Why I Chose Engineering Over Philosophy, And Other Thoughts on Wasting Your 20s

Posted on November 5, 2012
Filed Under Decision Making |

I love philosophy. I took my first college philosophy class at 16 because I went through school one year ahead of myself and when I enrolled in high school at duPont Manual in Louisville, they let us take college classes at the University of Louisville our junior and senior years. One of the first classes I took was Intro to Philosophy.

Philosophy was a passion of mine from the time I was 14 and read “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill. From there I moved from political philosophy to philosophy of mind, starting with Dan Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained”. It was too overwhelming at the time which is why I took the Intro To Philosophy course, which introduced me to nihilism, existentialism, and pragmatism as things I subsequently studied intently. To this day I read several philosophy books a year - some classics, some modern, some written for a more popular audience and some more technical. But despite my love of philosophy, when I went to college I chose to major in Electrical Engineering.

The purpose of this post is to go into the reasons behind that decision and explain what followed. When I read Jason Evanish’s post this weekend on Why You Should Take Your 20s Seriously, I was asked by a couple of people to expand on the comment I left. This is an issue that I have thought a lot about, the way I made my own decisions about how to spend my 20s has impacted my views on many things, all the way up to the current election (you can probably guess who I will vote for by the end of the post). To understand why I think the way I do, you need to understand The Marshmallow Test, the work of Carol Dweck, the concept of the Hedonic Treadmill, the Doorknob Theory, and the history of happiness. Unfortunately this post will be a bit longer than I normally like to write, but the length is required to accurately explain the material. And of course, we should start with a bit about my relevant background because it was highly influential in shaping the decisions I made.

My parents divorced when I was 4, but both of them were extremely concerned with one thing - raising their children to be self sufficient. Not only were we taught to do things like cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc, earlier than most kids, but I had to learn to change a tire, change my oil, replace my spark plugs, and in general take care of a car (which I had to buy myself) before I could drive. My dad was the opposite of most parents today. While I hear stories of parents calling college professors to argue for why their children deserve higher grades, my dad actually argued with one of my brother’s high school english teachers over why my brother got an ‘A’ on such a poor paper. My dad’s point was that if the teacher taught my brother that such low standards were passable as high quality work, he was setting my brother up for a failed life of inaccurate expectations. My parents didn’t give excessive praise, but they weren’t really that hard on us either - they just set realistic expectations.

When I applied to college I was accepted to Rose Hulman, one of the best engineering schools in the country. The reason I chose Rose Hulman is different that the reason most kids choose a college. I went to a college fair in 1993, when we were in a recession, and almost all the booths were staffed by college seniors. I asked everyone who was graduating if they had a job. Most said no. A few said yes. The guy from Rose Hulman said he had 3 job offers. I chose to go there and study engineering because, even though I loved other things much more, I felt like having some economic stability to fall back on was the best path to let me do what I wanted to do over the long term. Plus, I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do long term, so rather than goof off, I thought I should at least make some money while I figured that out.

My dad lost his job shortly before I had to commit, and that uncertainty meant we couldn’t afford Rose Hulman. So I went to University of Kentucky because I had a partial scholarship. It never occurred to me to take out student loans. I knew people who did it, but I never even looked into it. My dad always said if I could just start my life as an adult from a net zero instead of a debt, I should be ok. So instead I worked.

I worked so much during college that even my parents encouraged me to cut back. They thought I was missing out on the college experience, and I was. One semester I worked 35 hours a week while I took 19 credit hours. I was exhausted the whole time. At UK, once you took 12 hours it didn’t cost any more to take up to 20, so I took 17-20 hours almost every semester to be as efficient as possible. I worked even harder during the summers. One summer I worked two jobs - construction 7am to 4pm and a restaurant job 5pm to midnight. I lost 17 pounds that summer (and I was already thin) and was again exhausted. The question is, why did I do this? It was a calculated choice that in the future, I would be happy that I put up with the current pain.

As a kid I stumbled upon the concept of the Hedonic Treadmill before I knew it had a name. I noticed that every few months, my favorite song would change, and I would have a new favorite song. And it wasn’t just because new songs were coming out, sometimes an old song would pop up and become my new favorite. But I remember that the fascination and feeling I had when I heard it the first few times would inevitably fade. I then started to notice it in other areas of my life too - that I became habituated to new circumstances and always seemed to move back to my old baseline.

At the same time, in the early 90s, I read about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. 1988 was the first follow up year, and by the early 90s the popular press was starting to report on the results - that people who could delay gratification were more successful, happier, and well adjusted in life.

