I ignored academics to the point where I almost didn't graduate from college, and it helped me land my dream job as a result.
My academic awakening (or lack thereof) began three years earlier, as I sat inside a small classroom on our college campus. An editor from the Minneapolis Star Tribune was there to speak to our journalism class on what it took to become a newspaper reporter or editor.
She talked about the importance of understanding the craft, of what it took to be a great reporter and what a big-city newspaper would be looking for in the young, up-and-coming journalists that we aspired to be.
During the ensuing Q&A period, one student asked: "So, how important is your GPA? How closely do editors look at your academic transcripts?"
The editor laughed. And laughed. And laughed.
Finally, she composed herself.
"Put it this way," she told us. "Nobody ever asked me in a job interview why I got a 'D' in French class. Here's what they care about: Can you write? Can you report? Can you work on deadline? Do you have clips? Have you worked in a newsroom? Do you have references? Those are the things that matter."
Old School vs. New School
After that class, my entire view of college changed. Instead of sweating tests and textbooks, I went out and worked. I wrote for the student newspaper, got an internship at a local magazine, started writing as a freelancer for small, regional newspapers and begged my college professors to connect me with active journalists who were looking for interns or freelance writers.
Prior to sitting in that class, I'd made the Dean's List for academic performance. My mom was happy.
After my "awakening," I never made the Dean's List again. In fact, my GPA slid so far downhill that I almost didn't graduate.
My mom was not happy.
But all those hours I'd spent working in the real world paid off. My internships, my clips and my newsroom references ended up landing me a job straight out of college at The Arizona Republic, one of the biggest newspapers in the United States.
My mom was happy again.
Unless you've worked in journalism, you have no idea how rare it was for a 21-year-old college graduate to get hired on at a huge newspaper like that.
And the only reason it happened was that I came to this realization early on: College is a sham.
In Business, Academic Achievements are Meaningless
Twenty years after I'd sat in that classroom and listened to the newspaper editor, I stood in front of a class of MBA students at a local college here in the Twin Cities, teaching them about social media and business.
"You want to land your dream job?" I asked them. "I can promise you, it's not going to mean jack squat to an employer that you earned an MBA. You know why? Anybody can sit here, read textbooks and case studies, memorize lessons and recite them to a professor or answer them on a written test. What does that prove?"
"Wow, I think that's the first time in twenty-five years of teaching I've heard my MBA classes referred to as 'jack squat,'" the professor interjected.
I figured if I was going to get thrown out of the classroom, I might as well finish my thought.
"No offense, but I've been out in the business world long enough to know that letters behind a name mean nothing," I continued. "Here's what most employers care about: Can you do the job? Do you have real-world experience? Do you have great professional references? Do you have an impressive body of work or proven track record? Do you have the type of passion, talent and intuition that can't be taught? Those are the things that will make you stand out to an employer - not fancy academic titles or degrees."
Look, I'm the son of two college professors. My parents were all about school growing up. I've been a lifelong learner, and to this day I still devour books, e-courses and anything else I can use to make myself smarter when it comes to running my business.
But, aside from the internships and a few outstanding professors (many of whom were teaching on the side while working a "day job" for a newspaper), I think college was a complete waste of money.
I know there are always exceptions, and of course I'm not saying to ditch college if you want to be a doctor, scientist, lawyer or someone else who needs a vast amount of "book learning" and academic training in order to be successful.
But when it comes to business, I'll take the School of Hard Knocks over Harvard anytime.
Yes, yes - I know that some HR Directors or other employers will only look at candidates who have a certain academic record or type of college degree.
I also think that's a huge - and foolish - mistake.
Imagine your organization missing out on the likes of Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, John Mackey (founder of Whole Foods), Frank Lloyd Wright, Walt Disney, Mary Kay Ash (founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics), Rachel Ray, David Neeleman (founder of Jet Blue Airways) and countless others.
None of the people on that list finished college. Some didn't even finish high school! And yet all of them are among the most successful businesspeople on this planet.
There's a lesson to be learned from that, isn't there?