A Note to My 18 Year Old Self – “College is a Waste of Time”

A Note to My 18 Year Old Self – “College is a Waste of Time” post image

Although I had a great time in college, I wish I would have been smart enough to skip it. In the end, I feel it unnecessarily disciplined me into believing that I wouldn’t be capable of making any real contributions or decisions for another 4 to 6 years.

If you aren’t going to school for something that specifically requires a credential– like practicing law in the state of California– those timeframes are pointless and extraordinarily expensive to follow.

I can’t help but thinking about where I’d be today if somebody told my 18 year old self that there is not such thing as “being ready” to be a real person.

Today, a young blog reader who is currently enrolled in university sent me an email asking me “how do I get out of this mess.”

Hi Dan,

I’m studying computer science in Europe, living at my parents house, have a girlfriend that I love, building iPhone apps for business (but not making a living yet). I obviously have too much on my plate. I also hate university. It’s not the topic, I just hate the way they teach stuff. I’m a really good developer and make iPhone apps with a friend / business partner.

How do I get out of this mess? I know quite a lot about internet marketing and I even know exactly what I want to do for business. The problem is that I can’t figure out how to liberate myself from the university and other responsibilities because I depend on my parents for a living. What do you suggest?

1. Re-set your expectations about the interpersonal difficulties of being an entrepreneur.

I know parents– especially good ones– can be tough to cross. They’ve done everything for you.

Here’s the thing– if you think disagreeing with your parents is tough, try firing a good employee who has kids. If you are good at this entrepreneurship stuff, someday you’ll probably have to do it. That’s just the beginning.

Since we’ve started our business, we’ve been subjected to physical threats, awkward office yelling matches, public humiliations, a pathetic extortion attempt, and plenty of other interpersonal crap.

Making tough personal decisions is a huge edge for an entrepreneur. It’s a rare and valuable ability, and it starts at home.

You’ll be one hell of a lucky guy if your competition turns out to be less ruthless than your parents.

2. The conversation is over once you’ve got cash flow.

I often think of Derek’s article zipit because I’m a big talker. It was common for me to read some stuff, take a little action, and then sit around the dinner table and run my mouth about all the things I was so excited about. “And then in October I’m gonna…”

I wish I would have shut up and worked.

I could have come to the dinner table 2 months later and said: “So I made $1,500 last month working 10 hours a week on my apps. I calculate that if I spend 60 hours a week on it I’ll be making $5,000 a month by the end of the summer. It’s a calculated risk, but I’m going for it.”

3. University is a speed limit that you don’t need.

Parents generally default to cultural scripts to have confidence that what they are suggesting and supporting for their children is good.

Did you ever hear that story about Steve Jobs? He hung around his college campus and attended classes that he thought would be interesting. He did not enroll!

To your parents, that might sound ridiculous, but to me it sounds like a brilliant plan. When I think back, that move would have saved me time and an embarrassing sum of money. All of the meaningful relationships I built in university could have been built without officially enrolling.

If you want to develop apps for the next few years, you need a credential from the app store, not a university.

4. “Don’t look the gift horse in the mouth.” Finding a profitable cash flow is a unique, fleeting, and special moment.

Figuring out how to make a buck on the internet isn’t the toughest thing on the planet, but it’s easy for smart people to bang their heads against the problem for years and not find a reliable source of cash flow.

Part of the reason I started the Dynamite Circle was that a small group of friends on my mastermind call basically told me “you need to start this. We want a place like this, and you are the guy to do it. Don’t mess it up because you’ve got some emotional issues about online marketing products.”

And it was true. I was shy to start a private forum. But when you find people who are willing to pay you for something you can do, it’s a rare, special, and magical thing. Take a hint!

I can guarantee you this: universities who are looking to fill up their class rosters and commit cash to their bottom line aren’t so special. They aren’t going anywhere and you can always go back.

5. Do not suspend or outsource judgments about your life. Responsibility for your career trajectory lies 100% with you. 

Let’s say you think you want to develop iPhone apps for a living. You have a belief that the best way to create that outcome is to spend up to 60 hours a week writing Objective C. Your parents understand your desire, but suggest that your outcome could be reached if you spend 10 hours a week coding and 50 hours a week on your university coursework.

