Career Planning

How (and Why) to Launch a Career Without College

Joey Wickham
December 2019

There’s no doubt the education model is shifting. More and more people are understanding the cons to spending four (or more) years of their life stuck in a classroom, throwing their money to an industry that hasn’t been innovated in the last few hundred years.

So then the question becomes…

How do I educate myself to create a career?

If college isn’t the best way to learn and grow into a career, what is? And why isn’t it college?

I like thinking of this analogy.

Let’s take two people. They both have the same goal: to become a world-class swimmer.

However, neither of them have ever swum before. And they decide between two completely different paths to achieve that goal.

The first one decides they are going to go to the pool every day for the next four years and swim. As they go, they can make daily or weekly goals, and they can seek help from friends or pay coaches as they need.

The second one decides to study everything there is to know about swimming for the next four years. They hire tutors to learn all the techniques, the do’s and don’ts, the history of swimming, why some swimmers have been successful and some not, etc. However, they will never step foot in the water.

At the end of these four years, who do you think the better swimmer will be? (If you said the second one…I’ll have to write a whole ‘nother post for you.)

There are some flaws when comparing this analogy to the career world and college, but not as many as you might like there to be.

Step One: How to Get to the Pool

Here’s where you might be confused by the analogy: “What does it look like to start going to the pool every day to educate yourself for the career field?”

Yet I think we need to take a step back even further: “How do you know you want to get into the pool?”

I’ll start with one of the simplest starting places: talk to someone already in the pool.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard statements that went something like, “You’re great at arguing and debating. You should be a lawyer.” *facepalm*

One of the biggest problems is that before you even start educating yourself, there’s a misconception about what you’re being educated in. That lawyer you see on all the movies, the one who’s at the witness stand arguing his case for 90% of the movie? Yeah, that same guy, in reality, is doing books and paperwork 90% of the time.

Yet comments like, “You’re good at arguing–you should be a lawyer” are the kind of comments that fuel young people to start a career in something they have no knowledge of.

The first time they saw Michael Phelps, they decided they wanted to be a world-class swimmer and immediately started studying. No water necessary.

Simply talking to someone in a career field you’re interested in will give you ten times the clarity–they’ll help you see if that field is something you really want to dive into. Will it give you 100% clarity? No, but it helps. Will driving without a blind-fold mean you’ll never crash? No. But it sure as heck can’t hurt.

Step Two: How to Get Into the Pool

Back to the first question: “What does it look like to start going to the pool every day to educate yourself for the career field?”

Here’s where you need to take that first step and up the ante. You’ve talked to someone in the pool, and they haven’t persuaded you to stay out. So you want to take the next step. You want to hop in.

One problem: you can’t swim.

You have two steps to take.

Step 2a. Get in the shallow end.

Be in the same world as the other people who know what they’re doing. In case I just lost you, and you don’t know how this analogy is translating into the real world, this looks something like asking that account executive if you can shadow them for a day. Ask that mechanic if you can be their assistant for a day or a week. Let them know you’re interested in the field and are looking to see if it’s something you’re truly interested in pursuing.

Full truth here is you may get some no’s. Especially if you don’t know the people. But you’ll be surprised how willing people are to help out someone who is truly interested in what they do and will ask questions about how they do it. People love to talk about themselves.

Step 2b. Beat Google and YouTube to a pulp with questions.

This is maybe one of the most overlooked resources on the education tech stack. You may think I’m joking, but I’m dead serious. If you can learn to use Google and YouTube, you can learn almost anything in the world.

There are some things that either can’t be learned from Google and YouTube or make much more sense to learn from someone (hence step 2a.) but if you can learn to field your questions so you answer what you can before you ask and save what’s left for the “expert”, you will be so much better off.

Not only will you expedite and supplement your learning at a high rate, you will be able to ask more intelligent questions to the “expert”, and thus build up a strong reputation of someone who asks good questions and is actively learning.

Step 3: Decide How Long You Want to Stay in the Pool

Here’s what it boils down to–and it’s maybe one of the biggest reasons the going-to-the-pool method is such a great alternative to the studying-for-four-years method.

You get to decide how long to stay in the pool.

In step one, you got exposure to what life was like in the career from someone already in it. In step two, you got real-world experience in the life of someone in the career. You got a full picture of what that career field truly looks like. Now, in step three, you get to decide if you hate the water or not.

Two things can happen. One, you decide it wasn’t your dream after all, and you move on to the next idea. Or, two, you decide you enjoy it enough to continue learning as much as you can about it.

You start swimming every day.

Step 4: What to Do in the Pool

Now we get to the big one. The one where I’ll lose the most people. Because steps one through three can all be done while still with college in mind to finish the course. Which, by the way, if you are planning to go to college, I still highly recommend steps one through three.

But step four deviates. How do you show up and go to the pool every day? What does that look like?

