School dropouts

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Genius dropouts

The smartest, most creative and most rebellious characters tend to drop out from school. They cannot stand the routine, the constraints on freedom, and the missed opportunities. Sometimes we should be truly grateful for their decisions. Some of the greatest geniuses were troublemakers or school dropouts. I know far fewer geniuses who recruited from the ranks of model students. Paradoxically, one of the most famous college dropouts, Bill Gates, did not seem to learn the right lesson from his own life. Like most adults, he looks at kids as if they were equipped with adult brains. He bought into the factory model of schooling. His plans to invest in education are noble, but not necessarily optimum (see: Bill Gates is wrong about education). I wish he could read my book. If he did, I am sure he would change a thing or two in his plan of action.

Among recent successful billion-dollar startups, we see well-educated founders as well as college dropouts. There is a simple explanation behind this regularity: great people find it easy to get to great schools. However, they also struggle with the need to conform and often seek early freedom. The power behind great startups is great brains. Great brains do great wherever they land in life.

Should you drop out?

When we speak of high school dropouts, we often think of something bad. The unemployment rate among college graduates is 3-4 times less than that for high school dropouts. Dropouts earn some $10,000 less per year. Dropout prevention seems like an important initiative then. However, I have some issues with ways of prevention. Some of the cases of dropping out do not come from the weakness of students but from the badness of the system. In many cases, prevention is mis-targeted. If people jump out from a building on fire, we should put out the fire, not lock the windows.

Some of the smartest people out there quit college or even high school. Einstein and Elon Musk hated school. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs became dropouts. There is a very simple reasoning behind a dropout: creative pursuits seem to bring more tangible or more rewarding outcomes than learning at school. Bill Gates wanted to focus on Microsoft and dropped out. Great choice! In Jobs's case, college was so boring that he would rather give it up so that he could attend courses he was interested in (e.g. Shakespeare). Jobs attended a calligraphy course that later made him include multiple typefaces in his baby Macintosh.

There is a dangerous thinking in the wake of those stories. If people like Gates drop out, perhaps this is a fast formula for the riches? Young minds can easily overestimate the value of their own ideas. On the other hand, learning is notoriously difficult to appreciate in advance. There are two chief contributors to the dropout pressure: (1) inefficiency of schooling, and (2) rebelliousness of the dropout.

If your urge to drop out is astronomical, and it is mostly driven by a great idea or a great passion, you are more likely to end up like Bill or Steve. However, you always need to take a correction for youth and inexperience. College is a safe bet. It is time for learning and growing. Once you drop out, you may never find sufficient inner drive to scale to those necessary high levels.

One of the good tests on your dropout outcome is what you do during summer vacation. Do you spend that time learning? Or tinkering with your ideas? Programming? If you sense that those days are explosively productive, you might have a strong case.

If you want to drop out at the high school level, be doubly careful. Even if you are sure of your own genius, statistically, you are more likely to be a famous actor or novelist than a great entrepreneur or scientist. For every Bill and Steve, there are thousands of dropouts who never reached their true potential.

If you are not sure, write to me.

Thiel on dropping out

PayPal founder Peter Thiel is also remorseful. His story is very different though. He seems to have been even more conformist than myself. He dutifully passed all stages of education and became a successful graduate of Stanford Law School. Then he suffered his first major setback in his climb. He missed the clerkship with Antonin Scalia at Supreme Court by a whisker. He was devastated. However, he went on to co-found, and then to sell PayPal. Today, Thiel considers his failure at SCOTUS as a lucky coincidence that helped him escape the life of a lemming.

Here is a piece from "Zero to One":

We teach every young person the same subjects, irrespective of individual talents and preferences. Students who don't learn best by sitting still at a desk are made to feel somehow inferior [...] Elite students climb confidently until they reach the level of competition sufficiently intense to beat their dreams out of them. [...] For the privilege of being turned into conformists, students (or their families) pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition [...]. Why are we doing it to ourselves? I wish I had asked myself when I was younger

Straight As vs. dropouts

A straight A student is often seen as a learning robot. A dropout is often seen as just a poor learner. At times, however, the borderline between the two is very thin.

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
In 1975, I was on the verge of failing in primary school. I would be a dropout if the system allowed of dropping out. Instead, I was thrown away and moved to a new school. Through some mysterious confusion, my papers did not follow me. I started in the new school with a clean slate. Perhaps someone tried to give me a new chance? I suddenly turned out to be a straight A student and I loved it (for a while). The context and the environment made all the difference. The aura around the student can make that difference. I was seen as trouble in one school and that attracted trouble. I was perceived as a great student in another school and that became a self-fulfilling prophecy
School system plays God and determines who is good and who is bad. Goodness is not a matter of quality, but a matter of compliance

Sport school dropouts

Lots of kids from our football field go on to join a professional football school. Most of them drop out within a year. In our circle, it is the most talented kids who drop out earliest saying "I will learn more by just playing. That school is a waste of time". It seems coaching isn't much easier than teaching. Even when the kids choose their own sport and their own club, there is no guarantee they will persist. Just the opposite, most will not. It is about the fleeting young minds and the repulsive power of compulsion. Kids hate to be told what to do. Esp. those with a talent. Esp. those who know their own way.

