Choosing college vs. starting a business — it’s a question I see a lot of people struggling with these days. And to be fair, there is no automatic answer as the rules of the old economy are proving to be complete nonsense. Go to school and get a job right out of the gate? Good luck with that, as this depends heavily on what your degree was in, and how much practical experience you had in projects/internships/etc. Then there is the small matter of competing against those folks who have years of practical experience also competing for those jobs. Are you seeing a pattern of dysfunction yet? This is not to say that college shouldn’t be a priority, as I think that, with the right path, it can be very effective. Rather, the point is that you’d better begin embracing words like independent consultant and freelance if you hope to have a prayer of making it.
It’s at this point that folks are presented with two very simple options: one, continue the same failed process that got you into this situation in the first place; two, go to school and learn skills that translate well into both the job market and self-employment. And by self-employment, I am not talking about opening up a candy store and selling “stuff.” I mean selling yourself and your skills to those interested, as a service. Make a business of it. Do it right, and you may find yourself in a full time job as you gain skills along the way. See, it’s difficult to be unemployed if you’re too busy creating value by showing off your skills for others. Whether this is software as service, fixing computers, or just participating in an open source project to gain more experiences and keep your skills sharp, being involved matters.
I know people personally who have discovered brand new opportunities by working on projects while they’ve gone to school, plus I know some who simply gave up and started a small business out of desperation. Many of the latter already had some self-taught skills; they merely needed to place themselves in front of people through freelance opportunities, to show off what benefits they had to share.
Go to school, but finish it
If you’re going to go, then do it all the way. Even if you’re convinced that it’s a waste of time, you made a commitment to do it and even if it means rethinking your major, you need to get it done if financially feasible. Ideally you want to do this without overloading yourself with debt and taking classes that have the word “arts” in them, as that may not be the fast track to a great paying situation. But yes, finish school then expect to be freelancing or offering your services on your own, legalities allowing. Most folks seem to believe that even in this economy, when they get out, there is just going to be job after job waiting. Guess what? That’s gone now. Adapt or starve. Too many going back to school simply don’t get it.
School isn’t for everyone
Not everyone is suited for additional school. Folks who have had a tremendously hard time making their way in the world financially (sarcasm) like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Michael Dell, among many others, have proven that with drive, a good idea, and a willingness to be told no a lot, you can make it without a degree. I would say that in many ways, it’s more difficult, even as a self-employed person, but it’s certainly not impossible. After all, your ability to pay the bills is based on your service or product, not your education.
But let me be crystal clear on something. Just because a young person doesn’t opt to go to college doesn’t mean they get to avoid learning. No way. It means they make a concerted effort to learn something new every single day. While it may not yield a degree, one can learn many skills such as programming and network management, among countless other things, without having ever attended a related school. But you cannot simply wait around for it; you have to get off your butt and seek it out.
Old school is the best school
My stepfather was a WWII veteran. He was also a retired contractor, retired insurance agent and was able to literally do anything he’s ever set his mind to. I remember years ago seeing him in his 60s using his head (the top of his skull, folks) to hold up sheetrock on a ceiling (no hands, he would be readying nails or however they do that) while the other guys would gawk in amazement. He wasn’t the biggest or the best, but he was the single most tenacious man I’ve ever known in my entire life. If I can hold myself up to be a 1/4th the man he was, I will live with much pride throughout the rest of my life. In my home, he defined determined, fair, and strong.
As for “success,” he has owned one home or another since before his 20th birthday and has NEVER collected unemployment in his entire life, ever, not even once. That, my friends, is something we need to work on emulating. He had rough times in addition to good times, like all of us. But he always found a way to find work and provide a living for himself by implementing just a little of what I described above.
An example: During one particular rough patch of time in his early adulthood, he asked for the opportunity to come into a job site, as a “freelancer” by today’s self-employment terms, and demonstrate what kind of skills he could offer the crew. The supervisor mentioned they were full up, and there was no work available. Then my stepfather said these crucial words: “You give me one day, working for free. And if I don’t work circles around anyone you have right now, while providing value to your company, you’ll never hear from me again.” Needless to say, he later hired (with pay) and worked with the man for over 15 years. My stepdad was like that all the way till the very end. Hell, he was giving construction advice to his hospice nurse on his death bed. That, folks, is how someone from the old school rolls.
Lessons learned from our elders
Do we need school at all then? Perhaps not in the brick and mortar sense. I think in many circumstances, it makes a lot of sense to gain a degree that can be used both in the workplace and in a self-employment scenario. But for the love of Pete, realize that, yes, you can make a difference in your life. You can find a way to earn a living no matter how bad the economy. If you’re still in school, make damned sure you’re gaining practical experience so that you have something besides a piece of paper in your field of study as you enter the workforce. And if that fails, volunteer to offer value to the employer you’re looking to work for. Because if you play your cards right, and offer real value to them… you may just see that turn into a steady paycheck. Stranger things have happened.
Now it’s true that the four year degree has been called the high school diploma of the 21st century; I am firmly of the mind that if school simply isn’t a match or financially isn’t an option, there are good choices out there. Find what you’re interested in and do it. Pursue it like you’re dying tomorrow. You simply have to find a way to be visible, showing off what you learned during the process and how your own tenacity can be of value to those you wish to work with.
This isn’t taught in schools — it’s something you must find in yourself. But whether you opt to go to college or choose, instead, to start a small business filling a need and providing value, remember that story above. Hold it true and remember it — you will never completely, totally fail. You will always have options in your life no matter how bad things may seem or how daunting making the school/no school choice might feel. Remember this.