If you come from a certain high-achieving background, getting the right degree from the right school can seem like the most important thing in the world. Everything you do from, basically, nursery school onward, is directed at receiving that all important fat envelope from the university of your dreams.

But super-entrepreneur Elon Musk has a message for both degree-obsessed young people and companies desperate to hire them: chill out already.

When asked in a 2014 interview about what university degrees he looks for on a resume, Musk explained that though credentials can be a nice signal of someone's abilities, they are absolutely not a prerequisite for achieving incredible things (or getting hired by Musk). 

More evidence we're way too obsessed with degrees.

Given, as Musk points out, that some of the best-known names in tech -- from Bill Gates to Larry Ellison to Steve Jobs -- failed to graduate, the fact that greatness and gold-plated degrees don't always go together seems hard to argue with.

And that's not only true when you're talking about revolutionary geniuses. One recent analysis of job postings found that, to save themselves the hassle of sifting through more resumes, companies are increasingly demanding degrees for positions whose current occupants perform perfectly well without them. This degree inflation means companies end up paying 30 percent more for talent than they need to.

How to thrive without a degree.

The takeaway for hiring managers is pretty simple: yes, using degrees as shorthand for ability is a time saver, but it's also costly. You'll end up paying more for your people than you need to and also miss out on some exceptional talent.

But as AngelList noted when it recently flagged the Musk video in its weekly newsletter, Musk's dismissive attitude toward academic accolades should also serve as a reminder to young people that, if you put all your energy into grades and diplomas, you're almost certainly not focusing enough on what really matters -- skills, and the ability to continue updating them throughout your career.

Naval Ravikant, co-founder of AngelList, offered three pieces of advice to those starting out in the newsletter:

  1. What to study and how to study it are more important than where to study it and for how long.

  2. The best teachers are on the internet. The best books are on the internet. The best peers are on the internet.

  3. The tools for learning are abundant. It's the desire to learn that's scarce.

So stop missing the forest for the trees. Yes, degrees are very nice to have, but that expensive piece of paper isn't the be all and end all. The real prize in life isn't the letters after your name, it's the ability to accomplish awesome things. School isn't required for that. Passion is.

Published on: Nov 9, 2017