What Should We Make of Peter Thiel’s “20 Under 20” Education Program?

Posted on Jun 1, 2011 | 72 comments

What Should We Make of Peter Thiel’s “20 Under 20” Education Program?

Several people have been asking me to weigh in publicly on the “20 under 20” initiative announced by Peter Thiel in which he will award up to $100,000 to 20 people under the age of 20 who agree immediately to pursue entrepreneurship (the implication of which is that they’d drop out of university to do so).

Thiel and friends will also agree to mentor these young entrepreneurs. Here is their inaugural class.

So is this a good idea? My 2 cents:

1. This is a worthy goal and I applaud Peter Thiel
We need to take some risks in education and in innovation in this country so anybody that it trying to break through the traditional mold and try to create a new model ought to be lauded, not attacked. We have a severe shortage of talented engineers in this country, for example, and science doesn’t seem to garner as much attention & focus in the US as it does in some other countries. As a country we need to address this.

Read the opening quote from his initial press release on the program …

“Warning that America’s long term economic prospects are uncertain without radical innovation in technology, Peter Thiel this week launched the Thiel Fellowship to foster the next generation of tech visionaries.”

That’s a goal I can get behind. And think about it – is it really that radical? He’s going to hand select a group of 20 very high potential individuals with really high IQs and presumably from prestigious universities and offer them not only fellowships but also the exact same kind of “social proof” that one gets from graduating from Harvard or working for McKinsey. Actually, they’ll get even more attention because this selection will put them in an even more exclusive peer group and will introduce them to even more connected mentors.

So I don’t mourn for their lost youth or their downside consequences if their businesses doesn’t succeed. In a way, they’ve already “made it.”

2. Do not try this at home
What worries me about “20 under 20” is not Peter Thiel but the potential for lesser-quality knock-offs. Let me give you an example. In the US we now have some very well established incubation programs run by high-caliber mentors including IdeaLab, yCombinator, TechStars, BetaWorks and Launchpad LA. Suddenly everybody wants to be an incubator. I get approached literally EVERY week by some new person with no real outstanding track record wanting to launch yet another incubator. You know how this ends.

So while “20 under 20” might encourage 5-10 similar initiatives I think the broader message isn’t necessarily the right one. Just because I think that it’s OK that a group of 20 Mensa candidates is hand selected to have access & guidance doesn’t mean it’s the right answer for the masses. It probably isn’t. When students drop out of a middle-tier university to join an also-ran copycat program of “20 under 20” and when their startups aren’t successful they will likely find themselves in employment no-man’s-land. That’s not wise. Especially if they have 1-2 year’s college debt accumulated.

3. The value of a college education
I am very passionate and on record about the value of education. Yet ironically it’s not always the classroom experience that provides all of the value. Going to college is about creating independence. It’s about discovering who you are as a human being. What you think. Whom your lifetime friends will be. It’s about exploration. Having fun. Trying all sorts of new things. Gaining new skills. Education is self discovery.

And I’m very on record as saying that I learned more about leadership from becoming president of my fraternity than I did in any classroom. I was prepared way more for business success in my political science classes than in my economics ones (I was a double major). In Poly Sci I learned critical thinking and writing. I also become interested in geopolitics, which led me to a life of wanting to travel and work in different locations. I subsequently lived abroad for 11 years in 5 countries and worked in 9 countries. That would never have come if I had been more single-minded at 18.

Single minded is good for some. Not for others. Actually, not for many. As humans we need empathy. We need to draw on multiple disciplines to make better decisions. We need to study humanities, religion, politics, biology, economics as well as computer science. We become more rounded individuals.

4. The challenges of a system that aims to educate all equally
I do struggle still with our college education system in the US. I’m not sure how much sense it makes to be graduated from a fourth-tier university with an esoteric major and being unprepared for the workforce ahead. I somehow think a system that goes back to a model of “apprenticeships” or “trade guilds” might churn out people more ready for the workforce. But the other problem is equally important – not graduating students starting life with large amounts of debt. If you’re graduating without the perfect credentials and without the right skills for employment yet you have debt accumulated over 4-5 years you’re already starting life on the wrong foot. I worry that we create people who start their careers as indentured servants.

So while college needs to be an option for all, there has to be a middle ground between a 4-year university degree and somebody only employable in a low-income job. This is where training programs come into play. Maybe 2 years of computer training would suit some people better than 4 years of book study? Maybe off-shoring could become more on-shoring and helping drum up employment in places like Detroit.

5. Would I ever encourage anybody to drop out of his or her education?
99.9% of the time where people ask whether I think they ought to stay in school the answer is “yes.” If I’m counseling young people I often coach them to consider getting degrees that will be practical for becoming more employable when they graduate. But stay in school. Experience life. Discover who you are. Get that piece of paper that shows the workforce that you have a degree of discipline to start and finish something.

