How Dropping Out of College Gave Me a Huge Head Start on Life
The other day I discovered my old University of Michigan student ID card in a stack of papers.
When I saw the expiration date, May 2018, a terrifying thought occured to me: I could still be in college.
To be more blunt, I could still be sitting in classes I didn’t like, doing things that added no value to my life so I could please adminstrators, parents, and friends, and spending my days producing nothing for the real world.
I’m 23 years old and I’d be no better off professionally than I was at 18.
I know this because many of my peers have graduated recently or are about to graduate and they’re finding the only options avaialble to them to be unpaid or low pay internships.
This post will show you some of what I did over these last three years or so that I could have been in school.
Dropping out of college has given me a huge head start and it can do the same for you if you use the time wisely.
Keep in mind that I’m nowhere near as productive as I’d like to be. I procrastinate, miss opportunities, burn bridges, and fail to deliver on a large number of my goals. As I hope to show you, you don’t need to be operating at 100% all the time — you don’t need to get A’s — all the time in the real world, to do a lot of things.
The Real World vs The Schooled World
If there is one thing I’ve realized, it’s that the real world moves much faster than the schooled world. In the absence of hoop jumping, bureacratic roadblocks, and arbritrary standards, your life can dramatically accelerate.
In 4 years of school I would have graduated with some friends, a few essays that nobody would ever read, and a piece of paper that says “degree” on it.
Within a few months of time in the real world, I’d made more friends than I ever made in college, written dozens of blog posts, and started getting work opportunties despite not having a credential.
I’ve seen people do even more than that.
In my work at Praxis, I’ve had people leave college and write a book within their first 3 or 4 months. I’ve seen people launch podcasts, travel more than most people do in their lifetimes, and get promoted to positions at companies that people with 5 years of experience couldn’t get.
In contrast, many of my friends from highschool have no accomplished anything since getting accepted into college. They’re graduating with very little to show for the last four years.
The period between ages 18-25 can either be some of the most important, most productive periods of your life or they can be largely a wash out.
This is why I always tell kids that it’s pretty much risk free to take time off college. Things move so slowly in school that the potential downside is little, while the potential upside of trying something on your own can be massive.
What I Did Instead of Attending College
The first thing to realize is that I had almost no plan when I dropped out. Although dropouts like Ryan Holiday say you should have something lined up before you leave college, I think that’s wrong for a number of reasons:
- Most college students have no idea what they want to do and no idea what the world really offers. You can’t discover this in college and so waiting for the “perfect” opportunity is a fools task.
- Your goals will change rapidly once you leave school. Since you have very little experience, that first opportunity you pursue might be a total bust. You might realize you hate it. You probably will. What then?
In most cases, you have to remove yourself from school to start seeing things for the way they are. There’s never a “right time” to take the red pill. You just have to make the leap and hope for the best.
Since I had no clear path, I decided to start trying a ton of things.
- I did some work for my parents company and built an eBay and an Amazon store. I taught myself how to do this in a few days with Google.
- I offered to work for free for a family friend and landed him as a client.
- I bought a camera and started taking photos at events. Some of the organizers liked my work and purchased it.
- I used that camera to start doing videos as well and shot for a number of local businesses in San Diego.
- I ran Instagram and Facebook accounts for my family’s business as well as a number of other companys.
- I did graphic design for Colliers International, a commercial real estate company.
- I took drove around Texas taking photos of restaruants for real estate companies.
- I took a job in Austin at a media company called Vici Media Group.
- I started making standing desks from parts puchased at IKEA and selling them on eBay with my friend, Glenn.
- I began blogging a bit.
- I got to negotiate a $300,000 multi year software deal with Netsuite.
Somewhere during that process I started to hone in on what I was good at and what I wanted to do with my time.
My marketing client base began to grow and grow and pretty soon I was making good money. In fact, I was making great money. A Facebook ad I ran for a client blew up and paid my dividends for the entirety of 2015. I registered a business that was informally called Maggle Social.
