Flawed logic about famous drop-outs

I think people are getting this whole graduate/drop-out versus success thing wrong. And, by “wrong” I mean that I think they’ve got the wrong correlation. A lot of the comments I see about who dropped out and made it big imply that we’re all losers for staying in school and that we’d make it big if we were drop-outs of school. But, they’re linking the wrong things together. I don’t think that dropping out of school or staying in school necessarily dictates your future success. I think it’s your courage, determination, ambition, and (sometimes) luck that moves you forward, and may affect whether or not you decide to stay in school. There are lots of people who stayed in school and made it big in the end. There are also lots of people who stayed in school – and maybe even had very high marks – but are what society would equate to unsuccessful (whether this is their choice or not is for them to decide). One of the (somewhat) recent Tweets I saw:

For those not in the know:

  • Pete Seeger = famous American Folk singer
  • Bonnie Raitt = famous singer/songwriter
  • Bill Gates = past Microsoft president
  • Mark Zuckerberg = one of Facebook’s co-founders
  • Ted Kacyznski = mathematician and serial murderer, a.k.a. the Unabomber

What is the tweeter trying to imply? That you need to drop out of Harvard to make it big or that Harvard graduates are serial killers? QED, my arse. [“QED” is an abbreviation of a Latin phrase meant to signify the successful conclusion of a mathematical or philosophical argument, i.e., it’s was way of saying, “see, I proved it!”]

You can’t draw a conclusion based on 5 people. Harvard was established in 1636 and currently has a student population of around 20,000. That means they’ve had a hell of a lot of graduates and drop-outs. Five is not a good enough sample size.

Before he decided to kill people, Ted Kacyznski very successful in academics. He was accepted into Harvard at age 16, got a PhD and became a professor for a few years in his mid 20’s. Yes, he did bad things, but that doesn’t make him a failure. It just makes him someone with questionable ethics and morals. I’m sure the same can be said for lots of brilliant people, not to mention lots of “successful” people.

The tweeter’s logic is flawed. These drop-out’s ambitions and determination dictated their decision to leave. Dropping out didn’t result in their fame and fortune. Just to drive the point home, here’s a list of Harvard Graduates who (as far as I know) haven’t taken up murdering people. Many of them have made it just as big as Pete, Bonnie, Bill, and Mark. (To be fair, this list isn’t big enough to draw any real conclusions, but it does help to counter the theory that only drop-outs make it big).

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