Don’t Let Your Schooling Get in the Way of Your Education.

I’ve never been a very good student.   When I was Don’t Let Your Schooling Get in the Way of Your Education.

I’ve never been a very good student.  

When I was in 4th grade, I pulled the fire alarm because I was curious what would happen.  (Hint: it didn’t go over well). I finished high school with a 2.6 GPA. In college, I got a D in economics twice (in micro and macro) and completely failed two other classes.

But since then, bad student or not, I’ve turned out to be a pretty good entrepreneur. So what should we make of that?

Well, to start with, I’m not saying that being a bad student is guaranteed to make you a good entrepreneur—but neither does being a good student. The thing I want to emphasize is that being a bad student doesn’t mean you can’t be a great entrepreneur.  

The problem with generalizing about the correlation between grades and entrepreneurial success is that you can be a bad student for a lot of reasons. If you’re a bad student because you lack grit and give up easily, that’s not a good sign. If you’re a bad student because you just want to be stoned all the time, that’s not a good sign either.  

But if you’re a “bad student” because you follow your curiosity rather than your syllabus? That’s good. And if you’re a bad student because you find that starting and running things is more interesting than doing your Sociology 101 homework? That might be a good sign too.

In my case, it was both of those things. And maybe the best evidence I can offer is that I didn’t major in business or economics…I majored in geology. I had zero interest in making geology my career or going to grad school. But since I spent almost every spare moment in the mountains with the Outing Club, I just found geology interesting.

But even that wasn’t enough to make me a good geology student, since I was so easily distracted. The night before an important exam, you were most likely to find me in the library going deep down a rabbit hole following some obscure thread that had piqued my curiosity but had absolutely nothing to do with the material I knew was going to be on the test.

And that, in a nutshell, is why our educational system is completely at odds with what it takes to be a great entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurship is about risk-taking. It’s about doing things without knowing in advance how they will turn out. It’s about “getting it wrong” time after time since you know in your heart that each failed experiment is getting you closer to solving the real problem.

But that’s not the way our education system works. It’s inherently competitive, for one thing. You need great grades in high school to get into the “right” college, and then into the “right” grad school, and then into the “right” job. Even a tenth of a point of GPA can mean the difference between getting into the college you (mistakenly) believe will change your life, and getting rejected. After all that grubbing for grades, it’s no wonder that by the time you’ve finished your education you’ve had all the risk-taking scrubbed out of you.

The smarter you are, the worse it gets. You know exactly what the teacher wants and what you need to do to get the grades you need, so that’s what you do. GPA is the sole metric you’re measured on, which discourages you from pursuing things that fascinate you. The smart kids know that if a digression or personal interest moves you toward an answer (or essay topic, or class, or major) that’s different from what your teacher expects, it’s going to cost you.

The trend in classrooms to incorporate online grade books like Schoology and Infinite Campus has made the problem even worse, by shrinking opportunities for students to experiment. These tools allow parents and students to see grades as soon as they are posted, so that every assignment—even one with little bearing on a students’ ultimate grades—feels like a make-or-break moment. Everything counts.

But this focus on grades and test scores misses the fundamental goal of education, which is to develop the mind. Instead of incentivizing students to learn, and improve their thinking and reasoning skills, it reinforces the importance of figuring out what the person in charge wants and giving it to them.

I was lucky enough to come of age at a time when an anemic 2.6 GPA was enough to get me into a college that I could never get into today. I think my parents barely knew what college I went to, much less what my individual grades were. I never felt the slightest fear that my Ds in economics or my Fs in English Lit would impact my job prospects. And they never did.

Back then, I liked to tell people, “I’m not majoring in geology . . . I’m majoring in extracurriculars.” And I might’ve been the only student at my school who didn’t mean that as drinking and chasing women. I meant that I used my extracurricular opportunities to experiment. I wrote and put on a play. I started a humor magazine. I ran the Outing Club. And on and on. And I made no secret of the fact that doing these things, and doing them well, was more important to me than my grades.

Those were the experiences that honed my entrepreneurial abilities. They’re where I learned to ask for money, and to convince people to help me, even when I couldn’t compensate them adequately (or at all). They’re where I learned to express to others where I was going with clarity and confidence—even when I was neither clear nor confident of it myself.

Now I’m certainly not saying “don’t go to school.” I’m not even saying you shouldn’t take it seriously. My public speaking and English composition classes taught me skills that I still use every day, even 45 years later. And even though I don’t use much of what I learned in my history and philosophy classes, writing those essays taught me critical skills, like how to evaluate sources, and to make a persuasive argument and then defend it. And just as much as it taught me how to spin bullshit of my own, it also taught me how to detect it in others.

I’m also a realist, and I know that until colleges and employers start ignoring GPA and class rankings, those things are going to have a real impact on people’s careers. So it’s not helpful or responsible to blithely say, “Follow your dreams, grades be damned!”

So instead, make sure you balance the rigor of your education with other opportunities to learn. Do things on weekends, evenings, and over the summer. Use your high school and college experiences to seek out opportunities to make things, test things, and try things. School is a great place to practice, and one of the few opportunities you’ll have to take risks with minimal consequences.

But whatever you do, don’t let school dampen your curiosity. Don’t let it extinguish your spirit of adventure, or make you hesitate to try things if you don’t know in advance whether they’ll work. And most importantly, to paraphrase Grant Allen (not Mark Twain), “Whatever you do, don’t let your schooling get in the way of your education.”

I promise you, 20 years from now, nobody will care about your SAT scores or what your GPA was. But your ability to think for yourself? That will never, ever be irrelevant.




To find other things I’ve written and much more, check out 

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