Why we shouldn't glorify billionaires who dropped out of school

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I love any and every American Dream story. Give me a “rags to riches” tale, or the iconic story of the lowly mailroom clerk working his way up the company ladder to become the CEO, and I will give you a juicy, single-head nod of affirmation.

Even American car commercials that equate buying cars with our personal level of ambition rev me up sometimes, as does Drake’s song, “Started From The Bottom.” But somewhere along the road, this narrative takes a detour to la-la-land, and nowhere is this better witnessed than in our schools. So the time has come for me to pump the brakes on this commercial media propaganda machine, and help clarify the issue, because so much is at stake.

First, let’s talk about stress. Take a walk in the shoes of the modern student. Sure, they may lack in the advanced time management skills and maturity helpful in coping with their stress. But the increasingly hyper-judgmental college selection process (their words) forces them to work at unprecedented levels compared to previous generations. For a detailed examination of the shrinking “middle-class” student, please see my previous post here.

In the throes of their overwhelm, especially now during final-exam and SAT season, a significant cohort of students will cite how “so many billionaires” are college dropouts-- including the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs of Apple.

My oh my, aren’t those stories so appealing? Here’s why: Each of us resents at least portions of the system at large. We all have felt the need to begrudgingly jump through flaming hoops not of our own design, and the harrowing Pac-Man game of getting into college is certainly one of those societal hoops. Except that Pac-Man is immensely more fun by comparison.

The media loves these anecdotes. It lures in viewers who fantasize of blazing their own trail and “unplugging from The Matrix” that is their current life. It certainly sells at the box office, evidenced by recent major motion pictures depicting the two aforementioned billionaires. But what the media does not do is dwell on the unquestioned truth that for every dropout success story, scores of untold dropout failure stories exist as well.

In his fascinating TED talk, Dan Gilbert discusses a comparable scenario of the media’s coverage of lottery winners. If the media were to devote 30 seconds to each of the 100 million lottery losers for every one winner, he argues, then we’d witness a nine and a half year streaming marathon of people saying how it could NOT be you.

The same can be said about people who undervalue the importance of school, in the face of all these apparent dropout success stories, both near and far. I’m talking directly to you, beloved Gen-Y members, who came into adolescent consciousness in a post-2008 economic crash landscape. On one hand, you see your sister graduate from college and then immediately return home and can’t find work to pay off her six-figure student loan debt. Then on the other hand, on Instagram you see an acquaintance you went to high school with run a successful “Kickstarter” campaign for her personal project and subsequently appear to propel forward in her budding career.

We need to be very careful with how our young ones consume this media narrative, because if it goes unchecked, sooner or later they will question the need to commit to advanced education, thinking that walking away will be in their best interest. We need to remind them that American workers with a college degree are paid 74% more than those with only a high-school degree, according to the OECD. We need to remind them that higher learning is not only about gaining knowledge, but also about the pursuit of wisdom, self-discovery, and the personal responsibility to always become a better human being.

Having said that, I’m not against the notion of the irrepressibly passionate few “going for it” their own way, non-traditionally. If my own child one day were to proclaim her desire to go rogue and forgo college to instead pursue her passion, it wouldn’t be right for me to slam the door on her. Rather, I would work to understand her core belief system, what her underlying goals are, and constantly pepper her with reality-based, non-agenda questions, which begin with some variation of, “Have you considered…” (e.g. Have you thought about what the business plan for your idea would look like? Have you considered how you would raise the initial capital for such a pursuit, or how much you would need? Have you thought about what you’ll do to support yourself while you build your program? Have you considered the possibility that you can do this will also in school learning how to do what you love even better, perhaps at a trade school?”) I would walk the line between cultivating both her sense of empowerment as well as her common sense, with ample room to dream and question reality.

And above all, no matter whether the path includes college or not, our young ones must be ready to grind it out in order to position themselves to wherever they wish to go. Author Malcolm Gladwell believes that expertise in a craft requires 10,000 hours, or five years of dedicated time. Those five years shouldn’t be torture by any means, but we all must take our inevitable lumps on the path to mastery and eventual prosperity. Working through the grind teaches patience, resilience and humility, all invaluable marks of successful and happy living. So I urge anyone reading this to bear in mind the following. If you ever witness someone in the middle school to college age years of their life scorning the idea of education as valuable, remind them about reality. After all, it’s called the American Dream, not the American Pipedream.

Robert Ahdoot is a high-school math teacher and founder of YayMath.org, a free online collection of math video lessons filmed live in his classroom, using costumes and characters. Robert has been teaching high school math for 10 years, has given two TEDx talks, and travels to schools promoting his message of positive learning through human connection. He is author of the upcoming book One-on-One 101, The Art of Inspired and Effective Individualized Instruction.

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