Before I even dive into it (pun intended), I feel it’s important to note this is not the “easier route”. People who think this is some kind of cheat code–where they don’t have to work as hard–are going to be sorely disappointed. It is not easier. But if done right, it will be one of the most rewarding educational- and career-jumping moves you can perform.

Step 4a. Start documenting your journey.

You’re going to fail–a lot–in this process, this educational adventure. It can be tempting to conceal all the struggles and failures you meet because you’re already going outside the box. If people see you going outside the box and failing, they’re going to say, “I told you so,” and it’s not going to feel good.

That is 100% true. The more you fail, the more you are going to have people making fun of you and calling you out for making the wrong decision. Noah in the Bible was harrassed endlessly for his seemingly purposeless boat he was building, and look how he ended up.

And that’s the reason why you document. Because eventually, you’re going to not fail, and when that happens, people (and you) can look back on a journey of failures that led to a success, and they will see not a failure, but a success story written on top of endless tenacity and struggle.

How cool would it be to see a documentary that followed Michael Phelps from skinny kid to Olympic athlete? As humans, we love stories, and documenting your story will be one of your greatest career assets.

4b. Consume and Create

Right along with the first one, this is what you document. You have to be consuming content. If you’re interested in sales, go and talk to people in sales, learn how to sell something, then sell something. Google every word or phrase you hear someone say that you don’t know–make a blog post or video about what you learned, create monthly projects and at the end of the month, create a two- to five-minute video about what you learned.

You intake content, and then you give it back out to the world through the lens of *insert your name here.* Everyone learns differently, and maybe seeing your content will help someone else.

It’s the lake analogy. If you’re a lake and have nothing going into you, you’ll dry up and cease to be a lake. If you’re a lake and have a source coming in but nothing going out, you’ll get stagnant and give nothing of value to the world.

4c. Work for Free

One of the best ways to have content for 4a and 4b is to work for free. Do projects for people. Offer to do work for people at no cost.

You can do projects for yourself. But some of the best projects that will get you a big foot in the door are when you can pitch someone you respect in the field you’re interested in on doing free work for them. It’s very hard to turn down free work. You just have to make sure it’s low-enough-risk stuff so that if you completely fail, the person’s company won’t collapse.

Once you have the free job, then it’s your time to shine. No one expects “volunteer work” to be done well. Do it better than if you were being paid, and do it faster than they can give you new projects.

Not only will this be incredible for your documentation process, but it will give you a huge step up with this person or people you are doing the work for. Even if it doesn’t end up being them who hire you, you’ll have a great reference who will vouch for you more than maybe anybody else.

Step 5: Sign Up for the Competition*

You’ve put in the work. You’ve gone to the pool every day. You’re not a professional swimmer, but you need experience in the competitive field. It’s time to risk a little bit more in your journey.

As Isaac Morehouse says, “There are two things that matter when you’re on the job market: the value you can create, and the ability to prove that value.” This is where your documentation becomes key.

If you’ve done it right, you’ve created value with your projects and learning, and if you’ve also done it right, you can show how you’ve done that.

So now compare these two:

Recent college grad: “Yes, I went to UT for four years in digital marketing. Here is my degree to prove it. Hire me.”

Person one-year into the pool method: “Yes, I created this, this, and learned how to create this and generated this much revenue for this person in a similar field in six months. Hire me.”

Both of these are terrible pitches, but if you had to decide between one of these two, who would you pick?

The Case for College

So, why should you go to college? As I mentioned before, the pool method is not “easier”. It’s simply a way to get past all the garbage and the complete waste of life college is. You have to be willing to put the effort in. What you put in is exactly what you will get out of it, and if you’re not willing to put anything in, it’s not going to work for you.

Are you ready to show up every day? Are you ready to place the fate of your future into your hands? Are you ready to prove your value by the things you create and not the things you learn?

If you said, “No,” to any of those, the pool method is maybe not for you.

What I will say though is the kind of people who will do well in college, 99% of the time, they will do better and achieve more and do it faster with the pool method.

Where to Start

Start understanding what you think you’re interested in. As Isaac Morehouse says, “Find the intersection of things that bring value to the market, things you are good at, and things that you don’t hate.”

Once you’ve found something that fits into that category, try out the pool method and see what fruits come from it.

At the very least, before you commit yourself to four years of misery and debt, do the first three steps.

*When you’re ready to sign up for the competition, the best place to start is crash.co. Here, you can put together all that you did in step one through four in an amazing gallery and start creating custom pitches, pulling pieces from the work you’ve documented. And all of it you’ll do with the help and support of a community of people just like you.

Jump in the pool. Crash your career.


Joey Wickham is a turkey-farmer-turned-account-manager who has lived in a cabin without electricity to learn about remote missions, blogged daily for 365+ days, and completed Praxis. He’s currently creating value in a sales role at Vital Interaction in Austin, Texas. Check out his Crash pitch to learn more about how he’s crashed his career.

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