An Entrepreneur Does Not NEED University Education
I get asked a lot if an entrepreneur needs a college degree or university-level education in certain areas, in order to be successful as a business owner. My answer to this question is: No – of course not! The list of entrepreneurs who have been extraordinarily successful without college degrees is “a mile long”.
As someone who spent a lot of time and money on college, it pains me to say it, but you don’t NEED a university education to succeed as an entrepreneur. I emphasize the word “need,” because although I don’t think a college education is a must for entrepreneurship (it is for some other professions, obviously), I do believe it can be helpful in many ways. For me at least, the most important thing learned in college was a broader perspective on how human beings have approached life and conquered particular challenges in the PAST. That said, there’s no reason you cannot learn those things on your own, and further, as entrepreneurs, we’re really mainly interested in the FUTURE. The past can provide guidance, but you should not believe that the future will be exactly the same as the past. Rather, as an entrepreneur, you must condition yourself to create the future, and if past “realities” stand in the way, you find a way over, under, around, or through them.
I have written elsewhere that, in my observation and experience, five key character traits to succeed as an entrepreneur are the following. Let’s look at them in the context of what a university education provides.
- Perseverance: Yes, you can learn to persevere in a college environment, but you can also learn it on a farm, on an athletic field, in the military, or on your own in a multitude of scenarios and environments. Perseverance and the ability to tap the strong willpower that we all possess, come from inside. Your experiences in earning a college degree can help you further develop these skills, but you can learn them just about anywhere else too.
- Goal Setting: If there was a goal-setting course somewhere in my college education, I must have missed it! Everything I’ve learned about goal setting, I have learned on my own, from experience, from coaches, or in seminars.
- Tolerate Uncertainty: I’m not sure going through college really helps much with tolerating uncertainty. College, at least in my experience, tends to be a very structured environment, where you are told which courses you need to take to obtain a certain degree. There’s usually flexibility in some of the curriculum, but generally speaking, there’s a lot of imposed structure and not much uncertainty. An exception may be if you pledge a fraternity or sorority, but that’s another story, and you don’t need to go to college to join groups that “put you through the ringer” to become a member.
- Strong Desire To Succeed: Having a strong desire to succeed is something that comes from inside. You can help yourself nurture this desire by setting goals that really fire you up, but in the end, this desire comes from within you and cannot be taught at college.
- Different Definition Of Failure: Again, college is a very structured environment, unlike that of entrepreneurship. In college you get a grade from A to F. True, you can either pass or fail, the binary nature of which is more parallel to what you see in the world of entrepreneurship, but again in college it’s occurring in a protected and structured environment. There’s little reality in a protected environment. Some professors do a great job of mixing “real life” scenarios into the education process, but by and large, the university environment is its own little world. Quite frankly, that may help with the issue of having a “different definition of failure,” where it’s not expected that every test and every person be 100% successful right out of the gate. There needs to be room for “many small failures” and course correction along the way; that’s how entrepreneurship works best. The utility of college on this one could go either way, depending on the particular student, the particular university, the particular course of study, the particular professor, etc.
Let’s add five other key “things” that are very helpful in your quest to be a successful entrepreneur, and let’s also look at those in the context of a university education.
- Basic Understanding Of Finance And Accounting: These can certainly be learned in the university environment. You don’t need a college degree to understand them though. In fact, the key issues can be learned in a long weekend, or even less, if you’re already comfortable with numbers.
- Being Able To Differentiate Opportunities From Ideas: A good course in new venture initiation at the college level will get you pretty much all you need to know about how to filter through ideas and determine if they’re opportunities. Again though, you can learn how to do this easily without ever stepping foot on a college campus, or taking an online college course, never mind obtaining a diploma.
- Knowing How To Sell: You may learn a bit about selling and persuasion in your college experience. It won’t likely have anything to do with the courses you take though; rather, it will happen in the many social interactions that occur during college. There are university courses on negotiation and sales, but they also exist outside the college environment and tend to be much shorter and more focused.
- Networking Well: Learning to network well is something most people do by trial and error. It can help to have a mentor or two, whether it’s in a college environment or not. You certainly don’t need a college degree to be good at networking.
- Knowing How To Market: Marketing is as much art as science. It’s very helpful to learn the theory behind it, which you can do in college, at your job, on your own through self-study, or in your entrepreneurial experience. In the end, marketing is about testing, testing and more testing. You need to understand how to run the tests and how to interpret the results, then run the tests again. How you learn this, is up to you.
So, what do you think? Do you NEED a university education to be successful as an entrepreneur? If you agree with what I’ve said in this article, the answer is obviously: “No”! If you have a university degree or are pursuing one, I’m not saying it’s worthless! The way I look at it, just as athletes who are considering pro sports are wise to have a university degree “in their back pocket” as a form of insurance, so are entrepreneurs. Like pro sports, entrepreneurship is a highly competitive endeavor with significant uncertainty regarding how long you’ll be able to do it and what your ultimate level of success will be.
That said, many would say that such college degrees have now become commoditized, and except in specific circumstances, don’t really offer you much “insurance” or differentiation in the job market. It’s your life; you’ll have to be the judge of course! But if entrepreneurship is your focus, you have every opportunity to be successful whether or not you have a college degree on your wall, or in your closet. I would not change or trade the time I spent in college, but that’s not because it taught me to be a good entrepreneur. It’s for a host of other reasons.
In my own experience, I created a great network of friends and business contacts during my time in college, which has been very beneficial to me throughout my entire entrepreneurial career. Also, given that I focused a lot of my college activities in the area of entrepreneurship, I had some great mentors and some great entrepreneurial growth and learning experiences during my college years. This did not happen because I was in college though, or because I ultimately earned a couple of degrees; it happened because I’ve always made sure that wherever I was, I was making progress toward my goals of improving myself as an entrepreneur. Wherever you are and wherever you’ve been, you can certainly do the same!
I look forward to your thoughts and questions. Please leave a comment (“response”) below or in the upper right corner of this post.
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