If you measure return on my college tuition based on what I got out of my degree, I would go so far to say that I wasted my parents’ money 😬.

I hope to be a parent sometime in the near future, and it got me thinking.

How did my parents handle me going to college? How will I handle my kids going to college?

I was fed the standard “you can do/be whatever you want!” gospel that many of you are familiar with, and I kind of just assumed I would regurgitate the party line to my kids.

And then I had some life experience and realized that what I learned in college was almost worthless, relatively speaking at least.

Teaching myself to write code inspired this post on one of my big regrets in life: not studying engineering in college.

Big mistake!

The problem with “stuff”

I majored in finance. In finance, we learned “stuff”. A few examples of “stuff” include:

  • How to do certain kinds of math problems
  • What different financial instruments are and how they work
  • Facts about the banking system
  • How financial statements work

Among other things.

At the end of the day, “learning stuff” can be reduced to: simple memorization and single-path thinking.

You learn a thing and the steps you need to take with that thing to arrive at a solution. There is usually one right way to do it, and it’s not that difficult.

I was simply required to… wait for it… learn the stuff. Read about it, memorize it, understand how it works.

Problem is, that stuff is only a fraction of what you need to contribute to society and be successful. The majority of your professional capability comes from applying what you learned to solve real world problems.

By its very nature, a college degree is limited in its ability to replicate real world experience. It isn’t the real world.

But it can try. We did case studies, group projects, mock investment accounts. They helped a bit. But at the end of the day, the problems you face in life and work have little to do with what you learn in school.

You learn on the job. Everyone does because it’s the only way. But you will learn faster and outperform if you are a fundamentally better problem solver.

So, ambitious college freshman, what to do?

The most effective way you can spend your time is by building problem solving ability.

Enter engineering

Engineering is a unique discipline. Unlike stuff-learning degrees, the value of an engineering degree is not knowledge of the subject matter itself (the “stuff”).

Engineering trains you to think and gives you a toolkit to solve problems.

How? Well, there is often no “right” answer to an engineering problem. You are given a set of tools (formulas, knowledge of what you’re working with, a few inputs, an end goal, etc.) and are expected to find your way to a working solution. Sound a bit like the real world?

This makes engineering degrees challenging.

To the utter geniuses out there who disagree, I kindly refer you to the fact that a 70% (what us stuff-learning folks know as a C-) is unanimously considered a good grade on an engineering curve.

And while I can’t refer you to it, believe me when I say I endured the incessant complaining of my engineer friends during our four years at Lehigh:

“Ugh, I have to study, count me out this time.”

“Sorry, I can’t hang, I have an exam tomorrow where the average grade will be a D.”


In typical arrogant young gun fashion, I poo-poo’d engineering as unnecessarily difficult for an aspiring investment banker.

“Why study engineering? It’s hard af, has nothing to do with finance, and finance has everything to do with finance. How will I ever get a banking job if I can’t calculate the present value of a bond?”


I ended up getting the job I wanted, but I attribute almost none of it to my finance degree (relentless cold calling got me there in the end).

It wasn’t until I…

  1. grew up a little, and
  2. started learning how to program

…that I started seeing the true value of engineering.

Programming showed me the power of thinking like an engineer

As a stuff-learning graduate, most of the problems I solved in college had one solution. If I learned how to get to that solution, I was awarded with a good grade. Good for me!

Result: When I graduated, I was not a good problem solver.

Most of my problem solving ability came from being forced to solve new problems in the real world (or become a non-contributing member of society, 🙅‍♂️ bad!).

I learned, over time, and by now I like to think I can hold my own. But I was never meaningfully exposed to this skillset in academia, which would have given me a considerable leg up early on in my career.

This is likely true for most of you stuff-learning graduates out there. You learned what you learned in school, then had to figure out how to solve real world problems only after you set foot in the real world.

That’s one way to do it, and it works. But there’s a better way. Your average engineer knows what I’m talking about.

My eyes started to open to this fact within one week of picking up a programming textbook. Within that first week, I faced simple problems that had many possible solutions.

I froze.

“Um, excuse me, there should be one way to solve this problem, and I should have been taught how to solve it in my textbook. Where do I even start?”

Anyone learning to write code for the first time can relate to this empty-headed feeling. But, after many hours staring blank-faced at my computer screen, I slowly started to get it. I began to understand how the tools I was given (code syntax) can be used to break down and work through problems with no obvious solution.

It forced me to think. Hard.

How can a set of inputs be used to get a desired output, which could be literally anything? I had no choice but to think through multiple steps in multiple possible paths to a solution, and not all paths are created equal.

So, I toiled away for hours finding my way to a working solution. Nice! But is this solution the best way to solve this problem?

If I choose a sub-optimal solution, I may face more problems down the road. Do I spend the time now to find a better solution, or move forward with what I have?

All of a sudden I’m thinking through trade-offs too. Definitely didn’t sign up for this!

If that wasn’t enough, the problems I encountered came out of nowhere and were different every time. It’s not like because I solved problem A, I was good to go. Problem B often has nothing to do with problem A, forcing me start again from square one.

This puts the aspiring engineer through A LOT of trial and error, which can be exhausting and even demoralizing. The cognitive load is high.

But over time, the engineer begins to develop a mental framework for thinking through problems of any kind. It’s lifting mental weights in a fundamentally more rigorous way than studying to ace some test.

This is what makes engineering valuable.

Not just knowing how to write code or build some machine. It’s the ability to solve hard problems for which there is often no playbook on how to do so.

People who can do this start ahead and get ahead. Fast. And studying engineering in college is the best way to get there.

But it’s never too late to start. Picking up a coding hobby is bound to net you a few IQ points, and you spreadsheet monkeys out there get the added benefit of automating some work.

Give it a whirl if you’re fixing to give that brain of yours a workout.

Note: Programming isn’t special. Building a computer program is just the digital version of building a physical machine. The only difference is that one is called software engineering, the other mechanical.

If it’s not obvious, I would have studied some form of engineering in college if I could do it over again.

College years are precious. There are resources at your disposal, your brain is more plastic, and more than anything else, you have more TIME than you ever will again.

Allocate some of it to thinking like an engineer.

But, if you must pursue finance or get a stuff-learning degree of some kind, go for it, just do yourself a solid: take a few engineering courses on the side.

You can always learn how to value a company later on. It’s just stuff after all.

Thanks to Sarah for reading a draft of this post.