When I was in high school, the purpose of the whole experiment was to get into college. It didn’t matter if you learned anything as long as you found a way to the next level.

I realized when I was a freshman that I didn’t want to go to college. I could see a major trend shifting in our society. Colleges did a great job of educating the industrial age. Back then, people would learn a craft and perform that one skill for the rest of their working careers. At most, they would simply hone their abilities to get better at the job.

Colleges work well at teaching people in this manner, but that doesn’t work in our modern environment. Now, the things you read in a textbook are outdated by the time the book is printed. You’re expected to develop new skills on a daily basis and adapt to a constantly changing environment. Most of the actual data you absorb while in college could be completely useless by the time you graduate.

In this world, the only skill you really need is the ability to learn new things. If you know how to read (really read) and absorb new information, your knowledge will be far deeper than the average college graduate who listened to lectures and filled in bubbles on tests.

When I was younger, I recognized how futile college would be at teaching me to learn. And how unnecessary it would be if I learned the important things on my own. So rather than setting my sights on college, I scraped by with mostly B’s (…and an occasional C) and focused on teaching myself the things I wanted to learn.

I spent my free time in the school library building websites, writing articles, and checking my AdSense earnings. I read books on affiliate marketing and spent time in the Internet Marketing forums. By the time I graduated, I had sold 2 websites for a total of $9,000.

All of my friends were preparing to go to college, and I was just preparing to start living life. This decision earned me a lot of puzzled looks, but I was used to that by then. Looking back, it was absolutely the right decision for me.

There are challenges of not going to college, to be sure, like dealing with a world in which you barely exist if you don’t have a piece of paper that confirms you followed the pattern. But if the other person isn’t smart enough to see that knowledge and skill can be gained outside of a sterile classroom, I probably don’t want to work with them either.

When I did this, it was the exception. Now I think we as a society on the cusp of recognizing that there are alternatives to the traditional university. People are starting to see the flaws in our educational system, namely that it is easier than ever to learn on your own.

By all means: if college strikes your fancy, go for but. If not, however, I have compiled 100 ways to learn and succeed in the real world without going to college…

1-10: Learn on Your Own

The most basic thing to learn is how to teach yourself new things. Once you understand how to effectively learn, you no longer need to spend $60,000 to have someone read to you at the front of the class. Our modern technology makes this as easy as can be for just about anyone.

  1. Develop a learning plan. The first step of taking learning into your own hands is to create your own ‘syllabus’ of sorts. Figure out what you need to know and how you’re going to learn it. Then, set a schedule with benchmarks to test your knowledge. It can be just a few sentences, but write this down and keep it handy.
  2. Use immersion to your advantage. It is often most effective to learn one thing at a time and dive headfirst into the topic. Cover it from every angle and learn everything you can in a quick burst. Rather than taking 5 subjects for 5 months like at school, do just one subject at a time and master it before moving on.
  3. Become friendly with Amazon.com. Books are the easiest way to teach yourself new things. Find a textbook or two on the subject with great reviews and get started. Or, use Half.com to find even cheaper books.
  4. Learn to use Google. There are a few tricks to using Google effectively. It can answer any question you have, giving you as much or as little information as you need in a matter of seconds.
  5. Use Wolfram|Alpha like a second brain. This search engine can provide in-depth answers on math, science, finance, and more. It even gives you detailed data on how it came to its answers. Awesome.
  6. Visit Khan Academy. This guy is changing the world. His free, easy-to-follow videos can teach you math, science, economics, and finance better than almost anyone.
  7. Take some Open Courses from many colleges. They often post full lecture videos, slideshows, reading materials and more, giving you the same opportunity to learn as you would have in the classroom. Berkeley has them, so does MIT, Yale, and dozens of other universities.
  8. Buy yourself an iPad. The new version of iBooks and iTunes University apps can teach you virtually anything you want to learn in a brilliant format that makes learning fun. So far, the iTunes University app includes hundreds of free courses from leading universities for free.
  9. Find the experts on the subject and email them your questions. If you take the time to write an insightful question, most experts will be happy to discuss them with you. Email correspondence with a professor, blogger, or other expert can skyrocket your knowledge on the subject.
  10. Do your own experiments. You might not be able to make your own particle accelerator, but you can act out experiments and examples in your own life. I was once curious about super-cooled water, so I did this experiment and now I’ll never forget how it works. Practical experimentation (play) works for anything, not just geeky science stuff.

