How Crucial are Academic Degrees for a Successful Career?

To most professionals and parents, especially in Asian cultures, this is a rhetorical question, with a very simple and obvious answer:  VERY IMPORTANT.

However, there are always two sides to every coin.

On one hand, it is clear that education can be an investment in acquiring skills and knowledge that enhances earnings.Nations that have high enrolment and graduation rates show faster GDP growth. Countries with fewer gender differences in education also grow faster.

However, studies have shown that only around 15% of the increase in labour productivity can be explained by formal educational achievement.  Most skills that affect productivity must come from outside traditional education or even beyond education.

What do these guys have in common?

Sir Richard Branson – Entrepreneur and adventurer. Founder of the Virgin Group. Fifth richest person in the UK, at over $4 billion.
Anton van Leeuwenhoek – Father of Microbiology. Dutch scientist best known for improving the microscope.
Sir Sean Connery – Scottish actor best known for portraying James Bond.
Jim Clark – Self-made billionaire, founder of Netscape, first Internet billionaire.
Daniel Gilbert – Professor of Psychology, Harvard University.
Andrew Jackson – Seventh President of the United States.
Dhirubhai Ambani – Self-made, rags-to-riches billionaire. His $6 billion stake in Reliance is now worth tens of billions to his family.
Li Ka-shing – Self-made billionaire. Richest East Asian in the world, at $26 billion. Nicknamed Superman, and has been called Asia’s most powerful man.

They all dropped out of high school!

This is part of a list of hundreds of famous people that includes 25 self-made billionaires, 8 US Presidents, 1 astronaut, 28 knighthoods, two James Bond actors, 63 Oscar winners and 10 Nobel Prize winners.

It includes Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry and Physics.  Imagine not even finishing the 12th grade and then winning the Nobel Prize in Physics!

There are hundreds of such famous, successful people who dropped out of, or never finished high school.  And there are millions of successful people, not necessarily famous, who have similar backgrounds.  They are not at a disadvantage because they can learn what they need to succeed on their own, outside a classroom.

Dropping out of school would be treated with embarrassment in many households today.  Yet, paradoxically, those same families would be proud to have someone from the gallery above emerge from their midst.

These three gentlemen below also dropped out, but out of college, not high school.

Bill Gates – Co-founder and leader of Microsoft. Active and innovative philanthropist. Richest man in the world for many years, he is now the second richest at $56 billion. Dropped out of Harvard.

Steve Jobs – Co-founder of Apple, and the driver of its vision. Introduced the iconic iPods, iPhones and iPads in addition to redesigning Apple laptops and desktops. Worth over $8 billion. Dropped out of Reed College.
Mark Zuckerberg – Co-founder of Facebook. Youngest self-made billionaire, worth $13.5 billion. Dropped out of Harvard.


  1. Drop out to succeed, or at least drop out of good schools and universities – no, just joking!
  2. While going to school and college is generally a good idea and helps us gain credibility, not doing so is clearly not a hurdle to phenomenal success, especially if you have entrepreneurial instincts.
  3. Formal degrees help us get our first job – the second job onwards, it’s your work experience that counts for more.
  4. The structured academic environment can be a hindrance to success and creativity – so some drop out because they can’t tolerate the structure, and others drop out because they just have to pursue an opportunity they are excited about.
  5. Only some risk-takers like the ones above have taken that plunge.  Maybe if they waited, they would have missed their opportunity.
  6. If your goal is not entrepreneurial, but to build a career within a larger company, then it is important to gain the institutional credibility from formal academic degrees, the “stamps” you need to meet their requirements.

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