Many of the ideas in this post are based, in addition to my own experience, off the writings of Tim Ferris and Michael Elsberg – to whom I’m eternally grateful.
There is a murmur of disenchantment in many people’s attitudes towards college degrees. I say a murmur, because there doesn’t seem to be a larger percentage of people who are choosing not to attend at all; but amongst current students and recent grads there is a general air of disgruntlement (I like that word!) with the current educational system.
There are several major issues with the state of the collegiate educational system:
Speaking of abstract knowledge, who says college is the best way to acquire it? Has there been any examination of the learning process by either the university system or the students who attend it? Is partying the whole semester, cramming the night before the final, and then going on a four month vacation really the best way to learn new things?
The result of all these problems combined is that thousands of college graduates are unable to find any job, certainly not in a field that fits the subject they actually studied in school, and are forced to move back in with their parents while shouldering tremendous school debt.
Why are so many people doing this? How can a high school graduate look at his college-graduating peer and enroll themselves into the same problem? Many of us do it because “that’s the way it’s done”. It’s what our parents did. It worked for them. But the formula isn’t working so smoothly anymore.
There has got to be a better way, and I will venture to outline such a system below. It requires more discipline, motivation, and creativity, but I believe that it is a viable opportunity for those who want to avoid the conventional educational rut.
I should just point out that this approach mainly applies to those who would consider an arts degree, as well as those considering a career in computers. For those pursuing a career (and not just abstract knowledge) in fields like medicine, chemistry, or engineering, a structured degree may still be the best and only way to get certified.
Craft your own career
The way I see it, there are several key components to building an effective career:
This, by the way, is one of the biggest issues with the college system, because marketing oneself is the skill which is simultaneously the most necessary and yet somehow the most neglected by our current educational system.
Having listed the components requires to build a successful career, here’s an outline of how you might all these components without actually enrolling in college.
As a general frame of reference, we will begin with a person who has just graduated high school, and chooses this alternative method instead of enrolling in college. The litmus test would be how much has he gained (and potentially lost) at the end of four years by following these suggestions versus actually going to college.
I have outlined a strategy for acquiring each of the six required steps outlined above. Since this post is quite long, here are links to allow you to jump directly to the part of the article that discusses each step.
Knowledge: it all starts here
Knowledge is basis of your career, the theoretical foundation upon which everything else is built. Ultimately, it is what you know that will establish you as an expert, be applied on a daily basis, and form the unique focus of your career.
Therefore, accumulating knowledge is always your first priority.
There are many ways to accumulate knowledge without actually going to college. Some of the best are: college textbooks! Check the Amazon bestseller list and read some reviews to find a suitable book that will give you the knowledge you need in whatever field you are interested in.
As much as possible, seek out the practical, hands-on books first and then supplement them with more abstract theory books. Although the latter have their place, in terms of giving you a more robust understanding of your field and providing you with a theoretical framework as well as confidence, they will not be as helpful on a day to day basis.
Other sources of knowledge include online videos and courses that are either free or much more affordable than college courses, as they are geared towards giving you a specific actionable skill. I will add that there is a lot of hype today about college courses you can take for free online from universities like MIT or Stanford, but I have found these courses to be lacking in clarity, ease of use, and practicality.
There is one important rule for all of this: you must be disciplined in your approach. You must set time daily to actually read, review, summarize and clarify the information you are learning. You will no longer have an external framework forcing you to read your book or remember anything.
It will all be up to you.
Ah, I can hear you saying “that’s the biggest issue! I don’t have enough self-discipline to scratch my own back”.
Here are some practical solutions.
[As a total side point, it is interesting to note that the method of paying yourself to do something is usually less effective than losing money if you don’t do something. Psychologically, we are conditioned to care much more about loss of what we already have, then to miss out on potential gain we have not yet achieved.
So there is something to be said for penalizing yourself if you don’t study. But instead of paying your university, why not pay me? These articles don’t write themselves you know!]
It’s also important to remember that your whole life should be a journey of knowledge acquisition. College teaches us the exact opposite: finish these four years and you’ll never have to open a book again. The opposite is true, if you really want to succeed – never stop learning, and you will always have a competitive edge.
And since your career will naturally evolve out of this knowledge journey, you won’t have an abrupt cutoff-point where you simply stop learning; instead, you’ll gradually transition from a schedule of mostly learning to one of mostly doing- mostly, but never completely.
