How to be Successful Without a College Degree

I recently came across the following question: “How can you be successful without a college degree?”

This is one of my favorite topics — and the answer is much simpler than we’re often led to think.

You become successful without a college degree the same way you’d become successful with a college degree — by building skills, building a portfolio that showcases the ways you use those skills to create things of value to other people, and using that portfolio as leverage to work your way into positions of greater and greater responsibility (which, typically, is equated with “success”).

For example, imagine you want to work as a marketer. Here’s how this might look in action:

Step 1: learn how to run Facebook ads (building skills)
Step 2: run ads for small local businesses at a low cost to gain experience (building a portfolio)
Step 3: use those as examples to land a marketing role at a startup (leveraging your portfolio to gain a position of greater responsibility).

Once you’ve gotten your foot in the door with that first role, the process repeats — create evidence of your ability to be valuable (bringing in clicks/subscribers/purchasers through your marketing work), and then use those results as leverage to sell yourself for a higher-paying role at another company, or for a promotion.

The thing employers are looking for is your ability to create value on the market. That’s all.

Their opinion on what’s required for being successful on the market (the hard and soft skills you need to bring to the table) might vary, but the underlying principle is the same

Having a college degree doesn’t change your process for success at all. With or without a degree, the approach is the same — build skills, create (and showcase) results, use those results to sell yourself for better opportunities. Rinse, repeat.

Here’s the thing that most people don’t talk about: employers don’t actually care whether or not you have a degree.

A degree is just a proxy for your ability to create value.

I want to be clear on the logic behind why you don’t need a degree to be successful, but to obtain that clarity, we’re going to have to get into the weeds for a minute and get philosophical.

Bear with me.

A proxy is a substitute — a stand-in. In this case, a college degree is a proxy for your ability to create value in a job.

Here’s another example: money is a proxy for value. Fiat currency doesn’t actually have inherent value. It’s just a way of measuring the amount of value people owe each other.

A college degree is the same way. It doesn’t actually tell employers what skills you bring to the table, or what your individual potential is for being useful/creating results. It’s a generalized way of measuring someone’s predicted ability to create value, based on a set of hypotheticals (the person successfully completed college, which hypothetically signifies that they can: commit to something until it’s finished, consistently show up and get things done, communicate, think critically, manage projects, etc.).

The things the employer actually cares about are the things the degree signifies, not the degree itself — the same way someone who has $20 doesn’t actually want the piece of paper, but rather the things that piece of paper signifies (your ability to purchase $20 worth of things).

Having a college degree isn’t even that great of a signal of your ability to create value. Lots of people have them, but still aren’t effective in the professional world. And even if you have one, there are a lot of missing links of information an employer is looking to fill — like your ability to complete the actual tasks you’d be responsible for in a business. (Having a marketing degree doesn’t mean you can effectively drive results in a Facebook ads campaign. You have to have a Facebook ads campaign under your belt to prove that).

Which is why, degree or not, you’ll still need to follow the above formula to obtain success — build skills, create (and showcase) results, leverage results to land higher positions, ad infinitum.

Here’s another data point to consider: after a couple years in the professional world, people stop caring whether or not you have a degree at all. They care about what you’ve done and what you’re able to do, not where you went to school. Once you have some experience on your resume, nobody even thinks about your degree anymore.

Here are a few practical pieces of advice to help you not only execute on this process, but excel at it:

