Bullish Life: What To Do When College Didn’t Seem To Help Your Future Much



Oh look, interest rates on student loans just doubled. July 4th approaches, and my patriotism is substantially dampened by this slap in the face to young Americans.

Let me tell you about a fairy-tale time: the late 1990s, also known as the dot-com bubble. College students with what sometimes seemed like any kind of tech experience at all were being recruited to drop out of college and take six-figure jobs. I heard of someone getting six figures straight out of high school after learning to code in his childhood bedroom. Even web content writers with no tech skills at all were being recruited and making big bucks!

Here is a 1999 article from Inc. magazine about a startup called JustBalls.com. It sold balls. You know, soccer balls, baseballs, golf balls. Just … balls. No bats. No mitts! JUST BALLS. By 2001, the company had received $13 million in venture funds to pursue (that is, get their balls into) the “affinity and premium ball market.”

I’m saying that if JustBalls was taken for brilliance, it’s not hard to see how a hip young person could teach himself some kind of tech skills in his dorm room, head to Silicon Valley, and get a cool job that also included equity in the company.

In today’s environment, there is a serious shortage of jobs, unpaid internships abound, and a college degree is more expensive than ever but no longer impressive in any way. Students are graduating with crippling debt loads. Joan Walsh of Salon does not fuck around when she suggests, We Must Hate Our Children. From that article:

In the survey of 61,700 student loan holders recently completed by One Wisconsin Now and Progress Now, students with bachelor’s degrees took an average of 19 years to pay off their loans, at an average cost of $117,000. Their average monthly payment was $499. And this isn’t a brand-new problem: Of the $1 trillion in student debt, 60 percent is owed by people over 30.

According to Tim Donovan in Salon, there’s no reason to expect that the situation will improve anytime soon:

This is why Millennials should be deeply suspicious of any starry-eyed estimates of the future of job security or growth; the reality is that in far too many instances, when Boomers retire, their quality jobs go with them, only to be replaced by temp work, part-timers or simply reassigned to a workforce already the most productive in history.

Salon has really been on this story — David Dayen went so far as to say that since student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy, they’re not loans at all, but legally resemble indentured servitude.

Systemic change is needed.

European countries, of course, are known for generally providing free university (and trade school) education. Finland, as just one example, not only provides free university education, but also stipends for students to live on while attending school. I mention Finland because I recently read this charming BBC piece: Why Finnish Babies Sleep in Cardboard Boxes. Answer? Because the government provides each new mother a lovely box of expensive baby gear (the box itself doubles as a baby bed), as a way of saying, “Welcome to Finland, small citizen! We don’t hate you!”

Woman's hands holding coffee and the GetBullish Money Reset book on a cozy blanket


Markets are inherently artificial; they are designed, and ought to be designed for the well-being of human beings. Any functioning democracy needs to create a system in which the bulk of average people, by following most of the rules, can attain the basic goods of life. Our society treats elites as deserving winners, and everyone else as morally culpable failures who deserve lifelong punishment. (“If you wanted health care, you should’ve tried harder in school!”) This is insane as public policy.

Let us now praise Elizabeth Warren as a preeminent social justice hero on this front — watch her kick some ass here.

(See also Bullish Life: Why More Socialism Would Help 51% of the Population Create More Jobs.)

In the meantime, how do you move forward when you have loans, and college didn’t seem to have the magical effects you might have hoped?

Master the Informal Economy

Many workers are going to have to accept that freelance and “temporary” work may in fact be permanent.

If you’ve been outside the formal full-time job market for too long, or you’re a bit older and never broke in, it can be very hard to convince an employer that you’re full-time job material.

If part-time, temporary, freelance, or odd-job work is your lot, you’re going to have to run a business. You’re going to have to run it really well if you’re going to retire someday with sufficient resources, or get through a long illness without going bankrupt. This means, in part: your hourly rates need to be 2-3 times per hour what you would make in a full-time job, and you need to produce more than you think you need in order to have a cushion for breaks, illnesses, and changing circumstances. (See Bullish: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE.) This means that tracking response rates to advertising is a mainstream activity that many regular people need to do. This may mean running a small business so that there is a season for producing and a season for marketing and selling, rather than just trying to produce all the time. You can’t hate marketing and selling.

