The dropping-out conundrum

Start typing ‘famous college dropouts’ in Google and the first suggestion often is ‘famous college dropouts entrepreneurs’. Click on that, and there are thousands and thousands of articles profiling such dropouts. This particular search keyword is considered significant enough by Google, that there is also a Search Feature giving a ready list of such dropouts.

Michael Dell, Steve Jobs, Julian Assange (we never really think of him as an entrepreneur, but he is one), Evan Williams, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Travis Kalanick, and more.

When one looks at such a stellar gallery, one cannot be blamed for thinking that most successful entrepreneurs are college dropouts.

This is also the reason why advice often doled out to college students who wish to start up is that they should stop wasting time attending classes and just get started instead. To me, that is really horrible advice.

For one, this is an excellent example of the clichéd mistake of confusing correlation with causation.

They may all have dropped out of college, but dropping out of college is not what caused them to be successful entrepreneurs. It was what they did and how they did it after dropping out of college that made them successful.

Another problem is that this line of advice is a good example of survival or survivorship bias, which is a kind of selection bias. Survivorship bias is a logical error that people make, of looking only at cases that were successful, while ignoring those cases that were not successful. This often happens because the cases that fail do not get any visibility.

The case with college dropout entrepreneurs is similar. There are reams and reams written about those who are successful, but there is a far greater number who dropped out of college to pursue entrepreneurial endeavours and failed at it. And because they do not have the security that a college degree provides in terms of enabling them to find a job easily, they end up becoming either serial entrepreneurs, often with less and less chances with each passing attempt as their resources wither, or they end up in jobs that frustrate them by either being not what they really want to do, or by paying much less than what they think they deserve. These people never get written about, but they exist in a great number and you keep running into them, or at least their resumes.

Ideally, whether to stay in college or to drop out should never be a factor in a would-be entrepreneur’s decision-making, but if such a person is actually considering it, my advice to them would be to stay in college. This approach might seem conservative and totally lacking in risk, all the things that entrepreneurship often is not, but in this case, it is the right one.

The author heads product at a mid-sized startup in the real estate space


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