Elon Musk Does Not Care Whether You Have a College Degree. Why Should You?

While the Abrome YouTube channel has only eight videos on it, we have over half a million views. 99.95% of those views come from a video of super-entrepreneur Elon Musk insisting that when it comes to hiring talent for his team, that he could care less where candidates graduated from college, much less if they graduated from college at all.[1]

In the clip, Musk is asked by the interviewer which colleges or universities he is most interested in hiring from. He responds that it does not even matter if a candidate has a college degree, or a high school degree. He acknowledges that a top university can serve as a signal that a candidate might be “capable of great things,” but clearly that is not sufficient to justify bringing one on his team.

Elon Musk does not care about your degree

Musk is not alone. Internet giant Google has moved away from their early focus on hiring from a collection of top schools, and as of 2013, up to 14% of some Google teams were filled with people who had never even gone to college.[2][3] Google did not change their hiring process based on some sort of anti-establishment ethos, they did it based on their own analysis of their own employees. They found that there was no relationship between job performance and GPA or college affiliation after the first few years on the job. In fact, Google’s senior vice president of people operations is on the record saying that grades are “worthless as a criteria for hiring.”[4]

Historically, colleges were used as a lazy man’s screen for talent. This was in part due to people confusing admission into and performance at college as markers for ambition, intelligence, and perseverance. College attainment has always been more associated with class privilege than intelligence and hard work. It is a rather recent phenomenon that a stellar high school academic record can place an underprivileged applicant into an elite college in place of a privileged applicant with a middling high school record. But children of the elite still have tremendous advantages in the ability to access such educational opportunities, even though studies have shown that they are the ones that benefit from them the least.[5]

With a somewhat democratized economy, where large institutions are more easily challenged and brought down by upstarts, the companies that want to continue to grow and thrive will need to move beyond the lazy man’s screen for talent, and begin to identify better indicators for future performance and success among job candidates. With organizations such as Tesla and Google leading the way, other companies will either adapt their hiring practices or lose the race for talent.

As Musk said, evidence of exceptional ability and a track record of exceptional achievement are far more important than degrees from certain colleges. And the best way to build exceptional ability and to acquire exceptional achievements is to lead a remarkable life, not to chase degrees. However, our schooling system discourages young people from leading remarkable lives. It encourages them to aim for perfection on a narrow range of academic measures based on a narrow and out of date curriculum, and to chase degrees.

If one is intent on playing the game everyone else is playing, they can take comfort in the fact that most companies still rely on lazy screens for hiring. But the world is changing, and young people should not be subjected to the same game everyone else is playing.[6] The focus on academic achievement and degree hunting will not only fail to be an advantage in tomorrow’s economy, it will put young people at a significant disadvantage. It will leave them ill-equipped to navigate the hiring process, and unprepared to prosper in their careers.

It is remarkably difficult to lead a remarkable life while also trying to excel in the oppressive and restrictive world of schooling. Not only does schooling take up at least 6–8 hours a day, 170–210 days a year for 13 years of one’s youth, but it also take up considerable mind space that alters the way they see the world and pursue opportunities. Schooling creates a dependency on authority figures to dictate to young people what is meaningful in life. It creates a shortsighted focus on short-term, finite projects, because those can be graded, whereas deep, meaningful projects that span months or years are beyond the scope of what schools can measure and asses. Schooling also trains students to look for the “right answer” as opposed to dancing in the beautiful space of uncertainty, while risking failure, that is so essential to deeper learning.

The best hope young people have to lead remarkable lives is to divorce themselves from the schooling apparatus and to instead engage in self-directed learning experiences. Only by being able to pursue learning according to one’s unique needs, goals, and interests can one take true ownership over their educational journey. In doing so, they will ultimately find or create opportunities that allow them to develop mastery over or expertise in fields that have personal meaning to their lives, and through the continued refinement and development of their skills and the application thereof for the benefit of society, they will build meaning and purpose within their lives.

People who lead remarkable lives do not need college degrees from top colleges to get their foot in the door or to thrive in life. But a strange irony arises for those who lead remarkable lives: they have a much easier time gaining admission into top colleges, and they have the mindset and skills that allow them to outperform their schooled peers once in college. However, they are also more likely to opt out of the employment game altogether, choosing instead to pursue an entrepreneurial existence.

1. The clip we showed came from a 2014 Auto Bild interview.

2. Google Doesn’t Care Where You Went to College (CNN)

3. Google Has Started Hiring More People Who Didn’t Go To College (Business Insider)

4. In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal (The New York Times)

5. Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60. Find Yours (The New York Times)

6. It is also a game where there are far more losers than winners.

See Abrome for more thoughts.

Anti-oppression. Liberation through education: @AbromeEd. End police abuse: @PeacefulStreets.

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