“Mom, I’m not going to college next semester.”
I had just finished my 3rd semester of college at San Jose State University when I had “the talk” with my parents.
“What do you mean you’re not going?” they questioned me.
This one statement sparked a two hour long argument on the next chapter of my life. I wanted to drop out for a few main reasons:
- I wasn’t learning what I wanted to learn in college
- I was learning more outside of the classroom through online courses, books, and working on my startup
- I wasn’t surrounding myself with ambitious and motivated entrepreneurs
“Mom, I’m going to work on my startup and need all the time I can get to focus. It’s going to work.”
My parents thought I was crazy. “It’s going to work,” I assured them. But it didn’t work.
My co-founder and I closed our business four months later because we couldn’t find and execute a sustainable business model. It was the most embarrassing thing for a bushy-eyed 18-year-old to admit to his strict immigrant parents.
"I told you so," my parents snapped back at me like 13-year-old kids.
To be fair to them, I didn't communicate a clear plan of what I was going to do outside of school. That felt difficult because, well, I didn't have a 10-step plan to success. This decision intuively made sense to me and it wasn't until I grew older was when I could connect the dots looking back.
Because there were many upsides to this "failure."
What I Learned From Failing My First Startup
The nine months we spent working on our idea was where we grew the most personally and professionally.
I had to quickly learn how to do sales and marketing. I had to teach myself how to use Wordpress. I had to organize and execute on our plan. I had to have a clear vision and bring people on board. I had to do almost everything, the pressure was on, and I had to deliver. Failure was amazingly rewarding.
After this experience, my parents pressured me to go back to school, but going through this experience was exhilarating. I wanted to keep learning and continue to “do” the things I learn about, not hide my head behind a textbook. Failing and getting back up over and over felt like the best path for me.
I wanted to find experienced entrepreneurs to teach me the ropes. My willingness to go out and look for mentors kickstarted my journey into "real" entrepreneurship.
Since leaving college, I went on to:
- Apprentice under successful entrepreneurs and mentors like Margaret Jackson and Sam Parr
- Work for amazing organizations like Lean Startup Company, Hustle Con Media, Camp BizSmart, Influencer Series, and Mixergy
- Self-publish my first book, How To Network, selling 10,000+ copies
- Start my own podcast
And many more failures and successes. Life is all a learning experience.
The most important part I learned since dropping out was about myself: What I wanted to learn, who I wanted to surround myself with, and why I do what I do.
People told me I had a lot of guts to leave the traditional path society had set. But for me, that didn't risky at all, and decision made complete sense.
My goal as an aspiring entrepreneur was to surround myself and learn from successful entrepreneurs. The most efficient way to get there is to work directly under the CEO or closely with the whole team, and dive in. Instead of going thousands of dollars in student debt, I was earning money and learning much more than I would with my head behind a textbook.
It just made sense. Looking back three years later, I don’t regret a single decision.
But should YOU drop out?
Even though practical experience and learning directly from your role models sound like an obvious choice, I don’t recommend it for most people. In fact, I think 90% of teenagers should go to college.
There are so many challenges you’ll have to face when you drop out. I don’t believe most young people are ready to go through the steep uphill to get to "the top."
- You won’t fit in with most people of your age group
- You have to work 10 times harder than you would if you were at school
- You have to deal with loneliness, rejection, and failure
- You have to face your parents and friends disapproval of your decision
- You have to accept missing out on “the college experience”
- You have to create your own structure for your education
- You have to do many things yourself and figure everything out
What is your goal?
Once you’ve identified your goal, ask yourself:
Is college the most efficient way to get there?
If your goal is to start a business or break into startups, the answer will most likely be no. The best way to succeed in startups (or anything really) is to gain real experience.
“Theory is optional, experience is mandatory.” - Scott Dinsmore
But then you have to ask yourself,
Are you willing to go through all these obstacles to reach your goal? Is that something you truly are willing and eager to do?
For most people, the answer is no. They prefer to follow a set path on how to do things and fit in to how things have always been done. And that’s perfectly okay!
But because everyone has different passions, learning styles, and goals, college is not a one-size-fits-all solution. If you do decide not to go to college, self-directed education requires a lot of hard work, patience, and persistence. I speak from experience.
If you are thinking about dropping out to pursue your business, here are some key questions you should ask yourself:
- How will you support yourself while you build your business?
- Are you prepared for your friends and parents to not understand your decision?
- Who are your mentors that will help you along this journey?
- How will you continue your lifelong education without someone giving you homework or grading your tests?
- If everything fails, what’s your backup?
- Have you talked to successful dropouts who’ve been in your position before? Or talked to failed dropouts who went back to school?
I recommend you ask yourself these hard questions and make the decision based on your gut. In the absolute worst case scenario, college will always be there, so you’re not losing anything really when you drop out.
Tam Pham's Blog
I write about my adventures, learnings, and reflections on living my weird, unconventional life. Subscribe below!