8 Steps to Getting What You Want… Without Formal Credentials

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(Photo: ElMarto)

Michael Ellsberg has been a good friend since 2000. 

In the last few years, he has made a study of self-study. How do the best in business do what they do? Using his findings, he has:

- Overcome a debilitating case of bipolar II (here’s how).
- Landed one of the most powerful literary agents in the world.
- Published not one but two books from major New York publishers, the second scoring a 6-figure advance.
- Found the woman of his dreams and married her.
- Built a well-followed blog on Forbes.com with zero prior blogging experience.

Most recently, Michael has interviewed the likes of fashion magnate Russell Simmons, Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz, Facebook founding president Sean Parker, WordPress lead developer Matt Mullenweg, and Pink Floyd songwriter and lead guitarist David Gilmour. Dozens of iconic figures pepper his list of case subjects.

Why? Because none of them graduated from college, and he wanted to learn how they educated themselves. His findings were then encapsulated in “The Education of Millionaires.”

In this post, Michael will discuss how uber-successful people leapfrog their peers without any formal credentials. By the end of this post, you’ll have a roadmap for hacking “job requirements,” degrees, and the lot…

In the words of Alfonso Bedoya in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre:

“Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

There is a surprise ending to this post. Don’t miss it.

Enter Michael Ellsberg

A phrase you’ll see a lot if you search for a job these days is “BA required, MA preferred.” A recent New York Times article was entitled “The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s,” and ended with the following question:

Given how many people are now getting master’s to stand out from those with bachelor’s, “Will the Ph.D. become the new master’s?”

This anxiety around educational credentials has launched a million self-criticisms across the nation…

“Well, if I don’t have my BA, I better not even think about getting that ‘BA required’ job!” Or, for those who have a BA: “Well, that’s just like having a high school diploma these days. I better go back to school so I can spend two years and another fifty-to-hundred grand getting an MA. That way, I can stand out from all those BAs and compete with the MAs on an even playing field.”

The purpose of this article is to even the playing field for you, without the BA, MA, or MBA, and without the student debt. You can get those degrees for other reasons (if you feel they will enrich your life, for instance). But never again should you feel that they’ll give you a massive advantage in job searches or economic opportunity. For your typical job search, those advantages are massively overhyped. They can be sidestepped, outsmarted, and overcome.1

Forget the Formal Job Market—Focus on the Informal Job Market

At age 25, Eben Pagan had a resume that consisted of dropping out of community college after one semester, touring in a Christian rock band, and various stints at manual labor. Most people would say this resume qualified Eben for a life of asking “Would you like fries with that?”

Thinking that he might get into real estate, Eben signed up for a course by a real estate marketing and sales trainer named Joe Stumpf.

“I immediately recognized I had to somehow work for this guy and soak up his knowledge. But I didn’t know how I was going to do that. Here he was, leading big group workshops all over the country, and I was barely scraping by.”

Most likely, had Stumpf’s organization been advertising open positions (which it wasn’t), those positions would have had all kinds of job requirements attached to them. Eben, with his lackluster resume, wouldn’t have made the cut.

This, however, is where Eben began “hacking” the concept of job requirements and credentials.

“I started calling up his outbound telemarketers. These guys are trying to sell you on something, so they’ll talk to anyone! I told them about my experience at the workshop and became friendly with them. I found out they were all fans of Tony Robbins. Once, I found this set of Tony Robbins tapes at Goodwill for ten bucks, so I packed the tapes up and sent them to them. Things like that.

“One day, they sent me some audiotapes of Joe. I called them up and said, ‘The audio on this program is not good.’ I had a background in sound from my band days. So I talked to the general manager of the company, and I went to work for them, first doing audiovisual for their live seminars. I worked there for three years, rising up the ranks.”

