Why would an academically-inclined student opt out of college?
Most of the world expected I’d be college-bound. I thought I was too. But the more I thought about my future, the more I realized that college really didn’t make sense. I didn’t want to start my adult life by incurring debt. Going from a self-directed high school experience (where I was taking college-level classes) to college pre-requisites felt like a step backwards. And I didn’t want a career that required a college degree.
The world’s most prevalent assumption is that you need a degree to be successful in a career. (But the world also thinks you need to go to traditional school to get an education, and I’d already tested and disproved that by successfully homeschooling).
I decided to replace my four years of college with a four-year experiment to see how far I could get and what I could build. In this blog post, I’m going to break down exactly what I did and where I ended up.
The Really Short Version of the Story:
When I graduated from high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had about a year of entry-level working experience under my belt (at a vegetable farm and orchard), and I hated the word “career” (I thought careers were boring things you had to dress up for, sit in traffic for, sit in a cubicle all day for, and that were generally undesirable).
Four years later, when most people would have been graduating college, I was in my third year working at a cool startup (Praxis). I already had experience coaching over 100 young professionals, I had spent a year working as the bootcamp advisor for Praxis (the main coach for people in the first half of the program) and had been promoted to Community Manager, and was playing a large role in the program’s curriculum development. To boot, I was working a job that “required” me to live in a beautiful city near the ocean.
Over the four years I would’ve spent in college I did a lot of different things, each of which moved me a little bit closer to figuring out what I ultimately wanted. Before landing at Praxis, I organized and taught writing classes. I tried my hand working at a media startup. I built a freelance portfolio as a photographer and editor.
When I finally found a company I was really excited about working for (Praxis), I started out as an intern, put in the hours, set myself up for opportunities, and eventually worked my way into a full-time position — and then leveraged that to keep growing within the company and dong cooler and cooler things.
I didn’t know any of that was going to happen when I started out, though. Here’s a snapshot of me at 18, freshly graduated and ready to embark on this journey.
Skills I had:
- strong work ethic
- self-direction (from being homeschooled)
- good written and verbal communication
- a lot of random knowledge on growing and grading fruits and vegetables (not highly transferable, but which did demonstrate my ability to learn specialized tasks).
Interests I had:
- education (because I’d been homeschooled and wanted to learn more about self-directed education)
- living in interesting places
- doing interesting things (but I didn’t really know what that meant)
Basically, as long as something was “interesting,” I was excited about doing it — whether that meant working on my boss’s fruit breeding project or launching a videography business or doing internal operations for a cool company.
Over time, my interests became more refined, and the things I wanted to do became more specific. As I gained experience, I used my new skills as leverage to help me move into these more specified positions.
Start with the Small Stuff.
When you’re building a career, it’s important to understand what the people who will be hiring you actually care about.
One of the biggest things employers look for is professional experience. They want to know if you’ll be able to create value. The best indicator of that is whether or not you’ve created value before.
Start out with small experiences and work your way upwards. It’s easy to use a job as a barista at Starbucks to help you land a job doing customer success for a small company, which you can then leverage into being team lead at that company, and so on. Think of your experiences like steps. Start at the bottom and work your way up.
The best part about this is that where you start doesn’t really matter. Early on in your career, every win is a big win. It’s all about gaining momentum.
You also don’t have to know where you’re headed in order to start. You’ll figure out as you go what you like and what you don’t. You’ll be able to refine your focus as you go.
Look for available opportunities and start putting in the reps — even if that means landing a job at Chick-fil-A, or setting your sights on becoming shift manager at Starbucks. Pick the best available option and go all-in.
A snapshot of me at this point in my career: I was working on a farm, and my best opportunity for growth was to move into a management position — and so I did. When our old processing and distribution manager left the farm, I told my boss I wanted the job, and I got it. Suddenly, instead of putting “picked apples” on my resume, I could say “managed the processing team on harvest days and managed the distribution of produce to our farmers’ market locations.” I also wanted to get some experience in the education world, so I started offering homeschool writing classes (which then led to a gig teaching writing courses at an after-school program one of my student’s mom was working for).
It wasn’t glamorous, but suddenly I had professionally relevant experience that carried some weight. I could use that to sell myself to better opportunities.
It doesn’t really matter where you start, as long as you’re doing something. Work hard and everything else will fall into place.
Put Yourself in Places to Encounter Opportunity.
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” — Seneca
A lot of my growth professionally has come from putting myself in advantageous places, so that when an opportunity arises, I’m in the best possible position to jump on it.
You don’t always have to know exactly what the opportunities are that you’re trying to land. In fact, it’s better if you don’t — there are lots of cool opportunities you’ve probably never thought about before, and you don’t want to limit your options by being too picky.
Just focus on surrounding yourself with things that are interesting to you. I didn’t know at first that I wanted to work at Praxis. All I knew was that I was excited about alternative education and people who were working in that space — so I immersed myself in it. I met different people on the Praxis team, had conversations and connected with them on social media. I followed their content and read their blog posts. I became very familiar with what they were doing, because I thought they were cool.
While I was immersing myself in Praxis, I was also doing other things. I kept working on the farm and gaining management experience. I was teaching writing classes and doing some freelance work. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I kept becoming more skilled and experienced.
When an opportunity arose with Praxis (an application review intern) I was well-positioned to land it. The team knew me, I was familiar with what Praxis was doing, and because I was paying attention I saw the job posting within an hour of its going live.
That meant I could act fast. Speed is everything — it signals your reliability and your enthusiasm and makes people excited to work with you. I reached out and applied for the role, had an interview, got the job.