But the truth is that there ARE outliers and I think that in my gut I feel the same way I image Peter does. I’ll give you a real world example. A friend of mine is currently pursuing a joint JD/MBA at Stanford. He graduated from Harvard undergrad. He’s already built several tech/media businesses and I know he is talented enough to do something significant in life – whatever he chooses. He is torn between finishing his degrees and starting his next entrepreneurial endeavor 3 years earlier (he is finished with year 1 of 4). He doesn’t want to practice law. What I said to him was,

“You’ve already got the credentials for success. You have the Harvard undergrad. You built a company at 22. You were accepted to Stanford Law School AND Stanford Graduate School of Business. That’s enough. Anything else you do in life you will always have that calling card. Being a graduate of SLS or Stanford GSB won’t give you anything else that you don’t already have. You’re not looking to practice law. You don’t need a network.

You’re more entrepreneurial than 99% of people in any b-school class. You have a stated goal of building your company. You’re not going to learn anything in that classroom that you wouldn’t learn better by doing at your next company. You have no debts to pay off. Why wouldn’t you start now?”

6. And finally …
I don’t give a shit whether you were graduated from college or not. If you’re excellent at what you do (coding, sales, marketing, leadership) and you can demonstrate that, I really don’t care if you went to or dropped out of college. At least not as an entrepreneur. Others might care so you should take that into consideration. I personally don’t. And I can attest to this because one of my leading developers at both of my startups never finished college. It never affected him when it was time to check in his code and I’d hire him again in a second.

Image courtesy of Fotolia

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Agreed on your sentiment – that’s what I’ve tried to express.

    Oh, and … Go Tritons!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Agreed 100%. I hate to admit it, but I think we could learn something by looking at the German system here.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    re: “Theil’s program fuels the startup romanticism” – agreed. but for the elite that he selects that’s probably a good thing.

    But we need to be sure the masses dont’ get the wrong idea. Thus my headline, “don’t try this at home.”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    great book. but boy was it frustrating, hey?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    great comments. and thank you.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    A. I’ll be none of us was graduated in 74. I was in 1990. Big difference.
    B. Education doesn’t necessarily come from classroom time. That was my point.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Fair point. I think education is vital. I should have finished that way.

  • Ted kao

    Yea, I actually did see Waiting for Superman. I’ve got a couple of young kids and we are debating if we should send them to public school and we actually live in a top school district! I’ll just stick to normal business but I figured I’d try to post this as a challenge to someone who might want to try to make a change. I actually sent this to Tim Draper about 2 weeks back and he said the same thing. Maybe as a challenge, I’ll just call my local school district’s union reps to see what they think, not going to lose anything except for more patience for our public schools. Maybe come back to you later.

  • Anonymous

    Totally. In this sense, startup accelerator/incubator programs all over the nation are acting like mini-universities. That’s what our universities should be doing.

    BTW, I did a piece on you last week http://bit.ly/m06ena  :)

  • http://twitter.com/belsito belsito

    Great post. I get the conundrum. For me, college (actually, business school, to be specific) was where I fell in love with “creating things” – i.e. businesses. No, it wasn’t one of my entrepreneurship classes that did it for me. It was being naive enough to propose to the Director of Athletics that I should create the first ever corporate sponsorship program in the 100+ year history of the athletic program. And in desperation, her saying “yes.”I was given the ability to create something from scratch as a student. That program still exists today (8 years later) — and I believe it was ultimately responsible for me resigning from my job two weeks ago to start my own company.The system is probably broken — but one shouldn’t discount the entire experience completely, as it is what you make of it.

  • http://www.ppcsoft.com/blog Atle Iversen

    For me, college was about
     – growing up, learning about myself
     – “learning to learn”
     – gaining some knowledge (economics, management etc)
     – getting “proof” that I was able to learn stuff (so that I could get a job (as a consultant – guess where 😉 ) )

    I was not even close to mature enough to become an entrepreneur, but there are always exceptions to the rule, and I guess the “20 under 20” is for the elite few…which is great !

    However, *most* people are not ready at that age, and most people should probably not even try. My only problem with the “20 under 20” is that other people get the wrong idea, and rationalize that they don’t have to start/finish college because they’re “too brilliant”.

    People are different, so having different ways of learning, growing and contributing to the society is great – I just hope they’ll set aside a *little* time to actually enjoy life and have fun as well :-)

  • http://twitter.com/ngavronsky Nick Gavronsky

    Amazing post, I think #6 resonates the best with me. If you are good at what you do no need to break the cycle and go to college

  • Thomas

    On the other hand, it looks like you’re advising that engineer to skip engineering and go to … business school? And do consider that engineering is a mostly an asocial grind anyway.