  • Build a digital footprint. We live in a digital world. If there isn’t digital evidence of your work, it doesn’t exist. Write blog posts, answer questions on Quora, establish your LinkedIn, post your projects on an online portfolio. Document everything of value you do. Anything you don’t document is as good as shorting your own stock.
  • Work hard. This is another absolute that’s consistent both with and without college. No matter what you do, you won’t be successful if you don’t put in the work to earn it. Success is a derivative of effort.
  • Don’t be too precious to do hard things. You have to pay your dues before you can rise.
  • Don’t hold out for the “perfect” opportunity. Take the opportunity that’s right in front of you, and then leverage it into something better. There’s no such thing as a perfect opportunity, only a perfect time to start — which is right now.
  • Get smarter. Make building your knowledge base your most consistent hobby. If you can, become obsessed with it. In its ideal sense, college is designed to make you smarter. Depending on the college you go to, it’s possible to make it through without becoming smarter at all — but if you embrace anything from college, it should be the ideal of knowledge. Knowledge — information — is one of the most important factors in the equation of success.
  • Stay curious. Cultivate your curiosity as much as possible. Curiosity is the road that leads to knowledge (which fulfills the point above), but curiosity is an end as well as a means. Build your curiosity muscle. It will make you better at tackling and solving problems — which, in turn, will make you a more valuable employee.
  • Maintain a definition of success. Don’t be afraid to change it as you learn and grow and evolve (because it will change — probably often), but make sure you always have a definition — and make sure it’s one that’s created based on your own values, not general societal definitions of “success.” Everyone’s idea of success is different, and knowing what yours is (what you’re striving towards) helps you bring purpose to your work— and purpose is the fuel that drives you forward.

This post was originally inspired by a question on Quora. Read the full thread here.

Photo by David Beatz on Unsplash

Quora Answer: What are the Benefits of Not Going to College?

There are a variety of benefits to not going to college. College is an expenditure of a number of resources — time, energy, money, etc. If you aren’t using those on college, you can be spending them elsewhere — namely, on something that’s in more direct alignment with your goals.

A few tangible, easy-to-measure benefits:

  1. You save money. Even if you’re working with scholarships, college is expensive; $20,000-$60,000/year is a steep price to pay as you’re starting your adult life. It isn’t guaranteed to pay off.

    Debt is a limiting factor in your decision-making process. You have to make choices that accommodate that debt until you pay your bills off — which will take years. Nearly 40% of students default on their loans.

    Not carrying the burden of debt means you’re able to make strategic financial decisions without factoring for your student loan bills. You can take a lower-paying but more strategic jobs. You can use that $20,000-$60,000 a year on something else — cars, a house, travel, other training resources, etc. College is a general investment. What specific investments might you make with that money?

  2. You save time. Why spend four+ years in school when you could be spending that same amount of time getting four+ years of working experience?

    In a lot of careers (especially in the business world) experience makes you more valuable than a degree does. Getting four years of experience means you’re four years ahead with savings, earning potential, competence, and status.

    Arguably far more valuable than four years of theory (but no real-world, tangible proof of your ability to create value in the workforce).

Those two quantities are objective and easy to measure — but there are a lot of other variables to measure, too.

College is a very general thing — a one-size-fits-all formula for launching your adult life. While it’s more specified than high school (different majors, etc.), it’s still a generalized system moving you towards generalized goals. There’s a lot more room for customization if you’re following a unique and specific path.

If you want to run a travel photography business, college might help you get there — but there may be much more direct ways of obtaining that goal (picking up photography gigs, building a presence online, networking with people already established in the space, establishing mentors, funding your own trips to build up your portfolio).

If you want to work in business, you might be able to get a degree in business from college — but going and working for a couple companies, gaining resume experience, building skills, obtaining references, and building your real-world competence is a much more direct route.

You’re working with finite energy and resources. The benefit of spending those resources on the most direct route to get you where you want to go is very high. If college isn’t the most direct route to get you where you want to go, then the benefits of not going to college will be substantial.

And as an extra bonus — not going to college makes you interesting. The world is becoming more and more friendly towards people who aren’t traditionally educated (the questions around college are becoming more and more prevalent) — so people will be tolerant of your decision, but they’ll also be interested, because you deviated from the norm and did something unusual.

Unusual = interesting.

Interesting = the formula for a good story.

Humans are storytelling creatures. We’re compelled by good stories. So on a human-interest level (and most of our interactions are impacted by human interest), you’ll get people’s interest when you tell them you didn’t go to college — and that’s beneficial too.

