When we talked about the inadequacy of schools, we started with this golden quote:
Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom. Let’s give our children freedom.
Trish Millines Dziko
Schools are more or less mandatory, not because of the less than ideal structure most of them currently maintain and not because of the ineffective learning they provide, but because this is where children and teenagers form socially (especially if the emotional environment is good). So we need some form of schools, even if the current form is so bad that it has to be destroyed and rebuilt from the ground up.
After I figured up high school was very ineffective but squeezed out all the social fun from it, I went to a university considered locally elite, top 5 in my country of Bulgaria, to study the best major (computer engineering – the same as my parents). I didn’t really think twice – In Bulgaria everyone goes to a university except for poor and marginalized ethnic minorities.
The experience was so unexpectedly mediocre, I was shocked. WTF was going on? The huge halls were like a grand but empty shell with a parody of learning happening inside, even worse than fucking school. The motivation levels of 70% of the professors and 90% of the students were below zero. The material was outdated, obscure and as far away from practical use as humanly possible. At least one professor was openly corrupt-but-also-pure-evil (as in “I won’t let certain people pass the exam if they don’t pay”). Everybody knew about this professor but no one really did anything. By the way this whole parody was subsidized by the government and cost taxpayers tens of millions a year.
After 2 years I quit and these 2 years didn’t bring me any useful practical knowledge, not a single skill valuable in the job market. None at all. To be honest I only stuck for 2 years because of the great friends and pretty girls and because quitting somehow didn’t pop up in my head as an option earlier. And if this was the best major in an elite university, how were the others doing? Surely not better…
I vividly remember the moment the thought of quitting suddenly came into existence. I was walking along a long, dark, empty hallway after having a minor argument with a lab assistant and leaving the lab. I thought of how useless and unfriendly this institution was to me. And suddenly I remembered it was my choice to give it control over my life and I can end this ongoing bad choice right now. I walked out and just took a beeline to the bus stop with a huge smile on my face, never to return. It felt like the first major decision in my life I was doing myself, the first touch of real freedom.
After I quit the storm came swiftly. My parents were shocked and furious. My mentor, who has taught me so much about business and whom I’m deeply thankful, thought it was a mistake. Even some of my fellow students, who knew first hand the bullshit we were experiencing on a daily basis, thought I was wrong and that “the process sucks but the degree is worth it”. Others acknowledged my decision was the only sensible one but still didn’t quit themselves, showing the huge power of inertia to drive everyone of us into a trajectory of default choices we know are wrong.
However, I was adamant. This was the day I claimed my freedom from the world of bullshit and I was not going to back down. I felt a huge relief that my life direction was back in my own hands. I didn’t understand the world I was diving in but I was not afraid and didn’t care. I had broken my chains and could not wait to become a hunter. And I had the time, the space and the energy to restart my education from scratch and this time do it right.
Grotesque experiences in life have their value. I learned so much about how education shouldn’t be done that in the following years my self-education followed the best possible principles:
- Instead of wishfully thinking I will always have motivation, I creatively created my environment to have one;
- When there was no clear goal, I sought fundamental goals like freedom (for myself and others) and money;
- Instead of overcomplicating concepts like in the university, I always tried to simplify them to the basics;
- Instead of learning in large inefficient groups, I learned from mentors in one-on-one conversations;
- Instead of learning in theory, I tried everything in practice. Instead of going slow, I went fast;
- Instead of sacrificing my freedom and spending money on education, I tried to earn while I learn;
After some years went by I figured out the core reason for the disaster that the education quality was. Universities were just another old system, that looks to preserve itself more than everything. It was not friendly to positive change, not to speak of a radical one. Even though it desperately needed it.
Universities are old both as a concept and as individual institutions. The world today changes much faster than they can follow.
And as with all old, badly functioning systems, we need to ask a fundamental question – Should they even exist?
There were days when universities were the only way to acquire knowledge and meet people. And there were days when a degree was not such a bad long term investment. But we live in the present, not the past!
There are many things people want to study and 25000+ universities ranging from Bulgaria’s “parody” universities (like the one I went to) all the way to Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Oxford and Cambridge. So we obviously cannot give a single general advice. We need to ask 2 questions, one about the university and one about ourselves and then arrive at a binary answer whether we need a university or we can show it the middle finger like I did (but hopefully earlier).
Now let’s ask the fundamental question again:
Can a university improve our freedom compared to the best other options?
First of all, does freedom matter for adults too? It sure does. Without freedom you’re stuck in time and cannot improve your life.
There are two types of freedom and we need to have them both to actually be free – each regarding The Game of Self and The Game of Life.
