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IN THIS CHAPTER, WE’LL TALK ABOUT THE CLASS I’D LIKE TO TEACH, THE VALUE OF AN MBA, HOW TO GET A MENTOR, AND WHAT PROFESSORS CAN DO, IF ANYTHING, TO ENGAGE THEIR STUDENTS.
The answers to the questions in this chapter might make you think that I’m not a fan of the current education system. You’re going to think I don’t see any value in it because I was a bad student, and there’s probably some truth to that. It is deliciously ironic that I, an F student, have received invitations to speak at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.
School was never my thing. That’s an unusual thing for an immigrant to say, especially a Jewish immigrant. Traditionally education was my people’s (and most people’s) ticket out of the ghetto. But I sucked at it. We’re not talking B’s and C’s with the occasional D popping up its ugly head. We’re talking a long, remarkably consistent stream of D’s and F’s. There were just so many more interesting things to think about than the Pythagorean theorem or grammar, like the ton of cash I was making selling baseball cards. I just didn’t have the patience or the interest to study what was in my books. I knew that wasn’t where I was going to learn what I needed to know to succeed.
If only more people had the same self-awareness and self-confidence. As a forty-year-old man today who spends most of his time with successful entrepreneurs and professionals, I’m fascinated at how little parallel there can be between one’s level of education and success in the modern business world. I would never be so naïve or misguided as to suggest that time spent in a top university can’t help get you closer to financial success, and I know that diplomas are entry-level requirements for thousands of jobs. But I passionately, emphatically believe that the American university system has lost its value proposition in face of the speed and intensity of the current business marketplace. When you also factor in the unfair debt structure of college loans and how severely they can set young people back, I think it’s time we really start having conversations about whether a college degree is appropriate for everyone.
It’s a hard conversation to have because the American college dream has been so well branded. Even when kids know in their souls that they don’t belong in school, parents can’t let it go. Many grew up hearing that a college degree is necessary for any upward mobility or interesting career, and they are terrified their kids will find their options limited without those degrees in hand. They haven’t yet recognized the massive changes that have occurred in the business place. You also have other scenarios where parents are at a total loss on how to guide their kid because he got a great-grandmother’s entrepreneurial DNA instead of their own more traditionally inclined DNA. But what pisses me off is how often parents’ self-esteem is unhealthily attached to the accomplishments of their kids. They force their kids into an inhospitable educational ecosystem and terrible debt just so they can get their hands on the right bumper sticker. That’s despicable, and I hope anyone struggling against this will read this chapter and find the courage to strike out on their own and follow their heart. I am a purebred entrepreneur but I have no interest in making either of my kids become one. If they choose to go a more traditional route, I’ll support them. Truly, though, by the time my kids will be college-age, the free education that will be available on the Internet will be incredible. My kids’ generation may be the last generation that holds university to such high esteem.
If you’re lucky enough that you can afford to go to school just to soak up the experience, network, or expand your horizons and ideas, be my guest. But today you can go to an incubator to network and you can travel to expand your horizons. Why do you have to incur debt—debt that you cannot even declare bankruptcy against—to do those things? You might even be able to get paid to do it! One thing is certain: College will not properly train you to be a prime-time player in today’s business environment and anything you might learn there about marketing or social media is already on its way to obsolescence. The entire market moves at such a speed that even great entrepreneurs have a hard time keeping up. Within a month of your graduation, there will always be a new platform, a new app, a new channel for doing business that didn’t exist before. Nothing except hustle, prescience, good instincts, time, and patience is going to help you master them. And none of those things can be taught anywhere except the School of Life.
imageIf you could create and teach your own college (or high school) course, what would the name of the class be? How would you teach it?
It would be called “Why You Shouldn’t Have Signed Up for This Course in the First Place,” and it would explore the disconnect between school and the entrepreneurial world. It’s one thing to learn from books and study history and write papers analyzing why one marketing campaign might have worked better for a brand than another. But being able to repeat what you’ve learned, and being able to actually apply that learning to the real world, are two totally different skills and I’m not sure your performance in any course can predict how well you’ll do at the latter.
