Friday, May 27, 2011

Mr. Thiel's Offer

Young folks, Peter Thiel will pay you $100,000 not to go to college. Well, may pay you $100,000. First you have to be under 20 years old. Then you have offer up an idea in competition with others, and agree to accept Mr. Thiel's mentorship. And then you have to agree to drop out of college for two years (or not go in the first place).

Before I launch into the reasons why I am dubious, let me acknowledge that this is not a terrible idea on the face of it. A "gap year" off before starting college is fairly normal now; why not 2 years plus $100,000 to do something a lot more worthwhile than climbing in Andes? Any number of people take 2 years off while they are in college (pretty much every Mormon I've ever met, for starters, and also a lot of students from Korea, Israel, and Singapore). Doing this does not mean never getting a college degree, and if you've got the bug and are fortunate enough to win one of these prizes, I'm not opposed.

On the other hand it should not be a life plan. Most businesses fail. The nice thing about the age restriction on this program, as I see it, is that while it does lure the young and unsophisticated to likely failure with small odds of huge success, it lures them at the time of their lives when they have the least to lose.

Let me add a couple of thoughts about Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, since they are held out as examples of what is possible. If you want to generalize on those examples, you need to look at them closely. First, they were both well-educated students from well-to-do backgrounds before they ever set foot in Harvard Yard. They graduated from two of America's best independent secondary schools. Their fathers were both professionals. They grew up in worldly households. They had energy and ambition as young people but also had a family safety net underneath them. And they were so well educated before college that they needed college less than the average joe.

I also think they both got something out of being at Harvard. Not from my computer science theory courses! But from learning enough about the state of the art to be skeptical about it. I remember Gates being told in his operating systems class about the sophistication of mainframe OSes, all the tuning that had been done to optimize performance of their file systems and so on. A microcomputer that didn't even have a disk drive? Just a toy, said the professor. What some students would dutifully write down in their notebooks, Gates took as a challenge. If you are going to shoot, you need to know something about targets.

And their timing was really good in both cases--which is what made dropping out a good strategy. Gates was not the first guy to write application or systems software for a microcomputer (CP/M antedated DOS) and Zuckerberg was not the first guy to conceive of an online social network. Both spotted windows that were open just a crack and recognized that someone else was going to pry them wide open and jump through. The Social Network, for all its exaggerations (and there are some), correctly alludes to Friendster and skepticism about whether social networking hadn't already been "done." And Gates and Allen were afraid that they had already missed their shot at being the first guys through the window (see various versions of that tale here).

Personal bias note: I like it when people take time off from college. The most foolish thing students can say after some reversal is that they "want to get back on the horse that threw them." No, go away. Grow up. Think about why you are going to college. If you have an itch, scratch it. The worst that can happen is that you will have the crushing mortgage at age 45 that you would otherwise have had when you were 43. My wife took 3 years off from college between her sophomore and junior years. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and there IS something wrong with spending $50,000 a year to go to college and wasting your time because your mind is elsewhere.

Part of the reason I feel so strongly about this is that my generation of men did not have the luxury. During the Vietnam War draft, if you took a year off to pursue an idea or to deal with a personal demon, they gave you a gun and sent you to the rice paddies. College became a sanctuary that was also a prison. A number of my friends lost, I believe, a good deal of their potential because of this sense of entrapment, and I hate seeing people who have the freedom to be adventurous fail to take advantage of it for fear they will lose a step up on some endless ladder of personal progress.


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  2. Great post. So much of Thiel's 'Offer' is nerd bravado but it would certainly be a fun opportunity.

  3. Its amazing how the US ecosystem at-least gives people freedom to do such experiments. I believe its the students' choice about how they should lead their lives. If they have big dreams, and have the guts to go work towards them them, then they absolutely should!

    Sadly, I can't imagine something like this happening in India for another 10 yrs probably!

  4. Sort of alarming to me is that this should be common sense.

    One problem seems to be that my generation tends not to have a really clear expectation of what higher education should be doing for them. In our defense, the massive stigma against not going to college does give young people the false impression that the really important question is whether to go to college. It's important, but often overlooked is the fact that answering "yes" is really only the very beginning of a very long list of questions that at some point need to be answered.