The skills Eben learned in those three years, studying from a world-class master of marketing and sales, set him up for the massive business success he’s had in the rest of his career. Shortly after, Eben began selling info-products (mainly e-books, membership communities, Web-based trainings, and in-person weekend workshops) on the Internet. Today, Eben’s company, Hot Topic Media, now brings in around $30 million a year in revenue and employs about 70 people around the globe. He founded it himself, and grew it over a decade with no investors. He is a self-made multimillionaire, and would never have to work another day in his life if he didn’t want to. He runs his business off his MacBook, and spends his time either working from his home office in New York (which has a majestic view of the Empire State Building), or his beach-side home office in Miami.

The story of how Eben got this all-important first job demonstrates a distinction that will be crucial for you in seeking opportunities throughout your life, no matter the status of your formal credentials.

It’s the distinction between the formal job market and the informal job market.

The informal job market comprises all jobs that are not filled through someone responding to a job advertisement. Usually, these are jobs that are filled through relationships. Either there is a position at the firm that needs to be filled, and an employee at the firm knows someone who’s qualified. Or, the firm wants to bring a specific person they know to join the team, and they create a position for that person out of thin air.

If you do some Googling on the informal job market, you’ll learn something shocking: according to various estimates (on CNN, CBS, MSNBC, and NPR) somewhere around 80% of jobs get filled informally. In other words, only 20% of jobs get filled through people responding to job ads (the primary method of job seeking most people do).2

So, how does the 80% of hiring that occurs in the informal job market actually happen? The way Eben did it: by building up a professional relationship with people within the organization doing the hiring, long before the hire is made.

Connections. Referrals. Knowing people who know people.

This means that, in the vastly larger informal job market, human relationships and a solid network are far more important than GPA figures on a resume.

Yet, nearly all the educational and career advice you’ll get (focused on making your resume perfect for recruiters) optimizes you for competing on the much smaller and tougher formal segment of the job market, rather than on the informal job market. Seems a bit ridiculous, given that the informal job market is much larger and easier to “hack” into.

Employers Require Skills, Not Degrees

What’s the relevance of the course content for a BA or MA program to a typical corporate job? In most cases, absolutely zippo. What employers actually mean when they say, “BA required, MA preferred,” is that they want prospects with a certain set of skills, character traits, and attitudes. Specifically, they’re looking for organizational skills, the ability to follow instructions and make deadlines, critical thinking skills, writing and communication skills, research skills, and so forth. Plus, they want applicants with the general maturity, stability, perseverance, respect for authority, and work ethic required to get through a multi-year academic program.

In the formal job market, there’s no easy way for employers to rapidly assess all of those traits without some kind of objective screening tool. Educational attainment has become that screening tool.

So let’s get clear about one thing. Saying that a BA and MA is “required” to do a certain job is BS. These degrees are not actually required to do the job well. Rather, they serve as convenient screening tools for recruiters needing to wade through piles of cold resumes on the formal job market. That’s it, nothing more.

Your entire multi-year, six-figure education is reduced to a simple check-mark used to get past impatient screeners on the other end of a Craigslist ad.

For a person seeking a job or economic opportunity, this whole system of job screening is wildly inefficient.

What if instead, you focused on the informal job market, which is vastly larger and more accessible (especially if you learn some basic networking skills)?

The screening process in the informal job market does not happen through cookie-cutter grades, degrees, scores, numbers, or letters. It doesn’t happen through educational checkboxes and punchcards.

Rather, the screening process is embedded within human relationships: whom do you know, and who knows you? It happens through the layers of trust, credibility, and reputation that occur naturally within flesh-and-blood, offline social networks.3

Thus, in seeking opportunity within the informal job market, your networking, connecting, and relationship-forging skills are far more important than your academic test-taking skills. (I’ll be giving you some specific pointers on how to begin learning these real world skills in a moment.)

Formal credentials are not irrelevant in the unadvertised job market. All else equal, it’s still better to have more educational attainment than less. But that “all else equal” is the kicker, because within that is buried the “else” that actually matters in the informal job market: social-based credibility, referrals, your online and offline reputation, and your portfolio of demonstrable results achieved in the past.

