Yashar Ali broke with his family’s tradition, and made his way in the world without a college degree.
This piece originally appeared on The Current Conscience.
PayPal co-founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel recently announced that he was going to give twenty-four college-age students a $100,000 grant to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions instead of going to college.
Many commentators have criticized him for diminishing the value of a college education by encouraging his grantees to drop out of school.
But I think Peter Thiel is onto something.
From a very young age, my father promised that I could go to any college I wanted and he would pay for my entire education. I wouldn’t have any debt and wouldn’t have to get a job while going to school. I would have absolute freedom to learn.
My father emigrated from Iran in the 1960s to attend Cornell University. He received his Ph.D. in 1969, and has since become a distinguished professor of statistics. He is truly a self-made man. His academic and life successes are solely a product of his own hard work.
My father’s dream was to provide my sister and me with the opportunities never afforded to him.
I never made his dream come true, and it was the best decision I ever made.
I don’t wear my lack of a college education as a scarlet letter and I don’t live in fear that people will discover the truth. I am overwhelmingly proud of it.
When I told my father that I was moving to California to work, instead of going to college, he and my mother gave me the money to set up an apartment in Los Angeles. My father never said a word about my decision to go out in the world without the safety net of a college education.
I know my choice broke his heart. While he considered a university education an absolute necessity, he always allowed me freedom to make choices about my life.
Today I am thirty-one years old and I have had a successful career in politics. Last year, I managed a successful statewide political campaign in California.
When most people hear about a college-aged kid skipping college, they aren’t reminded of Bill Gates or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. They think of an aimless eighteen-year-old who sleeps the day away and lacks real purpose. Avoiding adulthood and sleeping all day are not the right reasons for avoiding college. I don’t fall into that camp and never have.
I have been waking up at 5 a.m. since my junior year of high school and I started working when I was fifteen years old. I often tell people that I work harder than most people I know, not because I am trying to make up for the absence of a college degree, but because I feel a definitive purpose in my life — one I have felt since childhood.
A common thread runs through people who don’t go to college and are nonetheless successful in life. By their definition, an undeniable entrepreneurial spirit is embedded in each of them.
This doesn’t mean they have to start a multi-national corporation like Bill Gates did with Microsoft or start a revolutionary social media website like Mark Zuckerberg did with Facebook.
This entrepreneurial spirit can be applied to the work of a plumber or to the work of an advocate opening an orphanage in Africa.
For me, an entrepreneurial spirit is about having a vision for your life, feeling a sense of purpose, and being undeterred by risk and uncertainty. I’ve had plenty of bad days since I moved to California, but each morning I wake up knowing that I am heading in the right direction.
It is not my intention to diminish the value of higher education. I want my doctor or lawyer to receive a proper education. There are millions of people around the world who, like my father, consider a student visa and access to an American university something akin to winning the lottery.
There is also no doubt that for most people, a lack of a college degree is career suicide.
And I firmly believe that most eighteen-year-olds greatly benefit from the structure of the university system. There, they develop a sense of independence.
But learning how to be independent is not what I needed from college. While attending classes and gaining knowledge from professors would not have hurt, at the end of the day, my decision to skip college was about one thing: time.
I didn’t want to be like my friends who went to college because they didn’t want to be an adult. They would continue further into graduate programs to avoid figuring out what they wanted to do. As if hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt and twelve lost years could to solve a fundamental problem in their soul.
To this day, friends still ask me whether I would ever take night classes to get my college degree. After what I have accomplished, I can’t imagine retreating backwards. Why should I?
It’s been thirteen years since I graduated high school and I still haven’t had a conversation with my father about my decision to skip college.
I always wonder: is he truly proud of where I ended up? I know I am. And I couldn’t have done it any other way.
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photo by NID chick / flickr