One of the great fallacies about building a professional career is believing where you went to school dictates how successful you become.
This is one of the most heavily debated topics in the business world: the effective return on investment for attending college and/or pursue an MBA. Now, I'm not saying formal education is a poor investment, by any means. For many people, school is an opportunity to "know what you don't know," and that in itself makes it a worthwhile pursuit.
Where people make the mistake, however, is in thinking the degree itself is all that's needed.
They believe that because they attended the classes and passed the tests, then where they went to school will carry them to professional success--and that's simply not true. As someone who didn't end up graduating from college, I can tell you firsthand that over decades of building businesses, it's the working skills I value in my partners and employees over a fancy resume. I would much rather hire the kid who has tried and failed, than the one who passed his or her classes with flying colors, but never attempted to put their theoretical knowledge to the test in the real world.
This is a topic I speak about at length in my book, All In. Again, I'm not saying a formal education or an MBA is a waste of time or money. Just make sure that, in addition to building your resume, you make it a point to acquire the following 5 skills.
These are the things that ultimately make you a professional success story--whether you climb the ladder of a larger organization, or you build your own from the ground up:
1. Honesty (With Yourself)
Lots of people have ideas.
Students, especially, before stepping into the real world, tend to get caught up in their ideas. They love thinking about them, brainstorming them, and sharing them with their friends and family. Unfortunately, ideas without execution don't go very far. And while there is absolutely value in coming up with great ideas, an idea cannot become "great" until it faces its first customer.
One of the most valuable skills you can acquire early in your professional career is knowing the difference between what sounds great in theory, and what holds real value to a paying customer or a loyal user. And the only way to acquire this skill is to try a lot of different things. The more you create, and the more you try to build yourself, the faster you will learn what people are willing to pay for and what they would rather do without.
You'll learn how to be honest about whether your idea has real potential or not.
Entrepreneurship, working within a startup, or being part of a smaller team within a larger corporate environment, all require some capacity of team interaction.
Many entrepreneurs or "intrepreneurs" (those who bring massive value inside larger organizations) tend to forget that the best business ideas in the world require more than just plug-and-chug execution in order to be successful. All execution requires teamwork, and all teamwork requires a lengthy list of soft skills in order to keep people motivated, focused, and loyal. One of those soft skills is the ability to communicate your vision and lead those around you to victory.
The best way I've found to acquire the skill of leadership is to put yourself in environments where you either have the opportunity to learn from a talented leader, or to be forced to step up and become a leader yourself. Ideally, you'll have a number of both of these experiences in your professional career.
The kind of discipline school encourages is not the same discipline the real world asks of you.
In school, the punishment for not being "disciplined" with your work is quite inconsequential, all things considered. You might fail a test, or get a bad grade for the semester. But when you're starting a company, or working within someone else's company and handling paying clients, suddenly the consequences become very real. Your mistakes can be measured in cash.
Taking the idea of discipline a step further, school plans the path out for you. What is much more difficult is determining where you want to head on the path, while simultaneously dealing with unforeseen challenges at the same time. Persisting in the face of uncertainty, pressure, or the potential of failure, requires a level of discipline that cannot be acquired in a semester.
Discipline is something that takes years to master.
The best way to get started, then, is to find as many things in life to become disciplined about. If you can become disciplined with your finances, your daily schedule, your health, etc., then you are creating the habits that will set you up for success.
This is a skill many don't consciously acquire.
But the truth is, entrepreneurship and professional advancement is tough work. Every day isn't great. The wins are far less frequent than the losses. And it can be very easy to fall into a state of mind where your day to day is seen as stressful, overwhelming, and a pain.
Listen, if you want to make it to the summit, remember this: it's all in your head.
The ability to be optimistic and positive, even in the face of great obstacles, is not to be undervalued. You're the one who chose to pursue a path of success. You're the one who wanted to build something great. You're the one who chose this life, for yourself. So, don't look for the bad, the ugly, and the stressful. Instead, look for things to be thankful for: like the fact that you even have the opportunity to pursue what you're passionate about in the first place.
Optimism isn't a weakness. Optimism is the state of mind that will give you endurance for the long road ahead.
Last but not least, I firmly believe it's imperative that every young individual find opportunities, any opportunity at all, to build the skill of resilience.
For me, I gained this skill-building my first company, Wilmar, starting as a teenager in a flea market. There I was, selling hand tools off of a fold-up card table prices--I heard the word "No" dozens of times each day. But when I would eventually hear a "Yes," I learned the importance of resilience and persistence. Had I accepted the first, or second, or twenty-third "No," I might never have built Wilmar, a company that ended up eventually being acquired by Home Depot.
The reason why I always take fancy resumés with a grain of salt is because a resumé doesn't always show you how resilient someone is. Sure, I want to know where you went to school, but I also want to know about a time in your life when someone told you, "No, that's not going to work," and you pressed on anyway. Regardless of whether you were successful or not doesn't matter. What matters is that you tried, and you became a little more resilient in the process.