Apprenticeships: Benefits and Drawbacks

By Jean Fan

People who criticize the mass education system often point to the apprenticeship model as an ideal. In many ways, it’s in fact a lot better. In some ways, it’s worse.

Historically, apprenticeships have been a way for young people to gain skills from a master craftsman, by working under them for five to ten years. The modern day apprenticeship, however, may span different jobs and internships. We see apprenticeships gaining popularity with programs like Enstitute and the University of Waterloo’s co-op education.

As someone who is considering pursuing an apprenticeship instead of staying in school, I’ve been thinking a lot about its attributes. An apprenticeship offers a number of desirable things, depending on what you value and prefer:

1. One-to-one mentorship.

Benefit: One-to-one mentorship allows you to form an emotional bond with your teacher, who will then give you emotional support and encouragement. This will likely motivate you to try harder in your work.

Drawback: This is only effective if you like and are liked by your teacher. If this is not the case, you will have a highly uncomfortable experience, and the apprenticeship will probably be ineffective.

2. An individualized curriculum.

Benefit: An apprenticeship allows you to learn at a pace and progression that makes sense for you.

Drawback: The quality of the curriculum depends heavily on your mentor. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult for you to evaluate the merits of someone older and wiser than you.

3. A curriculum that is highly relevant to your future work.

Benefit: By gaining knowledge that you know is useful, you will be more motivated to learn, and spend less time having an existential crisis because you know that you’re wasting your time.

Drawback: You have less time to learn about things just because they interest you, because you’ll be focused on learning about things that relate to your work.

4. A greater chance of mastering a specific skill.

Benefit: By mastering a specific skill, you’re able to add significantly more value to the world. You also gain an advantage over your peers in terms of job security and work experience.

Drawback: Because you are choosing a skill to master earlier on in life, perhaps before you’ve explored the range of all the possible skills, you may not pick the right one for you.

5. The chance to spend time with people in many stages of their life.

Benefit: You’ll become more emotionally mature and more socially flexible. This will become apparent when you spend time with your peers.

Drawback: Dating can be difficult. Making close friends can be difficult. Neither is undoable.


What’s clear is this: there are subtle drawbacks to not going to college and choosing an apprenticeship that you have to compensate for (e.g. meeting people your own age, dating, etc.). Fortunately, it’s also clear that if you do the right apprenticeship, it can potentially offer you much more value than going to school.


Posted by on July 26, 2014
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Meet a Fellow – Tim

Gap Year Fellows come from all walks of life. They each have unique goals, and have had different experiences and outcomes in the Program. This is Tim:

Gap Year Fellow Testimonial – Tim

Tim is a 22-year-old with a diverse background. His mother helped him develop a keen eye for design and a touch of creativity, while his father provided him with problem solving skills through careful analysis. He built his first computer at age of 13 and had hiked and canoed over 500 miles by 15. After achieving the rank of Eagle Scout and graduating high school, he enrolled in a large state university. After two semesters he found himself disgruntled with the institutional aspects of such a large school that had little regard for individual guidance. He dropped out and began to search for a passion, pursuing many different fields in the process, from physical fitness to internet marketing. He enrolled in the Gap Year program as an exploratory phase to collaborate with other bright minds and learn about himself in the process.

During the Program Tim interned for 3 months at H-Farm – an Italian startup Incubator in Venice. There he worked on marketing and community engagement, with H-farm’s host of early stage companies. Now Tim is off to Palo Alto to work as a marketing intern for a venture-backed stealth company building photography hardware.


Posted by on July 17, 2014
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A Short Guide to “Taking Risks”: Don’t

By Jean Fan

I’ve been perplexed for a while about the concept of taking risks. The source of my confusion: I identify as risk averse, but many people perceive me as risk taking. Perhaps this is because I made the choice to take a year off from school, which is still an unusual thing to do — at least among “high achievers.”

What this means is that there aren’t two distinct camps of people when it comes to taking risks. It’s not as if you’re either someone who sees risk and runs towards it, or sees risk and runs away.