    Here’s another option: If  he had already cashed out at 19, he could next have gone to get a properly socializing BA at whatever party school, no questions asked. Another advantage of delaying things: doing the same at 14 has the problem that you’re not yet allowed to, uh, properly socialize.

  • http://twitter.com/genadinik Alex Genadinik

    One point I rarely hear mentioned:

    What about learning to read and write, reading humanities and classics, learning to appreciate art that people get at universities?

  • http://polidigital.org Joshua Ansell-McKinnon

    Interesting.  I didn’t think about how knock offs could hurt young ambitious people by talking them out going to college.  Just finishing a 9 month incubatorish program, which will hopefully get entrepreneurial street cred http://www.startupleadership.com/

  • http://blog.sixstringcpa.com Geoffrey

    @twitter-14750913:disqus Really great comments. I have a professional friend that owns a traditional skilled trade business. As a result, I have been thinking some about the apprenticeship model and how it can be transplanted to other industries. 

  • http://twitter.com/dariusvasefi darius vasefi

    Great post Mark, as usual.  I think the point to take away from the Thiel foundation and others working on similar issues is not to eliminate the college/university education but to bring change in the educational system.  USA has the best college/university system and infrastructure in the world and it would be a waste (and impractical) to bypass it.  On the other hand the reason the education system is here is to train students for a better life not to serve itself. 

    Businesses and entrepreneurs should use their pull to improve the content and cost of education not replace is, and I believe what Thiel is doing indirectly which is applaudable.  What is interesting for me is that he is doing this in Silicon Valley.  I hope his efforts lead to a more dispersed impact helping other, smaller cities to benefit as well.

    You and others in major cities actually have a significant advantage in having very good universities with active entrepreneurship programs feeding your ecosystem.  I’ve been trying to engage a few of the institutions in my neck of the woods to improve their systems and am sad to say it has not bore any fruit as of yet.  This also directly feeds quality interns which can be the lifeblood to a vibrant startup ecosystem.

    By the way good to hear the LPLA news – would love to see a high quality incubator/accelerator program in socal.

  • http://www.crashutah.com John

    The part of this that hits home most to me is the debt issue associated with so many that go to college.  The indentured servitude that you referenced is real and I’ve seen so many people screwed by it.  Then, it leads them to the solution of getting a masters degree (ie. more debt).  In many many cases this leads to a terrible life post-college.

    This is why I was grateful to attend the incredibly cheap, but nearly as prestigious Brigham Young University (BYU) education.  Working part time during school and full time during summer, I paid all my educational expenses to BYU in full and it’s not all that uncommon.  The value of graduation with no school debt and a degree from a prestigious  institution like BYU that has the social connections (or should I say mormon connection) is incredibly valuable.  In fact, it’s really the reason that I can be an entrepreneur today.

  • http://termpaperwriter.org/ custom paper

    Good article! Clearly the line between user assistance and user interface is diminishing. Specialists in either of these fields will need to look at both domains very closely to be efficient.

  • dlp

    Great post as always, Mark.  The startup experience I gained when I would have been finishing college has been very valuable and unique, but at the same time the name of an institution and degree are a powerful and concise way to summarize your experience and accomplishments to others.  I still often consider how strongly you encouraged me to finish it up, and have conveyed that same advice to others.  Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve only recently locked into your blog, and I’m impressed with the clarity of thinking. I agree with 90% of this entry WHOLEHEARTEDLY, but I think you went a bit wayward at the end…

    I believe college, b-school, and law school at the highest levels does teach things that you aren’t going to get “on the job”. I can only speak for my experience and a few close to me who have expressed the same.

    We all have areas of “unconscious incompetence”. That is, we don’t know what we don’t know. The focus that’s necessary on the job can be a real barrier to overcoming these blind spots. Excellent university programs can be absolutely invaluable in opening up these areas.

    My education taught me many things that turned out to be important though I didn’t think so at the time! Good curricula and top instructors will do that.

  • Anonymous

    IMHO being by and large even best colleges are no different from stock exchanges of dialectic/symbolic  excellence [approx think of empire avenue] ,college experience nears the experience of being listed in some kind oi stock exchange as a scholar,individual If i can produce a better stock in  stock exchange of real equities ,how does an investment of 4-5 years in college turn out to be better then same in startup/YC/Techstars and if i am not good enough i am going to burn out in market within two years, I still have an option to get a degree in 3-4 years left.That is a risk of one year.
    Why should i not think that during the adaption in college years my mindset/spark can mutate from that of a hardcore entrepreneur to an 8-5 wannabe CEO + hubby?