Read the full Quora thread here.

Quora Answer: How Do I Know What Career Path to Take?

Two answers: be deliberate, but also don’t sweat it.

First off: be deliberate.

You don’t have to know all of the answers. No one expects you to. The term “career path” implies that it’s something that evolves and changes over time, and that’s normal.

When you close your eyes and you imagine your life in five years, what do you see? Imagine in as much detail as possible — what type of work are you doing? Where are you working? What type of lifestyle are you living? What are you good at? What people are around you? What types of problems are you solving?

You don’t have to have a perfectly clear picture (and no one expects you to!). But be as specific as possible.

What are the first things you see? What things are most important to you?

When you know where you want to end up, it’s easy to work backwards. What steps can you take now that help you get to that projected (and desired) future?

Even if your future vision is vague, it’ll still give you a jumping off point. Maybe you have no idea what type of work you want to be doing in five years — but you do know you want it to be people-centered. That’s a great data point! It indicates that you should probably focus on gaining skills that help you improve your ability to interact with people.

The right path will become clearer as you go, but this gives you a starting point.

Secondly: don’t sweat it.

Really — you don’t have to have it all figured out. You might guess wrong, and that’s completely okay. You’ve gained experience you can use to leverage yourself onto a new path, and you’ve gained wisdom that will help you leverage in the right direction.

A lot of life is about experimentation, and a lot of life is about learning via trial and error, and that’s okay! As long as you’re getting smarter about what you like and what you don’t, and what you’re good at and what you aren’t, then you’re moving in the right direction.

My questions, in turn, for you:

  • What are the options on the table?
  • How does each one move you towards your five-year goal? What skills do they help you gain and why are those skills valuable to you?
  • Which option is the most legitimately exciting to you?

The full post can be found here.

Quora Answer: How do Startup Employees Work for Such Long Hours?

There are two factors: stamina and ownership.

Let’s talk about stamina first.

Your ability to work, like a muscle, is built over time. Stamina is not inherent, but earned.

You could ask the same question about running a marathon — “how do runners consistently run for such long distances?”

The principles are the same. They start small, consistently push their limits, and build muscle and capacity over time. When you’re used to running 5 miles, 26 seems painful, near impossible. But when you consistently push your limits — go from 5 miles to 7, 7 to 10 — you build up your threshold for what you’re capable of doing. 10 to 13 is a small jump — and at 13 miles, you’re already halfway there.

When you’re running 5ks, a marathon seems impossible. When you’re running half-marathons consistently, it’s a reasonable stretch.

When you work 40-hour weeks, the 60+ hour work weeks of a startup employee seem ridiculously long, but they don’t feel like a stretch for people who are working those hours. It’s all about conditioning.

But as I said, that stamina is earned. Some people work long hours as soon as they start working at their first startup, but many don’t. You build your capacity over time, as your responsibilities within the company increase — and when you’re used to working 9 hours a day, what’s one hour more?

There’s an underlying principle in working at a startup, though, that defines the way a person interacts with their work. That principle is ownership (the second item I had on my initial list).

Ownership is both what pushes people to build the stamina of working long hours in the first place, and to embrace that as their reality.

A startup is a company that’s building things. It’s growing, and their products are growing too. There’s a lot of agency for creativity, and a lot of responsibility for each team member to be growing and improving too.

Work isn’t something you clock into and out of. It isn’t about filling a desk from 9–5. In principle, at the end of the day, your employer (probably — with the caveat that every employer is different) doesn’t care about when you work, or how much. They care about the results you’re creating and the impact you’re having. They care about the ways in which you’re making the company better.

That’s what startup employees care about too.

They want to be working long hours, because they want to creating the results those long hours enable them to create.

Think about school assignments vs. passion projects. Startup work is akin to that second category. There’s a purpose to it. It’s something you have agency in and ownership over. And because you’re legitimately excited about it, there’s energy to back you as you throw yourself into your work.