11-20: Want a Job? Show Employers Something Real

Imagine this scenario… 10 people respond to a help wanted ad for a computer programmer. They all get interviewed and tout their recent computer science degree as proof that they are qualified, and pretty much leave it at that. Guy #11 comes in and has no degree. Instead, he explains how he has spent the last 5 years doing freelance coding work and contributing to the programming community. He shows the interviewer an open source project that solves a real problem and has been downloaded 100,000 times… who do you think gets the job?

  1. Employers want skilled and results-oriented workers. Show them how you have both. Create something that showcases your skills and provides a powerful solution to a real problem.
  2. Understand that finding work is not harder without a degree – if you’re skilled. I find it funny how people often say “My friend has a degree and can’t find a job, so it must be impossible for people without an education.” Have they ever considered that their friend simply doesn’t have what it takes to get hired? People don’t want your piece of paper, they want your qualifications. Find a way to get qualified. Period.
  3. Build something valuable. People might say they want someone with a degree, but what they really want is someone who can add value to their organization. Instead of a degree, give the employer something concrete, show them how you have solved a real-world problem that relates to the job at hand.
  4. Publish your own research. Similarly, do some in-depth research on your field of expertise and write a high-quality paper on the topic. Sure, the big journals might not publish content from a nobody, but you can find some outlet (like bloggers?) who will pick it up. Cite this research to your potential employer and it gives you something unique and valuable.
  5. Forget a job, forget making money, and just go play with your craft for a year. Think of it as your “education.” At the end of the year, you will have produced something valuable that you can show employers or sell to users through your own business. Hate the idea of doing it for a full year without pay? Then it’s the wrong line of work.
  6. Find a pro in your field and work for them. Offer to do whatever you can for free. This will build your experience and help you cite a legitimate project to which you contributed.
  7. Give a $*!#. When you have some passion for your work, it shows. It is not hard for the passionate computer geek to stay up all night coding a new project. That effort, over time, adds up to expertise. Instead of forcing yourself to work towards a career that feels like a struggle, find something you’re truly passionate about and all the pieces will fall into place.
  8. Start your own business. If it really is that hard to get hired, maybe you would be better off starting something on your own. And if you’re as good as you say you are, you won’t have any problems succeeding.
  9. Let me reiterate value. Value is where it starts and ends when it comes to making money. If you have your own business you’re providing value to the customers, if you have a job you’re simply providing the same value indirectly through your company. Whoever provides the most value wins.
  10. If all else fails, just start doing the work now. If you want to be a writer, start writing. Find some way to get started today. Don’t wait for an opportunity from someone else, do whatever you can right now. It s the best way to learn and gain experience at the same time. Eventually, if you do your work with passion, someone will hire you.

21-30: Start Creating Value Now

One major problem with college is how it sucks 4-6 full years away from real people who could be creating real value. In return for losing 4 years, you get an “education.” The assumption that you spend 4 years learning so that you never have to learn again? Of course, you’ll continue to learn for the rest of your life. So why spend 4 years just learning and the rest of your life working and learning? It makes no sense. Instead, treat your time more wisely and create real value as you go along.

