Don’t Waste Time at Harvard
Tl;dr : Studying in the best universities such as Harvard decreases your chances of success while adding low-value to your diploma if what you study is STEM.
Tyler Cowen is an American economist famous for hosting the economics blog “marginal revolution”. In an episode of Eric Weinstein’s podcast called “The Portal”, Cowen explains he didn’t go to Harvard for his bachelor studies (undergraduate) despite his SAT’s to be in the highest percentile of the country.
When asked why he chose Georges Mason University for his studies, Cowen explained he didn’t want to sleep in a dorm, didn’t want to move out of his parents’ house, and above all, didn’t want his studies to be too difficult to have time to do “his own stuff”.
He did get into Harvard eventually for his master’s degree (graduate studies), but that was only motivated by the opportunities Ivy League schools traditionally open for their graduates.
Why Our Environment Matters
In a presentation for Google Zeitgeist, US journalist Malcolm Gladwell empirically demonstrated Cowen’s brilliance to elect not to study at Harvard.
Gladwell first looked at Harvard undergraduate math students’ SAT scores, then at those from other students in other universities.
Obviously, Harvard students scored much higher than those of lower-ranking universities. He then divided the classes into three student groups: best, average, and worst.
He noticed that the worst students from Harvard had SAT scores equivalent to the best students from other universities, concluding that If you’re the worst at Harvard…you can be the best somewhere else.
Nothing extraordinary so far.
He then looked at the percentage of students that quit their studies in each of the three groups, at Harvard first, then in other universities.
That’s when the findings became interesting: it was the same percentage.
Whether students studied at the best or the worst university in the world, the same percentage of students gave up their math studies among the best, average, and worst student groups.
What Does It Mean?
Gladwell explains that humans compare themselves to their immediate surroundings instead of the “broader picture”.
When Harvard undergraduates quit, it’s because they compare their performances to their peers in their class, not to the entire world’s.
They don’t realize that had they studied in another university, they would have been the best in their class and would have likely continued with their math career.
This phenomenon is equally true for problems such as depression. One is more likely to stress out about the fact that they are depressed in a country where everyone is happy than in a country where everyone is naturally unhappy.
Theoretically, decreasing the overall happiness of a population could help save those that linger around the bottom of the graph. Ethically and morally, that’s another debate.
Don’t Go to Harvard
For some degrees, your university will not be too relevant. If you study a STEM diploma (science, technology, engineering, math) the university you go to won’t matter much since you have a high-valued and rare degree for which companies will be happy to hire you.
Furthermore, by choosing an “easier” university, you’re giving yourself more chances to succeed and more time to do other stuff, as highlighted by Cowen. Should you desire to graduate from a very good university, you could always study for a master’s there.
At the end of the day, whether you graduate from Harvard or Nowhere University, you’re still graduating with a STEM degree. And that’s very impressive either way.
Think for Yourself
I remember watching an Audi (or was it Mercedes?) commercial with a speech from motivational guru Alan Watts in the background of the ad.
He explained that society makes us compete from the moment we’re born and subsequently during our entire life: at school, at university, for jobs, at work, for a partner…and then we die.
Watts emphasizes the absence of time we take for ourselves to relax, enjoy, and do our own stuff. He stresses the importance to take a moment to split from the herd, pause, reflect, and make decisions that truly reflect our desires and not society’s.
That’s what Cowen did, and it worked wonders for him.
The Bottom Line
The need to constantly work and embroil our own lives for the sake of being the best and maximize our chances to be chosen for the best universities and jobs (since in the end, it’s all about how much money we make) has led Peter Thiel to declare that “university is where people who had big plans in high school get stuck in fierce rivalries with equally smart peers over conventional careers like management consulting and investment banking”.
He is not wrong.
Being part of the system forces you to play by its rules.
Compete. Work hard. Be the best.
However, once you realize the process in which you are, you can step aside, observe, think, and take the easier route nobody saw since too busy to compete.
As long as it leads to your final destination, that’s all that matters.
Don’t make your life more complicated than it is.
Don’t go to Harvard.