Networking: it's about who you know
Networking is skill in and of itself, and something you can never start practicing early enough.
In a nutshell, networking means developing strong professional relationships with people who can help you grow your career, by either becoming your clients, sending clients to you, or providing you with advice and help along the way. Turn to your network of fellow-professionals to learn what book to read and what resource to check out.
It’s interesting to note, that main benefit of many MBA programs are not the information they teach, but the connections they foster. Although this may be convenient, it also can cost a hundred grand or more. So instead, here are some free, simple but powerful networking tips:
When you are first starting out, you should turn towards your network primarily of fellow-professionals to learn what book to read, what resource to check out, and what experts to speak to.
Mentors: the secret edge
Books will only take you so far. Nothing beats real world experience, where no specific case perfectly fits the textbooks description. A lot of what makes an expert deserving of the title is the ability to make intuitive decisions based off their understanding of the complete picture and their past experiences.
One of the main reasons we pay universities is to benefit from the mentorship of their professors. And although that is a legitimate method of going about this, it is definitely not the only way. Firstly, because of the price, and secondly, because professors often have a more abstract knowledge base than someone who is out there in the field day in and day out. Who would you rather learn how to help people from – a research psychologist, or someone with hundreds of hours of private practice experience?
Again, I don’t intend to knock research psychologists, what they do is often very important. But when it comes to rapidly gaining a broad, practical set of skills, nothing beats practical experience. ]
So how else do you get mentorship? By networking with experts in your field! You’d be surprised at how open to advise and how easily accessible the experts in a given field can be. Those same college professors who charge you a fortune if they teach you in class? They are happy to give you guidance and provide their perspective on specific questions and challenges you may be facing.
I was surprised by how quickly I was able to reach one of Israel’s top criminologists for an article I was writing – it took two phone calls and five minutes of work and I got to interview her for half an hour!
And don’t forget, you don’t usually need to go to the top expert in the field - you can learn from anyone who knows more than you do. Do you have a relative or a friend of a friend who does something you are interested in? Reach out and pick their brain. People are happy to discuss the fields they are passionate about.
Money: Don't go bankrupt over college
In an ideal situation, someone has been saving up to send you to college.
It may not be easy to convince them to run free with that money and do your own thing. But small victories you achieve along the way will certainly help, and hopefully soon more people will be open to the idea.
I have a friend who used his college money to set up a startup, which resulted in him managing seven employees. Whether he ultimately succeeds or fails, he certainly got a better education and practical experience that no business program could ever have provided. In my mind, that was a sound investment in his future, even if his startup goes bust (which I hope it doesn’t, because I own shares).
Again, you would use your college money to reward yourself for your own hard work, effectively keeping the money “in the family”. You could also use it to invest in your business and develop your career.
If you are not lucky enough to have a pre-established college fund, it is unwise to borrow tuition money on credit, which is effectively what you are doing with your college loans? This is the same overall mentality of “spend now, ask questions later” that landed us in the current recession. “In debt” is the worse way to begin a career, don’t do it.
In this latter case, you will need to work to provide for yourself as you engage in your own career development, but you will have a much greater motivation to establish your own career and much greater flexibility to actually do so, if you are not tied down to a four year degree program and are flipping pancakes instead.
Experience: the vicious cycle
Experience is the clincher. It’s what will actually land you the job of your dreams, or the clients you need.
Yet people often lament that no one will give them the experience they need, because they don’t have the experience. This is true, but there are ways around it.
The key is to create your own experience. Using some of yoru seed money and your time, demonstrate your own skills through a project you create. Want to showcase your marketing skills? Start a small grassroots movement. Want to prove yourself as a screenwriter? Write your own scripts and get some friends to produce it for you.
Combine this with volunteering yoru skills to other causes and companies that could benefit from them, and there is virtually no field (other than hard scineces) where you could not begin to accumulate experience on your own, without a structured job in that field. This is where having an established network can help, reach out to your network and suggest to them that you have a body of knowledge and mentorship that you would happily contribute to their venture.
A note on internships: don’t settle for some random, mind-numbing position just because that is the only thing available, unless you are fairly certain that things could quickly evolve into something you are actually happy doing. Otherwise, you are better off spending your unpaid-time in more fruitful ways.
Reputation: it's about the name
You’ve got the knowledge. You’ve built your network. Through it, you acquired some skilled mentors. You’ve saved yourself a ton of seed money, which you’ve used to help you get some practical experience.
