What going to university really did for me.

Every now and again, I come across stories like these where the rhetoric is always getting a degree doesn’t guarantee success in life.

Of course it doesn’t. Success depends largely on the individual’s intrinsic motivations to actually want to get ahead in life, and one’s academic achievements does not equate with the amount of hunger he or she possesses for success in life.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t go to university because I believed getting that bit of paper would propel me farther in life than people who didn’t. I chose to go to university because I recognised it was the one place (although not necessarily the only place) where I could sufficiently challenge and train my brain in a sheltered environment to hone my outlook and perspectives on things, my analytical skills and reasoning and logical thinking, before I went about striking it on my own and finding my own path in life.

One key word here: “sheltered”. Because removed from the complexities and burdens otherwise in ‘the real world’, the ‘school of hard knocks’ or whatever you want to call it, university or college provides a safe haven where you pretty much could test out whatever crazy ideas you had or your views of how to take on the world; a place where you spar with some of the brightest sparks around who provide you with a different take on things, and you learn from your peers as much as you do from your professors.

I majored in Economics and English Literature, and I’ve done a crazy mix of elective modules, from foreign languages, philosophy, sociology and human resource management, to quantum mechanics and C++ programming. I relished them all, and one thing I realised many years later is that while some folks were going to look at my transcript and wonder what the heck I was thinking when I signed up for those electives, they all helped to shape the way I think one way or another, and I ended up challenging the grey matter between my ears and learning about so many different things I probably wouldn’t get the same opportunity to do so elsewhere. And all that culminated in me being able to see entire value chains and value-creating processes in operations from conceptualization all through to marketing to consumers, and I’m thankful I did what I did: in the end, it wasn’t what it says on the piece of paper that landed me the jobs I took on because I did’t end up becoming some government economist or literary professor, but being able to appreciate, assess and approach a issues to solve a problem efficiently.

In that sense, I’m glad I chose to go to university, because I almost didn’t.

I’m not dissing people who haven’t had the opportunity to go to college, nor am I putting them down in any way: it’s just that sometimes, it really irks me when I hear people putting down degrees and diplomas. You went and did something different, and you succeeded on your own terms — good for you. But much as you hate the fact that others put you down for your lack of educational credentials, don’t retaliate by putting down the work of people who think it’s important to earn those credentials before they embark on their life journey, and overlook the fact that they did toil and work hard to get that piece of paper you dissed so much.

No one can dismiss the importance of getting an education. Like it or not, it’s still the way out of poverty in many societies, and even in the West, where we hear so much about celebrating innovation and the spirit of entrepreneurial pursuits, a college diploma or university degree remains the ticket to getting a good job. “Good” being a subjective definition, that is, yet very much so it’s one of the very first things employers look at on a resume to gauge if you can even land yourself an interview.

I get it, the world is full of mavericks who have bucked the trend and are so successful they hire graduates to work for them even though they themselves don’t have a degree: Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg…or closer to Asia, the likes of Jack Ma and so forth. But for every Jack Ma you find who so loudly discounts the need for degrees, how many other founders, co-founders and C-suite decision makers actually have MBAs? And how many of these entrepreneurs who prided themselves so much in the rags-to-riches story and talking about dropping out of Ivy League universities to found their start-ups actually went back to school to get their degrees — quietly?

And here’s the other thing: these folks didn’t drop out of just any university. They already belong to the top tier of their cohort qualifying for the premier universities to begin with. In other words, it didn’t matter if they ended up getting PhDs or not: intellectually, they already belong to the top 5% of the population. So in a sense, to me, they’re entitled to say whatever they want to say and get away with it because they are that smart.

But here’s the part I would disagree with those of them who wear their dropping out of university proudly like some congressional medal of honour: not everyone is going to take the entrepreneurial route, and for many of us, particularly in Asia, it’s still important to gain that little piece of paper if you wanted just a little head-start in life. And don’t make it sound like the decision we made or the effort we took to earn that paper is the dumbest thing anyone could do.

I went on to do an MBA. I’ve had friends and even random people asking how has that helped in terms of career progression. Honestly, if you equated somehow that getting a Masters or a PhD would land you a 5 or 6 figure salary as an ROI, then I definitely didn’t net the returns.

But in the same token as what led me to decide to pursue my undergraduate studies in the first place, it wasn’t that hope of a guaranteed shot at getting a CEO or COO’s job that led me to decide to do an MBA. I was curious. I wanted to challenge my brain once more. And no, not all my classmates were Fortune 500 CEOs, if you really believed in the whole “MBAs are for networking” BS. One or two of them may be big shots, but it doesn’t mean getting to know them in MBA class automatically qualified me to join them at some old boys’ club and got myself offers for senior leadership roles or billion-dollar deals.

Some of you may still think “what’s the point then”? Well, believe it or not, I still think it was all worth it. Those of you who have been in similar situations may “get it”, but even if you’re still desperately trying to figure what the heck this whole essay is about, it’s simply this: we all have our own ideas and thoughts about what having a degree means; granted getting one doesn’t mean always mean one group of people are going to be more successful than the other in terms of career progression or social mobility, but at the very least, much as you don’t like the pompous smart-ass graduates who walk around like they’re better than anyone else, don’t be the bitter disbeliever who goes around knocking those who probably gave up a lot on the side just to earn their educational credentials in the hopes of a better future.

This article first appeared on Roy Phang's Medium account.


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