Treat your education as a business

I’ve been thinking about business a lot lately, thanks in no small part to the hype surrounding the book Rework (which I haven’t bought yet, but am sorely tempted to). Also to blame is the startup visa that is interesting to me, to say the least. As romantic and exciting as starting a business may seem I’m a full time student right now and will be for a good few years to come. I’m really enjoying my student career, but I’m seriously thinking about starting a business someday. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been putting together the theory that though I won’t start a business now, I can certainly apply business-style thinking to my student life.

Before I dig in, there’s a disclaimer due: I’ve never run a business and I hope to never get a formal training in business. I’m also very much a fan of start-ups and I like businesses that sell premium products with large profit margins than ones that sell tons of cheap stuff. Feel free to provide your own examples. What I’m going to talk about will be informed from what I’ve read and heard backed up with healthy amounts of common sense (which often seem to be rather lacking in the business world). As an additional clarification, when I talk about getting returns from education, I’m talking about things you can cash in on today, not some vacuous future where you get a nice job and pay back your hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of student loans.

Your job is to turn a profit

If your business isn’t turning a profit, then you fail and deserve to be cut down by the Invisible Hand. At least stop calling what you’re doing a business. By the same logic, if you’re going to college and not learning, you’re doing it wrong. Living on a really diverse college campus it becomes abundantly clear that there are a fair share of students who are perfectly willing to coast along and graduate with the bare minimum credit and effort. It’s similar to how many businesses seem to think that it’s ok to give away their product for free with no clue as to how to get into the red. If you’re paying thousands of dollars and spending hundreds of hours in class, make sure that you are actually learning something that you are interested in and what to learn about. Of course you can’t do that if don’t realize that

Showing up is half the battle

This isn’t so much a business maxim as it is general life advice. Getting down to work everyday and actually starting on the important tasks is essential to running a business. You won’t be making any money if you’re not actually producing something. Similarly, don’t expect to be learning things if you’re not going to put in the effort of going to class, paying attention and doing the assignments. It’s tempting to sleep in and just study for the exam, but we all know that in most cases it just doesn’t work that way.

Though showing up is necessary, it’s not sufficient to keep you on target. In particular, there’s no point showing up if you’re not showing up for the right things. Which is why it’s important to …

Decide what your product is

Microsoft does a lot of things, but it still makes almost all its money from Windows and Office. Walmart knows what it does: sell lots of stuff for cheap.It irritates me no end when college students get to end of their second year with no idea of what they want to major in. Keeping an open mind and exploring is good, but you can’t expect to get a good education if you can’t decide what it is you want to study. If you’re not going to take charge and make your own decisions, someone else is going to make them for you and you probably won’t like it. After all,

No one is going to run your business for you

As the people at 37signals make clear: you can’t just be “the idea guy” and your ideas count for nothing without good execution. If you want to get a good education, you’re going to have to stand up and get it yourself. You’ll have to take hard classes, study hard and smart and really immerse yourself in the material (as opposed to the night-before-exam cram routine). If you take easy classes and do the bare minimum needed to pass, then you’ll get the bare minimum back — a degree that thousands of other people have as well with nothing to set you apart.

I can tell that I’m starting to make the whole thing sound really gloomy, but here’s the kicker:

You have to enjoy what you do

No one ever succeeded in a business that they didn’t believe in, but a lot of people get stuck in jobs they hate. A lot of students think that college is stressful and boring and a drag because they haven’t figured out what their product is. The happiest students I know are the ones that really love what they’re studying and tie it into their activities and daily lives. They may be insanely busy, in the same way that people at successful companies can work insanely hard, but they don’t regret it. In contrast, the students that are the most stressed are the ones that don’t like their major (and hence put off studying till the last minute) and would rather be doing something else. If you’re in it just for the money (or the degree) you’re doing it wrong and should seriously consider doing something else.

On an ending note, I haven’t yet taken all the rules to heart myself. I enjoy what I do and I have a good idea as to what my product is. I show up most of the time, but about once a week I’ll expect someone else to watch the shop for a prolonged period of time and my profits aren’t as high as I’d like them to be. But putting these thoughts down have given me a better idea of what I’m doing wrong and how I should restructure. I’m look forward to strong second quarter earnings.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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