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Is college necessary for success? Todd Rose and Mike Rowe discuss

  1. Future of Work

Is college necessary for success? Todd Rose and Mike Rowe discuss

Our education system is at a crossroads. Why rethinking college could be the answer.  

Todd Rose and Mike Rowe pictured together

In his book Collective Illusions, former high school dropout-turned-Harvard-professor and Stand Together partner Todd Rose reveals how much of our thinking is informed by false assumptions that lead to decisions we don’t agree with privately. For instance, buying into the false premise that everybody needs a traditional four-year college degree. 

While Rose valued his time at Harvard, he realized he could help more people outside of the higher education system. In 2013, he co-founded Populace, a Boston-based think tank that focuses on advancing opportunities by nurturing every individual’s unique talents so that they can find meaning and dignity in work — and life. 

Below is an excerpt from Rose’s podcast episode with executive producer and host Mike Rowe, best known from the hit TV series Dirty Jobs. On The Way I Heard It” with Mike Rowe, Rose shares his improbable personal journey and what it taught him about the importance of individualized education and the dangers of collective illusions 

(This has been edited for length and clarity.) 

Mike Rowe: You basically flunked out of high school with a 0.9 GPA and you somehow wound up to be a professor at Harvard. I want to talk to you about education and what you call “collective illusions.” But let’s start with the personal. What the hell, man? 

Todd Rose: I grew up in rural America in a town that had a lot of things going for it, but it prized conformity above almost everything else. And that was never gonna fit with my personality. I just had a really, really tough time. And it snowballed. I stopped caring and in my senior year they said, “You can’t come anymore because you have a 0.9 GPA and there’s no chance of graduating and you’re disrupting everybody else’s learning.” So, I dropped out. 

Without a high school diploma, I kept bouncing around these not-great jobs. I’d get bored and try something else. My father-in-law told me, “You’re just lazy.” And I thought that might be true. 

Luckily my dad pulled me aside and said, “I don’t think you’re lazy. I think you have to be motivated. There’s a path for you to do work you really care about and get paid pretty well but you can’t get there from here.” 

At Weber State, Todd gets advice that changes his life

TR: So I got my GED and went to Weber State University in Utah. I had two kids at that point, so I went out of desperation. 

So I’m sitting in a history class [one day] with my buddy Steve. Big lecture hall, it just doesn’t keep my attention. I complained to Steve, who told me about the honors program. I thought honors would be the same stuff, only more work, which seemed like a sucker’s bet. He disabused me of that. He said, “There are no lectures — just these small groups of 10 to 12 people. There are no tests, you just write stuff. I’m not even sure there are right answers. All we do is argue.” And I’m like, whoa! You could learn by just arguing? And I said, “Man, I gotta be in this thing.” 

Weber’s honors director was delighted to hear Rose wanted to be in the program, until he found out about Rose’s 0.9 high school GPA. His answer was a kind but firm “no.” As Todd rushed for the door, embarrassed, the honors college secretary, Marilyn Diamond, grabbed his arm and said, “If you want this, don’t leave until he lets you in.” Those words changed Todd’s life. After Todd explained that the program was a perfect fit for him and his individuality, the director let him in on a provisional basis. Todd graduated with a 3.97 GPA in psychology and went on to earn a doctorate from Harvard. 

TR: I tell that story for two reasons. One, it’s pretty clear that would inform a lot of my work on understanding individuality and human potential and the profound role of a good fit. Because I think we internalize: like, if it doesn’t work in the standardized system, I must be dumb. 

Second, it reminds me I’m proud of what I do now and how I got here and how hard I worked. But the truth is, my story is just littered with examples of Marilyn Diamonds. You know, these people who take a moment to impart some wisdom or give advice, they intervene in your life. And it has these profound consequences. 

MR: So, I don’t want to turn this into a biographical retrospective. But you’ve written a bunch of books and in every book, it’s a version of saying maybe that one-size-fits-all thing isn’t really gonna cut it. And not to paint with too broad a brush, but isn’t that the big enemy in your life? Cookie-cutter advice. 

TR: We built these big industrial systems and they bought us something in terms of efficiency. But I believe it cost us a lot in terms of standardizing everything, including what it means to live a good life. What kind of jobs are valued and what we should aspire to. And also how we do it. 

And look, we’re all born into this. So, we think it’s just true, somebody smarter than we are figured it out so it must be the best way. For me as a scientist, it’s been crystal clear that it’s not true. In fact, it’s just absolutely, spectacularly wrong. 

People’s individuality is not selfishness and it’s not something to ignore. That distinctiveness is everything. And I feel like I have at least some authority to speak to this. This is my area of research. I felt an obligation to use books to give other people “permission” to pursue the kind of lives they want to live, not the lives people want them to live. 