Instead, people perceive riskiness differently. An action that seems extraordinarily risky to you might seem like the safest option to me, depending on what I value and what I know.

I’ve found that people who consider skipping college risky are often people who value different things than me. So when other people make decisions, they’re taking entirely different things into account than I am, and obviously will end up with a different set of actions to take than I do.

This is why you should be wary when you take advice. If you follow the path others suggest without making sure they value the same things as you do, you’ll end up achieving what they think is important, instead of what you think is important.

Often, people who disagree with me about the importance of going to college also come to their conclusion using a different set of information than me. Not going to college sounds risky if the statistic you’ve heard and remember is that college graduates make on average $1 million more than high school graduates. Going to college sounds risky if what you know and remember is that tons of people graduate with crippling debt and no job offers.

Another thing to remember when you’re making decisions that others might consider risky: you have a lot more information about yourself than others do. You know what opportunities you have, and what they could mean. You know how much you can accomplish and what your abilities are. You know what you care about and what you don’t. All of these things should be taken into account.

I made a trip to Peru last month, and remember wondering to myself on the plane: “Why does spending 18 days in a foreign country feel more risky to me than the idea of not going school?” Then I wrote down what I valued (learning), and it all made sense.

Going to Peru felt risky to me because I’ve learned many of the lessons that travel offers. The opportunity cost was huge: I could’ve spent those 18 days learning something that I didn’t know. Not going to school, on the other hand, doesn’t feel risky to me, because I’m in a fortunate position where I have greater or equal learning opportunities available to me.

It was all just a question of whether I felt I could effectively achieve what I valued. Once you’ve evaluated your options and have chosen the path that will most effectively help you get what you value, you should no longer feel as though you’re taking a risk.

I don’t believe in “taking risks,” especially if the implication is that I’m purposely doing something that could screw up my future. Instead, I believe in making good decisions. Luckily, making good decisions is quite simple: we just need to figure out what we value and what the best path is for us to get there.


Posted by on July 12, 2014
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A Change to Gap Year

Starting in 2015, Fellows will start off their Gap Year on a Voyage and then enter the residential Launch phase. The reason for the change is best explained by one of our own Fellows:

I found that – after having spent the launch phase in SF and having built great networks and relationships there – you want to leverage those, e.g for an internship or job in the next phase.” – Ferry, Fall 2013 Fellow

We’ve also developed partnerships so that we can place Fellows directly with organizations during the Voyage phase and offer our Fellows visa support, planning, and structure to ensure a safe and smooth time abroad. Note that these partnerships now replace the travel stipend (this will not impact Fall 2014 Fellows).

We made these changes for a number of reasons:

1. After spending three months in San Francisco building a network of mentors and friends, some Fellows had to turn down job offers because they were leaving on their Voyage.We think the maturity you gain while living abroad is invaluable, but we don’t want to slow down the success of our Fellows.

2. Fellows told us that after being abroad they felt more mature and confident. We’ve decided it is valuable for Fellows to start the year off that experience and carry that new confidence into the Launch phase.

3. The Fellows that went abroad in groups told us that they had a transformational experience and built lasting connections. Because we’ve developed these partnerships, Fellows have the opportunity to travel together and build lifelong friendships even before entering the Launch phase.

We are incredibly excited to be able to offer direct placements on the Voyage for our Fellows! We will work with you to help you choose a Voyage that fits your path. We will provide visa support, planning, and structure to ensure a safe and smooth time abroad. Included in the Voyage are accommodations while abroad, airport transfers, and 24-hour emergency support as well as other perks depending on your travel choice.

You can choose from nine options for your Voyage:

  • Teaching in Thailand
  • Volunteering in a Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand
  • Volunteering in a Tanzania Orphanage
  • Teaching in Tanzania
  • Community Volunteering in Nepal
  • Coaching Sports in Ghana
  • Teaching in Ghana
  • Working in Australia
  • Working in New Zealand

Of course, because this is a self-directed program your coach will be happy to work with you to construct a different Voyage if you have a concrete plan. These nine options will provide structure, support, and opportunities for those that don’t have a concrete travel plan in mind.


