Beyond PEAK COLLEGE: 3. New Pathways and Narratives

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

atching the film, Social Network, the fictionalized chronicle of Facebook’s founding, you can’t help but feel conflicted about Mark Zuckerberg. Brilliant as he is, he seems to be ethically-challenged and utterly lacking in social graces, so much so that he betrays his best, and perhaps only, friend. Yet, I also knew when watching the film in 2010 that his story would inspire many of his generation to emulate him.

The main takeaway from the film? Learn to code. Create your own apps. Start your own tech company with friends. Drop out of college if you have to.

Just like Zuckerberg, who became the world’s youngest billionaire at the age of 23, you too can earn more money than your parents ever dreamed of. And who can resist having a business card that reads: “I’m CEO… bitch.”?

The allure of not having to “work your way up” — of doing things most of your teachers don’t yet understand — is certainly understandable, especially in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession.

Many Millennials got bit by the same bug.

It’s evident at Stanford, the closest elite university to Silicon Valley, which saw a 47 percent increase in applications — from 32,000 in 2010 to 47,000 today. Other elite schools — Harvard, MIT, Cal Tech, etc., — have seen a similar surge in interest.

Could it be that tech entrepreneurs are driving more students to top universities?

Though possible, most techies don’t really see Stanford, or any college, as a necessary stepping stone. The education can be valuable for sure. But even more important are the industry connections that a school might offer. Those are the main draw. What most people have taken away from Zuckerberg’s story (and that of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates) is that it’s ok to drop out of college. For some, it’s almost embarrassing if you don’t.

On a visit to Stanford in 2014, I spoke with a freshman who volunteered that he was there only until he found a reason to drop out — to start a company or join a new venture. Dropping out, not summa cum laude, has become the goal of many high achievers.

Silicon Valley even encourages it. In 2011, Peter Thiel, one of the first investors in Facebook, launched a fellowship program offering $100,000 a year to select students to leave school and work full time on their own ventures. The belief was there had to be more Zuckerbergs out there. And if there are, they are too cool for school.

The new path for those wanting to make it big in the Internet age has resulted in a new narrative. It tells young people that you don’t have to finish school to innovate. Instead, learn to code as quickly as you can. Coding bootcamps have sprung up for this reason. (According to one estimate, the number of bootcamp graduates in the U.S. increased 20 fold between 2012 and 2020.) But you can just as easily teach yourself by leveraging resources online and earning micro-credentials when appropriate.

Almost overnight, schools everywhere started to teach computer programming. Even kindergartens in many wealthy enclaves are teaching five-year-olds how to code. It’s as if everyone was starting to yearn for the same vast and endless sea.

As new narratives go, tech entrepreneurship appears to be a powerful one. But there are others that could just as easily divert today’s would-be college students away from the traditional path. They have appeared in response to signifiant changes in society. What are those changes? For us in the early part of the 21st century, the obvious shifts have to do with online platforms, robotics, and artificial intelligence (or combinations of them).

New technologies are powerful because they are not simply smarter machines. They are tapping into the capabilities and assets of people in ways we haven’t seen and they don’t care what academic credentials you have. They offer new ways to participate in the global economy. In turn, they are telling new stories of what you can do and who you can be.

Gig Worker

Take ridesharing as the most famous example. Platforms such as Uber and Lyft are using something that many people have — a car — to create the world’s largest taxi service, without owning any of the cars. All they offer is a platform that matches drivers (you) with people needing rides and all parties benefit. You get to decide how much driving you want to do and when. Few jobs can match this “gig” in terms of flexibility.

Platforms can also match people with other things you may own (a home, a garage, tools, etc.) and skills you may have (dog walking, cleaning, shopping, writing, graphic design, etc.).

If you can get enough gigs on enough platforms, you can make a living without holding down a regular job. None of these platforms care if you went to college or even graduated from high school. They just want to know you can get the work done.

Within a few short years, “Gig Worker” has become a viable path, at least for some. It’s estimated that 36 percent of working adults earn some income through freelance projects and side hustles, and 44 percent of them can depend on gig work as their primary source of income. By 2027, more than 50 percent of the American workforce is expected to participate in the gig economy. Employers are liking the new set up as well. Many companies are seeing the advantage of hiring contractors to perform tasks as needed rather than keeping people on the payroll full-time.