If I were to teach a course, the last thing I’d want is for my students to regurgitate my words. I can’t tell you how many people I see repeating my hyperbole but not actually acting on my recommendations. They’re automating, for Pete’s sake! You know why that pisses me off? Is it because they’re hurting themselves? No. If they’re not going to hustle I can’t control what happens to them. It’s because they make me look bad. If you Regram one of my posts about hustling, anyone who sees it is going to presume that you hustle, too. But you’re not. You’re playing Call of Duty a few hours per day, watching The Walking Dead, and taking half-day Fridays. The outside world doesn’t know that, though, so when people see you’re getting nowhere, to them it will look like my advice doesn’t actually work. Sometimes I’ll confront people about this at a conference or through a direct message, and it’s been fun for me to watch people admit they’ve been talking the talk but not walking the walk. It’s nice to be vindicated, for sure, but more important, acknowledging their mistake usually gets them going again in the right direction.
You can’t nod your head when I tell you to hustle and then not hustle. You can’t retweet inspiring posts about good listening and then not engage. I can’t believe how few of my followers write articles on Medium when it’s the one platform that offers virality to people who have no audience. I’m there often and I have an audience. Why do I bother? Because it gives me a bigger audience! That’s why I do everything I do.
You don’t need a twelve-week course to digest my biggest piece of advice: Don’t be a student, be a practitioner.
imageI am a fourteen-year-old. I want to be an entrepreneur but I don’t know where to start. What actions should I be taking as a kid?
Wanting to be an entrepreneur and being one are two different things. If I were you, I’d sell the shirt off your back to another kid. I’d find some rocks and sell them to a nine-year-old girl. The best way to become an entrepreneur is to behave like one. Entrepreneurs sell, so start a business or start selling things. If you’re still not sure how to begin, find a young entrepreneur in your neighborhood who’s doing something like what you’d want to do and ask if you can help. Learn the ropes. There’s no reading about this stuff—only doing. Drop this book or Kindle right now, kid, and look around, pick something up, and post it on eBay . . . GO!
imageI read Think and Grow Rich and it changed my life in a positive way. Have you read any books that influenced you?
No. I’ve written four books, one about wine, and three about business. When I have written my eighth, I will have written more books than I have read. A lot of people think that one of my weaknesses is that I don’t read, and I waver between believing they’re right or they’re full of it. The truth is that I do read; I just don’t read the things other people like to read. I read up on baseball cards before selling them. I memorized the wine trades and used what I learned to help me sell on the floor of Wine Library, even before I could drink. I read in short, easily digestible formats about what interests me and what’s practical for me to know.
Actually, I’ve read two business books, if you call the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson a business book; the other was by John Battelle, called The Search, about Google. And then another favorite was called The Nine, about the Supreme Court, by Jeffrey Toobin.
imageWhat advice would you give a high school senior in America who is trying to decide whether or not to go to college, and which one?
Casey Neistat is a filmmaker who has done everything from Internet video storytelling, to ad work for companies like Nike, Mercedes-Benz, and J.Crew, to a film for the New York Times. When Casey and I did an episode together we got the chance to have a long discussion over the value of a university degree. I thought he had some really good things to say.
He answered (reprinted here with minor tweaks for length and clarity), “In life you should only be doing two things ever: discovering your passion and then realizing it. So if you know what you want to do and that trajectory doesn’t necessitate a college education, then skip it. Chances are you don’t know what you want to do or you wouldn’t be asking this question. And if you don’t, your responsibility is to figure it out. College is one of the best atmospheres and environments to be in to figure out your passion, purpose, and calling.” I agreed, but I pointed out that taking on $200K in debt to find your passion might not be the most practical choice. Today there are other places besides universities where people can congregate, learn, and find the mentors who will help them figure out their path in life without holding them hostage to debt for the first ten years of their career. In 2015, college is not always the answer.
Some of my contemporaries say that the university degree will meet its demise in about ten years, but I don’t see it happening that fast. There are still too many kids going to college merely to avoid disappointing their parents. I have a kindergartner and I talk to a lot of the parents who send their children to her school. Their views on the importance of college haven’t changed even though there is evidence all around us that a degree will not get their kids what a degree got them, or even their own parents. And they’re still wrapping their own ego up in their children’s accomplishments, so they will push the kids to aim for the Ivies because it will be proof of their good parenting. Until that changes, colleges will still be able to sucker young people and their families out of a tremendous amount of money for very little practical value in return.
