Major support for MindShift comes from
Outschool Logo

Five Secrets to Succeeding Without a College Degree

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 9 years old.


By Nikhil Goyal

British rapper-poet Suli Amoako recently launched a video, “Why I Hate School, But Love Education,” that has been making rounds all over the Internet. He calls for young people to “understand your motives and reassess your aims” and provides outliers in history that have done very well for themselves and society without formal schooling.

The final line of the video is: “There’s more than one way to be an educated man.” Amoako’s on the mark.

In the book The Millionaire Mind, Dr. Thomas J. Stanley conducted an extensive survey of more than 1,000 millionaires in the United States. He approximated that the average collegiate GPA for a self-made millionaire is 2.76. New York Times columnist David Brooks jokes, “You know all those morons who sat in the back of the classrooms goofing off? In a few years you’re going to have a new name for them: Boss.” What’s more, people with the highest life satisfaction are more likely to drop out of school, according to research from psychologist Edward Diener.

Before you accuse me of calling for millions of students to drop out of school, let me make a few things clear: First, if you have viable alternative, dropping out may be the best option for you. But as always, one-size-does-not-fit-all. Second, we have many lessons to learn from successful people who have done poorly, dropped out, never went, or just hated school. A common thread strings them together — a serious commitment to lifelong learning and a desire to screw with the status quo. Here, five secrets of the great “uneducated.”


If not for Steve Jobs’ adopted father, Paul, who instilled a love of learning and tinkering within him, we may not have Apple today. He taught Jobs “how to build things, how to take things apart, [and] put things back together.” He exposed him to electronics and mechanics, planting the seeds of design and inquiry within the young innovator that would be later exemplified in Apple products like the iPhone and Macbook.


While Jobs abhorred going to school and almost got his curiosity “beaten” out of him, he never stopped playing be it during his tenure at Apple or his stint at Pixar. Extraordinary innovators never stop playing. “Work hard, play hard,” as the Wiz Khalifa tune goes. For his entire life, Jobs, unlike most human beings, was able to “retain a sizable portion of…[his] childhood spirit despite the pressures and demands of adulthood” — a characteristic called psychological neoteny. Jobs never lost that childhood-like sense of wonder and burst of imagination. In his new book, Mastery, Robert Greene argues that as we mature into adulthood, “we no longer look at things as they are, noticing their details, or wonder why they exist. Our minds gradually lighten up.” Childhood has become an endangered species.

As M.I.T. Media Lab director Joichi Ito puts it, let’s “allow neoteny to guide us beyond the rigid frameworks and dogma created by adults.”


Master teacher at the Acton School of Business Jeff Sandefer has this radical thought, ‎”Let’s close the public schools and shutter America’s universities… Instead, let children teach themselves and find an apprenticeship at an early age.” Mostly associated with the pre-industrial age, apprenticeships were actually a hot ticket into the working class of America. Today, only 0.3% of the American workforce are apprentices, according to a report from American University economist Robert Lerman.

[RELATED: Why Learning Should Be Messy]

To name a few notable figures, John Frieda, Ozzy Osborne, and Benjamin Franklin all opted out of a higher learning institution for an apprenticeship. Take Franklin. At age 12, his first apprenticeship was under his brother in a printing shop. There, he exhausted sums of books, even skipping meals in order to fuel his literary obsession. Franklin’s apprenticeship would end on a sour note, however. He ran away after his brother would not publish his writings. He would later find work in Philadelphia and London, clashing with sporadic unemployment along with whetting his publishing and writing skills. Later, Franklin and a business partner would start their own printing shop in Philadelphia. All of these experiences combined would assist him as he climbed up the ranks of American colonial society, eventually becoming one of the Founding Fathers of this country.

Learning by doing is the best way to learn anything. Organizations like Enstitute, a two year apprenticeship-based educational experience designed to turn incubators, companies, and start-ups into classrooms for 18-24 year-olds, are trying to make this method of learning cool again. In Mastery, Greene writes, “Masters in history: a youthful passion or predilection, a chance encounter that allows them to discover how to apply it, an apprenticeship in which they come alive with energy and focus. This intense connection and desire allows them to withstand the pain of the process — the self-doubts, the tedious hours of practice and study, the inevitable setbacks, the endless barbs from the envious.”


The quote above was stated by Steve Jobs during his infamous Stanford commencement speech in 2005. Throughout history, we’ve accumulated a drove of case studies of teachers and schools writing off students because they weren’t able to or didn’t want to fit into the mold of formal education. Some students’ spirits have been so disheartened that they felt they weren’t good at anything and they had no place in this world. Winston Churchill was one who perfectly fit this description. Hindered by a speech impediment, he was a terrible and rebellious student, generally garnering some of the lowest grades in his classes. Churchill’s teachers, in their reports, labeled him as “lazy, arrogant, willful, naughty, and unpunctual.”

