Article by Zen Habits contributor Jonathan Mead; follow him on twitter.
What if you could do what you love for a living and make a great income at it? On top of that, what if you didn’t have to go to school, spend hundreds of hours in a classroom and end up with a mountain of debt when you finally earn your degree? Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
It’s true that the average college graduate earns more than someone without a bachelor’s degree. However, a good chunk of the biggest innovators and multimillionaires in the world were either high school or college drop outs. (See: Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Johnny Depp, Bill Gates and Quinten Tarantino.)
So how did they do it?
Is it really possible to make as good of a living being self-taught, as someone with an expensive degree? Each path has their unique benefits and drawbacks, and I’m not trying to convince you one way or another. I’m just pointing out that the playing field has changed a lot in the past decade, and it’s more possible than ever to trail blaze your own path. The biggest point is to determine what works best for you.
A lot of people don’t know this, but I never graduated from high school. At the beginning of my sophomore year I just stopped having an interest in going to class. The work was too easy for me and I felt I was being forced to learn about things that I had no interest in. I felt like I had no participation in my own education. So I stopped going.
A few years later I ended up attending a community college. I never finished that either, but I did like it a lot better than high school. I didn’t choose a set major; I just took whatever classes interested me. I had no desire to actually obtain a degree, I only wanted to learn about the things that interested me.
Honestly, I think taking classes that you find interesting should be a greater focus in college, because too much emphasis is being placed on partying and fulfilling course requirements. College is your chance to study the things you care about. Who cares if they don’t apply to your major? I didn’t.
In case you’re wondering what kind of options are out there, here are a few career opportunities that don’t require a college degree:
- Life coach
- Software developer
- Social media consultant
- Public speaker
- Professional photographer
The possibilities are only limited to your imagination. Most of the skills needed for these pursuits can be learned with a simple library card and self teaching. You can obviously study most of these career paths in a formal setting as well, but it’s not necessarily required.
It’s my opinion that over the course of the next decade, we’ll see a lot more people on the scene of the self starting career path. The amount of free information and self educations resources is exploding. Places like Wikipedia and Personal MBA are changing the playing field. Not only that, but it’s becoming easier to establish yourself as an expert and build your network than ever before. Things like blogging and online content publishing platforms can allow you to demonstrate your expertise without decades of climbing your way up the corporate ladder. Social networks like Twitter and LinkedIn can allow you to cut out the middle man and build direct, mutually beneficial relationships with the people you need to know.
Despite how romantic this all sounds, this path isn’t always bed of roses. There are some qualities you need in order to be a self-made renegade:
- Be a self starter. This means that you have to be self motivated to learn and immerse yourself in the knowledge of your field.
- You have to have passion. Your source for motivation will come from your passion. If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, it will be hard to keep going.
- Self-reliance. Since there’s no course to follow, you’ll have to pave your own way. You need a certain amount of creativity and self-discipline to remain persistent.
- It helps to have a tribe. It will be much easier to stay true to your goals when you have support from a group of like-minded people or from a mentor.
I’m not claiming that the traditional path doesn’t have any value. There are benefits and disadvantages to each side. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of a college graduate vs. the self educated person.
College degree pros:
- Curriculum is laid out before you. You don’t have to do much work researching what you need to learn about, you simply follow the course structure.
- Network is built for you. If you do things right in college, you can likely come out with an already strong network of business / professional contacts.
- Credibility. A reputable degree proves you’ve thoroughly studied your profession.
College degree cons:
- Curriculum can be too rigid. If you’re learning the same things everyone else is learning in your profession, how do you differentiate yourself?
- To put it bluntly, college is expensive.
- You are forced to learn things you don’t really care about. Course requirements for a degree often require that you to take classes with hardly any relevance to your major.
Self educated pros:
- No strict curriculum allows you to be more flexible in building a knowledge base. If you’re highly motivated, you’re likely to pick out things that a traditionally educated person would miss.
- Has the possibility to take less time. If you’re smart, you can establish yourself in a profession in much less time than by first getting a degree.
- You’re more in control of how long it will take to become established.
- Less expensive. A library card and access to Wikipedia are free.
Self education cons:
- Not easy if you’re not disciplined.
- You have to build your own network. Hanging out at library doesn’t give you much opportunity to network with others in your field.
- You have to establish credibility. If you don’t have a degree to back you up, you’ll have to demonstrate your competence through past successes. This is kind of irrelevant anyway, because college degree or not, a client or company will want to see not just what you’ve studied or your grades, but what you’ve actually accomplished.
- Some fields require a degree. There are some fields where being self-educated isn’t enough to practice your profession legally. See: doctor, lawyer, etc. This is, however, a small fraction of the career spectrum.
So if you’re thinking about the DIY path, here are some good resources to get you started:
- Google Scholar – Easily searched peer-reviewed papers, theses, books and articles on your topic of interest.
- Wikipedia – Information and background on nearly every subject.
- Personal MBA – Follows the philosophy that you can teach yourself everything you need to know about running a successful business.
- MIT OpenCourseWare
- Finance Your Freedom – A great blog on creating your own career path and ditching the mainstream by Clay Collins.
- Career Renegade – An awesome book by Jonathan Fields on unconventional career paths and doing what you love for a living. It also has a solid chapter on self teaching resources.
If you’re looking to become a chemist, anthropologist, a doctor or a lawyer, the self-educated path is probably not the best choice for you. If you’re looking for a career in technology, social media, writing or starting your own business, self teaching is probably your best bet. It all depends on what you want out of life. You can obviously have a hybrid of both, too.
In the end, what really matters is real world experience, something no library, classroom or teacher can offer.
This article was written by Zen Habits contributor Jonathan Mead of Illuminated Mind. To learn more about how to live without limits, grab a subscription to Illuminated Mind.
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