Things This Dropout Actually Learned In College

Flickr, Daphne
Flickr, Daphne

Here we are with another class about to graduate from high school and from college. My own ten year high school reunion will occur this year. As always, these events make me think about how different my life is now than what I would have predicted back then.

I never finished the college education I was so eager to start, and my career has taken me awfully far from the political science degree I was studying for. Does that mean college was a waste? Absolutely not.

Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my life came from college–or at least, my college campus. Almost everyday I think of something I learned during that brief time in my life and benefit from it in some way. And this is true for most of us–though it never seems to be the things we anticipated we’d learn. So whether you’re starting school or leaving it (or left it a long time ago), I hope these lessons are helpful to you too.


-Things are never as you picture them. I was frustrated with high school and had such naive expectations for college–it would be a challenging, stimulating and intellectual paradise I thought. My first night in the dorms, the students were forced to perform a series of lame skits. My first class opened with a group project. Life is like that. You have to make the environment you want.

-Getting into college does not mean you are smart. 97% of my high school class got into college after all. For most people, attending college is just an acknowledgement that you’re not lazy or dumb. In this sense, a degree is basically just a “Participation Award.”

-In economics 101, my professor taught us the law of comparative advantage. It is simply: if you’re better at picking apples, and I’m better at picking oranges, the world is better if we trade with each other than do both tasks ourselves. Always look to where you have a comparative advantage. Let this guide your decisions.

-Non scholae sed vitae discimus (not for school but for life we learn)

-A simple act can have profound implications. I was lucky enough to get to attend a conference hosted by Dr. Drew my sophomore year. During a break, I thought I would ask him if he had any book recommendations. The book he recommended changed my life and introduced me to the philosophy which now guides my life. 7-8 years later, we’ve actually reconnected and are friends. All from a question that lasted a few seconds.

-People are attracted to ideologies that soothe their own wounds. These are the most dangerous people and groups. Beware.

-That being said, most of what you believe when you are young you’ll eventually be embarrassed about later. I had a conservative political blog when I was in college. I disagree with almost all of it now. So what? To quote Cicero “You’re trying to refute me by quoting things I’ve said or written myself. That’s confronting me with documents that have already been sealed! You can reserve that method for people who only argue according to fixed rules. But I live from one day to the next! If something strikes me as probable, I say it; and that is how, unlike everyone else, I remain a free agent.”

-There is another good line about that in college from Cormac McCarthy: “It is good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.” All The Pretty Horses

-People often see things in you that you can’t see in yourself. I thought I was just a regular student. It was only a handful of mentors that really kicked off the ambitions that I know have for myself. This is why you want to spend time with people who are better than you are.

-That being said, Connolly is right when he says “Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.” Don’t let anything go to your head.

-In a philosophy class, the professor taught the Philosopher’s Burden, or the allegory of Plato’s cave. Essentially, a man is chained to a cave with a number of other prisoners. On the wall, they can only see shadows and believe to think they are real. One of the prisoners is freed and manages to learn the true source of the images. His job, as Plato puts it, is to return to the cave to tell his fellow prisoners that what they see are only shadows. Of course, the prisoners don’t believe him and may even try to kill him for speaking the truth. This is the Philosopher’s Burden–and it applies to anyone with real knowledge.

-Use the platform you have. I am where I am today because I used the college newspaper to meet people who became my mentors and ultimately hired me. I used being a ‘student’ to participate things and make connections that would have been unavailable to an 18 year old non-student. Whatever you’re currently doing–whatever job you have, place you live, school you go to, club you belong to–has certain benefits and access. You have to take advantage of it.

-When you start to feel special, go talk to the dumbest or laziest student you can find on campus. In terms of accomplishments up to this point, you’re equals.

-I got dumped at the beginning of my sophomore year (a four-year relationship). I was crushed. I finally left my room at some point and went to Border’s and bought like 10 books I’d always wanted to read. This was one of the greatest decisions I ever made for multiple reasons. One is proof of the Latin proverb liber medicina animi (a book is the soul’s medicine).

-Most people just do what they are absolutely required to do. They don’t jump on stuff. They don’t have initiative. They always have excuses. It doesn’t matter what school you go to or even if you graduate, differentiating yourself in this way will put you far ahead of them over time.

