Illustration by Siobhán K Cronin
Illustration by Siobhán K Cronin

The Rocket Doesn’t Come With a Moral Compass

We all know the Zuckerbergian myth of dropping out of college, hungrily and foolishly, for glory, risk, and the promise of scalable impact and a big payout. The landing page for the $100,000 Thiel Fellowship plays into this narrative: “Pursue ideas that matter instead of mandatory tests. Take on big risks instead of big debt.”

Certainly the person taking this path is betting big on wild success when they jump off of the university track. But there’s a subtler bet: The bet that along the way, the startup will be a better teacher than the university experience they are foregoing. I believe this is the biggest risk for the person dropping out, because our time and education is so valuable.

Most startups die. The startup mortality rate is around 90%, depending on how we define it. And what is the biggest outcome of a failed startup? We hear it all the time from founders in their postmortems: “We learned a ton.”

In a startup journey, founders learn practical business skills: how to raise money, manage people and burn rate, and launch and grow a product. They learn about their own abilities, tactics for managing their psychology, and how to stretch beyond what they believed they could do.

But what about the liberal arts education that universities pride themselves on? The critical thinking skill that is considered to be the hallmark of a university education? What about empathy, morality, patience, humility, and discipline? Do startups teach these things?

Startups aren’t designed to teach any particular thing. Startups are only accountable for a high rate of return to investors. Personal growth and learning is a side effect, a nice-to-have. Even if “we learned a lot” was the best outcome for a failed endeavor.

Universities, on the other hand, are designed around personal growth and learning. They instill empathy, morality, patience, humility, and discipline. They open the door to a vast experience of history and culture that enriches our lives and our work.

In startup life, it’s pretty rare that a business need challenges us to study the history of philosophy or the Ottoman Empire. And startups have a lot of pitfalls that the liberal arts education could help founders avoid.

For example, the startup environment can hamper personal growth. A toxic Lord of The Flies environment easily forms on the social island of a startup. Founders may learn that they can get what they want by emulating one of the ruthless tyrants we love to lionize — isn’t that how successful people behave? And while founders may have great mentors and teammates who will call them out for being assholes, it’s also likely that they’ll get away with it.

A startup can be an identity vortex. Founders may begin to believe they are no more than the sum of their own startup ambitions. Maybe by missing out on college, they didn’t get enough space outside of the workforce to develop a sense of self separate from their work. So their identity gets wrapped up in the company. And when it fails, it’s a major psychological meltdown.

Finally, instead of teaching people to be good humans by a traditional university standard, Silicon Valley teaches us that we are only as good as our next Big Idea. We are told that nothing is worth doing if it isn’t scalable; that we are worth nothing unless our work has scalable impact. This narrative distracts us from the moral topology of our work, whatever the scale. And because scalability usually offers a blunt and global solution to a nuanced and local problem, it can easily corrupt the best intentions of “making the world a better place.”

Startup founders are building the next generation of technology, and it is rife with ethical and philosophical questions. Outside of the college system, who is responsible for helping them develop a moral compass and the wisdom to tackle these questions?

Special thanks to Siobhán K Cronin, Patrick Ewing, and Nathan Maton.