The first 8 months or so out of school were some of the most enlightening times of my life.
I realized, for example, that most professionals weren’t as knowledgeable as they seemed. I learned that you can learn much more quickly by imitation than reading or studying. I saw that businesses don’t really care about degrees and I discovered how to get them to work with you even if you didn’t have a degree or formal experience. I began learning personal finance, personal health habits, and started to see more clearly the kind of life I wanted to have.
Many of the material goals I had in college fell away as I began to take more and more pleasure in the process of working and producing something that others found valuable.
These are things I could have never learned in school.
During this time I was also attending conferences and reading on my own. I found I my love of learning came back quickly when I wasn’t spedning my time studying things that didn’t interest me or following somebody else’s syllabus.
Classics. Economics. Philosophy. Self Improvement. Business.
These were all topics I explored and I read more during that time than almost any time in my life.
The next two years got even better.
Praxis, the company I’m the Director of Marketing at, became a client of mine. I worked with them for a year, got to travel all around the country, got interviewed by dozens of podcasts, developed my writing skills, and learned marketing through doing marketing in a way I never got through contract work. I got to see the ins and outs of running a small but growing startup and I got in on the ground floor of something I think is going to be huge.
It takes years for most people to become a head of marketing but the opportunity presented itself because I’d spent the previous year or so creating opportunties that led to other opportunities and so on.
I started getting speaking opportunities and have now spoken in Austin, San Diego, Washington D.C, Salt Lake City, Serbia, Bosnia, and universities around the country. I’m writing this post while I’m on a plane headed to Prague where I’ll be speaking at Charles University.
Being involved with Praxis taught more a ton about business and gave me a credibility I would not have had on my own. I started getting bigger and better opportunities and now actively turn things away.
(I do currently have a company called GrowthSumo and am taking customers)
Over the past year, I’ve traveled more than 130,000 miles and visited a dozen countries or so. This all cost less than a semester of college tuition and I didn’t travel cheaply. I know people who are graduating now who want to travel but can’t because of all the debt they have. They could have worked a part time job during a gap year and traveled as much or more than I did.
I also put together an eBook called “How to Get Any Job You Want” which has been downloaded thosuands of times and helped kids all over the world get jobs that would otherwise be closed to them.
Since July of last year, Praxis has more than quadrupled in size. Instead of taking classes, I spent my fall semester of 2016 overseeing the buildout of a new marketing CRM and traveling through Greece and Eastern Europe.
My writing, videos, and Quora posts have over a million views total now and I get messages everyday from people from Ecuador to India asking how they can leave college too.
Putting aside all of the above, the most valuable thing I’ve gained from this time out of school is self knowledge. I could have never imagined I’d be doing what I do now for a career. Teachers, parents, and even experienced professionals all told me to go into a narrow set of cookie cutter careers like law, medicine, or banking and finance.
The idea that I could be building a startup that is redfining higher education, traveling, writing, running a business of my own, and doing this all by 23 was something that was never on my radar.
I know more clearly what I want out of the next few years of my life and I don’t stress about the uncertainty beyond that. I trust that the knowledge will come with time and experience.
Compare this all to school and class time. What could I have gained by staying there for 3 more years?
What I Wish I’d Known
I get emails all the time from kids who want to drop out who see some of what I’m working on and are doubting what they can do themselves.
The truth that it took me a long time to realize is that the bar is quite low and you usually don’t need more education to get started. Most of what I listed above could have been accomplished faster if I’d just taken action and put something out into the world rather than trying to make sure everything was perfect.
The more I adopted a mindset of “just build it and ship it” the more I started to see actual returns.
If you’re in the shoes I was a few years ago, don’t worry. Start now and try tons of things. You’ll be surprised how much will come your way.
I also wish I had learned earlier how exactly to pursue new opportunities.
I’ve written about that here so you don’t have to go through the hassle that I did. Most job requirements can be totally sidestepped using a number of simple tactics. It’s so easy you’ll laugh that you didn’t see it before.