Youth Careers

Off the beaten track

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg — apart from being successful technology moguls, these individuals turned conventional models of success on the heads as they all dropped out of college. Right from childhood, we are ingrained with the message that we must work hard, earn good grades and get into a top college so that we can land a well-paying job. The main reason that parents badger their children to study, study and study is that they are concerned about the future earning potential of their wards. However, several icons of the IT industry defy this much-touted recipe for success as they did not see college education as a passport to their success.

At the same time, we cannot dismiss parental concerns about income and job security as baseless. In fact, when we look at hard data, college graduates do indeed earn more than those without degrees. Further, as our world demands increasing levels of specialisation, those with advanced degrees do have brighter prospects, both in terms of earning potential and career growth.

So, what do we make of individuals like Gates and Jobs who eked out stellar careers for themselves without academic credentials? Are they aberrations that do not fit the norm? For an average person, is the security of a college degree an absolute essential or can a person carve out a niche while being financially comfortable? Most people opt for the college route for the financial security it promises, even if the job is not exactly tailored to their individual predilections. However, some people, who have a deeper calling or a passion they want to pursue, are torn between the practicalities of fending for themselves and following a fulfilling path. While success stories of people such as Gates and Jobs are definitely outliers, we can take heart in the fact that there are other ‘ordinary’ individuals who have managed to marry their passions with prudence.

In his book on successful, though not necessarily famous, college drop-outs, Michael Ellsberg interviews individuals from a variety of fields and vocations ranging from sailing instruction to a wellness centre to motivational speaking. Besides pursuing fulfilling careers, these individuals are able to eke out a comfortable living for themselves, thus challenging the stereotypic notion that if a person follows their heart, she cannot provide for her stomach. A July 2015 issue of Outlook profiles several college dropouts in India who have gone on to become prosperous entrepreneurs by founding creative start-ups.

According to Ellsberg, the first step in doing what you love is to become economically independent. Interestingly, this goes against the advice proffered by Steve Jobs in 2005 during his commencement address at Stanford University where he urged young graduates to “stay hungry, stay foolish.” So, initially, your path to doing what you love might involve taking up a job for the sake of making ends meet. But if you learn to do the job well, you may find that you can free up some time to pursue your other interest. As you spend time on your ‘hobby,’ look for ways in which you might earn some money. This will involve some creative brainstorming till you hit upon an idea that can help you financially. For example, if acting is your passion, and you are paid only a small pittance for plays you act in, you can consider teaching a drama course for kids as a potential income generator. Of course, if you are in a job that does not allow any flexibility to pursue your other interests, you might have to look for one that offers more freedom.

Further, you need to be willing to take risks and pick yourself up after every failure. In fact, Ellsberg says resilience is essential if you want to follow a less trodden path. Even Jobs admits in his speech that dropping out of college “wasn’t all romantic” as he had to sleep on the floor in his friends’ rooms and trek seven miles once a week to eat a free meal at a temple. What helped Job through those uncertain times was a deep sense of trust. “You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever,” he advises.

On the other hand in a blog post dated June 3, 2015, Bill Gates exhorts youngsters to take the safer and more assured route to getting a college degree. He writes, “Although I dropped out of college and got lucky pursuing a career in software, getting a degree is a much surer path to success.” He goes on to cite the benefits of higher education which includes a fulfilling career, higher salaries and even better health compared to those who do not get a college degree. Gates estimates that by 2025, the majority of jobs in the United States, will require post-secondary education.

So, what do you make of these contradictory pieces of advice? For the vast majority, it is probably wiser to get a college degree under your belt even if you decide to change your career path later on. For those who do not make it through college, however, you need not necessarily despair. While you may have to climb a rockier and steeper path, with sufficient grit and gumption, you too can succeed and be a trailblazer in your own right.

The writer is Director, PRAYATNA. Email:

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 1:33:32 AM |

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