Thus, the informal job market allows for many creative ways to hack “job requirements,” by simply developing relationships with the employers, as Eben did. People like to give economic opportunities to people they know and trust. Requirements be damned.

Create Your Own Damn Credentials; Create Your Own Damn Job

Most people wouldn’t dream of opening a designer wellness center, charging $500 per hour to coach VIP corporate clients on weight loss, if they didn’t already have some serious credentials to their name (at least a registered dietician, if not an MD or a Ph.D. in nutrition).

Unless you’re my wife, Jena la Flamme. Then you do it without even having an undergraduate degree.

Jena dropped out of college her junior year to travel around India for two years using the $6,000 she earned teaching English in Martinique. (You can get a great real-world education traveling around India on $3,000 a year, which is far cheaper than most colleges.)

She had struggled with overeating and binge eating throughout her teens, and was perpetually trying to lose twenty pounds. Through self-education in eating and nutrition, she was finally able to end her struggle with food, and lost the weight. She started coaching other women on how to do this, initially charging $100 an hour for her coaching sessions.

Reading The 4-Hour Workweek inspired Jena to build up an outsourced backend office in India, which allowed her to handle a higher volume of business and ramp up her coaching to the masses, offering one-to-many Internet-based classes. She began studying marketing and sales (learning much of it from college dropout Eben Pagan), and her business exploded.

Soon, Jena’s time became so scarce as her business grew that, if clients wanted access to her training, they started having to pay more and more for it — $200/hour, then $250, then $300 and up. Today, she charges more than a lot of lawyers and Ph.D. psychologists make per hour.

Her credentials? A large following online, free content in her blog and newsletter, a great set of real-world testimonials, her public image and reputation through great marketing, and her personal story.

Jena hacked her professional credentials.

By the end of this post, you’ll know how to do this for yourself.

Common Objections to Hacking Job Requirements, and The Yellow Pages Portfolio Fallacy

“But the higher the degree you have, the more you earn, on average!”

Yes, it is undeniable. The College Board reported the median income for various degrees back in 2010. This is what they found:

- High school diploma = $33,800
- BA degree = $55,700 (65% higher than those with a high school diploma)
- MA degree = $67,300 (21% higher than those with a BA)
- Ph.D. = $91,900 (36.5% higher than those with an MA)

Yet these statistics suffer from a rather serious problem. I call it the Yellow Pages Portfolio fallacy.

Imagine investing $1 million in the following manner: You are to call up companies in the Yellow Pages, in alphabetical order, and see if they’ll take $100,000 for a 10% stake in their company. The first ten companies that say “yes” will complete your investment.

That’s your $1 million portfolio.

Now, compare the financial future of two people who have an identical overall investment portfolio (stocks, bonds, real estate, etc.), except that one person also has this extra $1 million Yellow Pages Portfolio on top of all their other investments. Who earns higher returns from their overall profile of investments?

All else equal, the person with the Yellow Pages Portfolio.

Therefore you should invest $1 million in the Yellow Pages Portfolio, as well.

Uh, actually, no. That is the Yellow Pages Portfolio Fallacy in action.

All the example above suggests is that having an additional $1 million in net capital (no matter how moronically it is invested) is financially superior to having $1 million less in net capital.

The example says nothing about the best way for you to invest $1 million!

The above College Board statistics, which are the basis for nearly all public arguments about the financial advantages of higher education, are riddled with the Yellow Pages Portfolio Fallacy through and through.

All they show is that, on average, people who have invested more in their learning earn more. Big whoop. They will never answer the more important question: Is spending your time and money on formal credentials the best way of investing in your continued learning?

I’m not sure of a way to test that latter question with anything close to scientific rigor. However, we’ve seen that formal credentials have a much higher salience in the formal job market (which is the smallest part of the job market). Cheaper and more informal modes of career development, such as learning to become a great networker (à la Eben Pagan) have a higher bang for your buck in the informal job market, which is vastly larger.