Game of Self freedom comes from self-love and the overcoming of our own internal barriers. Everything we encounter in life has effects on The Game of Self. Whether we’re in Hunter or Sheep mode is the most important factor for the positive or negative accumulation of these effects – whether they cause the self-growth we want or a negative spiral of fears and insecurity. Since the Hunter and Sheep mode cycles can stick in any environment, we’ll assume whether we’re in a university or not is insignificant in this regard.
So we’re left with the impact of higher education on The Game of Life freedom. This is simply a matter of resources and the main ones in life are:
- Freedom in the short term (a basic essential, the space and time needed to attract the other resources)
- Health (because if your health suffers, everything will suffer)
- Assets (eg. Money, income streams, property, even monetizable ideas and structures eg. an email list)
- People (both passive interactions with role models/teachers and active ones like with mentors and emotionally supportive friends)
Lets see how the university influences each of those. Remember we don’t compare it with lying on the couch at home, we compare it with the best of the best options you have. If you don’t feel confident in choosing these best options and being persistent in their path, don’t worry, we’ll address these concerns too.
- Freedom in the short term
In terms of Freedom in the near term, the university expects you to be at certain places at certain times and even if you choose all your courses, they will still be taught the way the professors want.
Alternatively as a self-learner you can learn anything you want, using any approach you like from any expert on Youtube. You’ll be in charge of your speed and direction. If you want to ask questions, there are Reddit, Quora, Facebook groups and even paid online consulting by experts if something is that critical. It will still cost less than Harvard.
I’d say from this perspective, you start with more freedom when you’re on your own. It’s no coincidence that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah, Lady Gaga are all college dropouts. Can you imagine any of them just sitting in class? But remember that you have just the same unlimited potential as them.
Overall: significant disadvantage
Health has components that the university might jeopardize, you’re likely to experience stress or not getting enough sleep. Access to healthy food can also be a problem at some smaller campuses. Overall if you take the right steps (like skipping morning lectures after a party), you should be fine. But the university surely doesn’t offer any advantage regarding your physical health, you’re only risking a disadvantage.
In regards to mental health it’s possible to feel lonely in the crowd if you leave all your friends and support behind and move to a new city to study. This can potentially cause addiction problems too. But it’s also possible that meeting new lovely people will get you out of sheep mode and help you restart the hunter spark in your life if you were already feeling low before. Change is usually good for mental health. So I’ll call this one even.
Overall: slight disadvantage
The university costs money and time to attend, making it just as much of a money sinkhole as when your car breaks down every month for 4 years straight. It’s quite a lot to ask from anything that starts this bad financially to actually end well.
It’s like starting the Marathon by running 4 km from the start in the opposite direction and then making a u-turn to cover these 4 again and then also the original 42 km. You could win, but the advantage you must have in running skills is borderline magic.
We know that the university is full of smart people, genius professors but does it have financial magic?
But why, isn’t the university the best possible place to have and realize a business idea? This is where Google and Facebook were born? Everyone has watched The Social Network, it all happened in the dorm!
This is part of reality, but only a tiny small part that is publicly visible.
The road from an idea to a big company is very long and hard. Timing and luck have to align perfectly. It’s no coincidence that there is no second Google even though nowadays every good developer can build a search engine, there are even open source frameworks for it. The combination of available technology (in the case of Google the price of RAM had just dropped enough so the search index could be in RAM, making Google blazingly fast), market demand (users were just discovering the web, usage was skyrocketing) and weak competition (the other search engines sucked) create a perfect moment to strike gold. And this moment is more important than the idea itself!
Which means that a good idea at a bad moment is not going to succeed. The more ambitious the idea, the less the chance. For projects like Google and Facebook the chances of success are no more than 0,1%. There were hundreds to thousands of search and social network projects you have never heard of because they never took off.
Now if I told you at the start of the marathon that if you run 4 km backwards you would have a 0,1% of getting flying shoes and be allowed to used them to win, would you do it?
Okey, too risky, plan B. We’re not going to make the next once-in-a-decade startup like Google or Facebook. We’ll aim a bit lower to increase the chances of success with an idea of a million, not billion dollar business, not something outrageous. Will this work? In my opinion…
See, in regards to the market for money and ideas, a business idea needs to be very specific in order to succeed. Often a really bold marketing plan has to be part of the idea or it will never take off, that’s the depth needed. Like Paypal who just gave users $10 to sign up and another $10 if they referred a friend. In the distant year 2000, this was unheard of. But it worked. Industry expertise is needed to get the specifics right and nothing can take its place. School is more like a game to get good grades and be popular, it’s nothing like life. So in university you probably have no industry experience which decreases your chances of doubling down on expertise. But… you’re full of enthusiasm, right? It will work somehow! Well… another very important criteria for startup success is co-founder selection. Mostly the patience and the ability to say “no” to toxic or not-enganged-enough-with-the-project co-founders. How does that play out in the campus?