In reference to coaching success, parent-child pairs often come to my mind. This is where love may amplify dedication and determination. Love is also a good component in enhancing the trainer's knowledge about the trainee and his personal needs. A beautiful pair Tyson : D'Amato is a good example. Cus saved Mike from the juvy and adopted him when Mike's mom died.

If love can nullify the negatives of a dropout, free learning should trump schooling.

The educational pyramid reversed

In the current education model, we take all kids and push them through primary education. They drop out in proportion to their diminishing ability to tolerate prolonged education: either for lack of talent or for too much talent. By the time we get to the PhD level, we end up with just a trickle of the supposedly most capable students. With that ever-diminishing wave of human learning, we reduce the involvement of teachers and the government investment. This is all upside down. It is just the reverse of what we should do. Nearly all kids learn to walk and speak. They need no prodding and no investment. Some will need some tutoring if they are to learn to read. Usually, a parent or a sibling is all that is needed. As the kids progress deeper into their education, they may need more and more help and inspiration and co-operation with others. Only at the university level, education can get really expensive. We need best minds, best supervisors, labs, and technologies. When we finally get to the level of CERN or NASA, this is where the big bucks should be spent. It is important to distinguish between the investment in learning, and the investment in development aimed at reducing inequality (see: Investment in early development brings good returns).

We waste billions on pushing people to learn things they would learn on their own eventually, with no prodding, and no coercion. At the same time, we waste a great deal of resources on trying to educate the gifted in a system that destroys giftedness.

Governments waste billions to achieve what comes naturally, and destroy passion for what might be achieved later
The reversed educational pyramid
The reversed educational pyramid

Figure: Governments waste untold billions on coercive teaching. Children are forced to exercise cramming along the guidelines of the asemantic curriculum. They are forced to learn things they would easily learn on their own (given sufficient freedom and access to rich learning environments). The same money could be invested in amplifying passions of older students. As long as those early childhood passions are not destroyed by schooling, they will make students ask for assistance on their own. Instead of tormenting kids, we could give them access to computers, tablets, and phones. Gaming disorder is a non-issue for free kids. Compare: Investment in early development brings good returns

Why did I not drop out?

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
My thinking of schools has been evolving slowly. In primary school, I considered school inevitable. Like death and taxes. I do not recall questioning the need to go to school. Perhaps my mom made a good job of convincing me that without schooling I had no future. My potential resistance to schooling was undermined by the fact that I had a ton of friends and there were always some opportunities for showing off, playing pranks, or doing goofy things. Perhaps school was still one of the most interesting things around?

In secondary school, there seems to have been some tug of war between different forces. On one hand, I could see the futility of schooling. On the other, I got seriously interested in biochemistry and set my mind on going to college one day. I always associated college with "higher" learning, and the best part was to strip all the "junk", like... Polish literature or military technology. There was no path to college without completing the high school. Most of all, there was an omnipresent clincher argument: if you do not go to school, you go to the army. In those communist days, instead of two long years in the army, most kids would prefer schooling.

At the university, I was torn even harder. I wanted to be a scientist, but I hated boring classes in irrelevant subjects delivered by ho-hum uninspiring lecturers. Again, the threat of conscription kept me in line. By mid-1980s, I would keep telling people I would not move abroad because I was too patriotic to disappoint my nation, which generously funded my education (see: I stopped being patriotic).

In 1986, after a heroic effort, I was finally classified as unable to serve in the army. For the first time in my life I was free (at the age of 24). This was the first and last time when I seriously considered dropping out. My computer science classes were not too inspiring at that time. However, I had already one year credited in the bag and it was tempting to suffer a bit more to get the degree. I demanded my curriculum be reshaped to suit my needs. I wanted to be a programmer and I wanted to drop all electronics subjects that dominated my courses. If my demands had not been met, I would have dropped out. Surprisingly, with some help from Prof. Kierzkowski and others, my program of study was accepted with one exception. I decided to bite the bullet that last time, that last exam, and enjoy four years of creative freedom and true learning. It was a bullseye choice. I met many lovely people. I learned many things. I wrote SuperMemo for DOS. I crowned it all with a Master's Thesis: "Optimization of learning". It was the time when I actually "invented" a perfect mode of schooling. Those last years were so nice that I totally forgot the preceding 18 years of slavery. In 1990, I was free again in a new way. I had my degrees and could do exactly what I wanted. One of the things I wanted most was better learning. This is how I ended up part of SuperMemo World, which I enjoy to this day.

Over the next 26 years, I worked diligently on improving my self-learning methodology. In all that time, when meeting young people, I followed a scheme of advice that could be summarized as this: "Take learning seriously. Never look at your grades. Ignore the pressures. Use SuperMemo. Your own greatness is the best ticket to bright future". Very often I would add "do take it easy! Go to university". There was an increasing tension in that reasoning. I wanted kids to learn and use SuperMemo, but as soon as I mentioned school, their enthusiasm would weaken. Instead of being a good advisor, I would be one of the same old crowd that told kids that school was inevitable. Only when working over this book did I fully appreciate the degree of my ignorance and the degree of damage schooling does to most kids. Now I start feeling ashamed. Why did I not think of dropping out earlier? Why wasn't I as smart as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs? Why did I not protest the astronomical contrast of my enthusiastic learning during vacations with the brain-shrinking drudgery of day-to-day schooling? I see I was just one of the lemmings. Treading slowly to some unknown future determined by others and the law of the crowds.

