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

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