When you have ownership over something, it’s really easy to spend lots of time working on it, because it doesn’t feel like work at all.

One more note about the reality of all this: when you work at a startup, the lines between “work” and “life” often get blurred — not in an unhealthy way, but rather, in an organic way (the harsh defining line between “work” and “life” is a rather industrial construct (derived of bells and time tables and cogs and systems), and not a natural phenomenon). Living while working (taking a personal call at the office, running groceries in the middle of the afternoon) is as seamless as working while living (answering an email while you wait for dinner to cook, thinking about improving your work systems while you drive around town on the weekend).

Each person’s balance is different, and each company’s policies are different, but in general, the lines tend to be more blurred — which makes working long hours much less about the interval of time between clocking in and clocking out, and much more about the amount of effort you feel excited about putting in vs. the output you want to create.

Those are all general notes, though, about principle and paradigm. A few other specific things to bear in mind:

  1. For a lot of people, the amount of hours they work is a form of virtue signalling. It’s a way of bragging and showing off. As a couple other people have already pointed out, working long hours does NOT equate to being productive. Just because someone says they’re working 70 hours a week does not mean they’re delivering 70 hours a week worth of output.
  2. Startup work is often project based. Even people who work long hours have fluctuation in the amount of time they’re spending each week. Usually a big push is followed by some lower-intensity “rest time” (in quotes because you’re still working, but using the terminology ‘rest time’ because you have more space to recharge).
  3. Pacing is key, even when you’ve built stamina. Even when you can run a marathon, you don’t run one every day. You train in smaller, more paced increments, with marathon-length runs happening only at intervals. Keeping yourself healthy is important!
  4. Because there’s a lot of agency in your work, you can chose the hours and the workflows that work best for you. This makes working long hours feel less like a struggle (e.g. forcing yourself to be productive during your downtime), and more like an organic process.
  5. Burnout is a real thing. Even when you have agency, if you push yourself too far, you’ll break. Runners tear muscles and sideline themselves, and startup employees can burn themselves out and take themselves out of the game. See above — pacing is key.
  6. Ultimately, the goal is NOT to work ridiculous hours, but rather, to work smarter rather than harder. Startup employees are constantly thinking about how to work faster and more efficiently — how to systematize their processes and how to automate tasks to free themselves up for more creative, higher-level work. A good startup manager realizes that your down time is often your most productive — the time when you’re able to think creatively and solve problems (see above — startups are always growing, and growth requires a lot of creative ideas and energy). Even though it’s a form of virtue signalling (my 70 hours is more impressive than your 60), working long hours actually isn’t the goal. Having the capacity to is valuable, but being efficient in your work is more valuable still.

Here’s the post on Quora, if you want to check out the other responses!

Photo by Lost Co on Unsplash

How to (and How Not to) Measure Value in Opportunities

My colleague T.K. Coleman says “If you want to be a developer at Google, don’t go be a developer for another company. Build your development portfolio on the side and do anything you can to get in with Google, even if it means sweeping the floors.”

There are two reasons why this is a valuable approach to take:

  1. It allows you to build relationships within the company. People hire and promote people they know and enjoy working with. The stronger your network, the stronger your potential for opportunity. In most cases this is a direct correlation.
  2. It allows you to better understand the company. When you’re on the inside, you’re constantly learning — about how the company functions, about the company’s philosophy and ideas, and ultimately, about its opportunities (which is what you’ll need to capitalize on in order to grow).

Here’s the key to this whole philosophy, though — sweeping the floors at Google isn’t just about doing time until you earn a spot on the development team (which in and of itself is a circuitous process, and will likely take a number of jumps from role to role before you make it to your final destination as a developer).

This is so important I’m going to say it twice — it’s not just about doing time.

Again, there are two important reasons why:

  1. “Doing time” implies that, if you fulfill your time commitment, there’s a guaranteed end result, which there’s not (you have to earn this stuff!)
  2. It implies that there’s only a payoff if you fulfill your time commitment and land the full-time offer. It implies you’re only getting something of value of you get the end result you’re looking for — and that’s a deeply limiting thing to believe.

