What if You Never Graduate?

I like doing thought experiments because they can reveal a lot about why we do the things we do. Today, I’d like to propose a simple thought experiment for all the students reading here:

What if you never graduated from university?

Not that you would drop out, but simply that you could never complete your degree program. Here are a few immediate consequences that spring to mind:

  1. You would never get a diploma. Nobody would ever hand you a piece of paper declaring your knowledge in a particular field.
  2. You would never stop going to classes.
  3. You would need to balance education with earning an income. Classes cost money, or at the very least, don’t pay you (excluding scholarships). Therefore living would mean striking a balance with your perpetual school work and income demands.
  4. University wouldn’t be a “phase”. Rather than just being a bizarre time in your life segregated with your peers away from the “real world”, school would just be another facet of regular life. Like going to the gym or doing laundry.

This is Happening Now

I bring up this thought experiment because I believe something close to this may be the reality very soon for more people.

With universities increasingly offering so-called “open courseware” and the abundance of self-education resources on the web, it seems likely that there will emerge a class of people who never leave the educational setting.

Sure, these people will need careers and face the demands of regular life, so I think the Van Wilder-esque stereotype of the perpetual student isn’t accurate. But, I do foresee, with increasing access to cheap self-education material, the numbers of Renaissance men and women who are deeply educated will increase.

How Will You Compete?

Admittedly, just as most people today haven’t touched a book after school, most people will continue to treat learning as a 4-year program. But even if this shift in the ease and quality in self-education resources increases the autodidacts from 0.2% to 1%, you’d still have 5x as many people wildly knowledgeable about almost everything.

I think this shift is really raising the bar for what will be expected of people to compete in a modern world. Mediocre skill and partial education aren’t going to cut it when a kid from Mumbai can accumulate a PhD’s worth of knowledge from the web.

However, I think for most the people here, this represents a fantastic opportunity. Many of the people here are interested in ruthless self-education and working on the slow and hard path to mastery. I think if any group will benefit from these shifts, it’s probably the typical profile of the person reading this blog.

Education Forever?

Tim Ferriss helped popularize the concept of the 4-Hour Workweek by offering readers a thought experiment: what if you could never retire? Considering the layoffs, recession and struggling pension plans, that isn’t so farfetched in today’s world.

So I want you to consider an alternate hypothesis: that the world expects you never to graduate from school (at least, unofficially). That you may never reach a point where your life transitions from learn to work, and instead is always a mix.

How would you live in such a world? Do you already? I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts in the comments.

  • Anders

    Interesting post,

    I think that education will be entirely different in a decade or two. I think that self-education will be much more prevalent and education in forms of normal classrooms with blackboards will be eradicated.

    Then the question, for me at least, is how to combine the social aspect of education to the self-educating one. A lot of people go to school to socialize but also to learn. I don’t think any person can be so dogmatic to say that they don’t *try* to socialize in school but are in school with the sole purpose of learning. Being a student in Europe, specifically Denmark, I myself find that using the internet as a study tool and as a self-empowering tool is extremely beneficial. I use internet resources such as MIT’s “OpenCourseWare” to inspire my intellectual curiosity as well as brush up on some key components and concepts in the different subjects. Of course, for me, MIT is a completely different skill-level, but I find them highly rewarding in regards to conceptual understand, as the teachers/professors at MIT are incredibly good at explaining concepts and ideas.


  • Sean


    I think Brian Tracy put it very book in his book “Accelerated Learning”. Today more than ever, it is a fact that learning something new is a direct investment of time that has a high guarantee of paying off. He called this era the “Learning Revolution” precisely because a guy with the right mindset can litterally learn his way up to the top of his career, the most immediate way being mimesis, copying the more succesful ones.

    Now it certainly depends on the purpose of the person and the relevance of the information at hand. If one does not wish to be succesful, but on the contrary wishes to pursue a more ascetic, spiritual life, that should be considered as worthy as the alternative. Also, if the information isn’t relevant to your interests, job or career, it has a lower chance of paying off. It all really depends on the person.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Joseph Garza

    I think its a great to have that access. I have already looked into a couple of courses, and the quality will only improve with time.

