[UPDATE 9/7/07: Welcome new readers. Before continuing, I want to point out that the “Dangerous Ideas” series on this blog aim to be purposefully over the top. The idea is to push an argument to its extreme to generate interesting discussion. So take what follows with a grain of salt]
[UPDATE 9/7/07: I fixed two quotes in the text below (keeping the original misquote in place, but now crossed out). I quoted Paul as saying doing well academically demonstrates “obedience to authority.” The actual quote was that doing well is an “index of obedience.” In another place, I had the quote “an ability to do things to please adults.” The real quote was “knows what it takes to please the adults.” I take accuracy seriously. Sorry for the sloppiness in the previous draft.]
Paul Graham recently posted an essay on the role of college in determining success. True to Paul’s history, the piece is provocative and yields a good read.
A few weeks ago I had a thought so heretical that it really surprised me. It may not matter all that much where you go to college.
He begins by presenting evidence — from his seed stage investment vehicle, Y Combinator — that the college attended by the entrepreneurs he funds doesn’t seem to affect whether or not their startups succeed.
This is not hard to believe. A cool little tidbit from a unique dataset.
But then he continues. Paul generalizes this local argument to the much larger claim that the reputation of your college means nothing. In his words, attending “MIT, Harvard, or Stanford” does not mean that you are unusually smart or talented.
Indeed, according to Paul’s theory, going to an elite school, and/or doing well at college in general, is indicative only of
an “obedience to authority” “obedience” and an ability “to do things that please adults” knowing what it “takes to please the adults.” He claims companies selectively hire from elite schools only because this obedience makes people easier to control. There are no other positive traits attributable to students who stand out at top institutions.
I hear variations of this same tired argument probably once or twice a month. (It comes with the territory when you write a book titled How to Become a Straight-A Student). To my frequent frustration, there seems to be no quicker way to rouse knee-jerk support than to put down college or getting good grades.
But why is this? Are grades really unimportant? Does academic success only really require that you be a conformist and jump through hoops? Does it not require actual ability? Is it not something indicative of talent, and motivation, and curiosity?
Here’s my take:
- You don’t have to attend an elite college, or even do well at college, to succeed. Duh. Everyone knows this. No one disputes this. Case in point: Bill Gates, Richard Branson, every musician ever…
- Students who get into elite colleges tend to be, on the whole, talented. For an unrelated project, I recently spent some time hanging out in the MIT admissions office. These guys aren’t fooled by the study robots. They have developed, instead, an incredible eye, not just for true intellectual horsepower, but also for curiosity and a brash sense of ambition. This stuff comes through in the applications (often sublimated from the teacher recommendations, which, with a bit of practice, can be incredibly revealing regarding the real story of a student).
- Diligence and obedience do not generate high grades. Sorry Mr. Entrepreneur. You didn’t get a “C” in English Lit because you’re a non-conformist who is too creative to be held down by the teacher’s “rules.” Either you were too disorganized to handle the mentally-taxing workload, or, you just didn’t care, or, worse, the material was just too much for you. Fine. This is your choice. Whatever the reason, however, don’t put down the kids that got the A’s. They didn’t get there because of obedience to authority. They got there because they’re on the ball. They can process multiple streams of information, and they have trained their mind to think hard, produce subtle, nuanced arguments, and find deep connections between ideas — all traits, ironically, that most entrepreneurs would say are important.
- There is rarely a difference between learning and grades in the college classroom. A common argument I hear from students: “I was there to learn, not to chase after a meaningless external reward like grades.” Here’s the reality: in most classes, the higher your grade the better you learned the material. The student who got an ‘A’ on her Kant essay is, quite simply, someone who really understands Kant. Ditto for the student who aced the math exam. He understands the techniques better than the kid with the ‘B-‘. The idea that you can be learning but still doing poorly, is, at least in the classes I have attended, often a canard. Give the ‘A’ student his due. He mastered the material better than the ‘C’ student.
My Bottom Line
It’s fine to make the point that college and grades aren’t everything. In fact it’s important. Some talented students can’t attend an elite school due to finances. Some talented young people just aren’t into schoolwork — and we shouldn’t discourage them from still tackling life with everything they’ve got. They have a fine chance of coming out ahead. I’ll be the first say it: College is not necessary for success!
So you don’t need to get A’s at Harvard to do well in life. Fine. This doesn’t mean, however, that getting A’s at Harvard is meaningless. In all likelihood, that A student is probably smart, and talented, and curious, and sharp. And both her record and the school she attends indicates that she has her act together and can tackle complicated, intellectually-demanding tasks.
Let us not then, Paul, put her down. She too, just as much as any homegrown entrepreneur, has worked hard and made use of her talents. It does matter where she got into school and what she did once there. Let’s not take this from her. No matter how good that might make us feel. Just because we didn’t take a particular path should not motivate us to knock down those who did.