by Harvard Ventures Staff
“You’re running out of time to drop out!” chimes my friend in the middle of a discussion of our summer internship plans. “Mark Zuckerberg did it second semester sophomore year, and you know that’s the only way to be successful. You shouldn’t be interviewing, you should be innovating!” he continues, and he is only half-joking. While it’s easy to tease about leaving college to go work on building the next big thing, we would be remiss not to acknowledge that the hero and role model alums like Zuckerberg and Gates certainly make that course of action feel at least more reasonable, if not desirable. Far from the stigma that dropping out of school held in the past, it has become sensationalized and dropouts are applauded rather than questioned. This makes sense in the context of the social paradigm shift that has been taking place over the past decade, that values youth and innovation over experience and tradition. These ex-students are lauded for blazing their own trail, and breaking down our conception both the type of knowledge that we perceive to be important and the way in which we go about obtaining it. But this begs the question, is dropping out something that we should be encouraging?
Perhaps we already are. Articles like this one and the general prevalence of the idea of “stopping out” of school that is perpetuated by the media and programs like the Thiel Fellowship put a very interesting type of pressure on students who are starting or thinking of starting their own businesses. It is positioned as not only an option, but potentially a better alternative than finishing your degree. You are told that what you stand to do and learn by launching your startup is so much more than what you can gain sitting in classes, and you are assured that there is no way to complete all of your schoolwork at the same time as you are starting a company. While this is undeniably true for some (read: Zuck), the blunt reality is that not everybody has a Facebook-level idea or the skills to really pull it off.
Entrepreneurship and innovation are trending right now, which has created a whole batch of “wantrepreneurs,” people who want to start a business for the sake of having their own business or being their own boss. At the risk of sounding trite, it’s important to remember that when it comes down to it, dropping out of school is a huge commitment, and ultimately one that could rearrange the course of someone’s future. This over-emphasis on dropping out could push some students who really should not be leaving school to wrongly consider, or even do it. The barriers to taking time off, especially here at Harvard, are surprisingly low. Putting your education on hold takes nothing more than a signature on a piece of paper, and students know that they will be able to return to finish their degree at virtually any time. There’s a massive community of super-seniors and social seniors who will tell you about how you can still walk in your class graduation, but just come back the following year to finish up your classes, and how the social scene really isn’t that bad even though all your blockmates have already left. It’s nearly too easy to consider it a reasonable path to take, and it’s almost scary how ready we are to give up something that we worked so hard to have the ability to attain: a Harvard education.
We forget the sacrifices we made to get in here—the long hours in the library in high school studying for another AP test while our friends were out at the movies, the thousands of hours of practices and workouts to get recruited, the way we agonized over every single one of those 500 words in the common app. We did all of this just to have a chance to be in this environment, surrounded by other incredible people, learning from world-renown professors, and it is such an interesting phenomenon that we are willing to give that up so readily to pursue “Uber for cats” or the like. Call me old fashioned, but I still stand by the idea and the value of a liberal arts education. Not even considering the social learning that we as students do, there are things that we will learn in classes that we surely wouldn’t learn otherwise. Of course you can read books or watch lectures on East Asian religions or architecture in Ancient Greece, but if we are being honest with ourselves, we are not going to do that unless some outside force is motivating us. Especially when our lives are dominated by market validation, user acquisition, AB tests, and shipping a new version of the product. It’s this learning that will be lost to all of the dropouts, and it’s an opportunity cost that is so easy to overlook in the decision making process. It’s hard to be decidedly pro or against leaving school, as there are benefits to both and what you can gain in either situation is obviously heavily dependent on the student. What is potentially more important to communicate to those who are thinking of dropping out though, is the warning that you shouldn’t drop out just to drop out. Don’t leave your education behind just because you think that it’s something that you are expected to do as an entrepreneur, or that it will validate your business as a “real” startup. And what’s more, don’t forget that feeling you had when you opened up your email to find “congratulations” written at the top, and don’t trivialize what it would mean to give that up. But if despite all of the hesitations and lost opportunities you know that every day you would wake up excited to get out of bed to grow your idea, then perhaps dropping out could be the best validation there is, and stepping off your campus could be the first day of the rest of your life.