7 min read

Do I Need University?

You can’t find a risk-free way to accomplish much of anything. The issue is that without taking risk, you can't exploit any opportunities. You can live a quiet and comfortable life, but you are unlikely to create something new, and you are unlikely to make your mark on the world.
Do I Need University?

I just finished another semester of my degree and I'm deciding whether it's the best decision to carry on or not. It's something I've been thinking about for a few months, and I keep swaying from one side to the other. The question I'm asking myself is "Do I still need university?" [1]

I think that the best way to make this decision is to compare university to concrete alternatives. Instead of asking “Is this degree good?”,  ask “Do I have something more compelling to do?” Instead of asking "Are my studies facilitating growth?", ask “Which is the best environment for me to grow as an engineer and a leader?”

When I talk about growth, I'm talking about exponential growth. Not the linear growth that comes with any sufficient amount of work, but rather the type of growth that makes you stop and say, "Woah, how did I get that much better in such a short space of time?"

Why Exponential Growth?

This initially struck me as a silly question, because it seems obvious that exponential growth is desirable, but the deeper I dug into the more direction I found. Reasons to only pursue exponential growth:

  1. Because of where I work, I'm in an environment that almost guarantees growth. There's so much that I don't know, and so much changing all the time, that I'm forced to learn new things just to keep up. This leads to a lot of growth, which, in the worst case, is linear. When linear growth is guaranteed, it doesn't make sense to optimise for anything but exponential growth.
  2. Pursuing exponential growth is the best protection against the creep of mediocrity. People settle. They settle for less than they're capable of. They settle for good enough instead of great. If you’re not going to put in the effort to be the best possible choice, why bother?

How to Grow Exponentially?

Two conditions appear to be critical for exponential career growth [2]:

  • Mentorship: When you're surrounded by great people that are providing you with guidance and feedback, you get better really quickly. If your desire is to improve, surrounding yourself with the right people is the fastest way to do so.
  • Company growth: Fast growth makes everything else better because it increases your impact, makes your job more important, and presents new problems for you to learn how to solve.  

Having the correct conditions is only half of the equation. You might have fire and a bottle of fuel, but the fire only grows when fuel meets flames. Being in an environment that fosters rapid growth works the same – it only happens when you pour yourself into it.

Thinking About This Practically

I've laid out why exponential growth is desirable and how to get after it because it acts as a useful framework for answering the question "Do I still need university?"

My concern with the degree is that it's delivering linear growth. I'm getting better, but I'm not developing skills that are rare and valuable, or skills that will differentiate me from other engineers. If I had to summarise the shortfalls of the program it'd be average content, high time commitment, and a high price tag. My biggest concern is the time commitment. It's not that the time spent studying isn't fruitful, but rather that it could be more fruitful invested elsewhere.

When I say elsewhere, I mean EXPLORE, the company I work at. EXPLORE has been a phenomenal place for learning and growth. Robert Sapolsky has a beautiful quote that goes “The difference between a genius and the rest of us is that a genius actually notices when something amazing is happening.” There are some amazing things happening at EXPLORE right now. It doesn't take a genius to notice them, but it takes a fool to overlook them, and I don't want to be a fool.

The EXPLORE rocket ship feels like its burners are just heating up. I have the chance to embrace that fully - grab onto the rocket ship and refuse to let go - or to do it half-heartedly. By holding on for dear life, I'll experience the ups and downs and difficulties that come with space travel, but I'll emerge on the other side as a drastically better engineer and leader, ready to tackle whatever mission calls me next. The analogy breaks a little here, but the other option is to hold on and drop off, playing a role on the fringes, getting better and getting by, but not committing more than I think I have. I'll emerge on the other side with a degree, but none of the momentum that comes with riding a rocket ship into the stratosphere. When I think about it that way, the choice becomes painfully obvious.

One of the things that has become clear to me over the past few months is that the learning I do at work versus the learning I do through the degree are completely different. Degree learning is very isolated, it feels like I'm learning concepts in a silo. While the content is inherently interesting, I've found it very challenging to apply it in a real world setting. The knowledge exists in isolation, unconnected to the problems I'm trying to solve.

