The "Steve Jobs Fallacy" of Opting Out of College

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When a young person tells their friends and family they are thinking of dropping out of college, they may make reference to the successful college dropouts and opt-outs of our day. These men and women -- the Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellisons, Travis Kalanicks, Richard Bransons of the world -- figured they had better things to do than sit in a college classroom and little time to achieve them. They took control of their educations and their lives by making a hard decision and crafting that path for themselves.

Skeptical family shoot back, "Sure, but what are the chances that you'll be one of them? You don't want to be flipping burgers your whole life!"

And surely the prospective-dropout doesn't! They reconsider the options, and 9 times out of 10 make the decision based on the fear that they will be forced to scrape by from paycheck-to-paycheck if they don't have their degree.

There's an odd psychology going on here in both the minds of the skeptics and the prospects. It goes essentially like this:

If you drop out of college, you better damn well be Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. If you can't achieve that bar, then that's your own fault for walking away from a good situation.

In short, the standard for success for success for somebody leaving college is raised higher than it is for the college graduate. A college grad who lands an upper-middle class job doing sales is definitely successful. A college dropout who lands a similar job is considered merely mediocre. People imagine that this person, if they had had that college degree, could have gone even further (even if they are practically at the same level as their peers with degrees).

If the college opt-out does reach this level of success, it is never attributed to them having left college. Even if there is good reason to think that they are successful because they had more years to deschool themselves, build a skill portfolio, and launch their own projects, the decision to leave college is only mentioned as a sidenote, "oh, and he's a college dropout!" uttered in surprise. Meanwhile, neighbors will speak of the person next door who is equally successful as saying, "Oh yes, he went to Harvard, it's no surprise he's such a successful businessman." The incongruity is striking.

On the flip-side, every single failure is then attributed to not having the college degree for the college opt-out. Company go under? Too bad you didn't have that degree to fall back on. Marriage fall apart? Your wife probably thought lowly of you for not having that degree! Got a chronic illness? All that stress from working when you could have had your degree boost you up probably did you in! Can't find a job at 23? You should have finished that degree.

If any of these things happen to the college grad, it's never because that person has the college degree. Example: Can't find a job? Well that's just the poor economy. Or, at best, Well, you should have gotten a degree in Engineering instead of Business. Though these two people -- the college opt-out and the college graduate -- befall the same circumstances, the college opt-out faces greater scrutiny on the point that differentiates them.

This is yet another case of status quo bias, and in the case of college opt-outs. People hold the status quo to a different standard than deviations from it and judge them by it. We view the status quo as "normal," and any deviations as inherently worthy of negative skepticism.

I call it the "Steve Jobs Fallacy." You better be Steve Jobs if you drop out! is a ridiculous standard to hold the college-opt out to. It'd be the same as holding the college graduate to, You'd better be President if you go to college! and then considering anything that comes short of that high-stature position as being failure.

Sometimes the decision to opt-out of college is the integral difference between success and failure for a given person. We can't know for certain without creating an infinite number of parallel universes in which the person does and does not go to college and makes different decisions. What we can know is that there are successful college opt-outs out there who aren't Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Larry Ellison. And there can be even more.

I'm Zak. I'm a venture capital professional and writer focusing on how to build a great career. You can find my writings here or reach out to me at zak@1517fund.com.

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