Doing literally nothing

Paul Graham’s How to Make Pittsburgh a Startup Hub is worth reading you love Pennsylvania as much as I do, or if you’re interested in the qualities of second-tier cities to replicate the successes of a New York or San Francisco. There’s also this interesting bit:

Harvard used to have exams for the fall semester after Christmas. At the beginning of January they had something called “Reading Period” when you were supposed to be studying for exams. And Microsoft and Facebook have something in common that few people realize: they were both started during Reading Period. It’s the perfect situation for producing the sort of side projects that turn into startups. The students are all on campus, but they don’t have to do anything because they’re supposed to be studying for exams.

Harvard may have closed this window, because a few years ago they moved exams before Christmas and shortened reading period from 11 days to 7. But if a university really wanted to help its students start startups, the empirical evidence, weighted by market cap, suggests the best thing they can do is literally nothing.

“If a university really wanted to help its students, the best thing they can do is literally nothing.”

This isn’t an idea limited to a university’s ability to help students start startups—it’s a very old insight into learning in general. John Henry Newman speaks to it in his Idea of a University:

“If I had to choose between a so-called university which … gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination in a wide range of subjects, and a university which had no professors and examinations at all, but merely brought a number of young [people] together for three or four years and then sent them away…”

“I have no hesitation in giving preference to that university which did nothing over that which exacted of its members an acquaintance with every science under the sun.”

In Is Penn State a Real University?, Ben Novak explains Newman’s thinking: “A real university … is not a knowledge factory, but first of all a school of character.”

It’s in encountering one another that we learn and shape ourselves, in business as in life.

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