The Degree or the Certification: You are Not a Widget

One of the things that bothers me the most about the Internet of Things (IOT) is how blithely we slip from talking about objects as things to people as things. Among all the things I do not want to be, a “thing,” attached to the “Internet of Things,” is not one of them. What does this have to do with the question of whether you should get a degree or a certification? Simply this: You shouldn’t treat yourself as a widget, either.

Let me explain.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say, “You should get a certification because it provides more bang for the buck.” In fact, in one rather amusing line of reasoning on the subject, Peter Thiel (who started the Thiel Foundation to encourage smart young people to quit college and take up a career instead), said in a recent interview:

Educational institutions are far too often interested in churning out graduates (i.e., getting their money) without imparting the ability to think rather than just work the system.

To paraphrase, you should opt out of college because colleges are just in the game to make money off you, and you’ll make more money if you don’t go to college. Or something like that. You can’t argue with the line of reasoning if you see college as most people do today: a college degree is mostly about learning a specific skill you can turn into money in your working life.

It’s just about here I want to throw up my hands and scream, “stop it!”

For in asking the question, “how can I make the most money,” or, “how can I be the most successful,” you’ve actually turned yourself into a widget. To this way of thinking, I have one fundamental piece of advice — treat yourself as you would have others treat you. If you treat yourself as a widget, thinking about education as a simple means to get money out of a company or consumers, then they’re going to treat you as a widget in return — treating you as nothing but a set of skills they can make money off of.

You are not a widget. Stop acting like a widget, stop thinking like a widget, and stop trying to become a widget. Yes, there are economic tradeoffs in learning skills. And yes, when it comes to specific skills, choosing the cheapest and most effective way to learn the skills you need is the smartest course. But life isn’t just one long economic tradeoff, and learning isn’t just about acquiring the skills you need to get through the artificially intelligent “buzzword filter,” at the next company you want to work for.

In my next post — probably the last in this series — I’m going to try and bring the two previous posts together (First Thoughts and Learn to See) with this one to provide what I consider the most definitive answer possible on deciding whether you should get a college degree or a certification. I’ll give you a hint in advance, though — it depends.

Part 4: The Degree or the Certification: Answering the Question