Friendship

#3 Study Less, Learn More

[March 3, 2017]   1270 words/4.2 minute read

I wrote most of what will someday become my third book as an honors thesis when I was a senior at Stanford between December of 1995 and May of 1996. In fact, I stopped out of Stanford my last two quarters to save money and write full time. I did so by starting to write after dinner and then writing for eight or ten hours most nights. I would go to sleep at four, wake up at noon, and start the process all over again.

I could do this because I was young, dumb, and had no internet in the small house where I lived, just off campus. I had no car either, like most Stanford students in the mid-nineties. The ancient original Apple Macintosh I bought to write the thesis had no working floppy drive, so I had to borrow a housemate’s laptop and do an elaborate transferring ritual with a cable every time I wanted to take a file off the machine for printing. I certainly did not have a cell phone—no one I knew did. So if I wanted to use the internet, or a printer, I had to get on my bicycle and bike fifteen minutes to campus—uphill, both ways.

There just was not very much that was very interesting or time consuming on the internet anyway in 1996, and what was there you could only find through human-curated catalogues such as Yahoo, which was really just an online card catalogue like the one that still existed on manila cards at the campus library. I did use an early online telephone directory to find the people I interviewed for my thesis, and when I located them that way some of them were astonished and more than a little freaked out that the internet now contained telephone numbers. I don’t even think internet porn existed. If it did, I never heard of it. I did not even use a color monitor until my first job after graduation, and it was one of those CRT ones with a big vacuum tube that couldn’t really display photographs well. It was a Jeffrey Lebowski world: manual.

If you think that this is meant to make me sound impressive, it is not. In those very months in another room at Stanford, Larry Page was inventing Google, which has justly been called the most important invention since Gutenberg’s printing press, and has earned him a fortune of 40 billion dollars or so. But who’s counting?

When I was a freshman I had tried out for a singing group at Stanford called Everyday People. I wasn’t a very good singer and I didn’t get in. When Larry Page came to Stanford my senior year as a graduate student (Page is one year older than me), the Stanford alumni network thinks he joined Everyday People (though his foundation officers find that hard to believe. No confirmation available as of yet). If I had worked harder on my singing in my teens perhaps I would have become one of the first Google millionaires, or at least harmonized with the most important inventor of the last few millennia. But I never met Larry Page.

I never met most people at Stanford. I lived in small dorms or houses my whole time there, dated one woman for three years, and spent a lot of time studying by myself. I bonded with two other guys and the three of us best friends spent a lot of very deep time together, including on river trips or in our cooperative house with small groups of people. At graduation the three of us sat in a sea of graduates in our matching robes and were astounded that not only did we not see anyone else we recognized, we had never even seen our fellow graduates before. It was like graduating in a sea of strangers.

Meanwhile, Larry Page’s invention made the internet actually widely useful, and actually distracting for the first time. It also without exaggeration transformed life on planet Earth. It is not as if my time at Stanford was wasted, exactly. My honors thesis did punch my ticket to graduate school and then to a tenure track job as a professor that became a tenured and a fulfilling career teaching, researching, and writing, with long vacations and lots of freedom.

But looking back, I approached college precisely backwards. It turns out that the chief value of college is to bring together a collection of students who will go on to do amazing things after college. It is not to bring you in touch with world-class teachers, or to learn chemistry, history, or computer science. You do learn valuable skills in the process, like how to think deeply and work hard, but you could learn those skills by doing almost anything—river rafting, baking, computer coding, singing—and a lot of the things you might choose might be both a lot more fun and result in more tangible results, appreciated by far more people than if you spent one hundred percent of your time cramming for classes.

It used to be the case that students went to selective colleges primarily to meet other students; to meet future friends and business partners, perhaps to meet a husband or wife (often in neighboring, sex-segregated institutions). Very intelligent people like Al Gore earned “Gentlemen’s C’s at Harvard. Sure, part of it was that professors were much harder graders back then. That’s true. Today everyone is above average.

But today, everyone is above average, comparatively, because they have access to so much more information at earlier ages. Larry Page and the other internet inventors have transformed the landscape of knowledge so fundamentally that innovation, creativity, and social networks are now far more important than mastery of a canon of received wisdom.

It turns out that the most value you get out of college comes from the people you know while you are there. Knowing people shallowly is better than not knowing them at all; knowing them well is even better. Best of all is doing something together, harmonizing together in a singing group, a river raft, or some other fun project that makes you feel alive and expands your appreciation of the world. You will learn more that way than if you study all the time because the most efficient way to learn is by talking to people and learning about their lives. Not surprisingly, humans are social creatures who evolved to appreciate story telling, humor, and direct personal experience of one another.

And when it comes time to choose a career path you will have many more points of reference to choose from and people to call on for advice and connections along the way. You might not end up in graduate school, but you will likely do something even more meaningful with even greater financial and emotional rewards.

Today’s students can no longer study the way I did, without online distractions, nor should they. Thanks to the internet, today we suffer from the opposite problem that I experienced at Stanford: not too little but too much shallow social connection: not too much monastic studying by oneself without any distractions whatsoever, but a world that is brimming with information, interactivity, and input thanks to the invention that made the world’s knowledge accessible, truly accessible, for the very first time.

Maybe if dedicate yourself to learning from and with your fellow students, along with your professors, you will actually get out and meet the next Larry Page in his or her room a few minutes away, inventing the next best thing since the printing press, and having fun at the same time.