So, my own unscientific guess is that, outside of fields which legally require credentials for licensure, there are far more efficient ways to go about investing in your earning power, rather than increasing your formal credentials. Just as there are far better ways of investing $1 million than in the Yellow Pages Portfolio.

“But degrees are an advantage in a tough market.”

Yes, and it would be an advantage for heightening my wife’s attraction to me if I showed up for our next date night in a custom $100,000 Alexander Amosu suit.

Talking about an advantage in absolute terms, without comparing it to the costs and benefits of other options (i.e. opportunity cost), is pointless.

To extend the analogy: Given the resources now available to me, are there ways I could go about increasing and maintaining my wife’s attraction to me which would be more effective, per dollar spent, than buying a $100,000 suit?

Using the 80/20 principle, I can think of a few things that would go 80% of the way towards increasing her attraction for me, without having to spend a lot of money. Perhaps a thoughtful handwritten poem, a home-cooked meal, a massage afterwards (or even something learned from, um, that section, in The 4-Hour Body). I could live without that last 20% of extra attraction the Amosu suit would get me (hot as it is), and save the hundred grand for other things, like a home for us.

There’s no question that increased formal credentials can give you an advantage. The question is, is it the best advantage you can buy with the amount of money and time you’re going to spend?

A master’s, for example, can cost two years, up to $100,000 in tuition (hmm, similar in price to that custom Amosu suit), and another $50,000-$100,000 in foregone earnings. Sure, that will give you an advantage. But the primary advantage it gives you is in slipping past screeners in the formal job market, where there are such things as “job requirements.” If you get creative in the informal job market (and outside of legally licensed fields like law and medicine), the notion of “job requirements” is—as we’ve seen—negotiable. Thus, the advantage a master’s gives you is far less salient.

I could think of a lot of ways you could spend $100,000 and two years that would give you a better advantage in the informal job market, over having a masters degree or even a bachelor’s. In fact, I’m going to outline an example of how I think you could spend a fraction of that $100K and get far superior results in just a moment.

“So… what should I do?”

There is no good data (and I don’t think there ever will be) on what the best way to invest in your own learning would be. There is only data showing that more investment in your learning is better than less. (Duh!)

In the absence of any data suggesting what the best investment in learning is, you will need to rely on your gut.

If your gut tells you that investing in your own continued learning informally would be the most effective for you, then don’t let the salesmen of formal credentials scare you out of it. The other option, of course, is to spend years of your life in an undergraduate or graduate program, dropping major cash on tuition, incurring foregone earnings, and going into massive debt in order to rack up ever-more formal credentials, so you can “compete” with millions of others getting the exact same credential each year.

If you instead decide to make more informal investments in your learning for success, over your whole life and career, my book is designed to point you on the path to getting started.

In the spirit of blogging, however, I’d like to give you a robust outline of how to go about investing in your own success in the informal job markets. This content is original to this post, and is not even in my book.

As I present this outline, I will assume that you are currently unemployed, and that you’re willing to devote full-time effort into finding employment or creating a practice or business. In other words, you’re willing to invest all the time you’d otherwise spend surfing Craigslist jobs sections, sending out resumes and cover letters (and hearing crickets), to hacking job credentials instead.

I did not follow the path below exactly—my path was much more random and meandering, and took about 10 years through trial and error. Instead, I’ve tried to distill what I’ve learned from this decade into something clear and simple that could be followed by a focused, determined person, in one year. If I were to do it over again, this is how I’d do it.

Without further ado, here are my 9 steps to conquering the informal job market within one year (at a fraction of the cost of a Master’s degree.)

Step 1: Choose Your New Field of Learning

Timeline: Month 1 (Starting out)

Figure out a field you’d like to build a career in. You don’t need to have great (or any) formal credentials. As I said earlier, the more creative and less regulated a field is, the more amenable it is to this kind of job credential-hacking. It’s easier to hack job credentials in programming, design, writing, sales, photography, multimedia, the arts, and entrepreneurialism, or in general “I need a job, any job!” type situations, than in accounting, law, or medicine.