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‘People aren’t cars’: How our education system became one-size-fits-all and why it’s not working 

MR: Mass production is a great thing — the Model T, right? But people aren’t cars. So how did we turn our public education system into this thing that reeks of all the factory protocols I’ve ever seen? 

TR: It’s a guy named Frederick Taylor. He invented a thing called scientific management. Most people have never heard of him, but we’re all living in his shadow. He believed that for everything there was one right answer. He invented a thing called human resources and decided that we’re going to treat people as interchangeable. He said, “Look, every single job, there should be one right way to do it.” 

He actually flat-out told people, “I don’t want your advice. I want you to do the thing we’re telling you and do it quickly.” This was the 1930s, but suddenly we get this rush of standardization of products. Then not surprisingly, once you start applying it to work, you got a cottage industry of people saying, “Well, wait a minute, what about the institution that supplies work?” Education. So, we’re rushing to standardize that. And that’s where we get the bells that say it’s time to move on to the next class. 

We’ve gotten a lot of efficiency out of it, a lot of material abundance. But it has cost us our soul, right? It’s cost us the psychological side, the flourishing. And we’re left in this place where kids go through the same factory-based education system that has a singular goal at this point, to prepare kids for college. 


Mike Row


MR: Why do we always go a bridge too far? 

TR: Most of these problems always come because somebody on the top thinks they’re smarter than everyone else and thinks they can orchestrate society, that they know best. 

As a reformed academic who’s since left Harvard for greener pastures, I actually think most of the self-discovery is in the real world. It’s in the doing of things. You can spend forever navel-gazing and taking a bunch of tests. But that doesn’t hold a candle to just jumping in and doing something. You learn about yourself based on what you like and don’t like and you work your way toward a better and better fit

MR: We’re living in this world now where it’s this or that. Good, bad, left, right. Blue collar, white collar. [Fred Taylor] sounds like one of the true culprits for really putting that false choice in front of us. 

TR: The thing I can tell you for sure is it’s the end of “compliance culture.” People are done being told what to do. 

MR: So, tell people what your think tank, Populace, does, how it came about, and why it’s moving the needle in all these different categories. 

TR: I was at Harvard for a long time. But if I was honest, I increasingly felt like a hypocrite because the world I want to live in does not define excellence or quality based on false scarcity. It doesn’t say this is a good institution because of how few people it lets in. Something’s wrong with that view. And that’s not a Harvard problem, that’s a societal problem that creates a game that Harvard’s winning at. 

But I kept telling myself, I’m still gonna stay at Harvard because I can use this to advance the ideas, right? I felt like I was increasingly justifying this thing for my own benefit, and it started bothering me. So, my colleague Parisa Rouhani and I had this lab [together at Harvard]. And we thought, you know what? All the things we care about are in the real world. And they blend thinking and actually doing. Getting your hands dirty and trying to change things. So we decided to spin out our lab and go on our own. 

Here’s what I’m obsessed about and this is what I think comes next. The industrial paradigm we’ve used to get to where we are the last 100 years clearly doesn’t work. It no longer has the support of the people. But the ideas that work we’re not really familiar with yet. So [Populace exists] to try to help shift this whole thing to a different worldview about what’s really possible in a free society. 

MR: You’re an egalitarian at heart who found himself in the belly of one of the most elite institutions on the planet. Do you remember the moment when you awakened and just went, “Oh crap, I can’t sell this anymore. I’m just too far out of sync to function.” 

TR: It was actually a conversation with my son. You know, I tried to tell him, “Do your thing.” My oldest son does cybersecurity for Amazon now. He’s living his best life. My youngest son was in college becoming a mechanical engineer when [my book, Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment] came out. And I’m on the book tour and I get a text. He said, “Listen, when you get home, we need to talk.” I was like, “Uh oh.” 

So, I get home and he’s got Dark Horse dogeared and marked up, and he says, “I’m about to graduate with this degree in mechanical engineering and I think I’ve made a mistake and I want to do something different.” He just loves the practical, he loves working with his hands. I mean, he’s such a brilliant human being. And he said, “I kept waiting for it to get practical and it just kept getting more abstract.” 

My initial reaction was, “No, no, no. I meant that for other people’s kids, not you. You just go get a job in the thing you got your education for and suck it up.” So, we laid it out and I said, “OK, let’s talk about what it means to be responsible here.” And you know, he’s just living his best life. He’s got this eclectic mix of projects, everything from woodwork up to game design. 


Lockers in a school hallway


The future of postsecondary education relies on busting ‘collective illusions’

MR: OK, so back to Populace, the recent research, what have you learned post-pandemic? What illusions collectively are really at work in the workplace? 