There are trade offs of course. You don’t get a steady paycheck, health insurance, retirement plans, and other perks. But the flexibility of working when you want is hard to beat. According to one study, 75 percent would not quit their gigs for traditional jobs. This level of satisfaction can mean only one thing — our relationship to work is changing. Our identity as worker will change with it.

Platform Entrepreneur

In addition to transforming work, online platforms are redefining entrepreneurship. You can set up shop and sell goods and services for a fraction of the start up costs of brick and mortar businesses.

You can sell your arts and crafts on Etsy, resell collectibles on eBay, or teach a course on Udemy. None of it requires renting a storefront or an office or limit you to customers in your immediate vicinity.

These days, you don’t even need inventory.

E-commerce has given birth to a new type of order fulfillment business called dropshipping. It involves creating an online store and then marketing an inventory of items you don’t own. Once you make a sale, a third-party supplier will ship directly to your customer. You never touch the product but you make a profit just the same. Like anything, it’s more difficult than it sounds but according to one estimate, dropshipping drives as much as 23% of sales online. The dropshipping market, currently valued at US$162 billion is expected to triple by 2027.

The need for people who know how to navigate platforms — market on them, transact on them, etc. — is real. Each day, a bigger share of global commerce is moving online and mediated by platforms. This presents an opportunity for platform-savvy entrepreneurs to create entirely virtual businesses at very low cost. Not only do they get to enjoy the platforms that run our lives, they get to make a living off of them too.

Content Creator

The best known type of platform entrepreneur is the content creator. They post images and videos on various platforms to draw millions of eyeballs. The platforms place ads on their content and share the ad revenue with the creator. Or they may charge subscription fees, especially if the content is a course. Additionally, creators with sizable followings can get sponsorship fees to feature a company or product in their content. When that happens, it’s because they are seen as an “influencer” and can command the attention and the spending power of thousands or even millions of followers.

Influencers come in all stripes. They usually excel in something that many others are interested in — cooking, make up, videography, music, etc. Some review technology or toys. Some are just personalities whose real life dramas and shenanigans have found an audience. The very public nature of what they do make who they are — an influencer — something many emulate. According to one survey, 29 percent of American teenagers today dream of being a YouTuber or influencer. It’s a path to stardom — and riches — that bypasses all the gatekeepers of Hollywood. Or so one hopes.

The truth is only a very small fraction make enough from their content to live on. But what most people see in their feeds are the more than two million influencers who make six figures. That’s all it takes to keep the dream alive.

Many adults, including parents and teachers, scoff at these new fantasies, which is why you don’t see schools teaching you to be a gig worker, a platform entrepreneur, or a content creator. These pathways don’t come close to what is typically thought of as a “career” — working for a large firm, in an office, with health benefits, vacation days, and a 401k, until you retire.

As long as schools ignore the platform economy, people will have to teach themselves. And they do. The platforms themselves incentivize peer-to-peer sharing and learning. The most successful gig workers, entrepreneurs, investors, and content creators teach others how to do what they do and become more successful because of their teaching. Even those who are starting out can find an audience for teaching what little they know. Beginners sometime learn better from other beginners.

This social paradigm for learning and teaching has itself given rise to a new narrative of who we are — a meta-identity, if you will.

Self-directed Learner

Rather than identifying with a way of working or making a living, many young people today tend to identify more with being a self-directed learner, someone who teaches themselves new knowledge and skills so they can access new opportunities and find new pathways.

As a self-directed learner, what you learn changes frequently. What remains consistent is the fact that you define your own learning goals, you shape your own curriculum, and you set your own pace. More importantly, you take responsibility for what, where, when, and how you learn. You don’t turn to someone else to decide all that for you.

My first encounter with self-directed learning came in 2013 when I learned about a group of high school students in Massachusetts who had created their own school within a school and pursued self-directed learning for an entire semester.

During their second cycle, I asked to spend a week with them and was able to film their daily activities for five days. I recorded their weekly routine of identifying a question on Monday, learning through various means, and teaching their peers on Friday. I produced a short documentary of their experience and uploaded it to YouTube. It went viral from day one, garnering 1,000 views a day for many months, and got the attention of major media outlets.

