Righteousness vs. Church; Education vs. School

Yesterday’s post about the statistical error of thinking college = career success used a religious analogy to explain why so many people still believe in college.

But don’t misunderstand me.  Pointing out that it’s flawed to conclude church attendance leads to prosperity does not rely on a disbelief in religion.  Of course the atheist will have no problem spotting the faulty connection.  But even the devoutly religious should see the error.  I don’t know any Christian (or adherent to other major religions) who would agree that church attendance is the same as salvation or righteousness.  In fact, the former can often be a cover to allow people to avoid the latter.  Even if you believe righteousness will lead to more prosperity, church attendance is not to be confused as the causal factor.

Church attendance may or may not aid in the cause of becoming more righteous.

Similarly, school may or may not aid in the cause of education.

There is ample evidence that it hampers the process far more than it helps.  But even school optimists will concede that learning and schooling are two separate things.

So if being more knowledgeable, learned, or educated does have a causal connection to a better life (of course it does, depending upon how you define those terms on how the knowledge is applied), it does not follow that being more schooled will.

In fact, study after study show that knowledge even on the very limited set of subjects taught in school from freshman to graduate doesn’t increase in any noticeable way.

So if your refutation of yesterday’s post is that righteousness or education lead to prosperity, you need to rethink it because those are undeniably different thinks than churchgoing and schooling.

Forget the Data, College is a Religion

Imagine a town.  Maybe an early New England village.

There is a dominant belief in this town that one must attend church every Sunday if they want to live a prosperous life.

Because the belief is pervasive, those who want to be prosperous attend in high numbers.  Those who don’t care about being prosperous attend less.  Since those who care more about prosperity choose church more than those who care less, if you were to look at data on the prosperity level of the townspeople, you’d find that those who attended church were more prosperous than those who didn’t on average.

This would provide further fuel to the idea that prosperity requires church.  It would be considered a must, not even worth questioning.  Even skeptics would say things like, “It’s not the only or main cause of prosperity, but you’d better attend just to be safe and decrease the odds that you don’t succeed.”

That is the world we live in now.

The Church of School

The religious belief is that ambitious people have to attend college or they will be losers, or at least fail to realize their potential.  No one knows what actually happens in college or why it’s supposed to make you more successful.  Since the belief that college is needed for ambitious people is pervasive, ambitious people go more than less ambitious people.  When employment or pay data are analyzed, they show that college goers do better on average than those who don’t.  Of course.  Because more ambitious people go to college more.

You might object that the market would not allow such an inefficiency to survive.  But we’ve seen towns like the above in real life.  People’s beliefs shape their actions, and their beliefs are not always those that lead to material prosperity.  People make themselves materially worse off all the time in service of beliefs, even crazy superstitions in some cases.

The psychological benefit of going along with the dominant belief, gaining the prestige it entails, and not risking being seen as a non-believer motivate all kinds of actions detrimental to a person’s individual goals and aspirations.

Attending college is the most pervasive religious act today.

Why Do They Really Go?

Most ambitious people do it.  And the reason they do has nothing to do with causal connection between attendance and achievement of their individual goals (most of the time they don’t have any so it would be impossible to help them achieve it.)  The reason most ambitious people go to college is this: they believe that if they don’t, god won’t love them.

“God” is whatever aspects of the dominant cultural narrative most impact them.  Prestige.  Parental love and approval.  Being normal.

If it were really about careers, it would only take a few minutes of solid reflection to realize that specific employers want nothing more than specific value creation, proven in specific ways.  A degree is one of the weakest, least common denominator efforts to doing this and is easy to surpass.

College persists for the ambitious – and thus the self-reinforcing data about successful people having degrees – because of a religious-like belief in it’s necessity.  But it’s not necessary at all.

OK sure, if you know what you want, you can get it more directly.  But most students don’t know what they want for their career.  That’s normal, and good in most cases.  You can’t know until you’re several years into working and trying stuff (and maybe not even then).  But that doesn’t mean entering the five-year, six-figure black box will help you move towards a question mark any more than it helps you move toward a specific goal.

In fact, the sooner you can grapple with and solve specific problems for specific people and create specific value provable in specific ways, the sooner you open up your ability to translate that into self-knowledge about what you do want, and transfer it to other activities and narrow down your search for a career fit.

Why It’s So Tempting to Go Anyway

College is a complete waste of time and money for ambitious people.

