Stuff I never learned at Stanford

Grad school rants are becoming a theme in the blogosphere.

hahaha... sob.

hahaha... sob.

Charlie Hoehn wrote a post this week about failing cheaply. When trying to figure out your dream job or project, you might fail. Better to fail cheaply – doing something you initiate on your own – than to pay a grad school $100,000 so you can fail with an egregious amount of school debt trailing you for the rest of your life.

Another blogger, Tim Grahl, also wrote about the wastefulness of advanced education.

I’ve even posted about this topic on Ask the Entrepreneurs, where the tech entrepreneur Bob Ippolito gives me reason to believe that entrepreneurs don’t need grad school.

This trend is because bloggers tend to be a very independent-spirited bunch; they’re the people who are doing exactly what Charlie suggests – sticking their necks out every day or week to share their thoughts and work in a public forum.

It doesn’t mean we all hate education institutions, but it does mean that we don’t think they should be a crutch to help you hobble along till you figure out what you really want to do with your life.

I was a history major at Stanford (SUPER non-vocational major), loved it, and don’t regret a single class or dollar.

For me, college (and my history courseload):

Stanford University logo– provided me with the structure I needed to learn things that changed my paradigms. Most people will fail as autodidacts, no matter how many libraries surround them.

– taught me ANALYSIS much more than facts. It shaped my thinking in a way that no amount of years in Silicon Valley, corporate or startup, ever could.

– made learning FUN and gave me the opportunity to meet other people who felt the same way – that education was not only vocational but also artful. The kids from my public high school never gave me the sense of thrill and shared wonderment that my peers in college did.

– endowed me with a brand and social affiliation that I’ve used countless times, to open as many doors, since graduating.

That said, my take is that people should never start an education – college or grad school – thinking that it’s going to be their golden ticket out of [fill in the blank].

To me learning – from great professors, from other thoughtful students, and from the experiences that are available exclusively in the setting of an education institution – was its own joy.

But there was PLENTY of stuff that I never learned at Stanford.

Stuff I NEVER learned at Stanford (but that ended up being really important in my life):

how to write and connect with others through words in a way that’s not selfish, boring or trite (still working on this life lesson)

how to sell things: myself, my skills, my ideas, other people I care about, products or services that I represent

how to be concise

– how to think outside a normalized structure and come up with solutions to unarticulated, real life problems (like how to handle life as a corporate drone, how to manage ‘up,’ how to deal with losing your job, or transitioning to a new one)

what I really wanted to do with my life

how to fail, and be ok with it (At Stanford, there’s a metaphor that the students are like ducks on a pond – calm-looking as they float along, but staying afloat by frantic, invisible paddling beneath the water’s surface. Actually, I think ducks are way better at this than college students.)

It would’ve been a royal mistake if I’d gone to school to try to answer those questions and, four years later, had learned these lessons instead….

Stuff I learned at Stanford (that was really fun):

– How to analyze the history of South African apartheid from a Foucaultian perspective

– How to understand Chinese footbinding as an economic practice

– How to write a persuasive short story – in French, in Spanish, and (almost but not quite) in Mandarin

– How Darwin figured out the science behind natural selection from observing Galapagos finches

– How to search for life elsewhere in the solar system

and lots more.

Like most people, I still have lots of questions in my life. I don’t expect another degree to answer them for me, or to entitle me to my dream job, or to make me into anything more than I am all on my own.

As Charlie writes, if you want to try for a dream, fail cheaply first. Later, when your many small, low-risk failures have helped you to figure some stuff out, you’ll be all set to succeed really, really big.

5 Comments on “Stuff I never learned at Stanford”

  1. Well said Susan.

    But I don’t quite agree on the benefits of academic courses. Though I learned a ton in college, I feel like there is an endowment effect occurring, and I try to value course work well above its implicit value. Sure, I learned structure and analysis…but was it really all necessary? I’m sure the MBA’s pitch the same benefits, but outsiders like you and I see right through it.

    And an MBA is an awesome golden ticket. If you’re in a parallel industry to business, the degree guarantees you a seat an I-bank or consulting firm.

    But overall, totally agree. Nice post. :)

  2. Yeah, I definitely think there’s some endowment effect happening, especially with an institution like Stanford whose finances depend on a nostalgic and admiring bunch of alumni like me.

    Since you mentioned it, I started remembering all those speeches given by provosts, presidents, and professors, telling us how privileged we were to be taking these amazing classes and mingling with such intelligent and talented peers.

    If that doesn’t kick in the endowment effect, I don’t know what would!

    Grad degrees in business, law, medicine and a few others tend to be fairly vocational and correspondingly guarantee their recipients a spot in those fields – for the most part.

    That’s not counting all the people who get through it, thinking it’s what they want, and then realize that working at the i-bank wasn’t really their lifelong dream after all. Which brings our brave hero right back to square one.

    If an MBA does happen to speed you along to the McKinsey position of your dreams, then that’s great because business school was the enabler. It’s only a problem when school is the stopgap.

    Thanks for the thoughtful insight Matt!

  3. You know, after leaving Stanford, I realized how little I left. Granted, I have another year left, but I’m super glad I left to travel because I learned how easy it is to waste the stanford experience. It’s so easy to coast by, get A’s, do no work, play beirut, etc, but there really is a lack of guidance about figuring out what we really want to do.

    I don’t know, I feel like the first couple years of stanford, when you are trying to find yourself, might be better served by just trying to work or traveling away from Stanford. When we go on the path of middle->high school->university, there seems to be a path to follow forever, and no one knows how to think outside the box—and you should see this year’s graduating class, the one that has 60% unemployment—they are all completely lost.

    I don’t know how to remedy this problem, other than a cultural shift towards a gap year, like every other country in the world. Bad for the economy, but good for individual students…maybe. Or maybe it’s just me.

  4. I’m not using my grad degree from Cal at all. I wouldn’t say it was a total waste of time. And I won’t go into my motivations for choosing the wrong field to study.

    But a graduate degree is certainly no “golden ticket” no matter how it’s sold.

  5. Hey Susan,

    That was a great post. I am graduate student at Stanford (luckily with a fellowship!) and about to move on to the PhD track. I do know why I am doing what I am doing but sadly I have encountered LOTS of people who use grad school as “the snooze button of life”.

    Of course this is so natural to happen since as a generation we were never encouraged to explore more of ourselves. Even when life tries to push us into this direction we resist! However, I think that is no news, and it was always the case (you are the history major, I guess you know better than me :) ).

    Btw, I have learned TONS of stuff at Stanford! It is a great school!!!!


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