The university is like a hive. No one really works by themselves. There is no way that you’ll discover a great idea without telling your drinking buddies half an hour later. It’s just how this place works. Marc Zuckerberg launched Facebook with his roommates (!), which led to massive problems and even court battles later on. Luckily Facebook went huge and there were money for all of them to settle but for the average startup such a ragtag team would be a death sentence.
Compare this to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak starting Apple in a garage. Focus, proper founder filtering process (roommate is not enough, duh!) and as a whole, sanity.
If you have a great idea, it’s best to have it in a small group of trusted people or you get…
The Social Network madness. Enthusiasm is valuable, but so is common sense.
But don’t great ideas only come when you meet great people? Sometimes. But let’s grade the assets/money/business ideas part properly first and then we move on to the people part.
Sometimes in life you have to make a step back in order to thrust forward at maximum speed. But 4 years and a 5 to 6 figure sum? If your parents are not rich, it’s financial madness. The things that attract money the most are not ideas but existing money (capital) and the experience of actually making money in the free market. Which of those will you have at the end of the 4 years to make you think your odds are that great for your ideas?
Overall: huge disadvantage
Now here is where the university can really shine.
Brilliant professors, some of the best scientific labs in the world, motivated fellow students… all in all a paradise for intellectual growth… is not what I had in my university in Bulgaria 🙁
Until now it didn’t really matter which university you were in, unless you were on some rare amazing scholarship which would at least make the financial part better.
In general you were moderately fucked about freedom, maybe a little bit fucked on health and very seriously fucked on money. No matter the university.
However here we have to draw the line between the quality ones and the rest.
In the top universities of the world you can meet people that would be hard to meet face to face every day. Both professors and fellow students. People can be precious. I agree that on some occasions the benefit of meeting these people will be such a huge benefit, that you can as well choose to go for it and sacrifice some temporary freedom and a lot of money.
But in at least 70% of the world universities it’s probably not worth it.
So research, ask students already studying at the places you consider very specific questions. No question is off limits! You can ask uncomfortable stuff. You can ask about management corruption and the hygiene of the toilets. You can ask if the staff are nice. You can ask if there are crazy people among the professors (not a silly question, you don’t want your academic fate in the hands of even one crazy person). Or if there is sexual harassment of any kind, or racism. Every question will help you create a picture of this university and its culture as close to reality as possible. Ask them how their day goes minute by minute to see the motivation of students and professors, indicated by delays, skipping lectures etc. If you’re so annoying with your endless questions that people stop answering, pay them cash to talk. Just ask a million questions before you waste 4 years of your professional life and a ton of money at a parody university like I wasted 2.
Every university has a nice building and website and boasts to be amazing. But most are just hollow shells full of bullshit. The only way to find the truth is to ask and to read unfiltered student posts on forums, Facebook groups, etc. But for the really ugly stuff, better ask. It’s people and culture that make the difference!
Overall: it depends, potentially a huge advantage but only in a small selection of top universities.
In the end it turns out the university choice will be a disaster in most cases.
Remember that even for the best of the best universities it’s still a trade-off! Being admitted to Harvard doesn’t mean you have to go. If you’re very introverted and want to study History of Art, why do you need to go to Harvard and spend a ton of cash to learn the same information Youtube and Wikipedia and books on the subject and museums already have? Don’t cave into peer pressure, this is your life! No one should make choices for you. In 4 years, with the time and money saved from Harvard, you can build a History of Art blog that will promote you to a top wanted expert on the subject. I can assure you that having your name publicly cited as an expert by thousands is worth more than a Harvard degree. And the blog will be a financial asset worth 6-figures and bring you steady monthly income.
Now we know how to research a university. Lets search inside. What do we really want?
There are 3 groups of people regarding needs:
- People who put themselves and their loved ones first (most people)
- People who put unknown people’s needs before their own (heroes)
- People who don’t know which group they’re in yet (potential heroes)
This is not meant to be judgmental. I usually put myself before others but I also like to share any excess resources back with people. So anyone from any group can help the world and any other living person.
However, heroes and potential heroes and very precious. If a hero wants to be a doctor and save lives, objectively I can tell them it’s a tough personal choice, regarding education time and cost, stress, long shifts, inability to work from home etc. But we need doctors! So I better shut the fuck up and help with whatever I can 🙂
In this regard if you’re planning to study medicine even in an average university (say the best one locally available), you have my full support. Questions about freedom, money and return on investment are irrelevant if you want to save lives. I can only give you my total respect. And we should make sure as a society you’re well rewarded for being a hero.