Most know it in their gut.  But they’re there because they are afraid to be and do something specific.  They fear becoming a solid, concrete, autonomous individual, and all the effort and responsibility it requires.  College is the only way to defer becoming a fully differentiated person while mom and dad pay the tab without judgement.

I get it.  But it comes with a cost.  Every minute you live off others, delay becoming a specific individual, and languish in a murky sea of imaginary “options”, you reduce the potential of what you can become.  The longer you live in limbo, the lower your ceiling when you emerge into the world of concretes.

Don’t Worry, This is Good News for You!

This isn’t bleak, bad news.  This is the greatest news ever!

To use a different religious analogy that my friend Michael Gibson likes to use (Michael and his partner Danielle’s VC fund invests in college opt-outs and dropouts, check them out), it’s like Luther’s 95 thesis.  It’s the revelation that you were lied to.  You don’t need to buy indulgences to have a chance at heaven.  You have agency, and you can determine your own fate without appealing to some bloated bureaucratic institution for an official stamp of approval.

Break out the champagne, and get busy doing real stuff in the real world.  Don’t live your life by averages and aggregate data that reflect little more than the superstitions of the day.

Further Reading:

Employers Don’t Care About Degrees (the stats are misleading)

Forget the Degree, Build a Better Signal

College is Dead

Projects are the New Resume

Most People Go to College to Feel Normal

Imagine if We Taught Bike Riding Like We Teach Careers

Options Are Blinding You to Opportunities

“What Do Employers Want?” Is a Stupid Question

“Employers want degrees.”

There are so many problems with this popular idea.

It lacks imagination, ignores the things employers really want that a degree is sometimes a proxy for, and forgets that divergence from the crowd is more likely to make you stand out than sameness.

But it’s worse than that.  It’s misleading even as a rule of thumb based on data.  Most people will do things like add up the number of employers that list a degree as something they want, or compare the pay of those jobs to jobs without a degree preference, or add up earnings or employment for degree holders vs. non degree holders.  All of these are the same basic process.  Take the average of a giant aggregate of data from individual employers and say that’s what “employers” want.

Let’s examine how stupid this is as a guide to your own career building efforts.

Say you poll employers on what matters most to them in hiring.  You get a list of the top 10 things from each.  Something ranked #1 gets 10 points, #2 gets 9 points, and so on.  Here’s a hypothetical employer’s preferences:

  1. Knows Ruby on Rails
  2. Familiar with PHP
  3. Socially affable
  4. Self-motivated
  5. High attention to detail
  6. Previous work experience
  7. College degree
  8. Hobbies outside of coding
  9. Knowledge of our industry
  10. Able to work weird hours

Remember, just like when you make a list of wants when buying a house, you never get everything on your list.  Employers don’t either, but instead hire the candidate with the best mix of the most valuable items.

OK, so that’s one employer.  If we had similar rankings from a million more employers, we’d notice something.  No two employers want the same things.  In fact, no one employer wants the same thing for two different roles.  In fact, no two interviewers at the same employer for the same role want the same thing!

So what happens if we take this diverse array of “stuff employers care about”, and add up the scores for each item?  College degrees come out looking like the most important thing.

Why?  Because it’s so big and generic that it’s the one item that lands somewhere on pretty much everyone’s list.  But it’s never number one.  It’s almost never even in the top three.  It’s a middle to bottom level item on every list.  But the top 3 are so different for each company and role, added together and averaged out, no one item will stand out.

This dramatically over-inflates the value of degrees, because it lumps each individual employer wish list into one and says that’s what “employers” – a non-existent monolithic category – want, while misrepresenting the fact that no individual employer cares much about it compared to other things.

Imagine if we had data showing that guys with short hair get dates a lot more than guys with long hair.  It would be pretty stupid to go cut your hair so that you can get a date.  Why?  Because you’re not trying to get a date with “girls”.  You’re trying to get a date with one specific girl, and chances are that hair is nowhere near the top of the long list of things that make her open to dating you.  In fact, she’s likely to be turned off by someone who tries to win her unique, individual attention by changing your appearance to match the preferences of the average of the aggregate of her sex.

It’s the same with employers.

You aren’t trying to impress “employers” as an abstract collective.  You are trying to win an opportunity with one specific employer.  Studying the least common denominator among the aggregate group is a terrible way to go about it.  Pick specific employers of interest to you, figure out what each of them value, and focus on the top items on the list.