  1. Define value before you ever start. What can you really contribute to the world? What will people (or employers) actually pay you for? What is your plan for creating this value? The answers to these questions will tell you what to do and how to make real money. Write down the answers to these questions and use them as a sort of personal mission.
  2. Learn while you work. There is no reason not to create value (i.e. work) for 5 hours a day and spend another 5 hours learning with the methods mentioned in this article. You don’t need to choose – do both.
  3. But even that doesn’t make much sense. Why not learn BY working? The easiest way to learn is by taking serious action on the topic you’re studying. Read the books, yes, but then go out and practice what you’ve been studying in a way that creates value.
  4. Don’t wait for permission. The truth is, you don’t need others to tell you that you can now start doing what you want to do. Just go do it now. Find a way to get it done from wherever you are.
  5. Get your foot in the door. The hardest step to take is the first one. Get out of your comfort zone and take action right now. It only gets easier once you have a little momentum.
  6. Be honest with yourself. It is so easy for people to think they need that one book, that one college course, or that one extra piece of information before getting started. What they really need is some courage to get started. I beg you – don’t delay the inevitable. If you want to be a writer, don’t go take a course on writing so that you can someday start writing. Please, just start writing.
  7. Find some passion. If you really are having trouble getting started creating value, maybe it is the wrong line of work to begin with. Things should flow easily most of the time. Usually, the things you enjoy are the ones through which you can provide the most value.
  8. There are no excuses for not creating real value. If you don’t know enough, learn. If you don’t have the time, cut out other things. Don’t take 4 years to learn how to theoretically create value. Instead…
  9. Start today. Right here, right now is the only time you ever have. When tomorrow comes, it will be now again. You can keep putting off life for decades this way. Don’t make that mistake. Start living and creating something meaningful today.
  10. Listen to Og Mandino: “I will act now. I will act now. I will act now … Success will not wait. If I delay, success will become wed to another and lost to me forever. This is the time. This is the place. I am the person.

31-40: Figure Out What You Really Want to Do

Typically, people think of college as a place to discover what they want to do, find their passions, and set the course for the rest of their life. Yeah right. In fact, it can be a cocoon that prevents you from actually experiencing the real world. It is common to leave college more confused than when you started. Instead, jump head-first into real life. Forget taking courses, actually DO things, experiment, and learn what inspires you the most.

  1. Go try to fail. Since you already have a 4 year head start on your peers, you have the freedom to fail a few times. Those failures will teach you valuable lessons about yourself, your world, and what you want to do with your life.
  2. Learn a new thing every month. Take a little time each month to develop an off-the-wall skill, or knowledge on a unique topic. A few months ago, I read a meteorology textbook just for fun. Now, I can tell cumulus from cirrus clouds like nobody’s business. Many of these things will be useless in themselves, but they can lead to deeper insights in interesting ways.
  3. Read books… lots of books. I love reading. Currently, I’m working my way through the 100 best books of all time. I’m only about 10% into it, and it has already taught me so much about life. Find a diverse reading list and start turning some pages.
  4. Live in another city. This was mentioned earlier, but traveling is one of the best ways to open your eyes to new experiences and learn more about yourself. Particularly, spend a few months living in another city. Get out of your hometown and go live life from a different perspective.
  5. See things from the other side. It always disturbs me when people get stuck in the same patterns of thought or action. If you typically read romance novels, try a non-fiction physics book. The point isn’t direct enjoyment but rather to enjoy the process of seeing life from a totally new perspective.
  6. Learn to meditate. With so much clutter in our minds most of the time, it’s hard to get true clarity about anything. Don’t underestimate the inner wisdom that comes from a calm mind.
  7. Get a lot of input from others… but don’t take it too seriously. Other people can show us characteristics about ourselves that we cannot easily see on our own. However, no one knows you the way you do, so only take advice from others if it resonates with you. You are the one who makes the final decisions.
  8. Just start doing. I spent so much time writing out plans and reports and ideas… making charts and comparisons about what my passion is in life. I came up with complicated systems and a bunch of nonsense. All of that prevented me from getting out there and actually figuring it out by doing it. If you think something is a bad fit, go do it anyways and make sure.
  9. But recognize that nothing will fit perfectly. You’re not looking for the one thing that will make you happiest in life and you certainly don’t want to wait around for that thing. Instead, find whatever is the closest fit right now and go do that. From there, better and better things will come your way.
  10. Finally, your passion comes from within, not from the work you do. The people who have it figured out understand that they can do practically anything and enjoy it, because they bring their own passion along for the ride. They aren’t merely waiting for the work to make them happy. I wrote an article about that here.

41-50: Simulate the Positive Social Aspects

If there is one area of college that can be most beneficial, it is the networking / social aspects. Without a plan, it is harder to make friends, meet potential business partners, and build your network when you’re not going to classes (er, drunken parties) with the same people every day. However, with a little focus, you can develop just as many meaningful relationships outside of college.

