A friend of mine was asking me the other day about the choice he’s facing between going to college straight out of high school, or going right into an entrepreneurial venture. It’s a choice a lot of kids have to make these days, and it doesn’t mean the same thing it meant when I was making it some decades ago. These days there’s a very clear and respectable path directly into the work world regardless of your education (and no matter what your parents tell you).
Materialism and Waterfall
One of the most interesting parts of our conversation had to do with Epicurean Materialism. He brought up the topic (Did I mention he’s a very bright guy?) and explained it to me from his perspective, and told me his life had been directed since he was a child by the philosophy that one should focus on an objective, get on the path to that objective, and ignore distractions until that objective has been met.
As an agile practitioner, I recognized that immediately as pretty similar to waterfall, which involves setting a sequential planning into motion with a clear objective at the end and a detailed plan for how to get there. In a waterfall context, you adjust reality to meet the expectations of the plan, not the other way around.
Real Life is Messy
What he anticipated was that he could reasonably expect that so many years of school at some highly-ranked institution with such-and-such grades would lead cleanly to a particular job with a particular title in a particular organization. And because this is what he had seen his family do for generations, and what his friends were doing alongside him, he had come to believe that it would work that way.
For him the objective of getting a particular degree from a particular college was the path he had been working toward since he started high school. It wasn’t an easy path by any mans, but on the advice of advisors, family, and counselors, he was choosing to treat the challenges as distractions and press forward toward his one objective.
I think the reason he came to talk to me was because he knew I would listen to him with a perspective that wasn’t tied up in family or professional bias. Despite the clarity and all-encompassing nature of his focus, my friend told me he was starting to believe that the distractions he was facing might actually be red flags. It seemed likely to me that he was noticing the turbulence of the economy and the shifting of geopolitical power, and projecting quite reasonably that things may not remain as stable as they may have appeared for the luckiest members of earlier recent generations.
Some Agile Benefits of College
Just having the luxury of being able to choose whether or not to pursue an education is something valuable. As with everything else in life, it helps if you’re privileged with a gender, race, orientation, financial status, physical constitution, etc. that don’t put you at a significant disadvantage for what you want to do in the society where you live. When discussing how much preparation you need before you can compete and thrive in the professional world, it’s never fair to assume everything else is equal. Matters such as these always need to be considered in the context of privilege.
Being a friend, I didn’t think it was my place to encourage or discourage him about his education. But I thought it was important for him to take a step back and consider what his own objectives were before plunging headfirst into that path. In some cases, what he was looking for matched exactly what you get from a good college education. The thing that struck me was that many of these weren’t the benefits that he expected to get from college.
Like a lot of prospective college students, my friend was being sold the idea of an education as the opportunity to get a degree and use it to get a job, at the cost of several years of his youth. But in my experience as a lifelong student, a good education is not about the piece of paper they hand you at the end. That may be the prize they offer you to get you in the door, but if you approach college with an agile learning mind, you can come out with so much more.
Quick and targeted feedback
College provides a rare opportunity to get constant and critical feedback on the work you’re doing while you’re doing it, without horrendous consequences. Yes, bad grades and humiliation in front of a classroom full of your peers may seem like horrendous consequences, but they are nothing compared to losing your health insurance, seeing your family go hungry, or getting kicked out of your home.
One of the principles of agile is the importance of getting quick feedback and using it to make adjustments to your process.
I’ve heard people say that the advantage of having somebody qualified who is there just to hold your hand and tell you honestly what they think of your work is worth the cost of tuition alone. In the real world, you often have to struggle to figure out whether or not what people are telling you is based on a different agenda than the one that may be obvious. In college, the people judging you and giving you feedback usually don’t have agendas that go too far beyond the scope of the syllabus. That opportunity to get quick feedback and adapt to it since you up to grow quickly.
No matter where you go, you’re sure to meet other people who can help you, and who can benefit from your help. Helping each other is one of the most valuable ways to grow and learn. At along the way, if you become a valuable resource to other people, they will see the benefits of doing the same resource for you.
A core principle of agile is prioritizing face-to-face conversation over dry abstract documentation, and that means knowing how to interact comfortably with a wide network of real human beings.
College exposes you to a broad selection of people looking to make a change in their skills and their status. These are people who have signed on and accepted the challenge. Where they go next in life builds naturally upon the way that they approach their studies, and as a fellow student you get a front row seat to watch their progress and apply the lessons they are learning to your life.
Being a student gives you the opportunity to meet tomorrow’s professionals today, before they’ve funneled themselves into a career. As fellow students, you are peers today, regardless of where your work takes you in the future. You have a perfect excuse to meet and make friendships with other people who are also on a growth path. College is a great time to connect with the people you will be doing business with for the rest of your life.
Learning how to learn
The nature of being a student is having an open mind and learning new things. We spend our childhoods being taught traditional subjects such as math, science, languages, and social skills, but the meta-lesson is how to walk into a new subject without any experience or knowledge, and walk out with a skill.
Agile teaches us not to take our process for granted, and to revisit what we’ve learned regularly to make sure the lessons still apply as our context changes.
It takes courage, and a willingness to try something, fail, try again, notice what changed, and adjust. No matter how high we may think the stakes are when faced with the prospect of bad grades, the protected environment of college is a beautiful place to let oneself fail at something large and complex, and notice what happens.
It’s not an either/or choice
The most important point to keep in mind is that it’s your life. You can always go back and change your mind if the situation calls for it. None of us knows how long we have. Life is about adaptive capacity; the ability to make a choice, try it out for a few years, and if it doesn’t work out you try something else. Some choices do require postponing the reward you desire in order to put in the time necessary to explore an idea, get educated, and develop skills. And sometimes you decide along the way that other opportunities are more appealing, and let go of old dreams.
Time is the one resource none of us can replenish. Unless you have an urgent and pressing need that removes your choices for you, it’s always worth taking a step back before you start down a new path to consider whether the distant goal you’re working toward is worth the investment of these precious years of irreplaceable time. And for a young mind maturing in an uncertain world, it’s unreasonable to expect that the plans made for the child will still be appropriate after graduation without and adjustments.