it seems just like the summer camp you went to as a kid, but with a few more references to LinkedIn. Official activities included spontaneous hang out sessions with Draper’s daughter and her sorority sisters, for example. A lot of colleges have similar programs, sans sisters — they’re mostly clubs or entrepreneurial “fellowships,” and they teach you to “think big” and “dream it, do it!” but no one comes out of those programs with a tangible idea or hard skills, like you mentioned (of course, in college, you’re only giving up a few hours a week to do this, whereas you’re giving up thousands of dollars for the DU experience).

    It is a wonderfully profitable experience for Mr. Draper, himself. A little bit of money flows in from the students, and if one of them hits the jackpot, he makes a chunk of the profits, like an good VC should. It sounds kind of scammy, but college kids can’t resist bean bag chairs and inspirational messages (especially around job search time!).

    Glad to finally see an alternative view on the University!

  11. Evan says:

    I agree. I hadn’t heard of this, a school seemingly dedicated to just soft skills, before.

    I think a variation of this philosophy, if laid upon the stable curricula of a proven university, could truly produce the “heroes” Draper seeks. Many universities don’t foster the soft skills Draper promotes, which are genuinely good skills to have.

    However, like you said, if you don’t put in near 10,000 hours of the right work, wishing won’t make it so.

    I encounter this belief that all you need is a little courage to change the world from people all the time. Specifically, when I tell people I took up programming about 2 years ago and am studying software engineering, they ask me a variation of “so when are you going to make a million dollar app”? Whether facetious or genuine, I have to chuckle when I hear this. Behind this question is the dangerous belief that all you need is a bit of hard work, some guts, and the attitude of the leaders of your field to hit it big. But of course I give them the abridged version: talk to me in 8 years about it.

  12. mayeesha says:

    What do you think of Peter Thiel’s programs Newport?They are kind of based on the similar idea that they give enough money to the young people to start companies.Or Y combinatory?Just asking for your opinions on the matter.
    And why more master’s/PHD students don’t launch companies?Is it emotional resistance of some kind?

  13. Hassan says:

    What are the core skills an entrepreneur needs to have who, lets say isn’t tied to any one industry. e.g Peter Diamandis, Elon Musk etc

  14. CB says:

    Great post! All the brainstorming in the world won’t get you anywhere if there’s nothing in your head. I think our generation is incredibly narcissistic, and we intuit much more than we hypothesize and revise our hypotheses. We don’t like to test our assumptions to see if we are right or wrong, because it’s less damaging to our egos to assume we are correct because our gut says so. Schools that teach you that the answer is somehow buried deep inside you (like finding your calling or passion, or the next big idea!) will make a fortune exploiting this mentality. Perhaps I’ll start a school like that too. :)

  15. Dave Small says:

    Thanks for another great post Cal. A few years ago I read An American Childhood by Annie Dillard. She commented on the hard work of Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, George Washington Carver, Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Boone. She then makes a fascinating statement: “It was all the same story. You have a great idea and spend grinding years at dull tasks, still charged by your vision. All the people about whom biographies were not written were people who failed to find something that took years to do.” (An American Childhood page 170)

  16. kab says:

    While I agree with the premise that a certain degree of expertise or mastery is required, your conclusion sounds a lot like “there needs to be a lot more focus on people like ME if people really want to drive innovation.” There is a reason that relatively few successful entrepreneurs have a background that includes a doctorate degree or a position as a professor. Entrepreneurship requires a degree of risk tolerance and outside-the-box attitude that typically isn’t found in people steeped in academia. Said another way, if they were going to stray from the academic path, they likely would have prior to obtaining a PhD. Perhaps more to the point, your conclusion is self serving and largely driven by a confirmation bias relating to a pre-conceived value you’ve placed on your current academic position (which is only natural). The conclusion is unsupported because it assumes a single (and arguably inefficient) path to mastery (i.e., high level academia).

  17. Chris says:

    Mayeesha, more Master’s and PhD students are starting companies. In my mechanical engineering lab group of 12 people, all but 1 are interested in starting companies. With my professor, I’m not just publishing papers. I’m doing market research and talking about routes to commercialization. Also, 3 of 4 graduate students at my undergrad lab group (at my old university) are graduating and starting a company. They never even looked for academic or industrial jobs. I’m seeing this a lot. I think these observations are representative of a big change, and we’ll see the effects soon. It’s not just consumer products either… I work in nanotechnology.
    Also, I think Cal is spot on. I think grad schools are going to be the core of tech innovation.

  18. mayeesha says:

    yeah cal would like zen pencils for sure.

