Maybe we put too much stock in a college education. Is a college diploma really worth that much? In fact, most successful people I have met are self-made, either having limited or no college education at all, or a degree that has almost no application in the field in which they’ve become successful.

Earning a degree is a milestone, though, and one of my favorite things to find out about people is what they went to school for. Lately, it seems almost inevitable that I find out that their degree has nothing to do with how they currently earn a living. In almost every account, the conversation becomes peppered with chuckles. A running joke is recognized and enjoyed: most seem to have endured four or more years of their lives in a serious endeavor and they’re not sure what it’s worth now, if anything.  

So what sets the successful people apart? It’s not their education. I’m starting to see a paradigm that needs to shift. Here’s how things currently work: You have a dream. You go to college, put in time and effort, and exit with a box of tools necessary to accomplish that dream. But you’re fumbling in the dark just like everyone else, trying to figure out how to use those tools. And often your rolled up diploma is the cylindrical object that never quite fits into the square hole that the real world is.

Here is the rub. I think people are successful because they are doing something that hasn’t exactly been done before. Something they can’t read in a book. Something without a list of steps. Something that doesn’t have its own history yet. They’re on to something that is not part of the conversations held behind the brick walls of a university because they’re on a solo adventure not rooted in theory or text.

If anything, higher education can be a powerful catalyst. It’s a time to mature and grow into your self. It’s still a noble accomplishment because you finish something very difficult.  And it ensures that you enter life beyond school with a nifty toolbox. But it’s not about the tools. It’s about what you build with them. And college can neither offer you the vision for what to build nor the initiative to do it. You’re on your own. And you need balls, because it’s not easy either way, educated or not.

Some earn a degree and then realize they need balls to make the real world work for them. Some finish high school or only a couple years of college, bypassing the degree, and go straight to the real stuff. I’m starting to think that those that head straight to the real world might actually have it right sometimes. I wonder how many real innovators and hard workers colleges actually produce. The ones that bypass the system are the brave ones, and yet we think they have it all wrong. They’re the innovators because they’re not doing it the way most others do. They grow balls because they have to.

We are still too romantic about what college can do for us. We buy dreams and promises, but we forget that success can’t be purchased. I bought into the idea of purchasing a “career” hook, line, and sinker and realized that when all is said and done, I still have to be self-made. If I were a parent, I’d be afraid to tell my children not to go. My dad did the right thing in encouraging me. I’ll never forget his response (he earned his doctorate!) when I told him that it was pointless for me to go to college because I was going to paint regardless of whether or not I had a degree in it. He told me, “Andrea, ‘d’ ‘r’ dot has opened more doors for me than you’ll ever know.” It was an incredible, simple response that I cannot forget. And I was sold just like all the rest.

There is some amount of jumping through the hoops that is necessary. In some cases you need to earn your credentials because you don’t exist in the job world until you have them. And of course, in some instances, you really do need experience and certifications. I’m not here to vilify what is sometimes truly necessary.

But let’s not forget that success exists outside of education. It’s all hard work. The people we look up to are made through mentorships, trying things they’re unsure about (innovating), being willing to fail (which college postpones), hard work, real hard work when no one is there to encourage, and an emphasis on asking your own questions instead of finding answers to questions we’re told are important. That piece of paper ain’t the enemy. Neither are the colleges. But what we’re expecting out of the ordeal is what cripples us. We wanted someone to show us how it’s done, and we’re baffled when the diploma doesn’t turn into a map. Either way, success seems to be a journey tackled mostly blind, and it’s hard work. Hard.