  1. Make a commitment to relationships. Without that party-like atmosphere, it can be hard to make lots of friends in your early 20’s, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Make it a top priority to meet other people and form solid relationships.
  2. Then, work on being a better friend. It is imperative that you become the kind of person others want to have in their lives. When you’re positive, energetic, helpful, and an overall nice guy/gal, you should have no problems socializing and making deep connections with others.
  3. Use social media. LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ are great ways to start off new relationships. Find people who you’re interested in getting to know and reach out to them. These sites make it easy to narrow your search and find people in your area who share the same interests.
  4. Volunteer. Find a cause that you are passionate about and volunteer to help out. Not only will you be giving time to a good cause, you will meet others who are passionate about the same subjects.
  5. Take local classes. Community colleges often have all kinds of weird not-for-credit courses. You can meet others, have fun, and maybe even learn a thing or two about Asian cooking.
  6. Do something you’re afraid to do and do it with others. Something like Toastmasters can be a terrifying but positive experience for the bold. Step outside of your comfort zone and do something that helps you grow alongside others. People who share growth experiences often form solid relationships.
  7. Join a gym, sports team, or yoga class. Doing something active with other people can be a great way to build new friendships. Try one of these suggestions, or something else you’re interested in and reach out to those in your group.
  8. Rely on your existing network. Spend more (quality) time with the people you already know, and reach out to their networks as well. Ask your friends to help you get to know their friends as well.
  9. Get to know coworkers. Just because you don’t go to college doesn’t mean you sit in your parent’s basement all day (I hope!). There are still plenty of opportunities to meet people in your work environment.
  10. Reach out to people in your line of work. As a blogger, some of the most interesting relationships I’ve built are with other bloggers. This totally makes sense, we share much in common and are committed to helping each other. Find other people in your niche and reach out to them, chances are they’d be interested in getting to know you.

51-60: Save Your $60,000 and…

The massive expense of college is an obvious drawback. Instead of pouring that money into something that you can largely get for free on your iPad, why not do something more useful with it?

  1. Skip the debt. If you don’t actually have $60,000, enjoy not having to borrow the money and make those extra payments each month.
  2. Start a business. There are many careers where you simply cannot get out of going to college (dentist, lawyer, etc.), but business is most definitely not one of them. I firmly believe that $60,000 of seed capital (along with the passion, skills, and motivation of the entrepreneur) will go 100 times farther towards business success than a college degree and no cash. Banks and suppliers just don’t take degrees as collateral.
  3. Buy a rental property. If you make a decent investment, this property could earn you $500 per month, offer tax advantages, and appreciate over time. In many cases, that alone would cover the extra average income that college graduates earn.
  4. Teach yourself economics. Take some of this money and put it into a stock trading account. Study the market and learn how to make good investments. With real money at stake, you’ll quickly become an expert at finance and economics.
  5. Use it as a cushion until you figure out what you want to do. Ultimately, that’s what college is all about anyways. It gives you a buffer before you enter the real world. Use this money to try things, make mistakes, learn, discover your passions, travel, and become a more awesome person.
  6. Travel the world. You’ll learn far more about supply and demand by trying to buy vegetables at a market in Taiwan than you ever could from an economics textbook. Travel offers some of the richest and most rewarding learning experiences available. Money spent seeing the world is money well spent.
  7. Invest it in something that will make a difference for yourself or your world. Maybe buying equipment/tools that make you more productive, building wells in Africa, or investing it in helping someone get a fresh start. You could stretch college tuition into a lot of uses that do a lot of good.
  8. Use it as a bankroll to become a professional poker player. On second thought, maybe this isn’t the best use for your money… Yeah, don’t do this one.
  9. Use it as an educational fund. There’s a novel idea, right? What I’m referring to is a real education, not tuition. Use some for travel, some to learn stock trading, some to buy hundreds of books on Amazon.com, some for seminars where you can learn a topic in-depth and meet the experts, and whatever else you want to do/learn.
  10. Invest it to make far more money than the increased wages of college can cover. (Read #100 below)

61-70: “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish”

That is a quote by Steve Jobs at a Stanford commencement address, ironically. It is easy for a college degree to lead to complacency. Once graduating, many people feel as if they have already achieved before ever starting anything. This could lead to laziness and a sense of entitlement. Often those without a degree are far more hungry and far more foolish. They are willing to try things, work hard, live real life, and make something happen. The speaker of this quote is one of the best examples.