  19. Sren says:

    Hey Cal, I agree with you about certain parts. However I think you are missing certain things as well. Let’s remember that you are a computer scientist, when you think of innovation maybe you are thinking about algorithms and microprocessors, the fact you use description “consumer oriented companies” gives it away, remember that consumer oriented is not always bad thing Google is also consumer oriented think how they make their money -advertising-. Although it is true that most innovation comes from the type of person you mentioned, some of the the most important ones are not. Why? Because by mastering something you learn everything you should not do, you also learn HOW to do things, but mastering something does not teach you WHAT to do (if you are not creative and original, getting an EECS Phd won’t make you so). What I am trying to say is that some of the most important innovations depend on originality, not mastery, especially on internet and business fields where science is not deeply involved. My reasoning is simple for this argument: master level execution can be done by many people, but not many people come up with truly original ideas (although venture capitals will say otherwise, it is not the truth, because there is a conflict of interest in their case), so if you have right ideas and money you can definitely innovate. If I hired you to program Facebook or Youtube wouldn’t you be able to program it (not even today, say after your first couple programming classes)?

    Of course it is best if you have original ideas AND you mastered subject domain. However, neither one of these qualities is substitute for the other one. In Draper’s case it appears that they actually came up with an interesting idea to find right people to invest. Don’t think of this as a real university, I think it is not, and I doubt founders would argue otherwise. They will pick interesting and promising people, then even make them pay for their expenses, then they will pick the best among those and invest in them. If my understanding is right, this is a very good and economical way of investing.

    By the way, I believe I have right ideas and I think you would like them (they are about changing education, making it better and faster). However, I lack mastery and money which is why at the young age of 29 I decided to study computer science (during the last ten years I was living in a cave, now that I am out I decided to share my wisdom and enlighten the mankind) :). I will probably enroll UofM-Ann Arbor. Which is why I started to read your study techniques and I think they will be quite useful. After a couple semester (after OOP and Algorithms) I plan to start working on one my ideas, would you be interested in business proposals?

    P.S: I remember the days Google sucked so badly and showed bunch of irrelevant results. The algorithms were bad and relied heavily on “keywords” in meta tags, which were so easy to abuse. Google has become what it is today largely due to their extremely selective employment practices and right business decisions as well as the incompetence of their main rivals. I doubt that either Brin or Page were visionary geniuses who made a search engine much better than the rest of the pack in 1998 and predicted the future of the web search, as a matter of fact they tried to sell it to Yahoo for a million dollars in their early days. Yahoo refused.

  20. Carol says:

    This documentary about Robert Noyce and the founding of Silicon Valley corroborate this idea: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/silicon/

  21. Ji-Min says:

    Hi Cal,

    Thank you for this. All of what you’re saying has really aligned in my mind to produce something meaningful. Have you read Mastery? A lot of what you say is in there, too, with a different spin on it.

  22. Hey Cal. I applaud you for upholding the importance of mastery in innovation. However, I think your post might need some clarification in order to appropriately respond to objections presented in the comments.

    Some of the examples you bring up are innovations at the highest levels of mastery, such as the innovator in biogenetics. I understand that it is easier to innovate at the highest levels of technology if you have the years of mastery at your disposal, as was the case with the Google and Microsoft innovators.

    But then there are also innovations at lower levels of technology that have great impact. For you, innovation might mean scientific and technological breakthroughs that advance progress and civilization. For others, innovation might mean helping a thirsty city find alternative but simple means of acquiring water, e.g., rainwater harvesting as in the case of SmartPaani/.

    I think it’s great you want innovation at the highest levels of mastery but it may be useful for your readers if you made a distinction between different types of innovation.

  23. Hi Cal,
    I find this issue to be quite a big one in my work with young people – they (we) want to live a life of self-employment, of location-independent freedom. Most often they seek to mimic my model, helping clients achieve a specific outcome (in my case clarity on their dream lifestyle and how to get it). The only problem is, most of these kids have nothing they can offer. They don’t have any marketable skills they can use as leverage – just a big dream.
    You definitely have to learn something of value first, then use the soft skills to accomplish the big dream.

  24. Lily Tran says:

    Dear Cal,

    Have you heard of Elon Musk? How would one go about achieving what Elon Musk has achieved? In your post, you mention Microsoft and Google. However, if you want SpaceX or Telsa, where would you start?

  25. John G. says:

    I like your books Cal, they are very useful for students and myself.

    I agree mastery should be paramount, in any field. Yet, in the scientific and technical fields mastery is more or less a matter of studying, study method, practice, and repetition. In other words the path to mastery of a technical subject is more or less straightforward, it may be difficult, but at least there is a path.

    Yet, the mastery of “soft” skills is more difficult and less obvious, though also important. For example, knowing what your supervisor may want, becoming aware of unspoken rules, understanding the politics of your workplace, knowing where, when, and how to stand out and when to go along, and how to phrase things in such a way that you don’t commit a faux pas or give the wrong impression, how to make small talk and when not to, these are all the “soft” skills that in many ways determine how others view and treat you, and how far you can go.

    Yes, there are those who can make and play by their own rules, usually though they are the best of the best, top researchers, top scientists, top anything. For most everyone else and those who are working their way up, soft skills are important.