It’s a common situation to find oneself in. It’s common for people, in all walks in life, to suspend judgment, assuming my parents must know something and continue on with your path and wait for more information to emerge.

Don’t do that.

Entrepreneurs see extraordinary rewards for pursuing paths before society has made it legible in a “script” that can be passed around.

Some would say it’s dangerous advice to give. So here’s my qualification:

Let’s assume you are committed to reality (you aren’t a dream thinker) and are good at being honest with yourself (and not feeding yourself short term ego-junk food): if you see a path to what you want that nobody else sees– you are experiencing the entrepreneurial moment.

You’re right where you need to be.

Go. Go. Go.





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Published on 04.09.12
  • Dan Maney

    Cool post Dan, and something I partially agree with. University can be a massive waste of time if you already have direction, but for me university was where I found my direction. Lets be perfectly honest, the first couple of years at uni are a doss and they gave me the opportunity to try stuff out business wise.

    Its only through trying out what I thought I wanted to do –  In my case it was Zoology, and then Photography that I learnt what I really wanted to do – interestingly it was during my year of photography that finally did it – all these enthused photographers talking about the long long hours just to get by doing what they loved, I thought I can use my business know-how to allow me the freedom to pursue my hobbies like photography etc. It was then that I realised what I actually wanted to do.

    University/College can be a huge waste of time, or it can be the opportunity to find your feet.

  • Christopher E Barnett

    Dan,  Could not agree more about university, I would go one step further and say that applies to law school as well.  Law schools have been inflating tuitions for years based upon the fact that the federal gov (US) backs up the debt and it is not dischargeable in bankruptcy. Law schools have also been artificially inflating the numbers as to students with jobs after graduation (they do not distinguish between those working actual legal jobs vs. those working at Starbucks for example).  The real numbers are somewhere around 40% will have actual full time legal jobs.

    While law school may be a good idea if it has been your dream in life to be an attorney, I would highly caution taking the plunge for any other reason.  I know, I am now saddled with over $100K of student debt, working a low paying, long hours attorney job.  While I have been practicing for over 7 years, the bad decision to go to law school has hindered the dream of location independence. 

  • Dan,

    Great post.  It reminds me of Ellsburg’s “The Educations of Millionaires.” 

    I agree with you; college is a dying, diseased institution.

    …But I don’t think all 18 year olds should just skip college.  Sure, there a select few people who would do awesome without any sort of college education, but where are the bodies?  I personally have met few people who excelled without at least some college background–you hear about Steve Jobs and others, but those are exceptional examples.

    Lots of the people who say college is a waste went to college themselves.   That’s because we were in college and realize there’s a lot of superflous BS and bad habits being formed there.  Still, most of us went.   How do we know things would have turned out the same without it?

    Yes, I agree, it would have been better to save ~50k in tuition and other expenses and use it towards something else productive.   But when I went to a college prep school and my parents filled my head with ideas of college.   And to be frank, my 18 year old self would not have fared well in ‘the real world.’   The social and intellectual environment of college, despite its excesses, probably had more benefits than downsides.   

    Thank God for college and shitty campus and corporate jobs/internships, though.   They were a wakeup call that the ‘real world’ aka 9-5 sucks big time.   

    Food for though;   Without going through college or having shit jobs, would we ever gotten fed up enough to reject ‘the script’?

    PS:  I’m graduating from UC Santa Cruz in June.   Not soon enough!   

  • ah college, what I could have done with the thousands of dollars i gave to my institution. great points! Cheers from Costa Rica!

  • Disagree a bit with this post.

    My favorite professor in college (who knew a hell of a lot about Hannibal and
    his war elephants) gave me some fantastic advice (I paraphrase from memory):

    In college, in addition to your partying and your learning the classics and
    taking your various requirements across the disciplines you have the
    opportunity to learn a real, non-trivial skill that will stay with you
    the rest of your working life.

    This could be learning a hard language, learning some difficult math or statistics,
    programming, or getting involved with some cutting edge science…

    This type of valuable skills can give you a huge leg up as an entrepreneur or
    as an employee

    The real shame is people who graduate college that can read, write, do high
    school math and not much else – the same skills they entered college with. 