Even when degree is mentioned, employers don’t mean it.  At Praxis, we’ve helped hundreds of non-degreed people get jobs that claim to require degrees.

Why are degrees so prevalent, even if not prominent, on employer lists?  Because it represents a vague set of assumptions based on their experience.  It means, “If you’re not at least as good as most of the people I’ve met with degrees, this probably isn’t the job for you.”

That’s it.  That’s not hard to beat!  You just have to be at least a little more interesting than the average degree holder.  And if you’re fulfilling their higher items on the list, you’ve already done that.

Whether degrees or anything else, don’t ask “What do employers want”.  Focus on what specific employers want for specific opportunities, gain that, and prove it through demonstration, not empty words and statuses on a resume.

PS – This doesn’t even mention an even more important fact.  As Taylor Pearson notes, we are moving closer to “The End of Jobs“, and in this emerging world, putting all the focus on getting a job is dangerous.  You need to be thinking about yourself as Me, Inc., thinking in terms of opportunities, projects, contracts, freelance, entrepreneurship, and agile, innovative ways to create value.  That’s the opposite of the get a degree mindset!

A Call for Counterfactuals

One of the most frustrating things in the world is the inability to definitively prove what might be if conditions were different.

It’s intellectually prudent to avoid making claims about what cannot be proven or disproven.  But action requires more than sound logic.  Action requires imagination.

Fear of the unknown is so powerful that people will tolerate horrific knowns rather than step into the unknown.  I could tell a slave that freedom is better, but I can’t prove that their life would have been better had they been free all along, or that it will be better in the future if they escape.

If I only allow myself to make provable claims, I can’t convince them to attempt freedom at all.

Great actions are motivated by imagination.  Grounded in logic, yes.  But beyond the provable alone.  If we can’t explore what might have been, and what might be, we have no reason to change.

That’s why sci-fi is good.

We need more counterfactuals.

How much global prosperity would there be today if World War II had never happened?  If Communists hadn’t murdered millions?  How many geniuses were killed by the state before inventing the next big thing?  What would the economy look like absent central bank money manipulation?  It’s easy to see the most economically free countries are by far the most prosperous.  But what would they look like if they had been totally free?  How much would each individual in your neighborhood change if taxes were zero?  What ripple effects would this have on the structure of productions?  What might the true market interest rate be?  How much further ahead would tech have advanced absent crippling regulation and diversion towards weapons of war?

It’s worthwhile to imagine in detail various alternative scenarios, past, present, and future.

You can’t prove it, but the process of dreaming it will open your eyes to opportunity and motivate action.

Thoughts On ‘The Case Against Education’ (the case for Praxis!)

I will be interviewing Bryan Caplan about his new book, “The Case Against Education on the podcast soon.  But as I just finished it, I decided to share some of my thoughts, and was tired of typing, so went with something a bit different.

I got bumped off twice, so it’s broken into three vids.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

“Maybe if we add all these crappy studies together, it will equal a good study”

One thing I’ve noticed about pop-academic books is the sneaky way they use studies.

I don’t think it’s intentionally sneaky, as you’ve got to use what’s available and if your only conclusion was “It’s unclear”, you wouldn’t have a book.  Still, it’s easy to over-value the conclusions of books that lean on lots of research because of the sheer volume of studies cited.

Often each individual study is fraught with problems, and the authors sometimes admit as much.  You might read something like this,

“One study, which didn’t directly examine this topic, but was following a sort of similar thing 20 years ago, although controversial and some say non-reproducible, might not have had the proper data collecting methods and didn’t control for X,Y, and Z, but seemed to show a relationship like this, and that kind of seems to imply this other relationship I’m talking about.  Of course it’s not definitive so take it with a grain of salt, but even if just roughly, directionally true, it at least doesn’t disprove my theory.”

OK, so that one instance is fine.  The author admits it’s not a great study or definitive proof, but throws it out as sort of some tiny sliver of possibly admissible evidence.  You take it with the recommended grain of salt and move on.  Then they cite another study with a similar disclaimer about it’s flaws and limitations.  Then another.  By the end of the chapter, 20 individually shitty studies subconsciously pile up in your mind as one big near-definitive proof.

But 20 studies with a low probability of proof don’t add up together to equal one with a high probability of proof.

