Do you need a degree to be successful?

Knowledge is the distilled essence of our institutions, corroborated by experience.
- Elbert Hubbard
A kid asked me if I thought a college degree was necessary for success. My immediate reply was "it depends on your definition of success." As predicted, his take on the subject meant "loads of money." My next answer was something along the lines of “having a degree opens a lot more doors.” His response -blank stare.

The next morning I contemplated his question over a cup of joe. Most of us were raised with the traditional concept that you complete high school then move right into college. But in my day, by the time we graduated, it was pandemonium, party-hardy to Led Zepplin and let's revisit our options when the smoke clears. We all know how that usually goes.

So, I Googled it, "Success without a degree." Half a billion hits popped up (literally). A slew of "How to's, 10 ways..." and more, plus a litany of rebel elites who defied society's prelude to success. From movie stars and athletes to musicians and entrepreneurs. Many I never heard of, but that's not saying much. Old timers like Franklin, Lincoln, Rockefeller, and Ford didn’t even make "the list" by today's standards.

Regardless, all these new and old Hall-of-Famers are undeniable evidence that it is possible to accomplish great things without a college degree. Possible? Yes. Is it the norm? No. Many of these heavy hitters are well educated, talented and brilliant people. They may not have a degree, but they do have the knowledge or know-how. They just attained it by other means. Having spent most of my life working closely with both the degree-carrying types and the non-degree types, here's my take.

Let's start with the scholars. An impressive lot, very impressive. They have outstanding resume’s filled with academic achievements and influential references. When it comes to accomplishments as a whole, the grads beat the non-grads hands down and gratefully so because we’re all reaping the benefits. Thanks to the educated glitterati we have advanced in all areas of life and society beyond anyone's imagination. From medicine, science, and politics to finance, economics, industry and the lists go on. The importance and impact of the university alumni go without saying. On a more personal observation, many of these guys have quite intimidating “Me Walls”. Hand signed college certificates hung in custom cherry frames proving they have taken a set-amount-of-classes, passed a set-amount-of-tests over a set- amount-of-time, granting them an award of completion in gaining the facts, reasoning, know-how, and perseverance in their area of study. A well deserved authoritative form of proof that they have what it takes.

Now for the other side of the fence, the non-scholars. These guys don’t have the framed certificates that prove their competence. Instead, their “Me Walls” are filled with photographs, captured moments of years spent in their vocation, company awards, and milestone trophies. They have the sweat stains of experience and the hands-on knowledge of trial and error over a span of time. Their education was less about study or theory, and more about action, doing, and discovery. Real decisions made with real ramifications, not conjecture, opinions, or hypothesis. They have also put in their time.


It took scientists to uncover cures for disease. It took physicians to transplant hearts and repair lungs. And it took the architects and engineers of Rome to build the Colosseum.

Stay with me here.

The scholar knows the Colosseum from all angles; he's studied it, understands how and why it was built that way. His education will help him to design and build even better. But he didn't do it alone.

It also took the tradesman. The "put your money where your mouth is" guy. He has a different intimacy with the Colosseum. He’s spent years in and around the arena. Tasting the salt from his sweat. Feeling the burn and ache of his muscles while constructing its walls brick by brick. To him, every foot of the massive bleachers is either a close friend or badgering enemy. He ends each day seeing the good, marginal, or bad fruit of his labor.

Both are educated men, just in different ways. One knows the architecture, politics, and history. The other knows the texture of the mortar, how to cut the angle of the rock and what is required to raise a wall. One knows the math and physics of a structure that massive while the other knows the stress of working in the heat and cold under such weight. One understands how to fund the project while the other knows the satisfaction of a column well placed or the failure of a miscalculated arch. One has spent countless hours on logistics, supply lines, and accessibility while the other knows the burn-out of having spent every last ounce of spirit in the arena and what it takes to muster up enough strength to complete the task.

The ideal man comprises both. Together they make an unstoppable force. We should never underestimate either because history has taught us it takes both the knowledge of learning and the sweat from experience to perform well, to progress and succeed.

The educated man eventually earns his experience, and the experienced man eventually earns his education.

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