Wednesday, May 25, 2011

There is More to College than Career and More to Life than Money

photo from Bloomberg
It was with interest I read the economist update on the somewhat controversial Theil Foundation program that is awarding 20+ Under 20 applicants for a grants of 100,000 dollars to start a business rather than go to or finish college. While there are famous examples of drop out successes, like Bill Gates, and while what Mr Thiel says about the fact that they can always go back to school may be technically true- my gut instinct is to think this is not a good idea.

Thiel is a classic libertarian, so it is not surprising to me that his view is all business, private markets, and money success. But I think about what else you gain in college- access to new ideas, more exposure to people not like yourself, the chance to explore what you really enjoy and find a path that suits you. Most people claim to have changed a lot throughout their 20's - it is when you really solidify your own outlook on the world. And I can't help but think these "100,000 dollar drop outs" are missing more than just an education (also important by the way) by diving full into the high stress roller coaster ride of entrepreneurship.

As for going back to school if your Theil grant doesn't result in Gates-like success... adult ed is a wonderful thing, and grad school is too- but it is never the same as approaching the discussions, exploration and growth of college life in the company of your peers. Folks of a similar age, experiencing the same parts of life and the same developmental cycle as yourself. Plus as less than 50% of start ups survive- those grant winners may be paying more than the price of 2 years of their lives if things don't pan out.

Mr Thiel admits to thinking that ..."higher-education system tempts many people who would be better off going straight into business and creating significant wealth." and that says a lot to me. Do we need more of a push to strive for significant wealth in america? What about public service? What about personal growth, deeper thinking, enjoying family and friends. A higher standard of living can be measured in many ways, not just by tallying up your bank account totals at the end of each quarter.

I also note that of his first 24 grants, only 2 went to women. Really? There are only 2 women out there smart enough for Thiel's cash? hmmm. But as with most classic libertarians his view is quite male-centered. This during a time when huge numbers of women are starting and leading their own companies.

The stories of the grant winners are quite interesting and for many this may be an ideal path.  But I think the philosophy behind it may be inherently flawed. For those passionate enough- like Gates- the path of going straight to your own company is not dependent on instant cash from VC's and Big cash grants. In fact, finding the money to make your dream and path a reality is a big part of the learning curve needed for long term business success. The Theil plan is at best a cushy short cut in what should be a life-lesson tough path.

In the movie The Social Network, a few things were clear, facebook founder Mark Z. is brilliant, and had a good idea. What is also clear is that he lacked emotional and social maturity that would have saved him from some huge law suits and generally being viewed (by the globe now) as a jerk. Would college have taught him more about social interaction? perhaps, perhaps not. But dropping out and rushing out to Silicon valley certainly didn't seem to impart that lesson.