Only Peter Gray and Danny Greenberg made me see the light. I could then finally put all those pieces together and scream: "Eureka!". I discovered something major about my own life! I was a lemming. Now it is time to help others wake up and smell the coffee!

What if I had dropped out?

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
My computer was a powerful force for dropping out. It was so interesting, it had so much potential. Instead of exploring my computer, I had to get up early to learn how the current flows through a circuit built of resistors and capacitors. I was thinking: "Damn! I am not gonna build computers. I already had great programming plans: dayplan scheduling, SuperMemo, etc."

I could have dropped out in 1986 at the age of 24, however, my computer science credentials were meager, my programming skills were rudimentary, my ideas for SuperMemo were hazy. With a degree in biology, I might have ended up in a lab coat, which was not my intent.

By 1989, aged 27, this changed dramatically. I became interested in entrepreneurial science having read an article in Science (Oct 31, 1989). There was no culture of the private enterprise in the communist Poland of the day. One's own business was not a thing on people's minds. It was far from my own mind. I was rather eager to sell SuperMemo to finance my trip to the US to enter a graduate program.

It was good I did not drop out. I could sense it well after graduating. In 1990-1991, the whole world seemed to have conspired against me. Friends and family kept saying: Why do you keep learning? Why do you keep programming? When will you get a job? Who will you be? Nobody needs your program for making dots instead of learning!

I switched from using Polish to using English across the board in my life. That quickly gained me some whispers "this guy is going insane".

If I dropped out, my mom and sister who supported me at that time might have lost their patience and asked me to get a job. That would be far worse than the cost of schooling.

While Gates had a good idea for a good business, my ideas were very hazy. I did not fully appreciate the power and uniqueness of SuperMemo. I did not have a good idea how to turn it into a business. Partnering with Krzysztof Biedalak later on was the breakthrough I needed. I still rather wanted to go for a PhD in the US.

Peter Thiel made me feel stupid

Peter Thiel is not a great fan of the college education. In "Ivory Tower" by CNN Films, he remarked "college education cannot be a backup plan for those who do not have a plan". And then added: "many people go to college because they do not know what to do". This instantly made me feel stupid. Back in 1984, as a student of biology, I had serious doubts about the value of my college education. I learned a lot, I met many great people, but my job prospects did not look good. Instead of looking around for a job, I opted for 5 more years of college. In some sense, this was indeed a variant of doing college because of lack of better ideas. I have a few points of comfort though. Thiel himself went through a robotic education plan until a temporary setback woke him up to the "meaning of life". Additionally, my mind in 1984 was pretty well set on Big Science. It just did not mature to thinking about doing science abroad, e.g. in the US, and Polish science was at that time seriously hobbled by the available resources. I could see my hero star professors in molecular biology struggle for funding, hardware, literature, graduates, etc. Their great ideas could hardly be tested in poorly equipped laboratories lagging behind the best labs in the world. Last but not least, my run for college was also a run from conscription. All graduates back in the mid 1980s had to serve a year in the army. A monumental waste of life. College was to be my savior. Interestingly, when Berlin Wall collapsed, compulsory conscription was abolished, and Krzysztof Biedalak (CEO) was one of the first beneficiaries. He took a sabbatical and perfectly aligned his graduation with the arrival of freedom in Poland. This is when SuperMemo World was formed. As for my thinking about 10 years in college, the second half of that period was executed pretty well. It was also grounded in good motives. I spent the first 5 years studying human brain, biochemistry, and physiology. Then I wanted to spend another 5 to learn how to use computing sciences to investigate the brain. Originally, I envisaged monstrous brain simulations. In the end, I focused on just two little-known properties of the long-term memory. My rant against compulsory schooling is largely derived from that wonderful experience of freedom that kids rarely taste at school. My college period made a lot of sense. That feeling of being stupid was only a temporary flash of inaccurate enlightenment. My college years turned out ok in the end.

Bill Gates made me feel inadequate

At the start of SuperMemo World in 1991, we had a plan to put SuperMemo on every desktop. That was a plan inspired by Bill Gates and his success with Windows. We did not fully appreciate the array of obstacles on our way. In 1991, every programmer and every software company felt inadequate in comparison with Bill and Microsoft. Today, genius dropout Bill Gates plans to rescue education. I no longer feel inadequate. I think his plan is inferior. Mine sounds far better. Perhaps again there is an array of things I do not see?

See: Bill Gates is wrong about education

Summary: School dropouts

  • great people can be found among college graduates and among high school dropouts
  • genius is incompatible with schooling. This is why there are many high achieving school dropouts
  • education system invest heavily into teaching things people can easily learn on their own (and with pleasure)
  • threat of military service prevented me from the consideration of dropping out from college