All that experience and momentum I’d been gaining by just doing something and starting small? That’s what I used to sell myself for this position.
The skills I now had:
- strong communication skills (from teaching and writing)
- team management skills
- strong organizational and operational skills from managing distribution
- strong organizational skills from organizing and teaching classes
- thorough product knowledge of Praxis (not a hard skill, but definitely an asset)
The things I was interested in:
- alternative education
See how both of these lists had become more refined? When I started this process, even if I’d known what I wanted, I wouldn’t have been ready for this opportunity. Now I was.
Be willing to wait patiently, but when an opportunity arises, be prepared to act fast.
Never Be Afraid to Put in the Work. As Much as it Takes.
Opportunities that present themselves won’t always be as glamorous as you hoped. Sometimes it’s just an opportunity to do a lot of grunt work — which may feel like a distraction from what you want to do, not a means to an end.
Here’s the thing to remember: every foothold is a foothold. It doesn’t matter where it is. Just start, and worry about specialization later.
Employers love people who can work. If you can put your head down and grind it out, and can prove your ability to just get stuff done, they’ll be excited about giving you more opportunity, because they’ll know you’ll have the grit to make the important stuff happen too.
One of the biggest things I see inhibiting people’s professional growth is their own sense of value. People have a tendency to close themselves off from opportunities by thinking that they’re too good for certain things. “I have a degree in marketing. Doing entry-level customer success is beneath me.” “I’m working part-time at a startup. It would look bad for me to work part-time at Trader Joe’s to supplement that income.”
Until you absolutely don’t have time for everything and have to start filtering options based on value, you aren’t too good for anything. Don’t be too precious for the hard stuff. Just do the work.
A snapshot of me at this point in my career: I was originally hired at Praxis on a four-month contract as an application review intern. I made it very clear that I wanted to stay on after my four months were up, and I put myself in positions to take on extra work — but even after I switched to working as a contractor on the education team, I kept reviewing applications. I did that for over a year before I finally had enough other valuable things I was able to do that I was in a position to phase myself out of that. I wasn’t afraid to put my head down and grind. It didn’t matter how long it took — I knew what I wanted, and I was willing to put my head down and get there.
Always Look for Ways to Become More Valuable.
This is where the entrepreneurial part of this process really kicks in.
Doing your job description and nothing but your job description is your baseline for keeping your job, but if that’s all you do, you’ll never grow. If you want to get better, you have to push yourself to be better.
Look for extra things you can take on. Look for things you can create or do for other departments. Look for things you can do to make your own department more streamlined.
In my first few months with Praxis, I went from being the application review intern to an education contractor. Part of my job was to host guest speakers on our Praxis Wednesday calls. I poured myself into finding great guests, coming up with workshop series, and making this part of the education experience as great as it could be. I didn’t just book a guest every week as my job description entailed. I made this part of the program experience better than it was when I found it.
I looked for opportunities outside my job description, too. I made myself available to take on extra curriculum development work. I engaged with the people in our community. I became more and more valuable to the team.
When we were adding advisors to our roster about a year later (and after I had more professional experience under my belt working for another company) I made the pitch to start taking on advising work too. My areas of experience at this point in my career indicated that I was ready:
- internal operations (helping with daily processes in our application process)
- booking, coordinating, and hosting guest speakers
- professional communication with high-level startup employees (our guest speakers)
- sales experience with cold outreach to pitch guests
- project management (on the curriculum side of things)
- community engagement and customer service
And that list doesn’t even mention all of the things I’d learned from our guest speakers and their workshops as I was hosting calls every week.
I got the green light to start doing advising work — and a few months after that, I got a full-time offer to come on as the program’s first ever Bootcamp Advisor.
I wouldn’t have grown like this if I’d just done what I was told and nothing more. The real key to growth is taking on more than is expected of you. You can’t just passively wait for a chance to get better. You have to push yourself to become better by outgrowing the constraints defined for you and making yourself more valuable.
Embrace the Purpose of a True Post-Secondary Education: Learning.
To me, education and work have become synonymous. You can’t have one without the other — but the two also happen simultaneously, not one as a prerequisite.
Everything you do will make you smarter, better, faster, and more valuable. Each challenge you solve makes you that much better at approaching challenges and coming up with solutions. Every person you sell on an idea makes you incrementally better at the art of sales.
College isn’t necessary, but the spirit of it is. Treat everything as a learning opportunity. Treat everything as a chance to stretch and to grow.
And remember — all of these steps I’ve outlined are part of a repeating cycle. Once I’d landed a full-time opportunity with Praxis, I was back at square one: starting with the small stuff (whatever opportunities were handed to me) and putting myself in places to jump in as opportunity arose. Over time, my vision for how I wanted to grow within Praxis started to unfold — and at that point in time, the same principles started to again apply — putting in the work, looking for opportunities to improve, being consistent and patient.
My initial role when I was hired full-time at Praxis was as an advisor. I worked with participants in the bootcamp (the first half of the program). Over time, as I saw the challenges participants were running into and became immersed in the education experience, I began to become a more and more valuable player on the curriculum development side of things — which led my role to evolve over time to one where I was splitting time between advising and curriculum development, and taking on large-scale projects in the education department. Which led to more knowledge acquisition, which in turn led to a stronger vision of how I wanted to grow.
Your professional growth never stops. The most important thing you can do is be intentional about consistently making yourself better and putting yourself in positions to land opportunities.
Want to learn more about Praxis? Text “More Info” to 909-962-1287.