An Open Letter to Anyone Worried About Where They're Going to College

sad girl sitting and  thinking in the classroom
sad girl sitting and thinking in the classroom

My buddy (and new parent) sent me this article. It's about 6th graders so worried about grades and where they'll go to college that they take stimulants to stay up and study. Some are so angry and upset that they cut themselves.

So I'm writing this post to you -- those worried about getting into Stanford / MIT / Princeton / Harvard ... or any school (or for the Class of 2020, which colleges you did or didn't get in to.) Those whose parents seem to only care about their grades. Those worried that they don't have that "one brilliant thing" that will set them apart and for sure will get them to the right university which for sure will get them the right job which for sure will get them the right life. I'm here to tell you the low down truth about what it's like in the real world. As someone who used to be you. Who remembers it like it was yesterday -- worried day and night about my grades, about where I was going to school, about what job I would get, and on and on and on. It was a mental prison. A treadmill. A never ending quest. I am going to tell you what's for real and what's not and what's sort of for real... because life isn't always super tidy.

Before I begin... who am I? I think this is important because I suspect that I may have done some of the things (or at least peers to them) that some of you super stressed out students might want to do. I went to one of those top universities (Princeton), I did well there (graduated with honors), and I worked at some of the best technology companies in the world (Amazon and Google).

1. Where you go to college matters, but just barely.
So I went to Princeton. Good school, right? What's the utility of a good school? Education? No. (I'll get to that in a second.) What you want is a job. A life. A good ole safe, fat paying job that will give you a great career / life, right? So does where you went to school matter in this? Here's what I would say -- it matters a little. It doesn't matter nothing. But here's the tricky thing. There are other skills that are way more important for the other stuff than where you went to school. Where you go to school is not a magic ticket. So don't treat it like that.

Let's deconstruct this (and my perspective). I've looked for (full-time) work twice in my life. When I was about to graduate Princeton and after I left Amazon. Both times I sent out resumes. Did my Princeton education help me get a job? Some... for sure. But I got an astounding amount of no's. Astounding. Astounding in the sense that you would not believe how many, and how bad, the companies were that not only turned me down for an interview, didn't even acknowledge my application! And I went to Princeton! So how good could that Princeton diploma really be? (And did I mention I was a good student with good grades and a "good" major in Economics?)

Do you know what would've helped me more in getting a job? Hustle. Willingness to fail. Willingness to think outside the box. How's that? Let's say you want a job at... a hot startup. So what should you do? Go to Stanford and then Stanford Graduate School of Business right? Wrong. What you should do is figure out any way to get your butt into the company. (including everything from networking to taking a low level temp job) Then work your butt off and have a great attitude and be really scrappy. Then I guarantee that you will have laid a terrific foundation for having a great career either there or somewhere else (assuming that's what you want.) But wait... where in that sentence was, "When they think of promoting me, won't they ask where I went to school?" Here's what no one has been telling you. No one cares. There'll be lots of other dynamics at play for that -- some fair, some not -- but the ones that you'll be in control of and easily in control of -- will have nothing to do with where you went to school.

Now, I can't flat out say where you went to school matters nothing. Because at Google we actually looked at where you went to school, what grades you got, even your SAT scores. But Google was an outlier. Amazon wasn't like this. A lot of startups aren't like this. (They'll look but put a relatively small amount of weight.) But some companies do care. So you're probably thinking, "But I don't know where I want to work and I can't take the risk that where I want to work will be such stick in the muds about where I went to school so I better work work work my butt off now, right?"

Here's my nuanced answer. I say this as someone who put all his eggs in the "get into a great school, work your butt off at said great school to get a great job to have a great life" basket. That path ain't so great. I know lots and lots of people who reach the "mountaintop". They're lawyers. They're doctors. They've founded companies. They're business executives. They have fancy degrees. They have multiple fancy degrees. I literally meet people at the tippy tippy top of their profession and they tell me their plans to do something else. That school or job you so crave now is not you. It is not determinate of your success. It is not determinate of your life.

2. Don't fool yourself that where you go to school is about learning. It's not.
Ok, sometimes it is. If you want to research the universe's secrets, you're probably going to have to know something about physics. But for a lot of us -- and I mean a lot -- what you learn won't matter one bit. How many English majors go into a career where they're actively applying their degree? History majors? Psych majors? Econ majors? (Those are 4 of the most popular majors right there.) So the vast majority of us end up in a field that has nothing to do with what we studied.

So what's the point of all that studying? For going to a world class institution and to study with people at the top of their field?

