Wednesday 19 June 2019 5:39 am

Debunking the dropout-hero narrative


Andrew Sutherland is founder and chief technology officer of learning platform and app Quizlet.

Andrew Sutherland is founder and chief technology officer of learning platform and app Quizlet.

It often happens. In meetings, at networking events, or even around dinner tables. “So, where did you go to college, Andrew?” “MIT,” I respond.

Naming the Institute usually draws impressed looks. “But I left before graduating to build my own company.”

Choosing not to complete university historically evoked suspicion, even sympathy. But that is not the case today. In many professional circles, dropping out has become intellectually mysterious, even attractive.

Certainly in the tech world, saying you didn’t graduate can be as impressive as excellent grades.


This shift in attitudes is due to a handful of iconic dropouts we’ve admired in our lifetime. We saw the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Richard Branson all leave traditional education early, before launching world-renowned companies.

In the modern era, the media celebrates school dropouts for their bravery. Take the following three headlines from just the last month: “College dropout who founded firm in shed becomes billionaire” (Bloomberg), “These 23 successful tech moguls never graduated college” (Business Insider), and “This High School Dropout Went From $0 To $200 Million In Revenue In 12 Months” (Forbes).

While these innovative minds deserve acclaim, we also need to be conscious of this misleading get-rich-quick narrative. Especially at this time of year (when students are sitting exams), celebrating dropout culture can muddy the purpose of learning. It can conflate starting your career with ending your education.

Fawning news articles about dropouts can give the impression that the workplace is pitted directly against the classroom, and that ending education early almost guarantees an advantage in the working world. Finishing school, whether prematurely or not, apparently signifies the moment when your learning stops, and the money-making begins.

This is a gross distortion of the reasons why we acquire knowledge, and of the reality of building a successful business. Learning and working have always been complementary.

Look at the dropouts I mentioned earlier. Jobs credits a calligraphy class he took after dropping out of his university for inspiring Apple’s beautiful typography. Zuckerberg has a deep interest in classical language and civilisation, and is learning to speak Mandarin Chinese. Branson is known for exploring new ventures as big as space travel. And Gates’ annual book recommendations allow us to devour the great reads from which he personally learns new things.

This capacity for continually seeking knowledge has helped shape the companies we now recognise as household names.


I taught myself how to code on computers in my teenage years and started a company before completing college. But I also continue to invest in myself, from studying machine learning and French, to taking public speaking classes.

Debunking — or at least contextualising — the dropout-hero narrative is more important now than ever before. Learning should be a lifelong pursuit.

The rise of automation, coupled with the fact that people no longer stay in the same job for decades, means that versatility and ambition must be coupled with upskilling throughout our careers.

When I left MIT before graduating, I understood that this moment would not be the end of my education. And the most successful people are those who embrace every chance to know more than they did the day before.

I hope that the next generation of workers realise that, regardless of whether someone attends and graduates traditional university, the end of formal education is not the end of the intellectual journey. The greatest gift you can give yourself, and others, is the opportunity to learn.

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