“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”Alvin Toffler
During the 20th century, a college degree used to be a true sign of education. In 1960, only 18% of Americans graduated high school, 6-8% graduated college, and <1% completed an advanced degree (census.gov). Today, degrees are much more common. By 2015, 88% of Americans graduated high school, 33% had a bachelor’s degree, and 12% held a more advanced degree (census.gov).
Increasing access to higher education had an unintended consequence. Bachelor’s degrees became a status symbol sold like a commodity without quality control. As the number of degrees increased the quality declined. College became a place to meet people, party, and prove you can pass multiple choice tests. In 2021 years of education are no longer synonymous with learning.
Millennials learned this lesson the hard way: they are the poorest generation in the last hundred years, despite having the most years of schooling. Spending the time and money to earn college degrees did not translate into assets later in life. By 2023, the millennial generation will own only 3% of America’s wealth. At the same median age, Baby Boomers owned 21% (Washington Post).
The difference between years of schooling and education became apparent to me over the last year when I wrote a non-fiction book for the general public, called “Vigilance: An Anesthesiologist’s Notes on Thriving in Uncertainty.” Vigilance explains how anesthesiologists successfully navigate uncertain situations, told through my experiences as a medical student and resident. It then applies those strategies to modern day systemic problems. I wanted to document how anesthesiologists think, what we do, and how our methods might be valuable outside of medicine.
In order to finish the book I reversed many of my academic thinking habits. As the 21st century continues, writing a high-quality book will join the long list of skills that supersede years of education.
Here are six reasons why I think writing a quality book is the new college degree:
1. Writing a quality book means you understand the difference between quality and quantity.
Volume of writing is different from quality writing. I wrote the manuscript for my book in 360 days. I wrote about 500,000 words total, but the final manuscript is only 50,000 words. That means my readers will only see the most relevant 10%.
A high-quality book means the author knows how to prioritize what is important to the reader. Good writing requires “killing your darlings,” which is removing all unnecessary parts unrelated to your message. Writing is meant to communicate a message; good writing means the author knows how to focus on what’s important. Writing without an audience is not a book it is just a diary.
2. Writing a quality book signals communication and leadership skills.
Writing a book is a team sport. In order to succeed, I surrounded myself with people who had skills, perspectives, and experiences I lacked. I partnered with editors, graphic designers, accountants, lawyers, and a publishing company to make the book a reality. Instead of micromanaging, I focused on accurately articulating my vision, then gave my partners freedom to do their best work.
Research, writing, editing, proofreading, graphic design, marketing, and finance happened simultaneously. I quickly learned to organize complex tasks into individual parts, delegate appropriately, and be ultimately responsible for quality control. My work became people-centric, rather than task-centric.
3. Writing a quality book means you respond well to criticism.
Writing is easy if you ignore criticism in order to preserve your ego, remaining blissfully unaware of the chasm between your perception and objective reality. For an author, the greatest barrier to overcome is yourself. Early in the writing process I realized I could not evaluate my writing objectively. I had two choices: either accept the limit of my perspective, or live in my own omniscient fantasy; I chose reality.
I recruited editors with different backgrounds and diverse perspectives. Allowing others to criticize my thoughts elevated my writing beyond what I could achieve alone. Constructive criticism became my most valuable asset. Rather than assuming my editors were wrong and trying to prove why I was right, I instead assumed my editors were right and tried to prove why I was wrong.
4. Writing a quality book means you can think critically.
As 21st century knowledge assessments rely more on standardized tests and numerical benchmarks, students don’t learn to define their own values, engage in constructive argument, or communicate outside of academic settings. College has become less about critical thinking and more about following directions. Students have become fragile and helpless rather than curious and resourceful. Today, a college degree signals you can show up and follow directions.
Writing a book signals you’re an original thinker with independent value. Books can’t be written by following someone else’s directions, memorizing a textbook, or process of elimination. Writing a book means the author has defined an important topic, then organized his thoughts to communicate that topic. A book is reflection of what the author thinks is important.
5. Writing a quality book signals legitimacy.
Publishing a book means allowing others to examine your thoughts. Are you willing to take that risk? To allow countless strangers the power to evaluate your most deeply held beliefs?
Taking a risk for what you believe in is a signal of legitimacy. Unlike academia, there is no such thing as a “free” action. By releasing my book, I’m taking the risk that my ideas are correct; however, I could also be very wrong and permanently damage my future. Time will tell!
I find people have a lot opinions, but when they have to take a risk for those opinions, suddenly they have fewer of them. Talk is cheap.
6. Writing a good book means you know how to work hard and follow through.
There are no shortcuts in publishing. The title must be chosen. The cover must be designed. The manuscript must be written, edited, then proofread. Printing and distribution are next. Finally, marketing commences to figure out how to reach your intended audience. No one can buy your book unless you complete 100% of the steps. 99% completion means failure.
In order to finish my book on schedule, I wrote early in the mornings and late at night in addition to my residency responsibilities. I estimate I worked 7 days per week, 12-18 hours per day for a year. I didn’t have a boss cracking a whip. I chose to work hard because I believed in what I was doing. Writing a quality book means you can build an asset from nothing.
Vigilance will be released June 22, 2021.