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10 Reasons to Choose UnCollege Brazil

By Lucas Coelho

1. Brazil is the place to be right now.

Alex Nascimento, founder of 7BrazilConsulting, said in 2013: “The next five years will be the hottest years for Brazil.”

It’s hosting the World Cup. It will host the Olympics. It’s also the largest Latin American economy. Brazil is at the center of the international spotlight right now.

By spending time living in Brazil, you’ll gain a better understanding of the country’s current affairs, which can be a valuable asset to your professional profile.

2. It’s your chance to live in a BRIC country.

Brazil is a member of the BRIC group, which is comprised of four of the most promising emerging global markets — Russia, India, China, and Brazil.

While the economic crisis plagued the US and Europe, Brazil was nearly untouched. The anxiety that Americans and Europeans have regarding the job markets are foreign to young people in the booming Brazilian economy.

3. There’s a great startup environment.

According to data by Endeavor Brazil, small- and medium-sized companies are responsible for 96% of the jobs in Brazil and comprise 98% of all companies in the country. The entrepreneurial mindset is flourishing here and growing quickly. Will you contribute to it?

4. Brazilian social movements are on the rise.

Despite enormous improvement, there is still great social inequality in Brazil. This has sparked many movements in Brazil where people (youths in particular!) are now actively doing something about it.

By coming to Brazil, you’ll get to witness these social movements first-hand, and meet people who are radically changing the landscape in Brazil.

5. Have you seen Ilhabela?

Google it. It’s beautiful.

We’ve specifically chosen a place that’s idyllic and peaceful, so that you’ll have enough space to absorb and reflect on everything you’ll learn. (And of course, São Paulo is just two hours away…)

6. Brazilians are awesome.

Not only do they throw the best parties, Brazilians are also incredibly cheerful, welcoming, and open-minded.

7. Education reform is in full swing.

People are taking action, and you’ll get to meet them. We’ll introduce you to some of the leaders of the education movement here. Together we’ll discuss ideas and brainstorm solutions on how to tackle the global education crisis.

8. Fully funded opportunities, here we come!

At UnCollege Brazil we’ll help you find the many fully-funded conferences, courses, summits, and youth gatherings that take place around the world. The more of these you find, the cheaper your travels will become and you’ll see more, learn more, and be able to add to your list of experiences!

9. The food.

You’re lucky! We have some foodies on the team that will make sure you will have fresh, natural, tasty, and diverse food during the Launch Phase. The wonderful Brazilian climate offers us many great ingredients.

10. You won’t ever be bored.

We’ve got it all planned out. From an exclusive weekend on a secret island to meeting and collaborating with the locals of Brazilian favelas, we want to make sure we are making the best use of your time!

We’ll also be showing you why Ilhabela is known as Brazil’s “Digital City” and introducing you to its technological initiatives. From the unforgettable tourist hotspots to the most disadvantaged areas of the country, you will leave Brazil with a good understanding of its many realities.

Interested? Apply for UnCollege Brazil here!

Posted by on July 5, 2014
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Advice for HS Graduates: Get Started Now

By Lisa Nalbone

I’ve been to several high school graduation parties and conversed with graduates and their friends. Some knew exactly what they want to do next, while others were unsure about what field they want to pursue. When I asked these young people what experience or interaction they have in the field they wanted to pursue, most admitted to having no experience at all.

It’s easy to make excuses.

“I don’t have an established background to land a job in my field.”

“My field doesn’t grant internships until senior year of college.”

“How would I even know where to start?”

The reality: there’s no reason you can’t start gaining experience now.

Finding Your Field

Make a list, mind-map, or collage of the things you have done in your life that made you feel most alive, excited, energized, competent and confident. Think about all aspects of your life, including play and fun and hobbies, not just paid work or school assignments. They might be big projects or just small, magical moments where you felt in the flow – you weren’t even aware of time passing.

Okay. Now figure out what it was about those moments that felt so good. What skills and talents were you using? What are the common threads between those moments? What does the world need that uses those skills?