Tying this nice package together in a pretty box and a pink bow is the process of marketing yourself – building a reputation that brings people to you and establishes you as an expert. It is also often the hardest step.
We all know people who are great at what they do but no one knows about them, and people who are not that great but always seem to have more than enough business. The difference lies in the degree to which the latter have managed to build a reputation for themselves.
So how do you develp your reputation?
Secret tip: as someone who is immersed in your field of interest, you can quickly be led to assume that other people know about your field as well. After all, who wouldn’t be interested in PPC optimization? But the reality is just the opposite: assume that most people know nothing about what your expertise and suddenly there is no end to what you can share with the world. And this is a much more accurate reflection of the situation.
Conclusion and Case Study
Phew. There you have it, my outline for bypassing college and actually building an effective career more quickly and cheaply than ever.
So go forth my young grasshopper, this is defnitally the road less taken because it requires more independence, discipline, and vision. But if it is for you, I wish you much success in your journey.
For advice, complaints, or to share your own experiences, feel free to contact me .
My own experience
Let me bring this nice theortical thesis down to earth with two examples from my own life.
I have two passions: helping other people overcome their emotional challenges, and being creative. I have achieved a nice amount of success in both areas without a formal degree, which I am extremely grateful for. I will describe the key elements of my process below.
I started out upon my career path with a meaningless BA (a BS, technically, which is a much more accurate acronym), which I got just because “that’s the first step towards a successful career”. I learned nothing from it, but granted it did get it done with really quickly and relatively affordably.
I then proceeded on to my master’s degree. This proved to be far more difficult, because it was far more intensive yet often completely pointless and theoretical. I couldn’t handle the fact that what I was studying was costing me a fortune and would contribute zero to my actual carreer other then theoretical credibility.
I dropped out of the program three times, and eventually overcame my fear of what my parents and grandparents would think of me (I am juewish after all) and embraced what my intuition was telling me: this isn’t the path for you.
Now let’s see how things evolved as far as developing my career in my two passions:
Being a therapist traditionally requires at least a master’s degree in order to practice, which is what I had originally tried ot do. But very little of the information being taught actually taught me how to help other people.
I gained a lot more by going to therapy myself for months on end, attending multiple personal growth workshops, and taking a nine month applied course in a speicifc therapy modality that I was interested in (which cost a fraction of the price).
After acquiring this practical, experiential body of knowledge, I began teaching what I knew for free at local institutions and colleges. In the process, I refined both my content and my public speaking skills, became more confidant in my own ablities, and established myself as an expert.
I am completely up front with people about the fact that I am not a therapist and do not practice therapy. And yet within one year, I have begun to establish a budding private practice where I help people achieve insight and growth – and I have made more money from this venture and have seen more clients than many of my colleagues who went on to finish the master’s degree I dropped out from.
Simultaneously, I was always seeking out opportunities to be creative. I wrote a short-film script for a non-profit organization, which rejected it; but instead, an animator friend of mine decided to produce it (after I told him about in a classic example of networking by speaking about what you are passionate about). The film proceeded to garner tens of thousands of views and was screened at film festivals around the world.
I taught myself to use Photoshop, and was able to mock-up different creative ad ideas that I thought of. I used sites like Fiverr to cheaply hire actors to act out the scripts for commercials I wrote, teaching myself to edit films in the process and producing the films by myself. I post my accomplishments, products and strategies to my own site, hoping to establish my credibility and aggregate everything in one place.
I took free online courses in marketing, and get regular blog updates from related industry sites like copyblogger, social media insider, and unbounce.
I attended marketing meetups where I simultaneously learned new marketing strategies and met other people who were interested in the same thing. I eventually began teaching marketing strategy to others, and even landed on the front cover of a popular local newspaper.
I used some of the money that was meant for my degree to experiement with creating a webdesign company – teaching myself HTML and CSS in the process, as well as how to (not) manage freelancers. That venture never took off, but I consider it an important learning experience, one which I never could have had if I had studied business in school.
Currently, I get paid a nice salary to work as a marketing professional and create fun and engaging promotional materials – all without the benefits of a formal degree.
It is my hope that you learn from my example and suggestions to create your own dream job and unique life trajectory, paying little to no attention to the way things are “supposed” to be done if that is not what is best for you.
Parents disagree? Send them to me.
Need more advice on figuring out your career path, marketing yourself, or building a website to promote your work? Contact me, I can help.
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