In my 17 year old mind, these ideas combined together to make me believe that sacrificing now in order to be happier in the future was probably the right thing to do, and that really, sacrificing now might not be as bad as it seems (because the hedonic treadmill says I will just adjust).

The important point here is that I was right about one thing - giving something up isn’t that big a deal once it is over. I did have some fun in college, I just didn’t go out and party as much as most of my friends. And I don’t regret it now. I don’t look back and say “man, if only I had gone to more parties in college, or played more intramural sports, or studied more, or dated more girls, I would be happy now.” It turns out I did just fine. But at the time, I wasn’t sure.

There was another smaller thing that impacted my future more than I would have thought - my college roommate drove a stickshift. It turns out there were several nights early on where we drove his car to a bar and he had more to drink than anticipated, despite being the designated driver. On several occasions I had to drive his car home, and as someone who didn’t drive a stickshift, it was tough. But I got used to it after a few times and I began thinking a lot about this idea that driving a stickshift is harder to learn than driving an automatic, but once you go through that initial pain, it’s just as easy and you can now drive significantly more cars than someone who only drives an automatic. This was an important point that came from a very trivial lesson - educational variety of all kinds creates options.

That idea of putting in the time to learn hard things so that they become easy is important. It probably has a scientific name (maybe it’s just called learning), but I usually call it the DoorKnob Theory after the idea that, when you live in a crappy college apartment, there is always some door that sticks. When you first move in you find it hard to open, because it requires some complex series of motions like turning the knob just a little to the left then quickly to the right while you simultaneously lift up on the knob and lean into the door. You know what I am talking about, don’t you? Well, your first few days or weeks living there it takes you 8 or 10 seconds to open the door each time and you get frustrated, but after you have been there a month, the motion is natural and you get it on the first try. This works with things other than doorknobs.

So, and this part is important, the Doorknob theory led me to the research of Carol Dweck. Dweck basically proved that people who believe success is driven by effort rather than talent are more successful in life. Dweck believes that you should never tell children they are “smart” because that is an innate trait, and if something happens to challenge their intelligence, it is a challenge to their identity. Rather, when they are successful tell them they must have really worked hard, so then, when something happens to challenge them and they fail, they don’t see it as an identity problem, instead, they think they didn’t work hard enough. I was graduating college, and I believed all of these core concepts, but in particular, this idea of adopting a mindset around constant learning, constant challenges, constantly pushing myself, seemed to have scientific validity.

After graduation I took a job in Melbourne, FL working for Harris as a digital design engineer. It was a nice job but I primarily took it because I wanted to live in that Florida climate and was my second best paying job offer. While at Harris I enrolled in grad school, I worked overtime any time I could, and I started doing side projects - building robots, starting a blog, playing with technology, learning about stocks and bonds, even researching real estate looking for places to buy and rent out.

My friends at the time were buying cars and houses. We were all making real money for the first time in our lives and most of us were spending it quite quickly. Most people I knew were buying houses in the $250K range, which, in Melbourne, FL in the early 2000s that would get you 2700 sq ft in a nice new neighborhood. My wife and I, with no debt of any kind between us, were shocked when we were approved for a $350K loan to buy a house. We didn’t understand how our friends could buy such large homes, and now we realized that they could just get crazy loans with no downpayment. We fought the urge to buy such a house, and instead bought a smaller, older home for $97K.

This is where it really became difficult. My wife and I were both working and in grad school, barely seeing each other. We were 4 years out of college, and she pointed out that all of our friends drove nicer cars, lived in nicer homes, were going out more frequently, and were taking nicer vacations. Why couldn’t we? I really began to question whether I was “wasting my 20s”. Everyone else seemed to be more relaxed, having more fun, and happier. I couldn’t even explain why we were pushing ourselves so hard, other than this weird belief system I had that pushing yourself is just what you should do.

I started, during this time, to think a lot about happiness. I read a lot about it, and the interesting thing about happiness is for most of human history, up until maybe the last 150 years, it was never considered the purpose of life. If you looked at me at 25, and compared me to other 25 year olds, or maybe even Philosophy Rob (what I would be if I had taken another path, majored in Philosophy, and had more fun), there was very little difference in the ways I was measuring myself. I felt like I had learned more, about more things, but it hadn’t translated into more happiness, or more money, or more success of any kind.

I should interject here that I did have fun sometimes. I was a huge Jimmy Buffett fan and he always did a lot of shows in Florida. I would take days off work to travel and see him. I went to parties now and then. But mostly, I worked, and did other things that were difficult to learn. I did a lot less “hanging out” than other people in their 20s. Maybe I have fewer deep friendships as a result, but I never look back and say “wow, if only I had drank more beer and played more poker with the boys, I would be so much better off right now.”

