On the choice to remain in school for learning

Jun 2023 | Reading time: 3 min

Over the past few years, I’ve honestly lost count of the times I have been told to drop out. Sometimes for good reasons, other times, not so much. There have also been several instances where I think I’ve had decent ideas, even with validation to a certain degree, for what I would want to build and felt a strong urge to go and “do it” immediately, but ultimately decided not to.

In my humble opinion, one really important point to make here, before everything else, is that being in school does not discount your ability to “do something” and execute in the now. In fact, being smart about it allows you to leverage resources that you may not be able to get at such low costs elsewhere.

Despite all the flaws of college/university (this is a whole other thought dump), I think that most people should be in school for a short period of time. This can be especially true for those who want to pursue deeply technical/scientific work and already have somewhat of a clear sense of long-term purpose. Concretely, that means at least 1-2 years of learning foundations in a structured environment.

I strongly believe in building concrete fundamentals from empirical and formal sciences, which serve as tools for identifying and solving relevant problems. Following an independent curriculum is doable, but due to personal preferences, inevitably, there will be neglected topics.

Of course, there are exceptions—those with an incredible raw mental compute and ability to understand things quickly who also happen to have that level of self-agency, commitment, and vision. I certainly don’t fit in this archetype, at least not on the mental compute side of things, especially when it comes to areas like math/physics. Contrary to popular belief, I have not been coding since forever. I didn’t learn how to properly code until the end of high school. I had also never touched a singular math proof until my first calculus exam in university, where I was promptly humbled beyond the point of recovery (very funny now when I think back on it, but not funny for my former self in the moment).

The caveat here is that I think there are fewer exceptions than people may convince themselves of. Most people would not study the full range of fundamentals that would allow the formulation of meaningful connections between different fields and precisely those that bridge unidentified gaps. I would never bother or be bothered to learn some of the rigorous proofs behind ODEs and derivations for quantum mechanics. Sure, they do not directly relate to the biological problems I am interested in, but they provide a much-needed and fresh model/approach.

Here are several nuances of “being in school” for me:

  1. Being in school does not mean being a mindless sheep. It matters to make the most of the experience. Nowhere else is there such a high density of experts who have been chipping up at problems within their respective fields for decades. Hierarchical structures in academia are broken, but there is still incredible merit to the work. And if foundational courses fail to provide motivation/connections to an individual’s interest, they should seek it out themselves if they are truly motivated to learn. Self-agency matters, immensely.

  2. Proactive learning, sometimes mediated by studying, is very important as truly absorbing the material takes time and practice (unless you are an actual genius). There weren’t many problem sets I enjoyed, but I have to admit they were crucial for building mastery and intuition. I also hate timed examinations and mostly don’t perform that well on them, but they did force me to study topics I would otherwise never touch, and some of these topics have ironically turned out to be very useful. There is just this level of thinking (banging my head against the wall) that sometimes doesn’t come unless some pressure is exerted.

  3. Interacting with peers across the entire spectrum of possible life “goals”, does not happen so often anywhere else. Solving technical/scientific problems requires a degree of real-life application, and being exposed to a broader range of lived experiences/perspectives and varying interests has been incredibly eye-opening in this regard. The world functions based on much more than my range of interests and pursuits.

Overall, I believe developing context, intuition, and taste from diverse sources, university/college being one possible and common approach, is critical for personal growth and building the right frameworks to tackle meaningful problems. And a commitment to building strong foundations is non-negotiable.