Well, it's not for that learning. Because that's not what's going to affect you long-term. I used to argue to myself that there was some sort of ineffable "education" some sort of invisible process that led to greater mental growth for me because I was at Princeton. I now believe that to be false. Look -- it was what it was. I went to Princeton and what did I get? I got a degree that says I went to Princeton. In some instances, that will be valuable. In the vast majority of instances that I personally deal with -- it has no value. None.

3. Focus on work/quality/passion not on results (e.g. your degree / your grades / etc.)
I have a buddy. He's a well-known venture capitalist. Occasionally he likes to introduce me to people. Sometimes it's for him, sometimes it's for me, sometimes he thinks it's for me. These are powerful, successful people.

My buddy writes flowery, glowing emails (and is even more effusive in person) -- about what a great guy I am and the amazing work I've done and the even more amazing work I can do. (My buddy is great but he's completely ridiculous sometimes -- though it's very kind of him to say such things.) Do you know what he has never said in any of these interactions? Never ever ever? "He went to Princeton." Never. What matters out there in the real world is your work and your reputation. If you get to the stage in your career where you're good at your job and people like working with you -- people will run to work with you. It won't matter if you went to Princeton, Waterloo, Towson State, University of Alabama, or the University of Phoenix or... didn't go to college (I'm serious.)

So this is a little down the line. But focus on the quality of your work. The thing you're working on. And whether or not people like working with you. That will pay dividends in ways that you can not even conceive right now. (or perhaps it's what you conceive where you go to school would do for you but... won't)

4. Learn to do you own thing and say F*CK YOU
Ok, you can't actually say, "F*CK YOU" or at least there are so so many occasions when you shouldn't say it out loud. But learn to say it to yourself when all the people around you are telling you to do things that you absolutely don't want to do. I lived that life for a long time. My dad had conversation after conversation after conversation with me about how I was wasting my life by not working hard enough. And he told me where I couldn't go to school. And he told me what I couldn't major in. And I had to do what he said... for a while. Because I lived under his roof and he was paying for school and I had no means of supporting myself and he threatened to throw me out. So I get it. But you know what I did? I told myself that I would get out as soon as possible. And I did -- I got out so soon that I graduated Princeton in 3 years and started making my own money. Paid my own bills. Then charted my own course.

Now, by then, I was all wrapped up in weird notions of success and what a good life constituted and all that jazz. But I worked through that... eventually. I write this because I get that I'm now in a different position. I have money. I pay for stuff. I can make my own decisions. You guys and gals probably can't. You probably argue with your parents over this stuff. Or worse, it's been so beaten out of you by this point that you just mindlessly shuffle around and do everything as you're told. I'm not telling you to fight with your parents. But I'll tell you something that I'm sure you already know. Your parents aren't always right. Sometimes, your parents don't even have your best interests at heart (!) Sometimes your parents want things for you because they're prestigious, or because they think it'll make you happy or because they have a conception of what a good life should be or what type of life you should have. But you know what? It's your life. Not theirs. Yours.

So for those of you who think your life just sucks on a daily basis -- I'm here to say, once again, I understand. I remember trudging from one thing to the next, day after day after day. You know what kept me going? The crystal clear realization that it wasn't forever. It was a long time, but then I got out and could do my own thing. I'm here to tell you right now, doing your own thing is pretty awesome and make sure you don't check out before you get a chance to do it.

So let's say you're reading this and saying... but but but -- I can't do any of this! I live with my parents, I have a test tomorrow, I have to study for my SATs, everyone I know is worried about this -- even if I agreed with any of this, what can I actually do?

Here's what I would say. There's probably so much of your time right now that's not your own. It's either directly influenced (e.g. your parents are hovering over you) or there's just X amount of work you need to get done every day or else there are consequences (i.e. bad grades = bad news).

My advice is multi-fold. The first is... don't sweat it so much. It'll be fine. If I've made one thing clear, I hope it's this. Where you go to school won't matter nearly as much as you think it will. It won't matter zero -- but it could be close.

The second is... find a small amount of time to explore. Let your mind wander and dream. To figure out things you love to do. The stuff where you see newfound possibilities. Because maybe somewhere in those dreams and wanderings is the germ of something that you'll find really really cool to study and work on and make a career out of. Or maybe not. Maybe it'll just be a hobby. Or maybe it'll be a passing fancy. Doesn't matter. But what I know for sure is that crushing your standardized test or doing an extra-curricular activity you don't care about is not really a good use of your time and mental energy. So give yourself a break and find something that you think is pretty darn great.

The third is... stay young forever. All this stuff that's being thrown at you in terms of colleges and grades and special skills and what not -- that stuff has a tendency to beat the joy and the curiosity out of you. The world is a vast and intricate place and there's a corner of it that's just perfect for you. Don't let someone's preconceived notion of where that corner is or how to get there determine it for you.