Casey and I got lucky. We figured out our passion and we had the talent to make a career out of it. There are a lot of people who try the same thing and they suck at it. Just watch the auditions for American Idol, or the wannabe NBA players. So I asked Casey, what if you suck at your passion?
Casey answered by paraphrasing Anaïs Nin: “Anyone’s life shrinks and expands on the proportion of your willingness to take risks and try new things.” He goes on: “And that’s why I think an academic environment is a great place to try new things and experiment. So if your passion is painting and you’re a terrible painter, maybe spending time at university will open your eyes to graphic design, which doesn’t require a paintbrush, and you can make a great living and still live out an artistic passion. Of course, college can be a huge waste of time and money if you go for the wrong reasons. Some other opportunities might be as practical as an academic education. What you can’t count on is that going to college will get you something in return, especially success. One thing that is more and more true especially as tech opens new means of sharing and transmitting information is that there is no defined path. If there were a defined path to success, especially in creative endeavors, everyone would follow it. College can be a great way to find one of those paths, but it’s not the only way, and it’s certainly not a guarantee once you get there.” Jack and Suzy Welch had more to add to this conversation when I invited them onto the show for episode 89 to share their incredible wisdom and talk about their new book, The Real-Life MBA. They wrote it for people already in the workforce who might have gotten really good at one thing, but wished they could take a 360-degree view of their career. They might want to brush up on skills, learn new things, or reevaluate their options without giving up two years of their life and going into debt. We answered a number of questions from the Vayner Nation during this episode that appear throughout this book, but I had a couple of questions of my own that I wanted answered (reproduced here with minor tweaks for clarity): GV:
Do you believe a top 25 or 50 business school MBA is as valuable in the marketplace in 2015 as it was five, ten, or twenty years ago?
Only the top ten. The value slides pretty quickly. With the top ten you’ve got McKinsey and Booz lined up waiting for you when you walk out the door. So if you attend a top ten school you’re putting out a huge $300K investment, but the returns are pretty good.
I’m spending a lot of time with those kids now, and many of them want to become start-up entrepreneurs. Do you believe the ROI of that $300K is equally good for them if they choose that path instead of the one that takes them to Bain or McKinsey? Should they go big salary and bonuses at Booz (and drive down their debt) or go out on their own?
It depends on the quality of the idea. Entrepreneur is not a profession like a lawyer or doctor. What is your idea? What is the value proposition? Can you win?
imageI feel as though online courses are usurping traditional education in a big way. Do you see this happening, and is there money to be made?
Yes, such as Skillshare, the Kahn Academy, and Chase Jarvis’s CreativeLive. When I’m trying to learn something I go to YouTube and look for a one-minute how-to video. Information is a commodity and the Internet has given us the platform to learn that way. I don’t need a teacher, no matter how charismatic, to tell me basic information. What matters, and where the experts can offer value, is in opinions, interpretations, and context. Take my show, for instance. My base information isn’t always vastly different from what you might hear elsewhere (though I’m immodest enough to think I might have introduced some of that information and over time it has trickled down into the mainstream and become public domain). What matters and is far more interesting is the context and examples I provide. No one can re-create that.
The changes you’re seeing today in the educational landscape is nothing compared to the disruption you’re going to see over the next twenty years.
imageWhat’s the last new skill you learned as a result of taking an interest in someone else’s passion, hobby, or job?
Golf? My brother, AJ, fell in love with it, but as much as I like it I can’t commit to the five hours it takes to play, so that’s the end of that. Aside from that, I’d probably say respecting data. Weird answer, right? I believe in data because when Eric Kastner and John Kassimatis started as Wine Library’s developers they showed me the other side of marketing—the data targeting and CRM (Customer Relationship Management system).
The power that data could deploy at the time was mind-blowing. It was the year 2000 and much of what we think of as the Internet wasn’t common practice yet or even invented. Between Eric’s and John’s computer skills and my marketing skills, we created the foundation for WineLibrary.com, which massively helped grow our business.
imageI’m a self-taught media marketer. Is it worth taking courses before applying for jobs?