  • Daniel Taylor

    Dan love the blog and love the podcast but fundamentally disagree with you on this one..but life would be boring if we agreed on everything right ;)

    Now thats not to say I agree with the American Education model…borrow $50000+ to take an English Lit degree and somehow think your financial future will be rosy……….but you just have to be crafty. Now I was lucky enough to study in the UK in the now gone days when tuition was free but again there’s still options out there you just have to act with Moxie :)  I’ve got friends who’ve studied in Thailand, Netherlands, Finland just to give 3 examples for very little money, have self funded through part time jobs or internet businesses and had an amazing experience as well.

    Also to be honest University is pretty easy, despite what everyone likes to say. I studied Engineering which is by no means the easiest course and I delivered pizzas, worked in a night-club, started a couple of failed student businesses, was in the Army reserves, and dont even get me started on the sports and social side (many of my closest friends are all from Uni). You get long summers to work abroad (I did a summer in the USA with BUNAC and one in Israel working on a Moshav.Now of course you could have the same experiences as this not in college but sometimes constraints bring out the best in people and when you’ve got a fixed amount of time in the summer or a fixed number of free hours in the week you get on and do stuff.

    Finally although you dont want to work in a job again (and hopefully you won’t have to) life and circumstances change and rightly or wrongly a degree is a back up and can get you through the door. I never want a full time job either but I try to aim for taking one short term Project Management contract each year for 2-3 months to keep me in the game of course for the money…… and for sure the degree has got me through the CV filter. Again not saying it’s right it’s just the way I see the world is.


  • Dan

    Yeah Dan there’s no question you can put yourself in line for some pretty magical cross-pollination type stuff at university. I also write this article as somebody who loved their university experience, so it’s tough for me to go back and wish it away. I actually didn’t know what I wanted to do for a few years after college. I think I spent the next half decade lamenting I wasn’t back reading books and hanging around the quad! 

  • Dan

    Wow that’s a startling figure. I’ve spoken with a small handful of people in similar situations as you– it’s mind boggling to put together the economics of the whole industry, even the few firms willing to pay for all of this in the end. On the surface it seems like it’s gotta be a bubble. Sorry to hear about the loans, ouch, I had big debt too from school. Good news is you know how to hustle :)

  • Dan

    Congrats on the graduation! An achievement for sure. I agree with your broader statement that universities are in for a huge shift very shortly, it’ll be interesting to see what happens. I always sorta hold my breath when parents of young children say “i’m saving for my child’s education.” 

    One thing that has shaded my experience has been hanging around with the early 20’s internet crowd– many of them are drop-outs or non-attenders. I know it might be crazy– but I think their exposure to the internet has made them smarter and wiser. When I was in high school I was looking up encyclopedias on CD Roms. I couldn’t just google stuff since I was a kid. So yeah, fair enough it’s tough to say since I went to school but these young folks don’t seem to have missed anything that I have. In fact, I see it as the opposite. I wish I were more like them at their age. When I was 23, I felt like I knew nothing about how the world works, and well, I didn’t. Still trying to figure that one out ;)

  • Dan

    Cheers Harrison! Could have a lot of fun in Costa Rica with those tuition funds.

  • Dan

    There is where I’m ambivalent as well– I’m not sure I would have taken the time to read Heidegger if I wouldn’t have gone to school. It’s tough to want to justify all the time/expense for those reading sessions, however. That’s why I’m attracted to the idea of “hacking” this situation without paying tuition. 

  • Dan

    Wow, actually got a little starry eyed reading your re-count. Sounds like you had a blast– so did I. Yeah, it’s the cost I have a major issue with. If the whole thing were 15K and 2-3 years, I wouldn’t have written the article. Cheers agree on the backup plan for many types of industries. For everybody to decide, in my case, my liberal arts degree has never been referenced or called upon by anyone except my mother to hang it on the wall. Thanks mom!

  • Dan, 

    I agree with everything you said.  If you are disciplined enough, and want it bad enough, then college can be a waste of time and actually stifle your creativity while robbing you of a few vital years.  Looking back, I don’t know if I would have been dedicated enough at 18 to make a good entrepreneur, but the cost of college was definitely more than creating a start-up company.

    That being said, college to me was all about the experience and what I learned outside of the classroom, living on my own during a transition phase in life.  I feel it made me quite autonomous, though I admittedly had to “unlearn” some of what I was taught after I entered the business world.  The education side of it you could teach yourself with google as long as you are good at discerning information.