Think about what’s wrong in the world. What matters to you so much that you want to do something about it? Take a look at who, where and how people are working on that issue. How could you try to fit your abilities into that work? What work could you create to combine what you care about with what you love to do?

Start Learning

Once you identify a field that you’re interested, learn as much about it as you possibly can. Don’t wait for the possibility of a future internship to decide if it’s an area you’re passionate about. Many programs don’t schedule official internships until junior year, when you are already heavily invested in that major.

You should start investigating what a job looks like as soon as you’re interested in it:

  1. Start following people in the field on Twitter.
  2. Read professional blogs.
  3. Notice which resources and authors they recommend, make a comment, and ask a question.
  4. Interview people in the field. Few people turn down a cup of coffee!

These types of interactions will help you absorb a lot of second hand experience, as well as gain a better picture of what that career looks like on the ground.

Which areas make you want to know more and more and more? Which ones bore you to tears? Do you feel more compelled to pursue that field? Great! If not, great! You now have more data to work with. In either case, try to discern what is pulling and pushing you. When you identify those edges you will have more information to help you find your own best fit in that field, or discover a related field you might be more interested in.

Try Things!

Learning is a critical first step, but the sooner you gain real experience the more feedback and information you’ll have to work with.

  1. Ask someone you interacted with in the learning stage if you can job shadow them for a day.
  2. Volunteer doing anything just to be in and around the actual day to day work. Offering free work is a powerful secret weapon. It opens doors.
  3. Ask for an internship opportunity (even if there’s not a position being offered). Paid or unpaid, this is extremely valuable experience.

Getting your hands dirty is worth the trouble. Once you have first-hand experience, you can make more informed choices. While it may seem counterproductive, gaining experience in something you find uninteresting or frustrating can lead to new skills and connections.

Don’t let the graduation season turn into the summer of indecision. You may want to think of this time as the last chance you’ll have to relax, but don’t let yourself become too complacent. Set yourself some goals and commit to implementing a plan for trying new things in order to gain the most valuable credential of all: experience.  Ready, set, go!

Posted by on June 28, 2014
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Talking to Parents About Your Gap Year

By Ilana Sawyer

So you’ve decided to take a gap year. Congratulations! Now you’re focused on the next step — persuading your parents that this is a valuable use of your time, and that this is the right next step for you in your education and in your life.

Especially if the concept is brand new to them, it’s crucial to introduce your gap year to your parents in the right way. After all, you want to be able to keep them in the loop about all of the experiences you’ll be having!

Remember that what you say and how you behave will influence their perception of your ability to make the most of this year. Here are four strategies to help convince your parents to support your decision to take a gap year:

1. Keep your parents part of the process.

Schedule time with your parents to talk about your plans for the coming months. Prepare your thoughts and plans ahead of time. Think through your answers to any hard questions your parents may ask you.

Sit down on some comfortable furniture for your conversation. Smile — you know these people! Ideally your parents will be open to listening to what you have to say. Remember to listen to their sides of the story, too.

Surprising Mom and Dad with a packed bag and a plane ticket two days in advance is a bad strategy. Let them know your general intentions well ahead of time, even if you’re still exploring what you’ll be doing.

2. Explain why you want to take a gap year.

Are you unconvinced that college is the best use of your time, money, or energy? Do you think you can make bigger leaps in your career if you’re outside of the campus bubble? Are you dying to explore the real world? Tell your parents why you think that a gap year is the best option for you.

Back up your reasoning with data and anecdotes. Show your parents any articles you read that helped you make your decision, and examples of young people who’ve taken a gap year, been active and productive, and loved it.

Show your parents the programs or plans you’re considering, if any. Guide them through the websites. Let them examine your cost calculations. If you’re asking for money, be clear about the amount and what you will use it for. Honesty is key if you want their financial support during your year.

3. Understand where your parents are coming from.

Make sure your parents know that you’re not trying to take a year-long vacation. Your gap year will not consist of you cramping up your fingers playing video games in their basement, getting acquainted with the infinite scroll function on Tumblr, or partying it up Spring-Break-style in Thailand. Instead, it will involve you working hard, growing as a person, and gaining real world experience. It’s a year on, not a year off.

