When I was in grade school, I remember going to birthday parties at the local bowling alley. Before the games would begin, the workers would install bumpers inside the gutters in order to prevent gutter balls and avoid "failure." When I was growing up, it was common for sports teams to award trophies to all the players so no little kid would have his or her feelings hurt at the end of the season. Today, there are school districts which no longer give out "F'" grades, and hundreds of high schools have removed class ranks so that my generation will feel less pressure to succeed. By the time my generation gets out into the "real world," what will happen when our bosses criticize us and rattle the core of our tenuous self-esteems? While my parents and grandparents grew up enduring the Great Depression and two World Wars, will history look back on my peers as the "Bumper Bowling Generation?"
Previous generations pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and risk taking was encouraged as millions sought the American dream. A dream encourages one to stretch their imagination and think outside the box. I am afraid that my generation fears risk taking because we haven't been encouraged to take chances. We fear failure and this undermines the entrepreneurial spirit. To make things worse, the bias in our schools encourages today's youth to feel entitled to a certain standard of living just as we felt entitled to our little league trophies.
More recently, I see how my peers are being conditioned to believe that a college degree will automatically lead to success and the American dream. However, the economic reality is there are many taxi drivers and sales clerks today who are university graduates making modest wages while burdened with huge college loans.
As a society, we accept the collective belief that as long as we put more kids through college, our society will naturally progress. There is the assumption that if students continue to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to pay for an inflated education, they will automatically become more prosperous. Nowadays, higher learning is more about accreditation than education. It's about telling people you have a degree rather than turning knowledge into something palatable.
Some of the greatest innovations in our country's history have come from entrepreneurs who did not fear failure. They sought the American dream by creating businesses from scratch and working tirelessly towards their vision instead of sitting in lecture halls. From Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, many of our greatest entrepreneurs never graduated from college. Will my generation be able to produce a similar number of successful new businesses? What long term effects will the entitlement mentality have on today's bumper bowling generation? Is our system of education pouring water on the flames of entrepreneurship? Are we pushing young potential innovators into a system that will crowd out their instinctive abilities to invent new products and services?
Imagine a young entrepreneur who recently graduated high school with an idea to improve the internet. Typically, this ambitious student has been told by peers and teachers, "Wait until you graduate college, then you can pursue your dreams." However, this future college graduate will have an average of $50,000 dollars of student loan debt to pay off. Instead of trying to create a new business, this young man or woman will be worrying about getting a job to pay off their student loans. The weight of these student loans can slowly drag down a young entrepreneur's vision to create a new business and take new risks in the marketplace.
Some forward looking pioneers of a new paradigm are already starting to reshape the path of some of our nation's best and brightest entrepreneurs. One such program, the Thiel Fellowship, was founded by Peter Thiel who started several companies including PayPal. Thiel also provided important venture capital to a company we all know as Facebook. The Thiel Fellowship program annually selects 20 of the top young entrepreneurs in the world and gives them each $100,000 over two years to pursue their dreams. Instead of going to college, these young innovators are busy creating more cost effective solar panels, turning cooking grease into fuel, making nuclear fusion more readily available, and unlocking secrets to slow the aging process. The mission of the Thiel Fellowship program is based on the belief, "Some ideas are so good they just can't wait." By empowering and enabling young entrepreneurs from across the world to pursue their dreams, these Thiel Fellows are on the cutting edge of innovation and creating new paradigms in our educational system.
Although college is the right decision for some young people, it is not the catch all solution. Instead, we should encourage young people to take risks while they are still idealistic and have the spirit of innovation alive within them. We need to foster a new generation of innovators, and we must support young people who make the bold decision to skip college in their quest to make the world a better place. Every person has ideas, but we need young entrepreneurs to turn those ideas into reality.
You don't need a degree to start a successful business. It's time to accept that college can put shackles on some of our best and brightest. College was once considered a stepping stone but now has become a stumbling block for countless innovators of tomorrow. Let's accept the fact that the next Apple, Microsoft and Facebook won't be inspired by reading textbooks. Together, we can embrace the future and give the next Ford, Jobs, Gates, and Zuckerberg the freedom necessary to succeed.
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