TR: There’s some crazy stuff that has changed. With respect to work, the most fascinating thing we’re looking at is what people’s trade-off priorities are for the jobs they do. You would’ve imagined a lot of the typical stuff like a prestigious title, getting paid the most, working for a big-name company. 

All these things which historically have been markers of success have plummeted. People need to make enough money to live, they want benefits, those traditional things. But what has risen now is this pursuit of meaning and purpose at work. The ability to actually show up as themselves. 

What people often say when we talk about this is, “But not everyone can do stuff that’s meaningful. Someone’s got to do…” And then they name the job they hate. Well, we’ve done some fun work and when you ask people, “Would this job be fulfilling to you?” And then you ask people, “What do you think everybody else is gonna say?” We all assume that everybody wants the jobs I want and everybody hates the jobs I hate. But in reality, every job gets covered. 

MR: Well look, the reason Dirty Jobs was such a tough sell is because nobody at the network believed anybody would want to watch portrayals of what felt like drudgery in their mind’s eye. The reason it’s still in production 20 years later is … the show through humor portrays hard work and confirms all of the difficulties and challenges you would associate with it. But it sprinkles over the top a patina of dignity. 

TR: The thing that’s very terrifying about this is: How does a free society function when we can’t even be honest with each other about the things that matter to us most? By the way, a vocal fringe really benefits from this. And it drives what we call collective illusions. 

The reason I wrote Collective Illusions [was to explore this] phenomenon where most people in a group or a society end up going along with something they don’t privately agree with just because they incorrectly think everybody else agrees with it. As a result, entire societies end up doing something that almost nobody wants. 

We are absolutely terrible at estimating what groups think because your brain uses a shortcut. Your brain thinks the loudest voices repeated the most are the majority. It was never really true. Put yourself now in an age of social media. On Twitter alone, 80% of all content is created by 10% of the users. And we know from Pew research that 10% isn’t remotely representative of the rest of the public. 

And frankly, free society doesn’t hold when we’re this wrong about each other. But for all the perception of this deep polarization in our society, the truth is, in almost every aspect of life that matters most, we have so much in common in private it’s unbelievable. 

I’m gonna tell you one quick finding [from our Education Index] that is gonna blow your mind. In 2019, preparing for college was a top-10 priority for every demographic in the country, right? The pandemic has completely reshaped this. It is now 47th out of 57 possible priorities for K-12. In its place in the top 10 is a commitment to preparing kids for careers and preparing them to do work that’s meaningful and fulfilling

Now here’s the problem when it comes to collective illusions. Again, preparing for college is 47th. We think most people would say it is the third-most important priority. But it’s not. We are sick and tired of funneling every kid to college just to have the privilege of being able to get a career that didn’t require a college diploma in the first place. 

We have a new expectation for our education system for K-12. We want it to be focused on careers and meaningful work. We want it to be focused on more individualized education. Every single individualized attribute ranks higher than every single standardized attribute now for the first time ever. 

I care a lot about public education. We do a great achievement in a society to mass-educate people to such a level. But we are at risk of losing public support for this because it is no longer about doing better, it’s about doing different. We have to transform this institution and force it to deliver on the priorities and outcomes that the American public wants, not the ones that our benevolent overlords want us to want. If we figure that out and realize that we are together on that, we can transform this thing tomorrow. And if we don’t, the only people left will be poor kids like me growing up who couldn’t afford a different option. So for me, there’s a lot at stake here. 


Todd Rose


MR: I’ve been beating this drum for 15 years. 

TR: The good news about collective illusions is they’re disastrous when they’re enforced, but they’re fragile because they are lies. And history has shown us when we shatter them, we can unlock social change at a pace and scale that would be unimaginable otherwise. 

And here’s my promise. Promises about the future are scary, but this is what I’ll stake my reputation on. Given what we know about our commonality – despite our differences – and what we know about the massive illusions at the heart of almost every social problem we face right now. Given what we know about the fragility of those illusions, we can get somewhere remarkable in America in a hurry. 

And all it takes, as simple as this sounds, is for everyone listening to speak up in their neighborhoods, with their families, in their churches. Respectfully, humbly. Just because you have an opinion doesn’t mean you’re right, but you owe it to your fellow citizens to respectfully give your opinion. If you take that small act of courage, you’ll be part of something that history will look back on as ushering in an incredible new era of American prosperity. Not just materially, but psychologically. That’s what’s available to us right now. 

MR: The single-most hopeful thing ever said on this podcast. Todd, thank you for your time. And here’s to Marilyn Diamond. May we all have one in our life.

This article originally appeared on Forbes BrandVoice. 


Learn more about Stand Together’s efforts to transform the future of work, and explore ways you can partner with us. 

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Todd Rose and Mike Rowe pictured together Is college necessary for success? Todd Rose and Mike Rowe discuss

Our education system is at a crossroads. Why rethinking college could be the answer.  

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