Two Ways College Sets You Up To #Fail

I gave a talk this week to a group of graduating business school students at Edgewood College. They asked for real world advice. This is what I told them. Regardless of your career stage, I hope these insights are helpful!

There are two ways that college trains you to fail in the real world:

#1 College tells you what you need to know

Colleges and professors design your education and take charge of your learning. They give you a syllabus. They tell you what books to buy and which articles to read. They tell you what classes you need for your major. Everything is set out. And the result is that you become a passive learner. You expect other people to teach you and tell you what is important to know.

Just tell me what I need to know and spit back to you in order to get an A in the class

But passive learning like this will kill your career. You can’t rely on a boss, co-worker or mentor to teach you everything. Doing so will result in you being laid off or downsized or eaten by the software that is eating the world.

Successful people actively learn how the world around them works. And they exploit it to their advantage. They figure out their company’s business model and what makes it go. What skills they need to propel the company forward. Who are the gatekeepers blocking their way. Who has the power. What organizational currency they need to get ahead. Passive learners sit and wait for these lessons to be slowly (if ever) taught to them by someone.

Don’t be a passive learner. They are like animals in the zoo, sitting inside the false security of their organization, waiting for someone else to take charge of their day. Active learners are like animals in the wild; constantly learning and evolving and adapting to master the environment around them.

This may sound grim and depressing, but there is good news here too. It’s really easy to design your own syllabus for the real world.

There is a fire hose of information waiting out there for active learners

Give me 30 minutes on any subject, and I bet I can find information and resources that will start me on the path towards being an expert in that subject.

  • Blogs
  • Podcasts
  • Twitter
  • Quora
  • TED Talks
  • MOOC’s
  • Online education (e.g.,
  • LinkedIN Groups
  • Institutional Research & Journals
  • Wikipedia
  • Traditional & Digital Media
  • Trade Publications
  • eBooks (traditional and self-published)

The list goes on and on, and this doesn’t even touch on methods you can use to engage with the thought leaders on your subject (which I’ll explore in a different post).

I’ll give you one example of this in my own career as an Entrepreneur. I follow the blogs of incredibly smart people that teach me about Venture Capital, Marketing, Start-ups, User Design, and Silicon Valley thinking. I listen to the Exponent Podcast, which lets me sit at the same table with two incredibly smart people as they discuss technology, business models and society every week. I keep up to date on the latest startups launching via ProductHunt and TechCrunch. Heck, I can even watch every lecture in Sam Altman’s class at Stanford. Let me say that again: I can attend Stanford Business School for free. There is simply no excuse for not grabbing these amazing resources. Find these resources for the subjects and skills that you need to make your career take off.

Unfortunately, this active learning concept bumps right into the second way college trains you to fail.

#2 College Doesn’t Reward You for Being Exceptional At One Thing

Throughout your educational career you’ve been taught that the way to advance and get ahead is to strive for A-level work in every subject. Once you have an A in a subject that comes easily to you, you need to move on and focus on those two or three other classes in which you struggle. You focus on the stuff you aren’t that great at doing.

Consider the following image, in which the water in the bottle represents your brain power/aptitude in a subject and the glasses represent the different subjects you are taking. College incentivizes you and rewards you for spreading that water around to every glass; never pouring more into a glass than is needed to get an A.


But in the real world, I want at least one of those glasses to be overflowing; even if that means that a few of the other glasses are close to empty. I want to be exceptional at something.

The real world rewards people that have an exceptional skill or talent at one thing far more than people that are good at everything.

I hate sports analogies but I’ll use one here that works. Think about golf. How much money will you make shooting par golf (which earns you an A in college) versus shooting 10-under par? Lots. Money follows value and the best way to create value is to stand out as exceptional at something.

Find a skill or a subject that you love and have natural abilities in, and work really hard to be exceptional at it. This is your “secret sauce” that you’ll spend your career enhancing and leveraging to stay out of the zoo and at the top of your profession.

So there you have it. The two simple rules you need in order to unlearn what we subconsciously train you to do in college are:

  • Don’t wait for someone to give you a syllabus on your career, instead be an active, lifelong learner.
  • Pick a subject or skill in which you become exceptional, getting a far higher grade than just an A.

Do this, and you’ll likely be the one designing the software that is eating the world and collecting the capital that separates the have’s from the have not’s. And you certainly won’t have to worry about a robot replacing you anytime soon.

*Caveat: A college education is incredibly valuable. It teaches you life skills, provides you with a base of knowledge and your first network, and gives you membership in an important club.

2 thoughts on “Two Ways College Sets You Up To #Fail

  1. Pingback: Travel School. What I Learned Homeschooling my Son for Five Months | Blog of Mark McGuire

  2. An enjoyable, intellectual read to say the least.

    I agree on the two main points made. University is designed to get by with the least amount of effort required.

    Say, for example, you have to do a weekly online discussion where you make a post and reply to two others. Rarely do people organically go beyond the minimum to get an A. However, put them in a online forum or Reddit and there could be pages of discussion.

    It is nice to have the structure of a class to tell you what books to read, but when I actively seek out information myself, I tend to be more engaged and less likely to lose interest in it. I can feel excited about it rather than dread having to skim it over for a test.

    On to the second point. It is great that college touches upon so many subjects to at least wet your taste for it. For inst, you may never take a personal finance class unless required to. A class like that does offer much for real world application that it is useful for every day life.

    Yes, college does try to make you an A person rather than a 5.0 GPA AA+ student. However, what is great about that is it sets you apart from all the C average people in life.

    Take for example a trader doing technical analysis; the people who don’t fare well make the most basic of charts using only simple resistance lines and trends, the C average kid. Then you have those who produce detailed charts with through analysis using the previous mentioned tools along with indicators and news, the A student.
    It is quite a difference and sets you ahead of the crowd. You many never reach AA+ fandom but you’ll be miles ahead of simple chart over there as your analysis has something substantive rather than just feeding into your sentiment of the market.

    Pardon any grammar or spelling errors as I’m on mobile currently. This is my active learning which is much more than I’d write for an online discussion in-class.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s