  1. Try it out and see what happens. Why not? You’ll learn more by trying than you will by reading and taking tests. Go play with your world. After all, you don’t have a college degree so no one expects much from you anyways :)
  2. Be a little brash. Not too much, just a little. It can be good to be full of yourself on occasion. Go into a new project with total confidence and give it all your effort. While you might sometimes make a fool of yourself, it is better than not giving 100%.
  3. But be a little humble too. Never go into a situation thinking you have all the answers. Make mistakes, yes, but only if you are willing to learn from them.
  4. Innovate. If you look at those who have really changed the world, they are often the scrappy kids with nothing to lose. Take a lesson from that book and don’t be afraid to create something totally new. It might fail, but what if it doesn’t?
  5. Trust your own judgment. There is no sure way to know if someone is right when they tell you you’re wrong. Even if the whole world is saying no, but your heart is telling you yes, you owe it to yourself to explore that possibility.
  6. Enjoy the hardships. We might not like it, but the hard times can teach us so much more about life, success, and achievement than Business 101 ever could. Roll with the punches, adapt, and keep an open mind when life isn’t going your way. Rather than running from hardships, learn to pay attention to the lessons they can teach.
  7. Make your own opportunities. There is no reason to wait for others to give you an opportunity. If the world rejects you (and they do everyone at some point), let them go. Create your own opportunities, achieve what you want on your own, and then you’ll hear how everyone always believed in you.
  8. Understand that you are not entitled to anything. No matter what your education, life makes no guarantees. Work with this understanding and stay hungry every day.
  9. Life is transient, make the most of it. Learn to approach every day like it is a wonderful gift that you can enjoy while it lasts and then let it go. Not only will you achieve far more with this mindset, but you will be happier along the way.
  10. Don’t take anything too seriously. Often, we stop learning when things become serious. But when you take life one day at a time, and enjoy failure just as much as success, your work takes on a new dimension that has nothing but positive benefits.

71-80: Develop These 10 All-Purpose Skills

Much of success in life can be traced back to a few simple skills that are in high-demand. You will find a pattern of these in the most successful people, regardless of their education.

  1. The Skill to develop skills. This one should come as no surprise, as it is the major theme of this article. Learn how to learn and you will always find your way.
  2. Communication. There is no single skill more valuable to your success with finances, career, or relationships than the ability to communicate effectively. Spend considerable time learning how to listen, speak, read, write, and accurately convey your ideas into other people’s minds. Find amazing books on this topic and never, ever, stop practicing it.
  3. Writing. I separated writing out of communication because it is especially important in the digital age. With computers, we communicate so much with written word that this is an imperative skill. To get better, keep a journal and write every day if possible.
  4. Computer Skills. We’re not talking about how to copy and paste here. These days, your opportunities are brightened by having basic HTML knowledge, being able to setup a website or blog, and understanding popular web marketing/monetization strategies. The more you know about technology, the better.
  5. The ability to inspire others is absolutely crucial to success. It is hard to make it on your own in this world. The more people you have supporting and working with you, the greater your chances of success. Learn to spark interest, creativity, and passion within other people and they’ll help you get to wherever you want to go.
  6. Value creation. The truth is, the only way you ever make money is by creating value for other people. Learn this skill and you’ll always have friends, money, and the greatest opportunities. Much has been written here about this already.
  7. Discipline and Focus. You know those people who are just “smart?” The truth is, they simply read the book until they figure it out. When you and I give up on a math problem, the “smart” kids are still working to figure it out. That is why they are smart. The ability to discipline and focus yourself to figure out the right answer will pay off big time.
  8. Adaptability. Life rarely goes as planned. Learn to accept any situation that you’re dealt. Adapt, adjust, and flow into whatever circumstances come your way.
  9. Finding true happiness. People waste years and sometimes their whole lives chasing after things that bring no happiness whatsoever. Do you know where happiness is found? That’s not an easy question to answer, so spend some serious time meditating on what this means to you.
  10. Breathing. Perhaps most important of all is the ability to stop, pay attention, and simply breathe for a moment. Learning to be present, aware of yourself and your surroundings, can transform your life.

