One year ago, I was starting a company, learning how to be an entrepreneur, working a side job while attending the University of Chicago full time. It took a while, but I eventually realized that I was not spending enough time on any of those activities to really feel satisfied with the work I was doing. I reached the conclusion that meaningful progress required commitment and sacrifice.
At the end of that term, I left my job, and I left school. Taking a leave of absence was one of the most difficult choices of my entire life, though it turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made. It freed me to spend my time doing what I wanted to do; I’ve never worked harder, been more productive or enjoyed myself more than in the past nine months since I’ve been out of school.
For many students, their goals require a college degree, and that’s perfectly fine. As the famous stories of millennial entrepreneurs demonstrate, though, the path to success no longer dictates that you receive a college diploma. There’s no need for me to give examples of successful startups that started off as projects in college dorm rooms before their founders left school. It has become almost cliche, and the general impression, both within and beyond the startup world, is that college students have some innate ability to magically change the world.
The secret to the magic and success of these dorm room startups was that the students who founded them were in concentrated communities of like-minded and talented people, at an age when they had maximum freedom with limited responsibilities. These communities exist at schools all across the world, but the catalyst to realizing this potential requires individuals with a passion to make something happen. This means a genuine dedication to accomplishing something for its own sake, not because someone offers you $100,000 or because you think one day it will make a good movie. It requires you to realize that you can’t have it all, and that in order to really give it your best shot, you have to shed all of your labels — student, athlete, musician, entrepreneur — until you’re left with the core of what you want to be, and then allow it to consume your life. It demands a leap of faith, and a reckless personality or plain naivete to tackle the inherent uncertainty in trying to start something new.
You have to be ready to fail, and then fail again and again, until you figure out what works. You may repeatedly ask yourself what exactly it is that you’re doing with your life, but all that really matters is that you wouldn’t have it any other way.
Daniel Yu is the founder of Project SAM, a platform for health clinics in the developing world to manage their inventory through basic mobile phones.