I just turned 19 and started my second year at the University of Pennsylvania; since the beginning of my freshman year, I’ve been running a startup called ThirdEye–a product that empowers visually impaired persons by telling them what’s in front of them–with a team of four Penn students. At the very beginning, ThirdEye was nothing more than a small project that some of my new college friends and I built in a weekend hackathon. And so, just like all the other freshmen at Penn, I focused (or at least tried to focus) most of my time on schoolwork.
The problem was that I was working on writing seminar assignments that required more busy work than legitimate thinking and submitting labs that thousands of other students had done before me. Now I’m not suggesting the classes were “easy.” But they were most certainly unfulfilling, especially knowing that “earning” an “A” or a “B” didn’t actually mean that I knew the material better than anyone else (it just meant that I was a good test taker); and that even if I earned the high grade, I probably couldn’t actually apply the theoretical “skills” later in life. By the way, this isn’t one of Penn’s idiosyncrasies: it’s a demonstration of our broken higher education system.
On the other hand, ThirdEye presented a new challenge every single day. Since it was a project I had built from inception, I was willing to do anything to make my venture a success, even if it meant figuring out graphic design, basic venture finance, and legal terminology instead of hiring someone to handle those aspects of the business.
More and more, I found myself doing the bare minimum necessary in my school work in order to cold-email successful entrepreneurs for advice, visit local organizations for the blind to test our product, talk with interesting people and entrepreneurs, hustle to find publicity, and meet with investors. I loved it. Not only was ThirdEye significantly more exciting, but I also knew I would be able to apply everything I was learning later in lifeno matter what I ended up pursuing. Plus, rather than deterring my grades, ThirdEye forced me to work much more efficiently and plan my days well.
More importantly, I realized that having absolutely no background in what I was trying to do wasn’t a curse, but rather a kind gift. For example, at the initial hackathon where we built the prototype of ThirdEye, no one on my team had ever programmed on Android or Glass, none of us had ever been to a hackathon, and none of us even knew what computer vision was; but it was precisely that ignorance that gave our team ofthree freshmen the false confidence we needed to beat out over 1,200 hackers (some of whom were graduate students), make it to the top ten, and win awards in a major hackathon. We were willing to take risks in the methodology we took and simply work harder to learn than the competition.
Later in the year when we needed a business plan to raise capital, we decided to enter a business plan competition sponsored by The Wharton School; again, the fact that we knew nothing about finance or business gave us the wings to believe that we could teach ourselves how to write a plan and that we could win some of the $125,000 in prizes. Much to our surprise, our team of freshmen ended up Googling, reading enough books, and accumulating enough advice from entrepreneurs to write a 30-page plan that beat around 200 mostly MBA-run startups. Ignorance really was bliss because if I had known how hard it would be to bring a product to life, I would have been too scared to even try.
Now don’t get me wrong. Starting ThirdEye and working on it along with school was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I would have constant meetings with people trying to raise money, and most would say “you’re not at the stage where we like to invest” or “we don’t invest in student run startups.” While I was working at 3AM on Saturday night, my friends were out partying…. Although it was hard to see in the moment, all of this turned out to be a gift. I learned to disregard failure and redirect it toward motivating me to work harder. Because of this, I wasn’t afraid to do normally “rash” things such as cold-calling extremely well-known individuals for help, or traveling to San Francisco right before exam week for an important meeting, or even preparing for a pitch instead of going to class. After all, what’s to lose? I was just a college student living in a 200-square-foot dorm. Taking a bit of risk–especially in things that society normally deems “necessary” like doing well in school–allowed me to develop grit that helped me in every aspect of life.
By now you’re probably thinking, if startups taught him so much more than college, why doesn’t this kid just drop out? In fact, that is not on my mind. College provided me with an incredibly supportive, fun, and resourceful atmosphere that I doubt I could find anywhere else. But is dropping out really necessary to claim all the fruits that working on a startup can reap? The founder of the prestigious Silicon Valley incubator Y Combinator, Paul Graham, recommends that in most cases, it’s best to work on a startup after you graduate. Mr. Graham is probably right, but what you have to remember is that his goal is to build multi-billion dollar corporations, not to teach students practical skills and help them realize a bit about themselves. In the latter case, running a startup during school does a phenomenal job. There’s no reason why you can’t both work on a startup and stay in school. I believe you can even find the time to stay current with Game of Thrones (and learn about startups in the process).
Ultimately, education is fundamentally about inspiring students to find out what they love to do , not to fill their minds with facts and concepts that they will never use. The only opportunity students really do have to learn practical skills is in short internships–where they will almost inevitably be doing non-serious work. As a result, too many college students today pursue something they don’t actually enjoy, simply because college didn’t help them realize what they truly love to do. You may be right that I’m biased because I’m almost definitely going to pursue entrepreneurship after school, but the beauty of entrepreneurship is that every single person is an entrepreneur and salesman in some regard. Truly, no matter what you decide to do after school–whether it be history, dentistry, engineering, or even entrepreneurship–the skills you learn by starting a startup (call it a large project if you will) will be useful. If you fail, what’s to lose–the fact that you have more experience than any of your peers?
This article also appears on Forbes and is published here with the permission of the author