Staying in School Forever


As a species, our incubation period is getting longer.

Just a few hundred years ago, finishing twelve years of education was uncommon. Today it’s difficult to get a job above minimum wage without a high-school diploma.

Teenagers were once miniature adults. Fifteen year-old girls got married. Sixteen year-old boys went to work. Today teenagers are older children. I know many people that aren’t financially independent well into their twenties.

This increase incubation is probably because, as the world becomes more specialized and complex, we need more time to learn things. Also as science and technology accelerate, we need more time to specialize. There are people who need to study principles of chemistry to get jobs today that hadn’t even been discovered 100 years ago.

I wonder how this trend will continue in the future. Will thirty-something university students studying ever more esoteric topics be the norm in another 100 years?

Perhaps more importantly, I wonder about the merits of incubation itself. In today’s world, we’d consider a 12-year old who dropped out at Grade 6 to work to be premature. After all, his chances of success would skyrocket if he had been allowed to incubate until he was 18 or so.

But if that 12-year old kid is being premature in finishing incubation too early, who is to say we aren’t either?

Learn More or Better Pay?

Staying in school forever is obviously not an option. Even staying in school longer has questionable merit, as many newly minted graduate students find their diploma has little practical value.

But school is just one type of incubation. It reflects the extreme of a concept: deferring paid work now, so that you can learn more and earn more later. The drawback is that sometimes you invest a lot of time in skills that turn out to have little practical value.

Not all incubation is that extreme. Consider choosing between working at a job that pays highly, but teaches little, and a job that pays little, but teaches you a lot.

The first is the equivalent of the sixth grader dropping school. You may make more, but you essentially cap your progress. By incubating in the second position, you’ll make enough money to survive, but most importantly, you’ll increase your abilities for future success.

Extended Incubation

This growth/pay tradeoff doesn’t always exist. Many great opportunities teach you a lot and pay well too. But to the extent that it does exist, I feel like the smart money is on putting more time in incubation.

There are two basic reasons that, given the choice between productivity and growth, I’d go with the latter:

First, once you leave incubation it’s very difficult to go back. Once you start enjoying a higher income, it’s very difficult to take on growth opportunities that will limit that income. Being poor is better if you’ve never been accustomed to luxury.

Second, the inequality of productivity is increasing. A few hundred years ago, the amount a master was more productive than his apprentice was probably capped about 10x. In any case, it was certainly less than 100x.

What about today? The best programmers are thousands of times more productive than the apprentice. Especially if you consider not merely lines of code implemented, but the social value of the work. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were key in creating billions of dollars of wealth for society. The same couldn’t have been said for even the best 16th century blacksmith.

Incubation Isn’t School

Whether extended incubation is a good idea and whether extended school is a good idea are two different arguments. School may not be, despite it’s price and claims to the contrary, the best place to really learn what you need to learn.

Even if school isn’t the ideal incubator for all lengths of time, that doesn’t mean you should seek the highest paying job upon graduation, regardless of other factors.

I had many friends that landed good paying government jobs soon after graduating. Except, due to the bureaucracy, they spent most of their time doing errands and going on Facebook. Would these people have been better off incubating in a high-paced start-up, or taking a salary hit, but more responsibility in a non-profit?

Converging Incubation and Productivity

Early on in the process, incubation is highly unproductive. Think about what we force students to do in grade school. None of it has any practical value to society.

Eventually, however, growth and productivity start to converge. The apprentice starts making money from practicing his craft. For the master, even his training effort may be incredibly lucrative. The best painter’s experiments may be priceless.

But even as you improve, there still remains subtle tradeoffs between incubation and productivity. A good programmer may improve most by hacking together a piece of freeware software, yet he may get paid most as a consultant to implement a much more basic corporate interface.

The distinction isn’t between selling out and remaining true to your art. Rather, it’s timing these tradeoffs between incubation and productivity so you don’t prematurely stunt your growth.

The Dangers of Hatching Early

I think the longer you can extend the philosophy of incubation, the better. The longer you can take on high-challenge, high-growth projects (that may lack high short-term rewards) the more impact you can have on the world and the more success you can enjoy in life.