    I am interested in taking a computer class that will help me develop my site on my own. Any suggestions?

    Thanks :p

  • Armen Shirvanian

    Hey Scott.

    That is a pretty interesting way to look at it. It would change the dynamics of schooling to a large degree. A huge percentage of students seek this point of supposed completion, so I wonder how removing that would affect schooling. I think it would raise the quality we see, because people couldn’t toss around how they got to that completion point.

    I think it would serve to improve education. It would take some risk-taking individuals at universities to give this a wholehearted try, and then others could follow suit based on results.

  • paurullan

    I think you hit the nail today: continuous learning will not only be a key
    skill but a complete diferent level of personal quality. I am studying computer
    science/engineering at the UIB, Spain and after all these years I can
    absolutely say one thing: the most interesting professors are those who have
    not stopped to learning every single day. You can have all the PhD you want but
    your advice and style will be seriously damaged if you have not coded a single
    line in twenty years.

    I feel very excited for the age to come: a moment when people will be more than
    work-droids and realize that one of the most beautiful things we have is our
    capacity to learn until the very moment we die.

  • Jen

    Good post. But your thought experiment is already a reality for some and it also a very old normative commitment for how a democratic society ought to be. Some people already do this kind of life-long education- it’s called being an academic. Some people only do this when an economic downturn in their profession requires re-tooling and development of a different kind of skill. But the dream of lifelong education – not only for the select few – but as a essential element a free society full of well-rounded individuals is as old as the Enlightenment.

  • Jw

    I’m always hoping that information and knowledge should be obtained freely(no charge and everywhere). Though things are going oppositely in China(many universities are selling their video lecture and diploma on-line, so called remote education for adult).

  • Henri @ Wake Up Cloud

    Awesome post!

    I think one of the happiest days of my life was when I got out of high school and was now able to read, learn and experiment with whatever I wanted 24 hours a day. I’m now making money in a way I love, connecting with people that are awesome and reading about whatever I feel compelled to read.

    I think the shift happening now is pretty cool, but at the same time mind-blowing. 2010 will be an amazing year, no doubt!

  • Basu

    I take issue with equating continuing education with always being in college. There is so much more to college than getting an education. For me the most important parts of being in college are:

    1. Living within a few feet of some of my best friends
    2. Always being in contact with cool, knowledgeable and fun people (students, profs and other stuff)
    3. Doing lots of strange funny and downright weird stuff on the spur of the moment.
    4. Having ample time on my hands to think about life, the Universe and everything and having people around to talk to.

    I could continue learning and educating myself forever (and I plan to) but I won’t be able to get a lot of those things after I’m done at college, at least not all at the same time.

  • Karol Gajda

    Great post Scott.

    The truth is, while I was in school I was also working on businesses and studying marketing. All to the detriment of other aspects of my life. But my goal was to not get a job after graduation, which was easily accomplished.

    If I had to live that way for the rest of my life (i.e. a full courseload of computer science and math classes) I would choose a field of study I was more passionate about. In a way, that’s how I live my life now, only without the teachers and grades. 🙂

    Thanks for making me think.


  • Rainer

    It’s been many years since I got my diploma in chemistry and continously learning has always been a part of my life, both professionally and privately.
    But it’s not that important how much you learn, but rather what you learn. From time to time I need to purge my files (paper and computer) in order to separate the wheat from the chaff.
    Have a great 2010!

  • Richard Shelmerdine

    First you have to be wise before knowledge because knowledge without wisdom to use it is useless. Knowledge is useful though. I think it’s a great thing to have lots of people who are modern Renaissance men/women. Spreading the knowledge and statistics will help the general population and those who don’t want to shell out for a degree. Good post Scott.