In 2004 I left my engineering job and started a business. Actually it was a franchise that I bought with what was my life savings at the time. Friends and family thought I was crazy to leave a well paying job to go start a business, which was so risky. It didn’t end well. My partner and I quickly had to stop paying ourselves, and even had to run business expenses on our personal credit cards. I entered the business with no debt, and left it with no salary and $50K in credit card debt. My partner and I weren’t getting along, he was more senior, and in my naivety, I had cut a bad deal when getting into business with him. I found a way out, but here I was, 27 years old, and at probably the lowest point of my life.

I had started that business thinking I was ready. I thought I had put in the time to learn the right things, I thought I had been financially responsible. Now I had no job, no prospects for a job (I had moved 1000 miles away from my previous employer), massive credit card debt, and on top of it, I had just proven that everyone else was right when they told me what a dumb idea it was. Now I felt like a failure and felt way behind where I should have been in every measure of life satisfaction from my peer group. I had to cash in my 401k from my old job just to be able to pay my bills, and I spent nights curled up on my couch, sick to my stomach, not sure what to do.

In the end, my belief in self sufficiency triumphed and I began meeting people. I met anybody and everybody, and I applied for any kind of job that paid anything. Oddly enough, I landed a part-time job teaching at the University of Louisville college of business. The dean of the college thought I would connect well to the students because I was young, and had experience running a business. It paid just enough to get me through until I landed a job in business development at a software startup 9 months later.

Over the intervening years, I continued to, as some would say, waste my 20s. I started a blog, Businesspundit, in 2003 that at one point was one of the most popular business blogs on the web. I sold it in 2008 for a little bit of money. I started 2 other companies, one of which failed and one which just kind of petered out over time. I founded the Business Experiment, which was way before its time. My parents thought I couldn’t hold down a job. And all the while I continued to still find some small amount of time for things I loved (like Philosophy, Economics, playing basketball) but mostly I still worked, and worked a lot. Probably 80% of the emails or phone calls I received asking me to go out and do something were rejected. Or, I was also pretty bad about committing and not showing up.

On December 2nd, 2008, the CEO of the startup I worked for called all 13 employees together to tell us there was no money for paychecks. I was 31 years old, so my 20s were definitely gone. I lost my job at the worst economic downturn in 80 years, I only had a few months of savings because I had been spending most of my discretionary cashflow on my own startup ideas, and my wife had taken off work for a year to stay home with our newborn. At that moment, I asked myself what was I doing? I finally conceded in my own mind that I had made the wrong choices. My peer group was light years ahead of me by any measure. I hadn’t achieved any of my goals. I promised my wife that I would just get a regular job and save money. I promised I wouldn’t start any more companies or work for any startup companies for 3 years.

Just a few weeks later I started Backupify.

That story has been told elsewhere, so I won’t go into it here. But let me say that 4 years and 4 rounds of venture funding later, I have a real company with strong revenue. I take a nice salary. I don’t have any debt. I have enough money in the bank to live for almost a year if I didn’t work. On paper, I’m worth a few million bucks and maybe someday that paper will actually materialize.

What I finally came to realize was that, during all of the rough patches I went through, I was learning a lot - a lot more than most people my age. I was also doing interesting things that attracted the attention of successful people. Those people were influential and helpful when I finally had the right business idea. Nothing is guaranteed in life, but if things go well, I should soon be able to do whatever I want to do for the rest of my life. And I’m only 35. So, did I “waste” my 20s working? I don’t know. I learned an awful lot about many many things. I think it was worth it.

I missed a lot along the way. For instance, I have never ever seen even a single episode of The Sopranos, which most people tell me is the greatest tv show of all time. I never watched Mad Men, or Breaking Bad, or anything else people talk about. I don’t use apps to “find new music” because I don’t listen to that much music. I’ve strained some of my personal relationships due to neglect. I’ve missed out on some things. But it is what it is. I decided to pursue independence first and foremost, and I have stuck to that. On the flip side, I’ve still found time to work in some great books on a regular basis, and I’ve met many wonderful people I am unlikely to have met otherwise.

A lot happened that didn’t really fit in this blog post too, but that’s my story. Other people will tell you a story that represents a different view. You should listen to them too. In the end, here are my thoughts on those of you wondering what to do with your 20s.

1. Setting the groundwork for future excellence is worth it. If you want to go to the equivalent of the Olympics in your field, you don’t get there by going out drinking 5 nights a week. The rewards are worth the early sacrifices.