If you are part of a couple, I think that one pattern that can work really well is having one person in full-time employment and another who is diversified through multiple freelance, part-time, or entrepreneurial endeavors. Not like you should only date people with certain kinds of jobs, but at the point that you and a partner (are lucky enough to) have decisions like these to make, I think the safest bet for two people is to have one person in the system, one person out. One person to get all the sweet benefits, the other to be able to hustle and to work flexibly under any circumstances.

Surely, colleges should teach students to navigate the informal economy, to patch together careers — or at least a way to survive — from a variety of gigs and income streams. Most make no attempt. Some art schools, realizing that there have never been many full-time jobs for artists, are trying. Similarly, from Haley Mlotek’s I Was a Beauty School Dropout:

Nothing I learned in two years at U. of T. has been as useful as what I learned in ten months at beauty school. It prepared me for, honest to god, my whole life. Our teachers encouraged us to always say “yes” to work, to remember we were only as good as our last job. They taught us to never say “no:” to never admit “No, I don’t have that colour” or “No, I don’t know how to do that technique”, but instead to say “I’ll figure it out.” They taught us to think of ourselves always as students, in constant need of improvement.

I have also noticed that, when life gets rough, it’s the artists and freelancers I know who seem the most generous and engaged with the plights of others: they plan fundraisers for the down-and-out, they make Kickstarters for good causes, they pump water out of homes after Hurricane Sandy. In a failing economic system, social connections are a form of wealth. Help others in the hopes that they help you. (Understanding this as a survival strategy has actually helped me better understand the behavior of people in socioeconomic circumstances different from my own. Maybe a topic for another time.)


Learn quantifiable, definable skills (“communications” doesn’t count)

Weirdly, as college becomes more and more expensive, many forms of practical, job-focused learning are now more affordable than ever. (See Bullish: Tech Skills Are Not Optional For Your Career.) They’re just not for lazy people.

General Assembly (motto: Turning Thinkers Into Creators) has skill-based programs in tech that are affordable (these have names like “Mobile App Development Bootcamp”, but also “Designing Tablet Magazines.” I also admire the course name “Hadoop and NoSQL for Terrified Absolute Beginners”), available in major cities and online. There are plenty of similar programs.

If you can develop top-notch skills for a few hundred bucks at a time, or around $12K for a full-time program, college comes to sound a lot more like a finishing school for the upper-middle class and a false bill of goods for the rest of us. At least for those graduating with $60,000+ in loans.

Don’t get a PhD unless you are reeeaaaally sure about what you’re doing

You are very unlikely to get a teaching job that provides any benefits at all, much less tenure. There are many adjunct professors who lack the ability to cover basic needs; there are fundraisers for kindly college instructors who make $16,000 a year and fall on hard times. Some are on public assistance. From The Chronicle of Higher Education: The PhD Now Comes With Food Stamps.

If you have a PhD and fail to gain employment in your field, you can go into business for yourself in some fields. Not so much in others (the above article recounts the woes of, among others, a PhD in medieval history). But “too much” education can make you unemployable at what many people think of as fallback jobs in case of hard times — for instance, at The Gap. The Gap does not need someone working there who feels terrible about it and resents being there and obviously has the sort of personality that led her to want to study until she was 30. I’m pretty sure that The Gap wants chipper, friendly people with retail experience — people who, ideally, really love The Gap. And fashion! And shopping! And helping other people look good! You can’t even take the PhD off your resume to get hired at TheGap, because then you have to answer questions about what you’ve been doing for eight years.

So, don’t go to grad school unless you’re really sure of what you’re doing.

Even if you get into a program where you get fellowships and stipends and teaching work (“They pay you to go, so why not?”), the opportunity cost is enormous. If the PhD path doesn’t work out, you don’t get those years of career development and wealth building back.

Also check out this take on grad school and the followup from Penelope Trunk.