    If we weren’t talking about America, and college was actually affordable, then the experience itself is worth the time investment.  But that is not our situation here, and I would think many could afford to cut their losses and pursue their dreams early.  

    Thanks for your thoughts Dan.

  • Another home run Dan. I just posted a similar blog post and mentioned you and your crew actually. Thanks for dropping all the knowledge and providing the inspiration. When you have a moment please check it out and let me know what you think
    Thanks again for all the help you provided and I owe you a Bintang whenever you are ready.

  • Dan

    hey Michael thanks for that! I’ll be back in Bali in a few weeks will enjoy that Bintang :) Checked out your site looks great! 

  • Dan

    Cole, my thoughts are pretty much in line with yours. I’m seeing better alternatives emerge for this generation (I love watching the TBMA guys interact) I’d much prefer to be hanging with DCers in BKK or Davao than going to university, but that’s not really an option for a broad range of ppl right now. Agree on the cost thing. 

  • Fantastic. Enjoy your travels and we will be here when you return.

  • I think my BSc was a waste of time. But my PhD was time well spent learning how to work on my own stuff.

    Student debt is the next debt bubble to pop, be careful out there people…

  • Institutions of higher learning exist for three reasons…and…coincidently, all three of them are in the service of entrepreneurs.

    1. To churn out employees for the companies entrepreneurs build

    2. To create a stable source of revenue for the government via regular taxes paid through wages of the employees that entrepreneurs employ

    3. To refine academic knowledge to the point where it is ready for an entrepreneur to take it to the marketplace and create value with it

    However, it’s also a place where you can gain (or not gain) a certain degree of maturity that’s necessary to have in the workplace.

    In college you can learn interpersonal communication skills, critical thinking skills, how to be evaluated, and how to respect authority like a good little worker bee.

    If you’re in the Greek system or other clubs and groups you might also make some long-term connections that could be useful in advancing your career.

    I think there’s an endless array of pros and cons. It’s really up to the individual. But if Mom and Dad are footing the bill for college and you can’t support yourself off your own efforts…then…you might need to just stay in school.

  • Dan

    Brett– 100% agree there. I can imagine quite a few PhDs I’d enjoy doing even now, but gonna stick to the bloggin! 

  • Dan

    If mom and dad are footing the bill I say go go go!!! Have a great time and hack together something great in your dorm room :)

  • BillSeitz

    Two points specific to this questioner:

    1. Building iPhone apps for other people isn’t a great business, though it can be a source of useful learning leading toward your own idea.

    2. You can develop the idea in the spring, then use your summer break to build and get to market.

  • Dan

    #1 – I don’t agree with that, but I don’t have a lot of experience to back it up. 
    #2 – Awesome! 

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  • Hmm, odd someone i’ve talked to charges $100 to $1000 and hour depending on the size of the project it usually takes a week to a monthish for the finished product. Although some projects can take longer but usually you can get a beta out in a month

  • why not do both?

  • yea america school system where to begin so many things wrong with the system, im sure they get stuff right just hard to figure out what

  • to be honest i think it is at lest a usa problem, most other countries dont seem to have this problem

  • BillSeitz

    re #1 yes you can sometimes make a nice consulting rate for awhile, but increasingly you’re competing with offshore super-cheap guys, regardless of quality. (As a student you can live really cheap for awhile, but n years out you may find yourself paying rent, etc.) And obviously your upside is limited by the number of productive hours you can bill (net of selling time, etc.). So the goal is to create product-based revenue streams.


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  • Abba Okoro

    Why not dedicate those hours to more coding instead of wasting your time at school to learn the same thing 10x slower? LOL

  • Abba Okoro

    He didn’t need to go it wouldn’t have stopped him from making this post.

  • Abba Okoro

    If people didn’t go more people would have focused on their passion really

  • Abba Okoro

    Wow this sounds so similar to my experience :0

    Well thank goodness I didn’t go :)

  • Alec Yeasting

    That stuff about the entrepreneurial moment is scary for me. It feels like I’ve found a good idea with plenty of interest that isn’t being capitalised on right now, but everyone around me seems to be pushing me into college this fall, I feel trapped. As much as that last bit is what I think, having someone else affirm it makes the pressure worse. Like having two large forces fighting in my head.

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