I’m going to start this out with a confession, and one that I’m not very proud of. I spent a lot of time in college, but I do not have a college degree. Has it affected me and what I do? Definitely. But not for the reasons you think.
Everyone has a different perspective on school and the whole self-taught system, but mine comes from a very personal place. And frankly, it’s a little embarrassing.
I graduated high school with a respectable GPA and headed off to the University of Arizona with the dream of becoming a comic book artist. What I actually learned were three things:
- Drinking a bottle of Absolut Currant will cause your roommate to pass out in between your dorm room and bathroom.
- Getting your ears pierced at a mall is not a good idea.
- I wasn’t ready for college.
I never felt stifled as a high schooler; I had every opportunity in the world to succeed, and was given a good head start whenever possible. My parents sent me off to school and said, “Just do well in school, we’ll cover the rest.” But the newfound freedom of being away from home put me in a very different place. Suddenly, I was spending my afternoons playing roller hockey by the library instead of studying for midterms. I didn’t party, but I sure did like to sleep. And then there was the anxiety. Oh, the anxiety.
Coping With Social Fears
After flunking out of my freshman year, coming back home and enrolling in the local community college, I learned something new about myself. Turns out, I had a very large fear of being singled out. I remember distinctly waking up one morning, driving 30 minutes to class, finding a parking space and getting to class just five minutes late. My hand hit the handle and I saw the teacher leading his lecture through the window. I stopped, let go of the handle and walked away. I never went back to that class again.
I have no idea why this happened; why I was so afraid of someone pointing out that I was late — lots of kids were late, it was a big school. But it caused me to break out in cold sweats. And since this routinely happened, I was constantly failing classes. Not for poor grades, but because of a lack of attendance. I was just simply not able to do it, and the extending fear caused me to become more and more introverted. Somewhere in my early 20s, I just decided I was done and took up a job delivering pizzas. I figured that I’d never become that comic book artist, and my life was limited to crappy jobs with low pay. And in that case, I was right. Kinda.
The Uphill Battle
I became a writer completely by accident. It’s a long story, but to give the tl;dr version, I had to write an article about a custom car that I built. I never expected it to be published, but it was, and that led to freelance gigs. Soon I was writing for two magazines, then three, then four. Six years later, I cleared $ 10,000 in a year writing part time. Could this be something?
But as successful as I was becoming as a freelancer, I couldn’t get a full-time job as a writer to save my life. Why? No degree. Finally, after close to a decade of freelancing, my experience broke open the doors to a regular magazine gig, where I became a writer and copy editor. It took a long time, but I finally made it.
The Experience/Degree Debate
You may have a similar story to mine. Maybe you squandered your 20s the way I did, or you just never finished college. And if you think that I’m going to tell you that you need to go back to school and get your degree, you’re wrong.
Yes, having a college degree can help you get your foot in the door at a job that you want to have, but it’s not the *only* way. If there’s a reason you can’t go to college — money, time, family obligations — then it’s OK if you don’t. You won’t have to live the rest of your life delivering pizzas. You can have a good career. Here’s how.
1. Put in Work. You’ll have to put in the time learning your trade on your own, without the guidance of a professor. You need to learn by doing, and that means stepping outside the classroom. Working on your own projects. Making stuff. Hustling. There will be some hard days, and there will be moments when you question whether or not this whole thing is worth it or not. Trust me, it is.
2. Soak up Everything. When I started writing professionally, the first thing I did was head to the bookstore. I picked up every book I could on the subject, then I bought a few more online (like you can do here at our eBooks section). Then I started hanging out more with other writers that I knew, and compared notes. I became a sponge for knowledge, and that helped bring me to where I am today. If you want to be good at something, you’re going to have to start somewhere.
3. Step Into a Classroom. College may be off the table for a number of reasons — cost, travel, commute, time, etc. Pick up some Tuts+ Premium courses to guide your way along the path. Wondering where to start? Funny you should ask that. We have a new section called Guides that walks you through the process of where to start and how to get into your chosen field. We’re expanding on these all the time, so check in frequently to find out more. Either way, take your time and learn as much as you can online. The Internet is a big place, and there’s lots of good information to be had.
4. Don’t Give Up. There was a time when I thought I was making a huge mistake. I had lost a big client, money was going out faster than it was going in and I thought there was no way I could continue. But I did, and today things are better than they were before I had that client. You’re going to think that you can’t do it any longer, that the college kids have all the edge and you just can’t do it. Don’t give up, you can do it.
If you too dropped out of school, the guilt can haunt you. But for me, I’ve learned that there are other ways to pick up the skills you need for your field, and most of the time it’s just about hustling. Obviously, we have courses and tutorials here at Tuts+ Premium that can teach you about whatever you want to learn, and other websites offer similar experiences. And sitting in a classroom reading a book about coding that’s three years old won’t help you in the real world where people live on the bleeding edge. There’s got to be a balance.
If you’re in college today, keep it up. Get that degree, and do your thing — but do some side work, too. Pursue your passion with vigor while you go to school. The degree is certainly something to be proud of, but with the right experience, you can leave school with experience that will find you working where you want to work, or even starting your own thing.
If you, like me, didn’t finish school, don’t beat yourself up. It took me a long time to accept that I screwed up, and that’s fine. I’ve moved forward and applied my real-world experience to my career and things are good today — better than ever. Sure, it took me a bit to figure that all out, but now I see all of the opportunities that I have because of the choices I’ve made. And that’s awesome.
And of course, if you didn’t finish school and don’t regret it, you’re probably like I am today. Sure, having a degree might be nice, but I’m at a point where my experience trumps the paper. You may not be there yet, but you could be. You just have to do the work.
photo credit: lel4nd on Flickr