Pitch like hell — and beyond the limits of social norms

I think that oftentimes it’s not hard to see what would really make you stand out from a crowd of job applicants or competing freelancers, but we don’t do those things because we’re embarrassed and it would be weird. Most people will do just about anything to avoid embarrassment.

For instance, you could go into an interview with a ten-page report you wrote about the company and your recommendations for it. (Or maybe such a report, sent straight to the highest-up person you can find, would be what gets you the interview.) But even people who can pretty easily dash off ten-page reports and would do anything to get a real post-college job still don’t do this because it’s weird and possibly creepy.

Yes, when you’re intense, some people are turned off. But others want you on the team ASAP. Intense people seek out other intense people. Some people really dig a ten-page report about the thing they do every day. It’s better for others to have a high standard deviation of opinion about you than for no one to notice you or care.


I recently enjoyed an email from a young woman that said, “I can do literally everything perfectly and instantly. True story.” Sure, some people are turned off by a cheeky, direct approach. But I’ll remember that over a sea of emails offering, “Dear Ms. Dziura, I am an experienced and capable worker who can do any task that is put before me.” My professional response to that is blaaaaah [tongue lolling out of mouth].

You know what would really impress me? If someone actually finished a bunch of those free MIT classes you can take online, and had a convincing portfolio of their work, plus letters of completion from their professors. I would pretty much bow down before someone who got the equivalent of a college degree by substituting self-discipline for tuition payments, who had gained demonstrable skills, and who had the communication skills to sensibly present and explain this. Oh, you have the ability to find the best resources on the Internet, commit to a course of action, follow through for a thousand hours, perform tasks to the requirements of a variety of professors, and then write up a report and explain what this has to do with why you should work at this company? I cannot even express how much better that is than someone with a vague degree explaining that they’re willing to do “anything” and “just want to learn.”

(See Bullish: 3 Tips for Pitching Your Dream Gig.)

Consider a trade, in the modern sense

I have occasionally shocked my college-educated, gainfully-employed, over-30 peers when I have suggested that “no child of mine is going to enter adult life without the ability to practice a physical trade.” Dogwalking is fine. Landscaping, nail technology, hair extension application, etc. I would count SAT tutoring, which is physical in the sense that enough people still prefer a real-live teacher over a much cheaper video course or foreign tutor who works online.

Why this prescription?

The job market for “cognitive labor” is contracting. Increasingly more sophisticated technology allows doctors in India to examine the x-rays of American patients and make diagnoses from afar. Even the biggest Internet companies employ shockingly few people. From Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future?, quoted here:

At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people.

Furthermore, in Bullish Life: How to Stay Bullish When You’re Depressed, I suggested that living entirely inside our heads and attempting to do only cognitive work breeds neuroticism. It sucks to study from kindergarten until your early twenties while knowing that your accomplishments have no value to anyone but you and your parents. Young people feel better when they know that their hard work and skills are actually valued and wanted by other people.

A physical skill is probably also good for the coming apocalypse (see Bullish Life: How Much Survivalism Should We All Engage In, Without Building Bomb Shelters?).

Start a business that jibes with the ridiculous labor market

If you can figure out a way to make a product or service that people will buy, you can hire great people to work for you for very little. The minimum wage is $7.25, which is not okay. But if you can pay people 3-4 times that, you can get some amazing people. If the economy were better, you’d have to hire headhunters. Instead, you could tape a sign to a post on the street and get people with advanced degrees showing up for interviews.

It is never the case that it is a terrible time to start a business. If anyone says that to me, I tend to latch onto them like a hideous suckerfish of unwarranted assumptions and interrogate them at length: Really, why is it a bad time to start a business? Because the economy is bad? What do you mean by that? There are no jobs? Yeah, that’s a great time to start a lot of different kinds of businesses, especially the kind that depend on having great people and creating jobs.

(See Bullish: Starting a Business When You’re Broke, Bullish: Launching Your Empire While You’re Youthful Mojo is Sky-High, and Bullish: You Can Start a Business By Tuesday.)

First published on The Gloss.


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