Defending college

I was catching up on my RSS reader, and saw Charlie O'Donnell's week-old post and had to respond to one of his points:
We care more about college than we do about elementary school or high school.  This generation is getting saddled by more debt than they'll ever be able to handle, because we're obsessed with the idea that everyone needs a four year degree from a top school.  I don' t know about you, but I felt pretty smart before I went to college and I don't think my capacity for intellect really changed that much from 18 to 22.  In fact, it's been scientifically proven that your early years do a lot more to determine your intelligence than your late years.  So why are we paying so much for college?  We're afraid to hire someone smart right out of high school or who went to a community college.  College isn't for everyone and we should do more to provide people with usable skills before they turn 18.
My response:
I agree with most of your points, but I'll push back on the college point. College mattered a _lot_ more to me than elementary school and high school. Going to a top school isn't about learning the material - you can get the same knowledge in many places for much cheaper. And the point isn't to make you smarter - as you note, intelligence is already set by that point.

But as you know, intelligence isn't enough to make somebody successful. You also need grit and drive and the social skills to convert that intelligence into impact. And that's what I learned by going to a top college. High school was way too easy for me. I needed the cold water bath of going to MIT and struggling to be even average in my classes. It forced me to raise my game, because the only way to keep up with the firehose was to learn more and learn faster than I ever would have thought possible. What MIT taught me was that I can learn anything quickly if I put my mind to it. And that confidence has enabled me to switch careers and fields several times successfully (physics to biotech to finance to software).

The social connections are also key. And not from an old boys' network standpoint - i've only gotten one job through my connections when I dropped out of grad school. It's because I aspire to do more to match my friends and peers that achieve great things. I don't think to myself "Oh, those people are nothing like me and are out of my league". I think "I know these guys and I kept up with them in classes, so dammit, I gotta go work harder". I'm not uber successful by any means, but I definitely feel that the peer pressure of my MIT classmates gives me a kick in the ass to keep working hard when I might be willing to coast otherwise.

I agree that college isn't for everyone, but for the people it is good for, it's great.


This evening, I was taking a break after dinner at work and pushing some balls around the pool table. A coworker I didn't know walked by and asked if I wanted to play. I said, "Sure, why not" - I feel pretty confident in my pool skills, even though it's been, gosh, ten years since I got good at pool during the year that Signature BioScience went bankrupt.

I broke, pocketed one ball, screwed up the next, and turned the table over to him. He sank six balls in a row smoothly, transitioning each shot into positioning for the next. He only missed when he had to go after the one remaining ball that was in the middle of my six balls. I was feeling outclassed, and commented that my only chance in the game was to leave my balls on the table to make his shot harder. He pointed out that wouldn't work for very long, which was true.

But I sank three balls on my turn, and when I got to a hard shot, I carefully left him another difficult shot, and he missed again, so I got another chance. I think I screwed up then, and he closed me out. But he said "Good game - want another?" Given my other option was going back to work, I said yes.

I can't remember the ins and outs of the next game - it was a difficult table, and we both had trouble getting a rhythm going, but I got ahead and beat him (I remember him saying "Man, I can't leave you an opening!" in frustration). And so we had to play a tiebreaker.

On the break, I pocketed two stripes, but given standard 8-ball rules (which he knew and few others do), the table is still open until you sink a ball after the break (as an aside, he also properly played call the shot (and called me on it when I tried to pass off an accidental shot as intentional) and ball in hand on scratches). I tried to squeeze a stripe in to take advantage of the two ball lead and missed. He looked at the table, and thought he had a better chance with solids, even two balls down, but then missed. So I had the choice again, and with where the cue ball was, I agreed that solids were easier - I sank two to even things up, but then biffed my third shot. We went back and forth and ended up with all balls in except the eight ball. I had a reasonable but long shot, but I missed, and left him with a straight shot to win.

It was pretty satisfying, though. I think that's the best I've played since Signature - I nailed one bank shot, and one insane shot the length of the table with a hard angle - competition really does bring out the best in me. And even though he's definitely better than me, he respected me and asked me where I sat so that he could get in a good game of pool. So yay having random competitive skills!

P.S. Speaking of random competitive skills, another coworker challenged me to foosball last week. That was foolish. Even though my foosball skills are twenty two years old, I still crushed him.