81-90: Spend 4 Years Doing These 10 Things Instead

In the time most people spend at college, you could easily become a serious expert at every single one of the following things. Master these and imagine what kind of a person you would be in 3-4 years. How many more opportunities would you have?

  1. Read the 100 best books of all time
  2. Write and self-publish a book or research report
  3. Visit 4 cities, spending 2 months in each
  4. Learn a new language fluently
  5. Volunteer for a cause you believe in
  6. Start and grow an internet business/blog
  7. Learn a computer programming language
  8. Develop meaningful relationships with 10 new people
  9. Run a marathon or take up a new sport
  10. And… add one thing that you are uniquely passionate about

91-99: Look to the Examples

If you decide to skip college, you’re not alone. In the past, people would point to Bill Gates, as if he was the only person who has ever succeeded without a college degree. Nonsense. These days, it is becoming less and less of an exception. All of these people seemed to do just fine in life without college:

  1. Will Smith. I owe much of my views on education to Will Smith. He is even more passionate about the subject than I am. His foundation (The Will and Jada Smith Foundation) is dedicated to helping our educational system evolve in many of the ways discussed here.
  2. Walt Disney was too busy changing the world to go to college.
  3. Steve Jobs. See the quote above, “stay hungry, stay foolish.” Always the control freak, he dropped out of college because he hated being forced to take the classes he didn’t enjoy.
  4. 10 United States Presidents and Winston Churchill
  5. Ray Kroc built McDonalds while others took their Intro to Business courses.
  6. Captains of Industry like Henry Ford, J. Paul Getty, and John D. Rockefeller
  7. Pretty much every tech billionaire: Mark Zuckerman, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Steve Jobs. With them, it seems to be the rule rather than the exception.
  8. It’s not just modern tech geeks or entrepreneurs, either. Even great philosopher Buckminster Fuller didn’t have a college education.
  9. And of course… Bill Gates! :)

100: How You Can Make MORE Money by Not Going to College

Wh-wh-what? Isn’t college supposed to be a financial investment in one’s future? Don’t college graduates make more money, which more than covers the tuition? That math only works inside the brochures. When you do real finance, the numbers come out a bit different:

  • The average college graduate makes $19,400 per year more than those without a degree ($50,900 to $31,500) [source]
  • The average 4-year college tuition is between $36,000 – $144,000, so let’s say $60,000 for our examples [source]

On the surface, that $19,400 advantage seems to be a significant $194,000 of earnings in a decade. However, the non-college graduate will have 4 years of extra income, earning $126,000 by the time the college graduate is ready to hit the workforce. Plus, she can keep the $60,000 tuition money. So the real difference over a decade is about $8,000.

In addition, the non-graduate could invest that $60,000 tuition at 10% interest for 14 years (the 4 years she would have been in college, plus the 10 years of working). She ends up with $228,000 of investments. Subtract the $8,000 earnings advantage of the college degree, and the non-college graduate has a total of $220,000 more at the end of the decade.


The strange thing about all this is that I love the idea of an institution dedicated to learning. I think it would be a blast to go to school full-time, getting degree after degree in really geeky subjects like archeology or biomedical engineering or astrophysics. But that would be about as valuable to the world as playing video games. It would prevent me from doing real work that makes a real difference. In many cases, the modern university is ill equipped to help people create real value.

The problem is with the structure of our current educational system. I don’t have all the answers on how to fix it, but am encouraged by the trends of late. Society seems to be shifting its focus more towards the themes I mentioned above, such as merit and skill, rather than credentials – at least I am hopeful this is the case. In addition, people are at least open to considering this type of a discussion, which was not the case 10 years ago. We might not be able to fix everything right away, but discussions like this are a good place to start.

Image: COCOEN daily photos

One Response to “100 Ways to Succeed Without Going to College”

  1. […] Andrew wrote a killer in-depth post a few weeks back in which he gave away all the secrets to his success. Degree or no degree, check it out here: 100 Ways to Succeed Without Going to College. […]


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