What caught people’s attention was probably the simplicity of the structure of their program, one that other schools could replicate. But more important was the different mindset the young people had towards their learning. It was unlike how other high school students talked about education. Good students who excel at school tend to focus on their grades, test scores, and the myriad of extracurricular activities they’re taking part in. We rarely hear any high school students talk enthusiastically about what they’re learning or even assigning themselves an essay, as one student did in the video.

What these young self-directed learners understand, almost intuitively, is that the world is changing faster than their schools can keep up with and that they have to take the responsibility to chart their own paths, strive for the right goals, and teach themselves.

It is from them that I learned of the Saint-Exupéry quote above. What’s important in these uncertain times is finding the right North Star, the best narrative(s) to guide our lives. The mechanics of how to get there can be figured out, and has to be figured out by ourselves.

In times of constant disruption, don’t be surprised if new narratives and pathways transcend job types or sectors. Meta-identities such as self-directed learner, maker, or entrepreneur will become more dominant as they accommodate more frequent career changes and more personalized goals.

Current popular narratives, especially those defined by college majors, may be on their way out. Adam Grant, the business professor and influential writer, thinks college majors define people too narrowly. He favors guiding students along one of three broad tracks that prepare you for work that is pre-dominantly Creative, Technical, or Interpersonal.

As a creative, for example, you will likely work for many companies and clients, and draw your income in many different ways, but you will tend to be drawn to work that is creative. So it’s better to learn a broader set of skills for how to thrive as a creative person in today’s economy rather than narrowly specialize as a “graphic designer.”

Narratives can go beyond what you do or how you learn. They can encompass entire lifestyle design. After all, the disruptions that are upending industries are also changing society at every level.

Digital Nomad

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has served as a warning sign that there can be occasional shocks to the global economy that no one can anticipate. One important way to future-proof yourself in the COVID era is to become location-independent. In other words, to move your work online so you can work from anywhere and everywhere. That way, if your company or city locks down, you are not prevented from working.

Working virtually isn’t just about resiliency. It’s also about bringing living expenses way down and living in a cheaper, more beautiful part of the world, if you can. When your cost of living is low, you can work less and travel more. That’s the hope anyway.

Right now, people pursuing this lifestyle include bloggers, writers, computer programmers, gig economy workers, online teachers and tutors, entrepreneurs, and social media marketers. They live in places like Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico, South America — anywhere that has high speed internet and cheap rent.

To achieve and sustain such a way of life, you need to develop diverse skills and networks that will help you access enough opportunities. Word of mouth is important. Marketing yourself well is important. Staying on top of changes in the platform economy is vital. Academic learning and credentials are less so. They’re not useful if you’re not trying to move up a corporate ladder.

The upshot of the COVID pandemic is that most companies are now more willing to accommodate remote work and contract workers. We will return to offices but not in the same way. Everyone, not just digital nomads, will expect more flexibility in the future.

Freedom and financial indepence are powerful motivators. They are aspirational in good times and especially in bad. Expect more young people to strive for the nomadic life and the new pathways to get there.

The new narratives discussed above are hardly exhaustive. I myself have structured my entire working life around two different narratives — one old (journalist), one new (social entrepreneur), neither of which depends on college. Both involved learning in my own time.

There is nothing wrong with going the more traditional route and earning advanced degrees from traditional universities or going into the trades. But post-peak college, there will be new pathways and aspirational identities that will connect you to livelihoods. Each will involve new forms of learning and credentialing. And each will have advantages and disadvantages. No new narrative is right for everyone. Nevertheless, it’s important to know what they are, why they exist, and what they can mean for you.

The question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” has never been easy to answer. The Internet Age — whether you call it the platform economy, the Second Machine Age, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution — hasn’t made it any easier. But it’s become more interesting.

What if the narrative you need to guide your life beyond school is none of the above? Part 4 explores what happens when you have to chart your own path, which many of you will have to do.

Charles Tsai is a venture philanthropy strategist who works with innovators around the world to empower youth in underserved communities.