Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

Dropping out is probably not for you

The following piece pre-supposes that if you are in school or university you’re doing so to learn something that is:

a) useful

b) a marketable skill

c) does not put you in debt for the next 50 years even if you do graduate

d) is something that you actually wish to master

If those conditions are not met, please ignore the rest of this post, you have already made some bad decisions and the question of staying in or dropping out is the least of your problems.

I get a ton of mail because of this blog, for the most part it is lots of fun and I really enjoy it. The thing that I don’t enjoy is when people ask me if they should drop out of school or university to ‘start their own business’, typically accompanied by some minimal description of their circumstances.

Of course it’s my own fault, putting up a guide on how to run a small software consultancy business makes it look fairly easy and exciting compared to being in school or secondary education. Another reason is that I’ve documented that I (successfully) dropped out of school but circumstances have changed dramatically since then.

I landed on my feet but that’s absolutely no guarantee. It was blood, sweat and tears and an uncommon dose of luck. At first I worked a crappy physical job, and from there I somehow found my way into being a professional programmer which in turn led to my first business. At the time anybody that could hold a keyboard without dropping it was making money hand over fist (because microcomputers were so new there was hardly any software for it, and there were hardly any people that knew how to write such software) but it was still hard work.

The hard truth is: it’s not that easy and you’re probably better off staying where you are.

The reasons why vary, here is a number of the most frequently occurring situations, and one important exception (some of this may not sound friendly but I’d rather make a couple of enemies than ruin lives by leaving room to be misunderstood):

1) you’re just lazy, and you think that by being able to set your own hours and not having to go to school or university that your ‘quality of life’ will improve, possibly supplemented by the freedom to party as hard as you want 7 days per week bankrolled by the money that your start-up will surely make.

Don’t do it. Why? Because if that’s your character you need every bit of structure that your school or university is providing you. Before you can even think of starting your own business you will have to learn self-discipline. And once you’ve learned that you will find that your main motivation for wanting to drop out has disappeared. Probably your grades will shoot up as well.

2) You don’t like to learn, and you need more money. By quitting school you no longer waste your time learning stuff and you can right away start making cash.

Don’t do it. Why? Because that stuff you learn you will need later on, and you will need it badly. Learning when you’re young is easy, you have no dependents and you have a relatively low burn rate. Once you find later in life that you do need all that knowledge you will likely have a wife, two kids, a mortgage and a garden that needs maintaining. Once you’re in that situation the ability and opportunity to learn is reduced dramatically.

3) One of your buddies is dropping out to ‘do a start-up’. By dropping out you can hook up with him or her and you will both be filthy rich by the time your classmates graduate.

Don’t do it. Why? Because the success rate of the average first-time start-up is so low that it makes playing the lottery look like a good investment. Your buddy may or may not be on to something, but whatever the situation, you likely don’t have the business chops to evaluate the company, the deal and the market on their merits. Even if it doesn’t die off right away the opportunity cost isn’t as great as it may seem, start-ups that are looking for people come - and go - all the time.

4) You’re in your last or next-to-last year and you’re fed up with the system, you want your freedom and you want it now.

Don’t do it. Why? Because dropping out is easy, getting back in later is hard. Sure, the system sucks, but you are this close to bagging that piece of paper, you might as well go all the way. Finish what you start, whatever it is. Think of it as a character building exercise, if you can do this then that’s a nice notch on your belt with respect to stamina and perseverance. You’ll need both by the bucketload later on, quit now and quitting will be the default mode to get out of situations that frustrate you. Winners don’t quit, they push through.

5) You (and or your buddies) are making more money per month than your parents did in a year with your start-up ‘on the side’. Your growth rate is phenomenal and you have yet to find a class that taught you something new. You love to learn but you learn more in your free time than you do during the day in class. You ace the exams, even if you don’t work really hard for them, you’re financially no longer dependent on your parents or a bank (student loan) in order to stay afloat from month to month. You have a fair sized network of people that you associate with professionally. You have 6 to 18 months worth of living expenses in the bank and you’re not worried about picking up the pieces if your venture should fail.

Do it. Why? Because you have effectively already graduated. Lots of people that go to school or university do so in order to be able to try to achieve that which you have already reached. Staying in school or university has a cost of opportunity associated with it that may be too high taking into account what you’ve already achieved.

If things should come apart (and there is always a chance of that), you may miss one or two years but you will likely be able to pick up where you left.

Contrary to all the other examples, you’re not running away from something but you are running towards something, and that’s what makes it work.

So, if dropping out is an escape of sorts, don’t do it. Stick to it, finish what you start. If your school or university is holding you back from achieving your full potential then drop out with confidence.

The simplest test of whether or not you should drop out is this one: If you have to ask someone if you should then you shouldn’t.