  • tanya

    Love the post! Although i think this is increasingly becoming how more adults will lead their lives; ie. balancing a work life with an educational life, I myself am thrilled! I loved being in school, and miss going to classes, and generally learning about things that I otherwise wouldn’t get to on a daily basis. Now that I’ve graduated, I continue to read, use MIT’s opencourseware to check out different subjects I may be interested in, and in general try to push myself to continually be in that ‘educational’ mode.

    Hopefully in the future businesses see the advantage of people who like to continually learn and offer more courses/money for school to their employees. Or even a flexible schedule which would make attending classes or finishing school work easier.

  • Alex


    I wasn’t sure where you were taking this topic at first. When I first started reading, I assumed you were mocking the life-time academics who spend way to much time and money in school (often because they don’t have a clue about what they want to do in the “real world.”) I was a little surprised when you went the other way and argued that people with all this additional book knowledge will be at an advantage in the new economy.

    I disagree. Of course, we should all be striving for continuing education throughout life, but you often learn more in the “real world” than in the classroom. Granted, if you want to be a doctor or engineer, you need specific knowledge. But most Americans today will become more standard information workers who will probably switch career fields a few times in their lives. I think a liberal arts undergraduate degree and maybe a JD or MBA are enough education to teach people how to think and quickly learn new material on the job.

    I worked in finance this summer and will say that I learned more practical “this is how things operate in the real world” knowledge in those two months than I did in the previous six semesters at college. I disagree with your comment that “mediocre skill and partial education aren’t going to cut it when a kid from Mumbai can accumulate a PhD’s worth of knowledge from the web.” At our office, we had a support office in Mumbai that we used for research, etc. Perhaps these guys were smarter or more knowledgeable than us, but many of them would not have cut it in the main office.

    You’ve said it yourself, people read your blog not because you’re an expert on everything you talk about, but because you tell an engaging, thought-provoking story. Similarly, the guys who reach the top of the corporate ladder are rarely the smartest people at the firm. Rather, they are smart enough, have incredible people skills, and don’t get bogged down in the unimportant minutiae as some academics can.

    I totally agree that we should strive to make learning a life long journey, but I think we should strive to leave the classroom and begin real-world learning as fast as possible.

  • Ryan

    Interesting idea,

    If we were to live in a world where work and learning are always a constant mix, I would tend to believe that people would be much better off. In a world where globalization and competition are at its greatest and constantly increasing, people need to persistently improve themselves.

    In a world where outside of the classroom opportunities (internet based) are expanding, millions of new students and job candidates will arise. It will (hopefully is) no longer acceptable to get a 4 yr degree from XYZ university and feel that your set for life.

    Enjoy the blog,

    Ryan Dawidjan

  • Tanner @LifeDestiny

    Hey Scott,

    I am set to graduate here in May and I think I just started to realize what you said. That we will continually be learning, especially in this information age. So I took a long hard look during this past finals and was like “shit, what am I going to do when I graduate?” I have always been interested in personal development and lifestyle design and thought since I am constantly learning, why not write about it and share with people. Who knows maybe it will open up to new opportunities. It already has actually.

    I have been living with so much passion since I started LifeDestiny.net and meeting people with similar mindsets as me. It is like I never want to sleep anymore and am not looking forward to this last semester of school. Its almost as if I just want to drop out with 1 semester remaining and just focus on building up my community and designing my own lifestyle.


  • Adam Welch

    Why learn from scratch, or rely on our sole motivation, when we combine the motivations that come with institutionalized learning, as well as potentially learn from more experienced leaders.

  • Scott Young

    A lot of the debate seems to argue between “real-world” learning and “academic” learning. As some point out, academic learning has flaws (which I definitely agree with).

    However, I also disagree with the “real-world” learning always trumps academic learning. Academic learning is like basic research in science, not always as glamorous or practical as applied research, but it forms a basis for further knowledge.

    Also, the format of this self-education path wouldn’t need to be in a school setting.