Be open to their initial reactions to your plans. Right now, they may or may not accept your decision. Your only objective right now is to give them a more complete picture of what you want to do this year. If your parents understand your plans, they are more likely to support you in the process — financially and emotionally.

Be respectful, and ask your parents to do the same. Listen to what they have to say without interrupting. Explain calmly how you feel and why. Take the time to understand what your parents are trying to say, instead of immediately forming counterarguments while they are talking.

4. Communicate the value of real world experience, especially if you’ll be working.

You’ll work on a series of successful projects that you can compile into a portfolio. You can share this work with potential employers and collaborators to demonstrate your interests and abilities, as well as your work ethic.

It’s possible — if you work hard — to get enough work experience that you won’t need a college degree in order to get a job. (Some UnCollege fellows, for example, were offered jobs during the Launch phase, in the beginning of their journeys in the professional world!) And, if you do end up going back to college, you’ll have a head start on your peers in terms of getting internships and later securing a job.

With everything changing at such a rapid rate, education today seems to be preparing young people for a world that doesn’t exist. If you self-direct your learning, however, you can tailor your education to a constantly changing reality, and achieve your own personal brand of success.


By taking a gap year, you are taking the first step in a journey that is your own. Hopefully, these strategies will help you as you navigate the necessary conversations of the next few months.

As you forge your own path, remember that you are taking responsibility for your learning, and that’s something to be proud of — regardless of what anyone else thinks.

Posted by on June 19, 2014
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The Reality of College Statistics

By Ilana Sawyer (2014 Fellow)

The New York Times recently published a high-profile article claiming that, on average, people who graduate from college earn half a million dollars more over their lifetimes than people who do not graduate from college. But it’s not that straightforward.

In this study, “graduate from college” is defined as having graduated from a conventional and accredited 4-year institution, with a Bachelor’s Degree or higher. “Not graduate from college,” on the other hand, is a category that casts a far wider net. Holders of associate degrees and community college degrees, for example, are not a part of the demographic of “college graduates” guaranteed a lucrative life. Neither are vocational and trade school graduates.

Inflating Education

According to this theory, to be relatively successful and not be out of half a million dollars:

  • You must go to high school. “Thirteen years of traditional schooling is indisputable,” says Leonhardt, the author of the NYT article.
  • You must attend a four-year college. Leonhardt asserts: “The wage premium for people who have attended college without earning a bachelor’s degree — a group that includes community-college graduates — has not been rising. The big economic returns go to people with four-year degrees.”
  • You must graduate. This is easier said than done. Finances, health, family, and many other factors can get in the way. “More than 40 percent of American students who start at four-year colleges haven’t earned a degree after six years. If you include community- college students in the tabulation, the dropout rate is more than half.”

And yet: “15 to 17 years” is the “universal goal [for education]”, says Leonardt. College is now the new bar to aim for. But a two-year certification is considered subpar to the new standard of a four-year degree, and, as a base qualification, even a four-year certification is no longer special or impressive. Today, to stand out from the crowd, you need to go above and beyond basic higher education and invest in a graduate degree — a Master’s or a Doctorate — and pray that the extra costs pay off.

Education is inflating, but it’s not doing it on its own. Inflation is an illusion of value, established upon mutual consent. We cannot raise the value of the object without collective validation of its worth. A high school or college education is worth whatever we make it worth.

The Financial Variable

And today, college is quoted as being worth a lot. The average debt of a graduate of a 4-year college is “$25,000, a sum that is a tiny fraction of the economic benefits of college,” says Leonhardt. That number might not shake some people, but to many, that tiny fraction is the fissure that cracks their college dreams. Debt is relative; there are people who struggle just as much with a figure with fewer zeroes, and plenty of people owe much more.