There are too many variables for me to be able to judge whether it would benefit you to take a course. Are the courses good? Are you the type who can learn in an academic environment? Or do you learn better by doing? Social media and modern digital marketing is in an early awkward stage; the people teaching courses right now are the early players of 1995–2003 marketing, and quite frankly many of them are spewing a lot of crap. In five years, when a new generation of instructors with more advanced perspectives on how business should be done has taken over, I might feel a whole lot better about you taking that course. But even so, I’m worried that the modern Web-based business world will always move too fast for traditional education formats to keep up.
imageAny tips on how to get a mentor?
I’ve never wanted a mentor. Even when I had one in my father I pushed against it. My dad used to joke that I wanted to be a Cabbage Patch Kid, born from nowhere, because I was so independent when it came to business. If you want a mentor, I think you have to go and get one. But you’ll have to do more than just ask people to let you follow them around or learn from them. People are busy, and mentoring people properly takes time. Even the most generous, kindest person is going to think twice before taking on the responsibility of mentoring someone else, especially someone they don’t know well. Which is why your first step shouldn’t be to ask people to be your mentor. Your first step should be to show them that you could provide them with something of value. In other words, that they will benefit from having you around.
For example, David Rock (aka DRock) is known as the director, producer, and editor of #AskGaryVee. He’s also one of the reasons the show exists. One day out of the blue he contacted me. And unlike many people, he didn’t ask for a job, or an investment, or an introduction to someone else, or a motivational chat. Instead, he told me he wanted to make a long-form piece of content, and he wanted to make it about me. That became the five-minute film called “Clouds and Dirt.” In other words, he asked for my time and energy, but he offered me something equally valuable in return. After that, he didn’t have to ask me for a job. I saw the beautiful end result and knew I’d be crazy if I didn’t hire him to do more. I wanted to have him around.
If you want someone to be your mentor, you have to make him or her feel the same way about you.
imageWhat advice do you have for professors to engage college students in the classroom? What about outside of class?
I’m going to say this as respectfully as I can: Today more than ever, many professors aren’t relevant to their students. I get emails all the time from people actually listening to my podcast while sitting in class at major universities telling me that what their professor is saying up at the front makes no sense. “They’re telling me there is no ROI in social media!” So your biggest challenge is to be relevant. If you’re a professor, especially if you’re teaching marketing or communications, and you’re not jamming on Snapchat and the Insta, you’re making a huge mistake. You’re out of touch and a step behind your students. You have to know their world and speak their language in order to reach them. Maybe you want to roll your eyes at the bad grammar and the poor spelling and the addictive nature of social media, but your students are rolling their eyes at you, too. If you aren’t factoring in how these tools are changing communication in our society and their disproportionate impact on your students lives, you aren’t providing them the most value you can.
You can’t be romantic about how things should be. To be effective and have an impact on your students, you have to join and even embrace the world that actually is.
imageI’m ten years old. Which one of your books should I read first and when should I read it? I can’t decide!
Start with Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook. In a lot of ways it’s a modern execution of Crush It, though less inspirational. That said, The Thank You Economy is the one you should take the most to heart because it has the most long-term soul and depth to it. The others are heavily tactical, but TYE is the philosophy and the religion. You’ll probably understand JJJRH better than many people in the Vayner Nation because you’re growing up native to social media. You’ve never known any other way to communicate.
Oh, and I hope the young person who asked this question is reading right now. I want you to know you are epic! Ten years old and on it! I am impressed. For all of you reading this with young children, ten is a super age to really start focusing your business skills.
imageMorale in public education is at an all-time low right now. How do we create a thank-you-economy culture despite government mandates, curricula that aren’t effective today, no funding, and, most of all, high stress and pressure on teachers?
You can’t. The machine is too big and broken. With all my charisma, and energy, and clout, I can’t move Fortune 500 orgs into modern marketing, and you want to try to move the entire academic infrastructure? Not gonna happen. What you can do as an individual is what I’m doing with The #AskGaryVee Show. You can put out great content, use the platforms that can reach people, and teach. You might like the slide deck format and use SlideShare, or prefer video and use Khan Academy. Play in the white space. Work around the system, not within it.
You can’t make a huge impact on anything by trying to fix it within the rules of the current game. Change always comes as a result of reexamining the infrastructure and creating so much pressure against the machine, it has to change.
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