2. Wandering is not necessarily wasting. - I talk negatively about Philosophy Rob, but you could pursue a philosophy degree, or any other degree, and still achieve your goals. Sometimes you do need to explore. The key is to do interesting things, and things that help you learn something, or move you forward. If you don’t know which direction to go, just pick something. But don’t stand still.

3. Hanging out and tv seem to be the biggest time killers. - If you sacrifice those now, I doubt you will miss them later. But it is easy to get caught up in the “man I’m so tired I just want to have a few beers with my friends and chill” mindset. Remember that if reaching your goals was easy, everyone would do it.

4. Having low goals is fine. - The life I chose isn’t for everyone. Other people have different goals. Some people just want to get good job and then chill. To each his own. But in my experience, too many people do have goals but give up on them after they realize they have “wasted their 20s” and are now poorly positioned to ever achieve them.

5. Don’t be afraid to do difficult things. - They aren’t as bad as you think. And over time they get easier. Nothing is more powerful than to find something really easy that most people struggle with. Master as many things as you can.

6. Whatever you do, you should be self sufficient. - If you want to be an artist, or work some other job that most likely doesn’t pay well, that’s fine. But I encourage you to set a good financial foundation. There will always be time to pursue your passions once that is done. Or, if you pursue your passions early, accept the financial reality that comes with that, and don’t be a burden to other people.

7. “Finding yourself” is bullshit.. - As someone who has read extensively in philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology for 20 years, I just don’t believe it. There is no “you” waiting to be discovered. There is no magic switch that will flip and suddenly you will be happy. Modern neuroscience shows that there is no unified “self” in the brain, and really, the existentialists had one thing right - “existence precedes essence.” You don’t find yourself, you make yourself. You try things and they don’t “stick” or don’t “feel right” because we live in a world where you have been trained to expect instant gratification. Take the time, take years, to master something important. It is worth it. And as you suck it up and fumble through the hard times, you will learn to love it. Stop looking for “magic” and get on with your life and you will be much happier.

8. Your life in your 20s won’t always be that way. - No matter how much fun you are having, and how many wonderful friends and experiences you have, I can promise you this - over your 30s, 40s, and 50s, people will get married, have kids, get divorced, lose jobs, develop substance abuse problems or psychiatric disorders, move far away, and many many other things. You aren’t in control, and when you have that “man I wish it could be like this forever” feeling, the one thing I know for sure is that it won’t be like that forever. Don’t get too hung up on it.

My advice is build for the future you want. And if you don’t know what future you want, build a future that will be useful for you to leverage once you know what you want. Most importantly, don’t get discouraged if it takes a decade to see the results. Good things take time.


8 Responses to “Why I Chose Engineering Over Philosophy, And Other Thoughts on Wasting Your 20s”

  1. Tim on November 5th, 2012 12:50 pm

    awesome … thanks for sharing.

  2. Ernie Miller on November 5th, 2012 9:28 pm

    I can imagine that, like many other aspects of your life, writing this essay took a lot of work.

    Thank you for that, as it was very well written, and I’ll be sharing it.

  3. Janet Aronica on November 6th, 2012 12:56 am

    This was awesome! Thank you for writing this. Seriously.

  4. Hal on November 6th, 2012 7:28 pm

    Agreed. This was excellent. Thanks for writing it.

  5. Gabrielle Rossetti on November 7th, 2012 6:11 pm

    Philosophy Rob really fits you. I like your writing style and I like your honesty. I also like that you weren’t afraid to do a million and one different things - looking at them as learning opportunities or chances to meet people. People are everything. Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge and ideas about delayed gratification and LIVING. You rock! I hope I get the opportunity to meet you you some day!

  6. karthik on November 8th, 2012 3:32 am

    Hats off to you sir. This is truly a motivational article for people (young in specific) like us . Thanks for sharing.

  7. miro Kazakoff on November 8th, 2012 6:56 pm

    I majored in English because I liked it.

    I spent a year ‘wandering’ the country on a school bus in my mid 20s, and I love television. Consider adding “The Wire” to your list of massive cultural blind spots.

    But I still couldn’t agree with you more. I also worked 35 hours a week during the last 2 years of school. I saved more than anyone I knew (though I had the blessing of a head start), and I’d like to think I don’t stand still.

    I’m in my 30s now, and I’m couldn’t be happier not to be in my 20s anymore. I have few regrets for the things I didn’t do and enough life to know that we have more time and less control than we think.

    Thanks for codifying it.

  8. Ben Murray on November 12th, 2012 12:24 am

    Great blog! As a 25 year old 20 something this really hit home.

  • About Rob

    Rob is co-founder of Backupify.com. He likes value investing, the Rolling Stones, college basketball, artificial intelligence, economic history and people who think independently.