Proportionally, though, the situation and its implications are the same for these people overwhelmed with debt; finance is the number one factor responsible for the staggering college drop-out rate. Another NY Times article explains: “If you compare college students with the same standardized-test scores who come from different family backgrounds, you find that their educational outcomes reflect their parents’ income, not their test scores.”

So “college” is only securing a small population of people stable well-paying jobs, and even their earnings, though higher than those of others, have declined in the past 14 years.

No Guarantees

Though a small minority of college graduates might do alright, everyone else enrolled in college is working towards a certification that likely won’t ever pay for itself — if they can even afford to stay on campus long enough to actually graduate. These unfavorable odds are the reason that many people opt out of going to college to begin with.

Even if you do everything you’re supposed to, there are so many variables at play, many of which you can’t control… The influence of any one of them can void the value of college for you.

You Determine Your Success

What you can control are your intrinsic characteristics — work ethic, patience, ambition, resilience, etc. — that you bring to college or any other environment. These factors and what you choose to do with them determine your success. You can succeed or fail at many things whether you attend or don’t attend college.

So if your only strategy for success is to go to college and get a degree, you’re in for a big surprise come graduation. You will have a lot more control over your success if you focus on growing as a person — developing your attitude and gaining skills. Be autonomous, train yourself, learn from the people around you, and immerse yourself in your career and in the world.

Defining Success

Just like college, this way of living may or may not lead you to the kind of success defined in the New York Times article. It is important to realize that this analysis refers to a specific definition of success, one that is attainable by only a small number of people in the world. More importantly, it is one that is desired by only by a small number of people in the world.

There are infinite definitions of success. You, as an individual, have the freedom to create your own vision for yourself and your future.


Posted by on June 14, 2014
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Why Hackademics MUST Strive For Mastery

By Jean Fan

I just finished reading Mastery, Robert Greene’s fifth book. In it, he describes the ultimate path to gaining power and finding fulfillment — committing to a craft and mastering it. The book is filled with anecdotes of great people like Benjamin Franklin, Marcel Proust, and Albert Einstein. Rather than fixating on their successes, however, Greene deconstructs the paths that got them there, the years of practice and frustration that these masters endured before accomplishing anything.

The path of gaining mastery that Greene describes particularly resonates with me. He doesn’t say that if you want to achieve mastery, you should take more classes and get more schooling. In fact, I suspect that few people achieve mastery by attending university. (How many people even remember what they learned in their college classes?)

Instead, Greene advocates for apprenticeships, which totally makes sense. Think about it. In which scenario do you learn more: by doing real work with one-on-one mentorship every day, or by spending five hours a week with a teacher in a class with 30 other students?

For hackademics, this means that you stand to gain a significant advantage over people who’ve chosen to spend four years of their life taking college classes — but ONLY if you make gaining mastery a priority.

For example, imagine a scenario where someone opts out of college, spends his or her time doing apprenticeships, and achieves a significant degree of mastery. They’re on track to do great things as a result. On the other hand, imagine a scenario where someone drops out of college, spends his or her time exploring many different subjects, and never attempts to achieve mastery in one. They’re likely in a much worse position than their peers who at least have a piece of paper saying that they majored in something.

If you choose not to get a degree, you have to learn how to distinguish yourself in other ways. You have to make sure that you’re obviously better than your peers who have gone to college.

In the long run, achieving mastery is important for everyone, no matter what path they take. For hackademics, however, striving for mastery is crucial early on. Do yourself a favor and pursue this path now.


Posted by on June 7, 2014
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Why It’s Dangerous to Compete

By Jean Fan

A close friend and colleague recently asked: “What are your views on competition?” He couldn’t get a read on me, even after having seen me in a variety of different settings.

When I spent some time reflecting on it, I realized that his confusion stems from the fact that I just have a strange approach to competitions.

Specifically, I am both crushingly competitive and not competitive at all. Most of the time, I will go to great lengths to avoid competition. A small fraction of the time, however, when there’s something at stake that I really care about, I will do whatever it takes to win. I will find paths that others miss, take risks that others won’t, and face pain that others can’t.

Why this dichotomy?

It’s not that I’m afraid of competitions. It’s just that I think they’re dangerous.