-Aristotle’s Golden Mean was something I learned in college too from a professor in a course called “The Meaning Of Life.” Courage, for instance, lies between cowardice on one end but also recklessness on the other. Generosity, which we all admire, must stop short of both profligacy and parsimony. As Aristotle wrote. “In each case, it is hard work to find the intermediate, for instance, not everyone, but only one who knows finds the midpoint in a circle.”

-There are lots of ways to build a network. People justify the expense of a Harvard or a Yale by the proximity it gets you to power and influence. This is an undeniable benefit. But there are certainly other ways to accomplish that same thing–often much cheaper ways. In my experience, being a bigger fish in a smaller pond was better. Not only that, but doing remarkable work has made far more connections than alumni status ever promised.

-Life is random. I met my now wife at a random party that I wasn’t even sure I was going to go to. You never know.

-It’s not just people but ideas that can have huge impact on your life. In 2006, I convinced my parents I needed Volumes I-III of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall ‘for class.’ I really didn’t but I couldn’t afford an expensive box set. Now I’m reading the second set as research for my next book.

-Just because you’re in school doesn’t mean you’re being educated.

-Almost nothing you did in high school matters. Almost none of your grades in college will matter. What matters is what you know, who you know and what you can do.

-There were a lot of lines I learned from that book of Marcus Aurelius. The biggest was “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” I also felt he was speaking directly to me with the opener of Book 5–about being too lazy to want to get out of bed in the morning. I printed it out and put it on my wall right then.

-Acquired tastes are dumb. I remember getting together with friends in college where of course, we drank. I hated it. “This is disgusting,” I said. The reply was always, “Yeah you get used to it.” The decision to not do acquired tastes has probably saved me more time, money and brain cells than just about anything else. If you don’t like something, you don’t have to do it.

-This Emerson line about college grads is great. “If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges,” he wrote, “and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life.” Don’t be that person.

-I sold a bunch of my college textbooks back to the bookstore for a few dollars and some candy. These books often turn out to be formative texts for your entire life. I wish I’d kept them. Now I keep everything I read–you never know.

-Proximity matters, especially early on in your career. If I’d gone to school somewhere other than an hour from Los Angeles, I’d never have been able to jump on the opportunities and meetings that changed my life. As Paul Graham put it, if Da Vinci couldn’t make due in Milan, you probably can’t in [insert crappy podunk college town].

-At the same time, going to a mid-level school was the best thing that ever happened to me. It meant I had access to great professors who actually had time for me. It meant I had time to pursue side projects. This has parallels in the jobs you’ll take early on in your career.

-Debt and expenses are strategic death. Had I not had a scholarship, dropping out would have been 50x harder. It would have limited my options. Society pressures people into taking obligations which then prevents them from being exceptional or different. Do not take these bribes.

-There is something special about the college campus though, at least in terms of its facilitation of learning. Even though I dropped out, I’ve since written three of my four books on various campuses across the country. I still drop by their libraries to work in peace and quiet whenever I can. The sad part? I don’t think I ever entered the library in my two years of school.

-“There is no nostalgia so long lived and hopeless as that of the college graduate returning to his native town.” William R Percy Lanterns on the Levee. Ironically, this also becomes true for the town you went to school in.

-Your parents love you but their main drive is to make sure you are safe, not happy or fulfilled. This doesn’t make them bad people, it just means you have slightly different interests. Take their opinions accordingly.

-While you’re in college, it feels like the most important thing in the world. As soon as you leave college, it’s almost as if it never happened. No one asks about it, no one cares what classes you took or grades you got. They care about what you bring to the table–that’s it.

-Behind a computer screen, no one knows how old you are. Use this to your advantage.

Dropping out was terrifying, but only because I was too self-absorbed and focused on the present. The reality is that life is interrupted and disrupted all the time. There is no single decision that can’t be undone or its effects mitigated or transformed. I made taking a simple risk so much harder than it needed to be.


If you notice, only about three of the things I said here are strictly academic concepts. I learned them from the classroom, though it also happens that I was repeatedly exposed to them in my reading too. I learned them from my mentors as well.

That’s really the point. The things we learn in college are usually not what we’re paying to be taught, but at the same time, are essentially priceless in their value.

“There are two parts of a college education–the part you get in the school room from the professors and the part outside of it from the boys.” Old Gorgon Graham says in the book Letters from a Self Made Merchant to his Son. Which one is most important? “The first can only make you a scholar, while the second can make you a man.”

The same will be true for you. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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