The disclaimers are responsible, and it’s not out of bounds to cite as weak supporting evidence an imperfect study.  Still, if you stack up enough of them, it creates the impression for some kind of powerful “Every smart scientific person who has ever done a study has found this conclusion or something like it and you can’t escape it” that is unwarranted.

I don’t know that the writer can or should do much about this problem, except maybe build the bones of the argument with logic alone, then cite studies only as examples of possible manifestations of the theory, instead of beginning with the studies.  But it behooves us as readers to beware.  Adding two or ten bad studies together doesn’t equal one good study.

Research the Past, Predict the Future

Research is backward looking.

You take a bunch of studies over past time-slices and come up with theories that explain the data of the studies.

Even if the theories accurately explain the past (the majority of the time they don’t), they don’t explain the present or the future.

The future can’t be researched.  It has to be predicted.  How do you predict the future?

Past data can be a useful item in the toolkit.  But the theories that explain it can’t automatically be applied to the future.  The data is the effect, and what changes in the future are causes.  Will yesterday’s causes hold tomorrow?

To predict that takes more than familiarity with past data.  Understanding of the unchanging things, like the basics of human behavior and natural limits (rational self-interest, scarcity, etc.), are paramount.  Then it takes some observational power of the less tangible trends and moods of the day, extrapolation not just of data but also trends and beliefs that cause it.

It also takes creativity.  The future isn’t only predicted, it’s created.  The most powerful predictors help create it through their predictions.

I enjoy research findings as much as the next guy.  But I try to remain disciplined and remind myself all research is about the past.  If conclusions are true, a separate set of arguments are needed to predict what it means for the future.

What Explains Nostalgia?

I’ve been puzzling over the concept of nostalgia for some time.  What is it?

That bittersweet pain you have as a parent when you see your kid growing up and remember in a flash their babyhood.  Or the feeling when a song from your youth comes on the radio.  It’s a very distinct kind of pleasure mixed with sadness.

What would be the evolutionary advantage of nostalgia?  Why would this unique emotional mix of both happiness and sadness be beneficial?

Appreciation of the past makes sense.  It prevents us from ignoring emergent ideas an traditions we don’t understand, because we have some built in reverence for the past.  I get the value of that.  But why the sadness?  Why does the past make us sad?

Yes, perhaps it’s just that it’s a reminder of the passage of time, which is a reminder of our own imminent death, and death is something we fear and feel sadness about.  But nostalgia seems to have a slightly different quality than this.  This answer strikes me as too simple.

What Does a Startup CEO Do?

I can’t tell you what other CEOs do, but I can tell you what my job is like.

My job is to go down into the weeds, come out of the weeds, go into the weeds, come out of the weeds, into weeds, out of weeds, in weeds, out weeds, in, out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in, out, in out in out in out inoutinoutinoutinoutinoutinout.

Without going insane.

That’s the best summary I can think of.

I’ve got to get completely down into the nitty gritty details of one specific customer’s right-now problem.  Then turn on a dime, pull back, and think about revenue projections down the road, major industry changes, how to define our category, generationally shifting customer personas, etc. etc.

I can’t let the specific problems get in my head when I’m thinking big picture or it will limit my vision, cause undue stress, loss of focus, and regression.  On the flipside, when we’ve got a right-now problem that’s hot, I can’t be half in my head about the big picture.  I have to be laser focused on it, in the moment fully, and care about it like it’s all the matters.  Because it is.  Until the next minute when it’s not and I can’t afford to think it is.

It’s fundamentally a schizophrenic role.

Imagine a hiker with an inner monologue like this:

“Raise your gaze to the mountains, man!  What do you see?  How will we get there?  Dammit, look down at the path you moron!  Sidestep that pit, don’t stub your toe on that rock.  Head down.  Head up you idiot! You’re wandering off the path!  What’s wrong with you, you just stepped in that puddle because you looked up?!”

It requites a lot of psychological and emotional agility, and maybe a higher-than-healthy tolerance for crazy.

We all know the more business wisdom you have, the more metaphors you use, so here’s another.

You’re on the Good Ship Company.  You can’t have everyone star-gazing.  You’ll run aground, forget to adjust the sails, or leave leaky planks unattended and sink the whole damn thing.

But you do have to navigate by the stars.  You can’t have everyone adjusting, repairing, and perfecting the ship without looking at where they’re going or you’ll end up where Thar Be Dragons, or worse, nowhere at all.

