03/04/2013 05:03 pm ET Updated May 04, 2013

Dropping In on Dropping Out: A Book Review

The book is not about dropping out of college.

Of course, that doesn't stop people from acting like it is. Or arguing about why it is. Or (for example) demonizing its author, Dale J. Stephens, for encouraging impressionable young Americans to make a very, very bad decision.

So I'll say it again: Stephens' book, Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will, is not about dropping out of college. Even if the overtly-confrontational title might incline you to perceive it that way.

He says it himself, of course: "[Hacking Your Education] is not a book about dropping out, but rather about becoming empowered to make your own decisions." He even spends a section talking about having worked for a company called Zinch, whose explicit purpose is to help students get admitted into college. But despite all that, every conversation I seem to have about this book revolves around that single, incongruous question: "Should kids drop out of college?"

Look. I get why this happens. I also get the implicit skepticism about how convenient, for lack of a better term, the circumstances surrounding the release of the book appear to be. It's not a bad marketing strategy: suggest something provocative, backpedal a little bit, and then deliver value-added-if-somewhat-modest content while riding the wave of a largely-manufactured controversy. But I just don't think Stephens is quite that sinister.

Yes, he did drop out of Hendrix College -- which, by the look of things, didn't make Hendrix very happy. Yes, he's a Thiel Fellow, and Thiel Fellows become Thiel Fellows by dropping out of college. And yes, there is something vaguely pyramid-scheme-feeling about a college dropout becoming successful by talking about how successful he's managed to be as a college dropout.

The problem is that framing the issue this way ignores all the reasons that PayPal founder, hedge-fund president, early-stage Facebook investor and Stanford Law School Graduate Peter Thiel formed a Fellowship that encourages students to drop out of college in the first place. It is not as though the potential accusations of hypocrisy escaped him when he did this.

The fact is, college costs too much in this country. The fact is, the mechanics of going to college are largely divorced from the experience of actually learning anything. And the fact is, nobody in a high-performing industry is going to be impressed if all you have managed to do with your life is succeed at college on college's own terms.

This is the reality of the 21st-century economy.

I've interviewed candidates for some of America's most competitive fellowships, have screened hires for one of the world's most successful entertainment brands and now review prospective talent almost daily as the Chief Operating Officer of the fastest-growing education initiative since Teach for America. At no point am I gazing slack-jawed at a transcript awash with awe over someone's grade-point average.

Instead, I'm asking: what have you done? What have you created? Or, as Stephens puts it in the book, "What have you accomplished that you're most proud of?"

College may or may not prepare you to field these questions well. Accomplishing and creating things, however, certainly prepares you to field this question well. The problem is that our industrial education system makes us abhor this practice-based approach. No -- we can't just start doing things, because then we might fail! The horror! Instead, we sit at desks in chairs receiving information about what's going to eventually happen when we get the chance to sit at desks in chairs creating information. And we wonder why -- as Stephens points out -- 36 percent of students show no improvement in critical thinking or reasoning skills over four years of college.

Fortunately, the solution is simple -- and Stephens makes a compelling case for it. "There is only one definitive answer," he says, "[to the question of ] who shouldn't go to college: those who don't want to go to college. The converse of that statement is also true. You should only go to college if you want to go to college and know exactly why you are going to college."

For some reason statements like these make us bristle. We get sensitive -- college is supposed to be unqualifiedly all-upside, after all! Yet if I were doing some management consulting for a business, it would send shivers down my spine to hear that leadership were making a giant capital investment in a development project that has no clear goals and no clear strategy and no clear logic model for how it might produce a return somewhere down the road.

What Stephens is saying is simply, figure out a plan. Behave intentionally. Plot out results, and enact them. You don't have to wait until you're thirty years old to do this; you can do this if you're thirteen, or fifteen, or eighteen, or twenty.

Spoiler alert: we don't have to wait until tomorrow to start becoming ourselves today.

It's not about being 'smart,' either. As Stephens points out, "You don't need to be a genius to take charge of your own education. What you do need is curiosity, determination, and a little grit." Stephens' choice of those terms isn't accidental, either -- they're the same "21st-century skills" that crop up in basically every piece of performance literature you can read. That's because cultivating a growth mindset is far more powerful than having access to a special kind of mind.

That can be scary, for sure. Many of us are heavily invested in identities we've constructed over the years that center around what possessing these 'special kinds of minds' might mean about us as people. Many of us conflate 'intelligent' with 'good,' having spent so long striving to validate that intelligence inside a system that takes its existence for granted. The idea that there's nothing inherent to us that the possession of such an intelligence would reveal--that by simply believing in and acting upon the possibility of improvement, anyone on Earth could have access to the same kind of power -- well, that threatens the very fabric of how we conceive ourselves!

So... we've got to marginalize this Dale Stephens guy. He wants everybody to drop out of college! How insane! We all know that our hard-earned college degrees reflect our innate capability, and certainly are worth their considerable pricetags! No one is playing us for the fool, nossir!

But Stephens is not making that claim. What he's saying is simply this:

Education is not a means to an end. It's not something you do for twelve years so you can get into university, and then something you do for four more years so you can get a job sitting at a desk 40 hours per week. Learning is a lifelong process. It happens all the time. It starts before we are born and continues until the day we die.

And he's right. It does -- so long as we are willing to let it.