  26. Patrick says:

    Hey Cal and Guys,
    I ironically applied to Draper University after reading this blog post…what’s even more interesting is I actually got in O.o So now I am on the cusp of deciding whether or not I should leave my University mid-semester or go to Draper for 8 weeks to have great access to networking.

    Unlike what Cal mentions on the post, my organization does not solve problems for 20somethings for other 20somethings. My organization deals with affordable housing and making homes that cost very little. I have validated my product, that means people actually want it, and I have a waiting list of individuals that want to get their hands on.

    Should I take the safer route of continuing this semester or jump into a pool for what could be a once-in-a-life opportunity? Advice? Wisdom?

    1. Catherine says:

      Did you go? What happened? Would love to hear about your experience. I am personally considering applying so that’s why I ask.

  27. Great post Cal, I definitely agree that people need mastery but I think a lot of innovation comes from imagination as well. And that is not something a school can teach you.

  28. Armchair Physicist says:

    I don’t think Cal is trying to say you need a doctorate to become an innovator, but you probably do need something more than soft skills. It’s true that you need creativity and drive, but it’s not as if these are mutually exclusive with regard to technical mastery. It’s also true that an EECS PhD won’t make you any more driven, but it sure will help if you decide to use that drive to put Africa on the grid. In contrast to Sren, I’d say that technical mastery is *less* common than originality and ideas – most people have opinions about how to make this and that better; it’s the subsection of people who have ideas and the skills to execute them that end up making the changes.

    To all the folks mentioning Elon Musk, he’s not much different than the Google founders – he has a degree in physics and was admitted to the applied physics Ph.D. program at Stanford. Admittedly, he left immediately, much earlier than the Google guys did, but anyone who got into the program in the first place isn’t exactly lacking in technical skills.

    Additionally, I’d like to add that while it’s nice to point that guys like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs didn’t graduate college, they’re major, major exceptions to the norm – outliers so far from the median that even the other outliers don’t see them. I don’t think dropping out of school to chase a dream is necessarily the best way to create an amazing life, even though it worked a few very famous people. On the same token, Jimmy Page was mostly self-taught, but that doesn’t mean I’d recommend for anyone else to forgo lessons if they wanted to become an expert guitar player.

  29. Sren says:

    Hey Physicist, I did not say that EECS Phd wouldn’t make someone driven (it wouldn’t by the way, but it would mean the person is driven), I said creativity. As you probably know, Einstein once said “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” what I said is basically the same thing (but more true due to years passed). The idea that originality and ideas are more common than mastery is repeated often, yet when you look into lists of “best ideas of the year” or do a quick search on US patent website or just check you are bound to see bunch of ridiculous ideas, alternatively you can go ahead and check venture capitals and companies they invest in, and you will find bunch of junk there as well. I stand by what I say, original ideas are less common than mastery, especially in an age where all courses of life (most importantly education) is extremely regulated and standardized this is only natural. Many people think like you, but even simplest research proves it wrong.

    On the other hand, I already said that it would be best to master something. In fact, if you don’t have money but have great ideas (everyone think they have great ideas, but don’t), you HAVE to master something (I learned this the bitter way).

    To sum up: both you and Cal are assuming that to innovate you need top notch technical skills. What I think is that, it is not necessarily true and certainly not if you have sufficient resources to make other people do the work for you (in case of Draper). It is also possible that our definitions of original idea/innovation is different than each other. To me saying we should find a better way to travel moon or we should make people healthier are not really ideas, rather the statement of obvious. When I say original ideas I am thinking well thought, applicable answers to meaningful and big problems. Otherwise, you are right, everyone (especially here in the USA) seems to have ideas and tend to think everyone in the world needs fork ended spoons. Here take a look: http://www.quirky.com

  30. Lots of people in large business corporations will often talk up the soft skills you need in business- and boy over the years I worked in business wasn’t I sent on lots of training in them. The fact is, hard core skill is what it is – hard to acquire, takes years to learn, and thought of as nerdy by many. People who gravitate to big organisations love soft skills – but there comes a pointbwhere someone actually has to do something that adds value to a customer so everyone can get paid.

    I think the only way forward is to truly believe that competence is king. I don’t know anyone who is roundly competent that has been out of work for long – but I’ve know loads of people who are expert at the soft skills who stuglle once they are out of the big company environment.

    I saw a title to an article once that summed it up – “Be a Nerd. The World Needs Nerds!”

  31. You can always hire people who have this mastery. What you can’t buy is soft skills which is what will eventually make or break you in everyday business ; Be it pitching to VCs or developing that sense of who to hire/trust , understanding how and when to strike up a conversation with some one who could be a useful contact for you, taking risks and having the mental toughness to stick to your ideas etc are in my opinion much more important than mastery of skills for MOST businesses. The examples of Microsoft and Google are extreme and obviously that is not the target market for any school. What this school probably intends to do is create tough entreprenuers who know how to get around and make money which imo is the most important thing. Now if they happen to create some one who comes up with the next big thing that’s just the cherry on the top.

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