What I've found to be far more effective is to identify problems I'm facing each day in the work I do, figure out a way to solve it, and then chat to the experienced people around me about my solution. 9 times out of 10 this leads to them showing me a better solution, but more importantly, it gives me a place to hang my knowledge. I've learnt more in the 3 months I've been doing this than in the 18 months I've been studying. If that doesn't show where the potential for exponential growth lies, I don't know what does.

Where Does This Plan Fail?

Assuming that I decide to stop studying, an important question to ask is where does this go wrong?

  1. Emigration. I intend to live abroad at some point and realise that a degree makes that easier. Having conducted a lot of research, it tuns out that this is less of a problem than anticipated (I already have 2 degrees, my concern lay in whether they were relevant to the people and opportunities I may be exposed to).
  2. Positions requiring a degree: My current view is that every system has a backdoor. I've observed a lot of people get around the by-the-book rules of acceptance, usually by displaying enough agency, that this doesn't concern me too much. I was sceptical of this view, because it feels too convenient, so I chatted to a few experienced and accomplished engineers around me. Much to my surprise, they hold similar views.

Ironically, I think that not having this degree acts as a safeguard against falling into roles where credentials mean more than ability. Those are almost certain to be roles that make it tougher to do world-shaping work. Put another way, if <insert big corporate> want me to have a degree for me to work there, thank goodness I don't have one.

What Next?

I'm very aware that the majority of what I've written here is speculative. It's based on assumptions I have about the work I'm doing and the learning I'm capable of. There's a good chance that those assumptions turn out to be false, and that the actual state of affairs make a degree the best route to take. I'll only know that once I've tested it, which is why I am planning on taking the next 6 months off to immerse myself in my work and try to take advantage of the environment I'm in.

This decision feels somewhat dangerous, but it aligns with the way I try to think about risk and opportunity. Marc Andreessen has a great piece on how to think about career opportunity, which goes something like this:

Careers and impact are built upon opportunities, primarily your ability to identify and act on them. Opportunities fall into two buckets: those that present themselves to you, and those that you go out and create. The first bucket contains opportunities presented to you because you were in the right place at the right time and you pounced on them. The second bucket is those you seek out and create.

The second bucket is often uncomfortable because it comes with more risk. The thing I like about it is that you have more control over it. The first bucket is driven by luck, the second by agency.

Opportunity is always accompanied by risk. We talk about risk like it’s a bad thing, but all forward motion involves risk. You can’t find a risk-free way to accomplish much of anything. The issue is that without taking risk, you can't exploit any opportunities. You can live a quiet and comfortable life, but you are unlikely to create something new, and you are unlikely to make your mark on the world.

The solution isn't to avoid trying things simply because there’s downside. Instead, intelligently choose projects where the downside is understood and the work is worth doing. Halting my studies to pour myself into the work I'm doing feels like a risk worth taking because the downside is negligible, while the upside is enormous. It feels like the safest way to act on the opportunities that fall into bucket one (finding myself in this environment), while still doing everything possible to fill up bucket two. Andreesen has a quote that captures this particularly well:

"The world is a very malleable place. If you know what you want, and you go for it with maximum energy and drive and passion, the world will often reconfigure itself around you much more quickly and easily than you would think."

Feedback I've Received

I reached out to some of the senior people around me to ask for their opinion on these ideas. These were some of the ideas and questions they had which helped me consider this from a different perspective:

  • Start with the end in mind: where do you want to be in 10 years? Work backwards from there. If the path to get there requires a degree, do it. If not, then don’t.
  • An important question is: what are the alternatives to spending 20 hours studying per week? Are those better?
  • Doing what you LOVE is how I’ve decided on what to do in my life - so ask yourself that question - how would I LOVE to spend those ‘extra’ 20 hours a week … and do that. Doing what you LOVE always ends well.
  • If/when you leave <your company name> your new company will: 1) Look at the work you’ve done at <your company name> 2) Ask us for a reference 3) Look at your education (degree = tick). Getting another degree doesn’t improve your chances of getting a better job.

[1] Context: After completing degrees in commerce and law I decided to make a career change. I started studying again (Computer Science). This post is about whether to continue with that or not.

[2] I'm certainly not implying that these are the only conditions necessary, but in my experience, and in most of the conversations I've had around these ideas, these conditions have come up the most and seem to carry the most weight.

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