Don’t Go Back to School: Book Review

back to schoolI wrote recently about whether a college degree is worth the expense, and when I heard about Kio Stark’s new book called Don’t Go Back To School: A Handbook For Learning Anything, I was intrigued.  I asked her for a copy in exchange for consideration for writing a review, and here we are. It’s a good book, I read it quickly, and if you don’t know where to start in seeking your own education start here.

From the title I expected either a manifesto or pragmatic guide to self learning, but that’s not the case. The book centers on interviews with successful individuals who achieved success without following traditional paths. Although I easily read the entire book and recommend it, it’s an oddly shaped reading experience, where the introduction read more to me like a closing summational chapter. Although the book closes with a chapter of tactics and resources, and some interviews provide tips, the book itself is more inspirational than pragmatic.

There are some excellent interviews (Norton, Doctorow, Taylor) but some wander too deeply into personal histories and career specific advice, away from the book’s ambition (Cory Doctorow‘s interview felt as if it were repurposed as he talks more about writing than anything else). Unlike Founders at Work, where the interviews stand alone, or even What Should I Do With My Life?, where the author weaved the stories together, Don’t Go Back to School sits in the middle in structure. It took until I reached the 4th or 5th interview that I settled in to the frame and tone of the book. I’d almost recommend reading the interviews first, and the introduction and closing references last.

And yet one of my favorite lines in the book comes from Stark’s introduction:

A gracefully executed quit is a beautiful thing, opening up more doors than it closes

She also clarifies common strategies her interviewees shared:

  • Portfolios to show their past projects and demonstrate competence
  • They show enthusiasm and chutzpah
  • They are adept at learning on the job
  • They are meticulous about doing good work

And Stark takes to task the often sited data about the value of a college degree:

…as a historical trend, people with college or graduate degrees have higher lifetime earnings… the problem is that this statistic is based on long-term data, gathere from a period of mderate loan debt. easy employability and annual increases in the value of a college degree.

Some highlights from the interviews include:

Quinn Norton (Journalist):

To this day, lectures are one of the best ways I can learn things, now on my iPod. To really get it, I listen to the same lecture back to back, twice…

I was a very odd teacher… I hated grading. I remember standing up in front of them and telling them grades don’t matter… One of them raised their hand and asked, “Well then Ms. Norton, what matters?” I told them what you learn matters. The skills that you get are useful. Not the grade you get. They were aghast.

Dorian Taylor (Programmer):

At my present age of 33, I suspect I could get into any institution that would take my money. But I couldn’t tell you why I’d go.

Molly Crabapple (Artist):

If you go to a rich people school, in any major, you will get a network of rich people. If you go to a poor people school, you won’t get a network of anyone. I totally understand why people go to Ivy League schools, so that they’ll meet the future power brokers of the world. I just never had the grades or the money for that, so it wasn’t an option for me. I made my own way. I network with people who are outside my field – journalists, writers, performers – and I look for every opportunity in the entire world where there is a blank wall and I can put my work on it.

Christopher Bathgate (Sculptor):

Getting stuck for me has been one of my best teachers. It has taught me the huge difference between just knowing the answer, and knowing how to find the answer

Pablos Holman (Hacker):

A lot of the people I think of as being most capable and accomplished are those that dropped out of college and learned what they do on the job. Learning that way gives you a sense of responsibility and a sense of ownership of your skills and knowledge in a way that a degree doesn’t. You get a degree and it’s an external authority saying you know what  you’re doing. The degree abstracts responsibility for learning and the knowledge you have.

Zach Booth Simpson (Researcher):

Don’t bother getting an education: just hang with smart people and ask good questions.

The book is excellent for people who want to break free, and need to connect with stories of those who have done it. Most of the interviews are with independent, freelancer, entrepreneurial professionals and their stories will have the most appeal for those dreaming about similar paths (as opposed to those who dream about middle management and want to get there without going to college).

You can get the book here Don’t Go Back to School.


7 Responses to “Don’t Go Back to School: Book Review”

  1. Joe McCarthy

    It’s not surprising that some exceptional people are able to carve out exceptional career paths, and yet I often wonder about whether / how these non-traditional paths scale.

    I raised the issue during a Foo Camp 2007 session on Passion, Privilege, Scalability & Desirability, and came away with a keener appreciation for how much I was assuming about passion (e.g., that everyone has or wants to pursue passions).

    I’m glad things have worked out well for Kio Stark, and some of the people she interviewed. Bypassing college has also worked out well for Dale Stephens, who wrote another recently published book on this theme, Hacking your Education.

    It appears that massively open online courses (MOOCs) are also offering paths outside of traditional universities for some people to make progress in [preparing for] their careers. But as Sebastian Thrun, co-founder of Udacity, remarked in a NYTimes article on Udacity’s collaboration with San Jose State University: “MOOCs will only succeed if they make normally motivated students successful”.

    I suspect the recommendations made by Stark, Stephens and other non-traditionalists may similarly be limited in their applicability to “normally motivated” students.

    1. Scott

      You point out a question that I definitely had on my mind reading “Don’t Go Back To School”. There’s a certain paradox in self-driven anything in that the kinds of people who have an innate drive to do things on their own will, and those that don’t won’t. George Carlin used to joke about self-help books being paradoxical, since if you’re reading a book, you’re using someone else to help you, and if you’re motivated to go get a book to read it, why not use that motivation to go do other things too?

      The question of motivation and internal drive is a huge one, not just for education but for many things.

  2. Dave

    Interesting book Scott. What it neglects is that for many professional careers such as engineering, law or medicine a tertiary education is mandatory.

    I wanted to be an engineer from early in high school. Though I could have learnt what I know independently, that piece of paper was essential. Without it I would be limited to technician work.

    I spent nine (!) years at university in engineering and business studies eventually ending up with a PhD and loved every minute of it. I don’t think it’s for everyone or even for most people but I have a wonderful portfolio career working as a cleantech developer and university lecturer. I wouldn’t have had a chance at either without my educational background.

    For those who wish to code or be artists then the value of a degree is less clear. Here in Australia university fees are a lot lower than in the US even for top universities which would change the value proposition considerably.

  3. Phil Simon

    Her book is on my list. I backed her project. More than ever, you can teach yourself just about anything within reason.

  4. Sean Crawford

    Hi Scott,
    (Hurray for George Carlin) Although I myself don’t feel like commenting on the topic of self-help books right now, the topic has merit. Maybe in future that could be something you and for us fans of your blog to discuss.

    Come to think of it, I could reason out my own essay, and I probably will, but I won’t just now.

  5. Dorian Taylor

    Thanks for the insight, Scott. I was really thrilled to be part of this book, and thank Kio for the opportunity. I’m really glad she’s moving conversation in this direction. I haven’t had an opportunity to read the rest of it myself—been away at IA Summit and dealing with the inevitable pileup associated with taking a week off.

    I agree that I and my esteemed (much more than I) bookmates are not “normal”. In fact I’d wager there’s some kind of Pareto rule governing what percentage of the population can get away with going completely heterodox and to what extent. The question is what does that curve look like? We won’t really know until we test it.

    (Also, point of privilege: I haven’t been a programmer for years. ;) What I’m doing these days is almost too close to management consultancy for comfort.)

  6. Phil Simon

    I’m almost finished with the book and agree with you Scott: the introduction felt misplaced. Some of the interviews are pretty uneven and don’t seem to gel.

    I’m still glad that I backed the project.


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