I’m approaching my own graduation in a few months. Luckily, this business is able to support me so I have no plans for getting a job just to pay the bills. I don’t have any plans to go to grad school, either.

Although I’ll be exiting the stage of formal incubation, I don’t want to stop incubating. I want my focus to be on choosing projects primarily because they force growth, not just immediate payoffs.

That’s not an easy stance to take. For one, it means you need to balance both the pursuit of growth and financial necessity. Second, there’s more and more pressure to grab the short-term rewards and profits than to become really good at something.

There’s no point to staying in school forever. But the attitude of incubation that comes with school may be worth keeping long after you graduate.

Image thanks to Andreas Kollegger

  • Travis Webster-Booth

    Great post, Scott. Your emphasis on incubating towards high-challenge/high-growth projects is well thought-out.

    It’s also nice to hear that you don’t intend to go back to grad school. Tim Ferriss wrote an interesting article suggesting various ways in which one could engineer a personal MA/MBA/PhD in a field of interest, and I found his emphasis on experiential learning to be priceless. It’s amazing how many of us “default” to formal education for incubation. And this from someone who is extremely grateful for his liberal arts education. But am I anxious to get back to the ivy tower? Not exactly. Not when there’s so much to be EXPERIENCED out there that I’m dying to explore.

    I can’t wait to see what you do post-graduation.

  • Al fred Hung

    “Being poor is better if you’ve never been accustomed to luxury”……
    It sounds funny at first, but it is so true……

    tradeoff on pay vs growth is never easy……

    sometimes if earn-lot-opportunity disappear, it might never come back again……

    should people follow natural path by god, or deliberately change it by own plan?

  • Sam

    Your programmer example resonates with me. Writing programs force you to spell out all the details, just like writing is a good way of debugging your thoughts and ideas. Once you have your buggy program, you can observe it over and over again until you understand why it does not compute what you want it to compute – a great learning strategy.

    Travis: I think Tim Ferriss has a lot of great ideas, and he is clearly able to act on them and make things happen. Getting useful skills through experience that an experienced observer can’t distinguish from a MA/MBA degree sounds both plausible and fun. Becoming a researcher through experience is obviously possible (the late Robin Milner for example), but most people would be unable to find a mentor and a suitable environment that could give the right kind of guidance.

    The reason the PhD is so much harder to do on your own is both the duration (3-6 years fulltime) and that there is something fundamentally different between soaking up existing knowledge and create new knowledge. In your math class you were told to prove something simple in the chapter that dealt with induction. Before you even started you knew that you should use induction to prove this thing, and that whatever stated proposition was true. In research there is no given theorem, and even if you create a theorem you still don’t know what method(s) to use to prove it, or even if the theorem is indeed true! In my experience the first theorem you state is usually false.

  • Kent Healy

    Great thoughts Scott. I think the most successful people among us understand that one’s education should not and cannot be defined with a start date and end date. In today’s world, one’s success is often most related to their level of desire to continue learning in ways that encourage personal fulfillment and an increase their social value.

  • Erin

    Just like you, I am nearing my university graduation, but I also do not want to stop incubating. That is, I do not want to stop making investment in myself. I think no matter what stage we are in, we should consistently work on improving ourselves, and that includes learning new skills, taking on new challenges, etc. Personal development should never stop because there is always room to improve no matter who you are and where you are.

  • Yogesh

    A very thought provoking article Scott. The trade off between short term high gain and getting good at your trade/skill is something i have dabbled since a year now. I decided to go for the latter. Experiential learning tested in the enviornment of schools is something i want to try. While i’m aiming for the Ivy league, my learning is derived & productivity is intented to come from my work exprience and not the school, hence my work becomes my incubation.

  • David Smith

    Sometimes growth means you need an education in new fields not related to your first degree. How many degrees do we need? Once we have an undergraduate degree we should have the study skills necessary to learn whatever we need to. I got my undergrad degree in psychology and then decided to study computers. Two years later, I was a software tester in a multi-national corporation. Skills can be as good as diplomas. I’m sure this doesn’t apply to all job types.