The same goes for therapists, we need a lot more of them too.
If you’re not a hero or potential hero, then your goal in life if to be free and happy. Money is an important part of this. Now this is where my experience can help. And it says “The university is not the right place for making money”.
So if university is actually a step back financially, what can you do instead?
First you need to understand how money works, otherwise how are you going to earn it?
Then you can either start a business (which is the real university for many things)
When you have your time, space, focus, youth energy fully pointed in one direction, miracles happen. After 2-3 years you’ll be an expert in something that generates money. Meanwhile your fellow students at the university will still be burning money.
Money is a religion for most people, they spend more than half their lives securing it. But in these 4 years after high school, most of them collectively go financially crazy. It’s our duty to burst that bubble of bullshit.
Now, enough with the personal standpoint, let’s talk policy and the big picture.
So for 70% of universities we get an instant “no” regarding overall educational effectivity compared to self-teaching. In my country of Bulgaria I wouldn’t put a single university above this line.
So do we just close all Bulgarian universities? I’d close or downsize most but not all.
The thing is, we all need doctors and we all need engineers of all kinds, or the physical world will start falling apart.
IT experts, office administrators, advertising, sales, marketing, writers can and better be self-taught. But as much as I love chaos and creativity, I’m still not in support of self-taught doctors, construction engineers and airline pilots. The cost of some errors is too high. We’ll need to draw a line somewhere and keep some places open, even if not currently of the highest educational quality.
There are occupations like Lawyers, Accountants and Pharmacists that require a degree to be in that occupation. It’s not the best system but it works more or less, and if it works, don’t touch it as too many things are much more broken.
And exact science should also stay because of the labs… even if only for this one crazy motivated biology student that will spend all their time in the lab until they make a discovery that may change the lives of millions.
Arts also have a place in higher education. As does anything that requires a genius to create a next generation genius and cannot be done via Youtube or Zoom.
The good news is, when we close some useless public universities, government funding can increase for the rest, bringing more motivated professors that value practical knowledge, kinder staff and better lab equipment.
Here is what I think should be removed (all fields equally or better learned in practice).
- All IT stuff, both software and hardware. This is where self-tuition shines.
- All economics except for accounting. Bulgaria is full is economists-by-education who know nothing about economics and nothing about anything else.
- Everything related to marketing, advertising and sales.
- Writing and Journalism (if you want to learn how to write, write and read and write more)
- Foreign Languages and culture (if you want to learn Swedish, go to Sweden, not a university)
- Sports (learning theory about sports is one of the stupidest things I’ve seen)
Here is what I think should be downscaled:
- Some humanities. Bulgaria has a weak civil society despite a record share of historians, political scientists and philosophers. Apparently they are of no help.
Here is what I think should be kept:
- Highly specialized occupations like pilots, sailors
- Army, Navy, Police academies, first responders
- Math and Exact sciences + Statistics + Sociology
Here is what should be increased and better funded:
As a results we’ll have more doctors and therapists. But also more developers as if they are all being self-taught, it sends everyone the signal they can become one.
And a final observation. Each decision we make sends an internal signal. When I quit university, I took full responsibility and felt like a grown up for the first time. It’s an important moment for every adult. And I sent myself a signal that I wanted to live my life in Hunter mode.
Responsibility is extremely important for us and our participation in society. The more of it, the better.
If you study till 25+, you take responsibility at a later age. At this later age you are likely to have less youth enthusiasm and idealism, a bit less energy and family and kids may be on the horizon. Which means that the window you can fight for social change and a better world with all of your time and energy is already closing. You can still do it, and should if possible. But there is no reason to wait that long. People suffer needlessly every day from issues we can collectively solve (e.g. preventable diseases in developing countries) and while we live in one of the best moments of human history, the future has challenges. You can start helping at 20. Hell, if you’re Greta, you can start at 15. The best time to do something of value is always now.
If you’re not sure where to start (like I was not sure for many years), you can prepare by building freedom and attracting resources like money, assets and like-minded friends. Education is an important part of this preparation. But trust me, in most cases, the best teacher is looking at you from the mirror.
You don’t need a foreign structure such as a university. You don’t need anyone to impose discipline on you. Let go of pressure, let go of fear. Let love and chaos lead the way. You’re already free, you just may not know it yet.
And if you’re currently studying for a non-hero major and your motivation is half-hearted to none,
You have no idea how good it feels.