  • Jackie

    I’m already there. I graduated with my Ph.D. 6 years ago and am itching for a whole new body of knowledge (economics? engineering? law?).

    I’ve decided that no matter what is going on in my life, I should be taking the equivalent of at least two semesters of coursework every year on top of my day job–just enough to keep my skills fresh and to possibly broaden my knowledge in fields that I didn’t already study in my college years.

  • Maureen

    I, too, thought you were laying out the case against formal education, i.e. you can learn all you need to know in the real world.

    I was brought up by my parents to believe formal education is very important. However, after high school I did a 2 year Diploma in software programming. Years later, I went back to school to get a BCom. It cost a lot to get the degree and have since wondered if this was worth it as I make a good wage writing software.

    I took night l classes during 2008 to upgrade my technical skills (earned certificate) and have not regretted that (having more trouble getting value from an undergraduate degree in business).

    I think what is ideal is a bit of both real world experience and formal education to learn the basics and explorer higher levels of thinking and planning.

    Interesting post though and I would be interested reading more posts about learning and education-related topics. I, for one, will be taking more courses and education in the future (while working full-time) as I do find value in learning new things (reading books is also a great way to learn).

  • David

    Thanks for the post. I am a huge fan of Tim Ferriss and it made me think about how my life is now.

    I started college at age 17. I now am 22 and still about 3/4 of the way to a 4-year degree. During the times I took off I needed to work to get money for school, and take care of a dying parent. I switched from undeclared my first semester, to business management, to marketing.
    The reality is that I am interested in too much stuff to ever stop learning.

    The disparity between what is available through self education is sometimes so grand that I see little value in formal education.

    Due to this, balancing work and education is becoming a habit, and it is forcing me to make sure my education is more and more relevant towards income earning.

    Now it looks like I’ll finally switch to music business (assuming both marketing and music biz take the same amount of time to finish).

    This is not a sad time, it is an exciting new way of life and I cannot wait until money is less of a concern for me and learning interesting things is more possible.

  • Sam

    Scott, gathering the knowledge of a second or third degree from open courseware sounds pretty easy to me. There are even a lot of self-taught hackers out there who probably have a computer science degree except the math/physics. However, I think you’re a bit off on the remark about a kid from Mumbai who has somehow accumulated the knowledge of a PhD; it must be extremely hard to learn how to conduct research without the guidance of a supervisor. It seems to me many fresh Phd’s (even from top universities) aren’t really capable of doing independent research, they need someone else to state the problem for them before they solve it.

  • Angela

    Hi, I just wanted to share my personal experience. I’ll graduate in March in Italy and since I’m graduating a year after than my peers it’s a sort of a “tragedy”. I don’t regret the time I spent learning about other things that were closely related with my public relations BA, but weren’t actually a part of the course load. I’ve always been interested in self education since high school and for me it was normal to study other topics outside the required ones. It was surprising for my classmates, thought. They couldn’t understand why someone was studying something you weren’t tested on. I’m not ashamed of my choice and the fact that I am graduating a year later it doesn’t bother me….what it does really upset me is that people assume that I am not smart enough for college because I didn’t graduate on time and I’ll have trouble getting a job, and I should definitely reconsider about applying to graduate school…. I just let them do the talking…time will tell..

  • :)

    As a college student who works irregular hours as sort of an on call part time-full time work as a WAITRESS never graduating is a terrifying thought! I have been failing a string of classes as a result of(laziness?) this. Unless a person is highly skilled like that of a prodigy(but how would you explain that in a resume?)– knowledge of an expansive amount of subjects when of no real depth/incompletion gets a person nowhere and definently not a job. The fact that a person reads and goes to classes is nothing (to boast about). And a degree is so important… I do not see an employer hiring someone, because that someone took such and such classes. After all, a degree is proof that you have finished studying. That in of itself shows character; the person would continue to endeavor to finish his/her studies. Looking at the comments here though, I guess the people you are targeting with your post are highbrow, already educated with several degrees, men and women.