  • Life Exceptional

    That was an interesting article… it’s a bit scary to think that people could still be learning at 30 in the future, but I guess with increasing numbers of PhD students it’s already happening to an extent… I’ve always felt that while you are at university you don’t really contribute, so the idea of people waiting until 30 to contribute is a bit off. I wonder how this links in with the 10,000 hour idea as well?

    What are you planning to do after graduating? Surely working on this blog is not a full time occupation?

  • Scott Young

    Life Exceptional,

    As I mentioned in the article, university is an extreme form of incubation with little contribution and a complete focus on learning. This isn’t to say that to incubate you have to be completely unproductive, simply that it’s a secondary goal to learning.

    This blog could easily become a full-time occupation. People don’t realize that writing articles like this is only about 10% of the time I actually work on the blog. Much of it is behind-the-scenes, especially on the business-end.

    But, to answer your question, I think I’ll probably continue with other intensive incubation projects for the next few years at least, as I mentioned in the article.

  • Charles

    “I know many people that aren’t financially independent well into their twenties.”

    Twenties or thirties? Huh?

    “After all, his chances of success would skyrocket if he had been allowed to incubate until he was 18 or so.”

    This is not necessarily the case in old Europe. Countries need people with no diploma to deal with the elderly, to babysit, to prepare meals, to clean buildings and houses, etc…

    “so that you can learn more and earn more later”

    Again, here, if you are a researcher with a doctorate, first you have a hard time finding a job if you don’t wanna go to the US, and then, if you find one, you’re paid the minimum salary!

  • Scott Young


    I didn’t say you couldn’t get a job without a diploma. But I did insist that getting one generally increases your opportunities (most of the statistics attest to the higher earning power of having more education).

    And having higher education doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be an academic either. Google is one of the biggest employers of doctorates, and they are paid well.


  • Adrienne

    Scott: Thank you so much for your well-written and thought-provoking article on the need to balance incubation and continued learning with the necessity to make a living in the here and now. You are obviously a gifted writer and a very bright young man with the noble intentions to not only continue your own life-long personal development, but also share your experience and insights with your readers to help them on their journey of growth as well. The only issue I have with this article is the portrayal of government workers (your friends) as somewhat idle, unchallenged and overpaid for their services. I realize this perhaps may have been somewhat the case for these particular individuals, but I feel that it is important to hear from another vantage point. I am a government worker for social services in my county and I feel that my skill set has grown expotentially with my tenure here. I also want to speak for my hardworking colleagues that they are quite challenged not only in the very stressful work that they do, but in all the changes in procedure and requirements that they are expected to meet, especially in the light of the cutbacks to staff, and pay cuts we have experienced the last two years. I state this to counter the right-wing wave of anti-government sentiment in this country that accuses public servants of being the catalyst of the current recession. First of all, we are not – the greed on Wall Street and the unscrupulous business practices of the mortgage industry is at the root of this recession. Goverment workers are public servants and we are paid an average of 11% less than people with similar skillls in the private sector. We at social services have suffered massive layoffs and pay cuts and are working harder than ever to help all those who are suffering job losses, hunger and homelessness. It’s important that people know the truth – because people’s livelihoods are at stake. Thank you Scott for you wonderful articles and I am sure you will continue to be wonderful resource. Blessings – Adrienne

  • Scott Young


    Technically my friend didn’t work for the government, she works for a crown corporation, but I didn’t think the distinction was worth explaining in the article.

    Yes, some public sector employees are incredibly hard working, innovative and growth-driven. Also, some private sector employees push paper all day and perform routine tasks without growth.


  • Andrzej

    As an ex-teacher I have to agree with an idea that “sometimes you invest a lot of time in skills that turn out to have little practical value”. sorry to say, I can’t agree with “sometimes” part. It’s in most cases.

    Our educations is not about making young people ready for the future, but for the past, as the knowledge and skills gained when we go to first work are almost obsolete.

    I’m glad to read, that you don’t plan to go higher with your education but to continue what you do. You’ll learn much more and much more needed things when learning by yourself, what will be needed and when it’ll be needed.

    Good luck 😉

  • Nasreen

    Hey man,

    Hope you’re well. Looking forward to your musings on your adventures into philosophy/theology you mentioned a while back.