But he never gave into their taunts. He kept hustling. He enrolled into the military. He then ran for office and had to deal with a few devastating blows – losing countless elections, more than any statesmen in British history. He defied the naysayers time after time and would eventually be lauded as the “savior of his country.” As Churchill put it bluntly, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” So much for school.


When we discuss the stories of very successful people, we often neglect to mention the person’s journey to get to that point. We leave out their failures and the days when they wanted to quit and move on. We shouldn’t. We should put this segment of their lives under a microscope and study it genuinely.

Thomas Edison is perhaps one of America’s most marvelous failures. He just couldn’t stop failing. Called an “addled-brain” by a schoolmaster, Edison had only three months of formal schooling. At age 12, he became a candy butcher on a train from Port Huron to Detroit , selling items like newspapers, fruit, snacks, and candy to passengers. Interestingly enough, a boy who was insanely curious about science and reading, created a makeshift laboratory in the empty baggage car of the train, where he would conduct chemical experiments, and started a printing press where he ran

[RELATED: How Do We Prepare Our Children For What's Next?]

copies of the “Grand Trunk Herald.” How oblivious were these conductors and passengers? Edison’s laboratory activities were abruptly terminated after a experiment in the lab started a fire. Now with a sudden hearing loss, he jumped from job to job, because he kept getting fired. Edison’s overall grit and devotion to learning was unwavering. He did not see separate experiments into successes and failures, only learning experiences. Edison had an intrinsic hunger and drive to solve problems he witnessed in the world.

It was the Wizard of Menlo Park who famously said, “I have not failed 700 times. I’ve succeeded in proving 700 ways how not to build a lightbulb.” One event in Edison’s life represents this well. In December 1914, when Edison was 67 years-old, a fire wiped out his factory, a place where he had spent a decade of his life and a lot of money in hope of developing a nickel-alkaline storage battery. On the spot, as the flames continued to roar, he confirmed that he would rebuild the laboratories. Almost as an afterthought, he added, “Oh, by the way. Anybody know where we can get some money?” And a mere three weeks after the fire, Edison shipped the first phonograph. Drawing from luminaries like Edison, the future belongs to the ones who “fail fast, fail early, and fail often.”


For most of our childhoods, adults and our parents dictated what we did most of the day. If we wanted to try something out of the norm, we needed their approval and permission. Party due to the “do this, do that” nature of schooling, we become acclimated to an domain where we don’t like to do new things, but rather stick in our shell of expertise. Too many people never leave that mindset. In addition, the No. 3 regret of the dying is “I wish I’d the courage to express my feelings.” We have to stop waiting on the world to change.

Take Richard Brason. He was miles away from a stellar student. Since he had dyslexia, he could not comprehend any of his schoolwork, flunked IQ tests, and deemed lazy and stupid by his teachers. Outside of school, Branson’s brush with entrepreneurship began when he decided to grow Christmas trees at a local farm and breed budgerigars. Both businesses ultimately failed. But it taught him immensely about the importance of constantly making mistakes and recovering from them.

In terms of school, after nearly failing out of Scaitcliffe School, Branson transferred to the Stowe School, a boarding school in Buckinghamshire, England. There, he sought safe haven in the library. At age 16, Branson launched a youth-culture periodical called Student Magazine, sporting columns and interviews from novelists James Baldwin and Alice Walker and existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre.

[RELATED: How We Can Connect School Life to Real Life]

After the first issue was published, the headmaster at Stowe School, who thought highly of the high school dropout, declared, “Congratulations Branson. I predict you will either go to prison or become a millionaire.” Indeed, Branson would go on to accomplish both feats. Soon enough, Branson persuaded his parents to pursue his startup full-time and dropped out of high school. In order to keep Student Magazine alive, Branson decided to run ads that offered records at discount prices. Stunned by the high volume of orders, he set up shop and founded Virgin Records. The rest is history.

Today, the Virgin billionaire and thrill-seeker is flying high, literally and is the chairman of the Virgin Group of more than 400 companies around the globe. Branson would not be who he is today if he decided to play it safe and put up with the grueling and useless days of schooling. He took a risk and it certainly paid off.

The moral of the story is: Go change the world yourself. We are waiting. The future is here and is ripe for disruption. Go against the grain and take full advantage of the moment. There has never been a better time to be an innovator and dreamer in America.


Nikhil Goyal is a senior at Syosset High School in Woodbury, New York, and the author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School. This post originally appeared on Forbes.