Here’s the thing: both parties in this relationship are free agents, and that limits the potential for guarantees. There are so many variables at play. You might not do anything beyond sweeping floors to get attention, and therefore never open up opportunities for growth. Google might not need you. Google might have needs, but you might not be a good fit. You might sweep floors for six months (or even work your way up into a customer success or support position) and then realize that you don’t want to be a developer after all, or that you actually want to be a developer at a different company.

But, more importantly, this is a limited (and limiting!) mindset. It’s only counting the end result as a worthwhile measure of value — when really, that end result is a small piece of a very big puzzle, and a single source of value (out of a large number of sources).

Think about it: if you sweep the floors for six months and realize you don’t want to be someone else’s employee, but rather start your own company, is that wasted time?

It is if you only measure the value of outcomes based on a success/failure metric. You didn’t get the developer role you were shooting for. You failed.

But there are so many other forms of value you’re overlooking. In this scenario, you’re smarter than you were before. You have a better picture of how you want to move through life, and the things you want to be building. You’re better off (and better equipped for success) than you were six months prior when you started sweeping floors.

Might, then, this also fairly be measured as a success?

Even if you get let go (i.e. the opportunity ends, and it’s not on your terms), it can still be chalked up as a success. Maybe after six months Google goes through restructuring and lets go all of its floor sweepers. Might that also be measured as a success? You may not have landed an opportunity, but you have a better understanding about how a company like Google is structured internally. You’ve learned more about tech startups by being immersed in one. And you have some experience under your belt. You’re still better off than you were before you started.

Rather than thinking about success in terms of outcome, think about it in terms of internal value. If you’re smarter, or stronger, or faster, or more competent, or more skilled than you were before you started (even if it isn’t in the ways you initially intended) if you’re measurably different in a positive direction than you were when you started, then value has been derived from the experience.

This is a valuable way to analyze past experiences, but it’s also a valuable way of analyzing the opportunities in front of you.

I did an interview last week with Isaac Morehouse for his new podcast Career Crashers (episode should be releasing this week or next, so link coming soon). In the interview, we talked about my journey from college opt-out to career coach at Praxis — how I decided not to go to college in the first place, and how I built my way up to becoming the Apprenticeship Advisor and Community Manager at Praxis.

One of the points we talked about was my journey from intern (how I started working at Praxis in the first place) to full-time employee. The journey was a slow one — it took more than a year for me to ultimately land a full-time role. This is, in part, one of the realities of setting your sights on a small startup. The keyword in the last sentence is small — the staff isn’t substantial, opportunities are limited, and bringing on a new team member is a big deal (and a big investment). It isn’t something that’s done lightly, nor often.

I worked as an intern — and then as a contractor — for a long time before I was brought on into a full-time position, and throughout, the guarantees of a potential role were tenuous., and purely speculative I was never guaranteed a full-time offer, and it certainly wasn’t my reason for staying. I wasn’t busy holding out for a full-time offer. I was learning and growing in the role I was in.

Of course, I wanted the full-time position, so I could spend all of my time doing the work I loved. But the full-time role was never a measure of success in what I was doing. I was working for Praxis because it afforded me the opportunity to grow in ways I wanted to grow, gain experience working at a startup, gain proficiency and aptitude as an educator and a coach, be around my favorite thinkers writing about the alternative education space, and become a better and stronger employee and person. If things had turned out differently and I’d never ended up working full-time with Praxis, it still would’ve been time well spent, because it made me as an individual better.

Titles are an easy proxy for measuring value — that’s part of why we crave them. It’s a good thing to covet specific roles and jobs, especially as you grow in your career. But when you’re building towards something — especially if you’re in the early stages of your career, and have lots and lots of room to figure things out — don’t limit yourself by measuring the value of an opportunity based only on outcome, and don’t be afraid of taking a circuitous route to get you where you want to go.