    I think what we’re going to see is the creation of new models for learning. There are a couple of interesting TED talks that come to mind, you might want to dig around there if the development of education systems intrigues you. I think that these models are going to necessarily expand into new ways of community building, i.e. the community that looks at education as the development of a whole person vs. more a more classical abstract perspective of “learning.”


  • Kirsten

    I don’t know that the length of incubation has changed so much as the nature of it. Yes, formal education above 12 years was rare, but if you consider the length of time a craftsman might have to spend apprenticed to a master then the numbers don’t look quite so uneven, particularly when you consider the years of incubation as a percentage of life span. I think what’s changed is the type of work we’re doing – craftsmen make up a much smaller percentage of workers now, and as such the incubation system has shifted to the work available.

  • Scott Young


    Perhaps, but over a shorter timeframe say, post-industrial revolution until today, I would argue that the incubation period *has* gone up. The amount of people working in factories or in subsistence agriculture has gone down considerably, pushing us towards the two ends of service//information work, with the latter demanding an increasingly long incubation period.


  • Kirsten

    You’ve gotten me playing around with graphs at Gapminder now… The data on mean years education (at least what’s online) only goes back to 1970, but shows an increase from 11 years to 14 years. In that same time frame, percent employment in agriculture has gone from 3.6% to 1.4%, industry has gone from 31% to 21% and service from 66% to 78%. That’s for the US, though the global animations follow similar trends, with the notable exception of increasing industry work in some areas of Asia and South America. I’d like to see data going further back on years of education, but my thought would be that there’s not much difference in education needed to work in agriculture or work in a factory, so the increase in years of education would have started with the decline of blue-collar jobs in the 60s and 70s. What I don’t know is the time frame of public schooling and mandatory education, and whether those increases coincide with the change in the type of work available. There’s also the question of population growth, and whether we want to consider that when looking at the raw number increase in higher degrees awarded… definitely food for thought.


  • Mark

    what do you think about half-time job and studies at the same time?
    We can be financial freedom [no freedom but independent from parents e.g) , and can learn something new at the studies.

    In my opinion it’s a ideal connect for young people… but I’ve heard from someone that if you share your studies and job , you will never really study and never really work…

    Let’s assume that this half-time job is not very creative and growth but
    this is not cashier .. and this job is in span of your bussines for instance:

    You study psychology and half-time job is making consumer research
    or study computer science and job is programmer

    knowledge and experience in the same time , what do you think about it?

  • Ross

    Interesting thoughts Scott. I’d be interested in seeing some evidence that we need this longer incubation period or if the gatekeepers on everything we do on society is just placing barriers in front of us to make it easier for them. I’ve got a Computing Science degree and I can honestly say that I could have learned everything I did at school in my basement in the same or less time by reading some books. Most jobs I look at though requires that little piece of paper before they even talk to you. What if I did the same number or more projects at home vs school. Would I know know the same material?

    Now, whether I would have had the drive to do all that on my own right out of high school is debatable. There is where the teachers and the “have to go to school” mentality comes in handy.

  • Scott Young


    Well this post isn’t really about debating the value of formal education (which is just one form learning can take) but looking at learning vs earning in general.

    You may not learn too much at school. But most entry-level positions aren’t exactly bastions of enlightenment either.

    My feeling is that the truly exciting/challenging options (side projects, working at a start-up, building something new) are outside of any formal system and, quite often, any formal pay structure.


  • Ross

    I guess it depends on the job, company, person, managers and industry to decide whether there is much learning while you’re earning. Job I have now working with online technology for municipal government requires me to learn new things every single day to stay current in the industry and find good solutions to the problems we’re having. Learning every day is a requirement and you wouldn’t be very good in the position if you didn’t want to.

    I do see jobs like accounting, though, where it would be easy to learn what you needed to do the job at school and never learn any more.

    My goal has to always been to find jobs and projects that I have to learn something (or many things) before I’m able to complete it. They’re more difficult to complete than the regular ones but much more fulfilling. I think these jobs can be found in the formal system but you have to look a bit. Sometimes they require convincing someone the system needs a new position as well.