The Confusion of High School

In high school there are two well-known competitions. The “cool” kids compete in the popularity contest. The “smart” kids compete in the college contest.

The popularity contest is one that we’ve all experienced, or at least heard of. Depicted in movies like Mean Girls, this competition requires students to be attractive, have some knowledge of social rules, and invest time in obtaining social points. After all, as Paul Graham writes: “Popularity is not something you can do in your spare time, not in the fiercely competitive environment of an American secondary school.” If this is the competition you choose to spend time on and you win, you get the chance to hang out with the “cool” kids. For a brief four years, you and your friends rule the school. Enjoy it while it lasts, because after graduation, it won’t really matter

The second contest — the rat race to get into college — is the one I’m more concerned about. It’s the one parading around as though it’s the “right” competition to be in. In this competition, students race to rack up the most impressive credentials they can. With the abundance of default school activities, students can now do this without ever thinking about what they actually like. After they’ve gotten into their top colleges, therefore, these students often still have no idea what they actually want to do, and are now back to square one. “Smart” kids are not immune to dangerous competitions.

You Choose: The Forest or The Trees

In both of these cases, competitions encourage people to miss the point. It doesn’t matter if you’re popular. What matters is that you’re a good person. It doesn’t matter if you’ve gotten into your top college. What matters is that you’re closer to discovering who you are.

Once I figured out that what I actually wanted was to become someone interesting (as opposed to someone with the most leadership positions), I felt comfortable taking myself out of competitions that I judged to be counterproductive.

As a junior, as everyone else ramped up their involvement in school activities, I decided to quit everything I was doing. Instead, I gave myself time to go out and explore my interests in the real world. At the time this felt like a huge risk. I wasn’t sure if I was giving up my future by defaulting from the norm. Luckily, it was worth it. My last two years of high school were filled with adventure and self-discovery. I found things that I really liked, became an interesting person, and was accepted into Stanford University last spring.

The Problem With Competitions

By engaging in competition, it’s implied that you’re trying to win by the same means as everyone else. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that you will guarantee a win by approaching a race in the same way that your competitors are. If many other people have taken a certain path, you’re crazy to think that you’ll produce different (and radically better) results by taking the same one.

You need to find better ways. Much better ways.

I realized early on in high school that I wasn’t significantly smarter or more hardworking than my peers. I couldn’t gain a major advantage in the collegiate race just by outcompeting them. I would have to do something new. So I did, and I won.

If You’re Going to Compete…

First, make sure you’re competing in the right race and for the right reasons. Then, make it a point to ruthlessly win.

You’re not going to do this by applying the same procedure as everyone else. So instead, take some time to figure out what you actually need to win. Recognize and ruthlessly ignore social norms. Find a truth that other people are missing. Cut out the bullshit, and create a quicker path to getting ahead.

The best thing is when you are doing something so fundamentally different than your competitors that they don’t even realize that you’re still competing with them… that is, until you actually win.

People Compete For Known Successes

The final thing about competitions that bothers me is that you know what you get when you win. After all, the prize incentivized you to compete in the first place. In this respect, college is very much a competition.

As I finish the last stretch of my gap year, I find myself wondering (yet again) if college is the right path for me. If I graduate from Stanford, I know exactly where I’ll be in four years. I am effectively guaranteed a high-paying job, however predictable. This terrifies me.

Is This War Even Worth Fighting?

Venture capitalist Peter Thiel spoke a while ago about how, in the process of creating companies, people “get addicted to competition” and end up “fighting over things that don’t matter.”

In his lecture series at Stanford, he described how companies of the Dot-com era fixated on outcompeting each other: “All that mattered was winning. External questions that actually mattered — Is this war even worth fighting? — were ignored… You can find this pattern everywhere.”


Be wary of competitions, especially those that bring glory in the short run without contributing to your larger purpose. As you’re going through life, make sure to choose your competitions carefully, and check that you actually care about what you’re aiming for. Only then can you stop competing, and start winning.


Posted by on June 1, 2014
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