Division of labor is necessary, but not sufficient.  Navigators navigate, deck hands maintain the ship.  But the captain has to remind the even navigator to take stock of deck conditions from time to time, and adjust course based on what she can handle.  The deck hands need to raise their eyes to the horizon every so often, if nothing else to remember why it is these barnacles need scraping in the first place.

You need different people to do different tasks at different times, and you need to get them to occasionally shift their awareness and connect their tasks with all the others.  The captain’s job is to decide who needs to be looking up and looking down and when.  Which means you’re looking up and down and scanning everyone else side to side as they look up and down.  Constantly.

Without going (fully) insane.

I love it.  I don’t know if it’s a personality thing, but this is my favorite kind of challenge.  It’s a brutal and beautiful mix of earth and sky.

My company is a young, growing non-tech startup and I have no previous CEO experience, so take or don’t take my perspective for what it is or isn’t worth.

How I Try to Help Crypto Without Being a Techie

I’ve been in love with crypto and its world-shaking potential since I first heard about it around 2012. I bought some Bitcoin not long after, and was always excited for an excuse to use it or give it away. I was in it for the philosophy and potential to expand human freedom and prosperity, not really as an investment vehicle.

At some point, when fees got high, merchants stopped accepting it, and the price began to climb, the ethos of the crypto community changed. Alt-coins and ICO’s really enhanced the shift, and before long, it came to feel like the only way to be “involved” in crypto was to be a developer (I’m not a tech guy) or just hold it.

I’m no Keynesian, but simply holding an asset as a passive investor with no interest or ability to increase use and value directly is a sucky way to change the world. Forget whether or not it works, it’s no fun feeling like a stingy old dragon guarding a hoard instead of an intrepid explorer charting new paths.

Well, what can a non-tech person do to help crypto change the world?

You can talk about it, sure. That’s good, (mostly) fun, and needed. But talk is less valuable than action. You can talk about how taxi cartels suck and convince people, but using Uber, or ordering them an Uber so they can experience it for themselves, are more powerful than words for bringing about a shift in how transportation is done.

That’s why I post almost every day on Yours.org.

I don’t do it because I need the few bucks it can earn me from an article. That’s fun and enhances the experience, but it’s not enough of a motivation. I use all the money I earn tipping and voting on other content anyway. I don’t do it for exposure to my writings. I have a personal blog, company blog, a podcast, speaking engagements, social media accounts, and several books that do that just fine. I don’t do it because I’m bored. I’m building a growing company that has nothing to do with crypto (but we do accept BCH as payment!), have a wife and four kids, and plenty of hobbies and stuff to do.

I post to Yours because I’m in love with the promise of crypto and I want to do more than talk about it. I want to make it succeed. That takes work.

I can’t do dev work. I can write about stuff in my wheelhouse, like entrepreneurship, education, economics, personal freedom, careers, parenthood, sports, and a bunch of other random non-technical stuff. So why not use what I’m already good at to help build crypto?

Yours is an excellent place for it.

  • Writing stuff earns me some BCH, which means the network is getting more use and more opportunity to see what’s working, deal with kinks, etc. Again, not a Keynesian “grow wealth by consuming”, but an understanding that networks gain value and obtain info through use.
  • The BCH I earn can be used to tip and vote on other content, which does more of the above.
  • Sharing my Yours writing brings crypto outsiders to the platform. Like giving your friend an Uber ride, they get to see real-time micropayments in action instead of listen to me blab about it.
  • Posting about non-crypto stuff helps show that the crypto economy isn’t just an insular circle where crypto is only used to buy crypto stuff.
  • Yes, I have BCH stickers and shirts too, and I love that stuff. But if crypto purchases are confined to insider memorabilia, growth will hit a ceiling. In my small way, by earning a few tips in BCH for non-crypto content, I’m expanding the crypto economy beyond kitties and socks.
  • It keeps me close to the user experience, and reminds me every day how magical this stuff is. It never ceases to be fun to see “You earned 25cents for your article” pop up in real time. The promise of crypto is real to me when I use it rather than just sit on it and price watch.

So no, I’m not going to be submitting any cool code to Github, but I’ll be damned if I sit idly by on a stack of coins and let everyone else do the work of building a better world with crypto! I’m sticking to what I know and running a business and a family, but I can take a few minutes out of my day to post to Yours and be a tiny part of the revolution.

Just one tiny bit of value added to the ecosystem every day has a powerful compounding effect.

Who’s with me?

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