FUCK SCHOOL: Paul Orfalea’s $2.4 Billion Story
“Whenever I felt down, whenever I started wondering what homeless shelter I would die in, my mother would buck me up by telling me: you know, Paul, the A students work for the B students, the C students run the companies, and the D students dedicate the buildings.”
Imagine being told by all of your teachers that you were too stupid to ever succeed in life.
Maybe you’ve had this experience at school yourself. Maybe you’ve had it lots of times.
And if you haven’t, it’s hard to put into words what it can do to destroy your sense of self worth. The very people who allegedly are there to inspire you to your personal best are instead putting you down, whether through the indirect means of frowny faces on assignment sheets, low grades, or simply ignoring you when your hand is raised – or through the very direct means of insulting you to your face, over and over again.
If revenge is a dish best served cold, Paul Orfalea must be one chilly motherfucker. What did he do to the school and teachers that disgraced him and tried to convince his parents he was an idiot?
He founded Kinko’s.
Afflicted with undiagnosed attention defecit and dyslexia, Orfalea started out in life writing the kind of personal story we’ve all been led to believe would inevitably end in failure and ignominy. As a boy, Orfalea found school so unpleasant that he would cause trouble in order to amuse himself. He was expelled from multiple schools, and he also earned the distinction of flunking not one but two grades. Somehow, he did manage to graduate, eventually – dead bottom in a class of 1,200.
When reflecting upon his experiences going through school, Orfalea once remarked, “I get bored easily, and that is a great motivator. I think everybody should have dyslexia and ADD.” Conventional wisdom states that these conditions are nothing but a hindrance, but like many visionary leaders, Orfalea instead credits them with his later success:
“When tearful parents come up to me to talk about their child’s ‘learning disorder,’ I ask them, ‘Oh, you mean his learning opportunity?’”
Despite everything, Orfalea still managed to find his way to the University of Southern California, where the simple observation that there was no convenient place for college students to have all their printing and stationery needs met inspired him to start his own business. With a modest loan from his parents, Orfalea opened the first ever Kinko’s store in Santa Barbara, selling things like pens, paper and mimeograph services 24 hours a day (perfect for those late night cramming sessions and last minute essay-writing quests). The brand expanded through a series of partnerships, often with college students at other campuses, eventually coming to occupy over 1,700 locations before its acquisition by FedEx for a truly ridiculous amount of cash.
But it gets even better. During his 30 years as CEO of Kinko’s, Orfalea never bothered to learn how to actually use the equipment at any of his businesses. With too many bright ideas and a keen urge to constantly take on new opportunities, Orfalea felt it best to focus on the big picture, and let others attend to the smaller details – even the small detail of how to use a printer in his own print shop. “My restlessness propelled me outdoors,” he would later say in an interview with Ability Magazine, “How many managers do you know who really understand what is happening at the frontlines of their business? I did.”
How is it that someone like Paul Orfalea is possible? After all, he was tagged early on as a misfit and a sure loser – so how did we end up with Kinko’s? If the sorting mechanisms, “scientifically” calibrated standardized tests, report cards, and so many other mechanisms of mass schooling are as effective and well-designed as we have been led to believe, then how is it the system could get someone like Orfalea so fucking wrong?
A fluke, you say? Well, that’s one big fucking fluke then.
The truth of the matter is, the very things school has in place to “help” people as “retarded” and “useless” as a Paul Orfalea were designed by people who wanted to make sure a Paul Orfalea never happened. Just because schools can be full of people who are wonderful as individuals doesn’t mean that the way the system itself is organized can be so rotten that it overwhelms any of their particular efforts to help.
And it is.
The kind of “help” school gives out is simply to kill with kindness. Most young guys in a boat similar to the one Mr. Orfalea floated in during his school years eventually absorb so many of the put downs that they withdraw from life, becoming TV or internet-addicted couch potatoes, or Dungeons & Dragons freaks by night while working shitty, low-paid work by day. The sort of creativity a single human being can unleash on the world – particularly, in this case, the sort of creativity a “learning disabled” person can possess – is in fact so destabilizing to established businesses that school was put into place by force to stop it from developing.
You, too, are capable of making the same kind of insights and inventing creative solutions to problems no one else has seen yet as Paul Orfalea did – that is, if you can unlearn the bad lessons school teaches: lessons of indifference, of boredom, of surrendering your will and initiative. If you’ve ever been told that you’re stupid, that you don’t pay attention enough, or even that you have a learning “disability,” you might consider, instead, how these alleged flaws help you to notice things other people failed to notice.
It might just be worth two and half billion dollars to you.