So before proceeding to the next step, you’ll need to choose a field whose formal job credentials you’d like to hack. My field of choice was commercial writing.

Cost: $0

Time: An epiphany in the shower; a long walk on a beach; a few hours surfing Google.

Step 2: Showcase Your Learning

Timeline: Months 1-2

In this step, you will start a simple blog detailing your journey to learn everything there is to learn in this field.

But first, you’ll need to kickstart the learning process: Read one professional, business, or how-to book related to your chosen field per week. Choose a mix of classics in the field, along with some off-the-beaten-path books you discover through your reading and research. These books are typically written by active practitioners in your field; they are not the abstract books written by theorists, which tend to get assigned in academic programs. Thus, these books (written by actual, successful practitioners) will be infinitely more valuable in terms of streetwise content.

Then write one blog post each week detailing exactly what you learned from that week’s book.

This kills at least ten birds with one stone:

  1. You get the education of reading practical books related to your field.
  2. You demonstrate to potential clients/employers that you understand content related to your chosen field.
  3. You demonstrate your willingness and curiosity to continue upgrading your knowledge in your chosen field.
  4. You demonstrate your researching ability.
  5. You demonstrate your writing ability.
  6. You demonstrate your critical thinking ability.
  7. You demonstrate your creativity.
  8. Through your writing, you develop and demonstrate your unique professional personality and character, setting you apart from the zillions of faceless resumes.
  9. You develop and demonstrate your social media skills.
  10. You begin developing your professional brand, not as a job-seeker in your field, but as a thought leader in your field

Cost: $12-17/year in blog hosting; $10-$20 per book, or $0 per book at the library. (As Matt Damon said in Good Will Hunting: “You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.”)

Time: 1 hour to set up a WordPress blog. 10 hours per week to read two books. 4-10 hours per week to write two blog posts. Do this for 2 months initially, so you can accumulate a portfolio of 16 posts.

Step 3: Learn the Basics of Good Networking

Timeline: Still Months 1-2

Being a good networker is not an optional skill if you want to succeed in the informal job market. It is the skill. You’ll also need to be good at your craft and good at sales (we’ll work on those in a moment). But without a firm base of networking, you’ll get nowhere.

Here is a 1-hour lecture I gave on how to become a world-class networker. It’s the best breakdown of good networking I know of, and it includes two live demos of networking skills in action.

I delivered that presentation to the inaugural class of Thiel Fellows: 24 people under 20 years old, whom Peter Thiel is paying $100,000 each to “stop out” of college for two years and build businesses. Since they’re not getting traditional formal credentials, these brilliant young people are going to need to learn how to get past the screeners of opportunity informally—which is what I taught them in this hour.

If you’re more of a reader, here is a similar post on how to become a great networker. In my experience, the vast majority of people go about networking in exactly the wrong way. The video and article show you how to be one of the rare few who do it right.

Following the advice in the article, find three business owners per month you already know (either offline or online). Over the next two months, have conversations with them about what their challenges are, then do your damned best to start being of service to them. By the end of two months, you will have six new fans. And those are very good fans to have, because business owners know other business owners.

You’ve started to build what I call a “social economy”—a circle of successful business owners whom you support, and who support you. Keep building this social economy as much as possible during the time you go through these steps. It will be your secret key to success in the informal job market.

Cost: $0.

Time: 20 hours a week for the first two months. After that, fit in as much time as possible between the activities of other steps.

Step 4: Within Your Budding Social Economy, Start Working for Free

Timeline: Months 3-5

Begin to seek opportunities where you can practice your skills. Offer small, light services related to your chosen field for free to people in your network.

If you’re trying to hack credentials in design, offer free design services. If it’s copywriting or advertising you’re interested in, offer free copywriting or ad design to small businesses you patronize. (Small businesses rarely turn down free services!)

Say, “I’m training to become [X], and I’ve been meticulously studying the craft to learn how to do it well [link to your blog]. I’d like to offer you [some free services around X] as I build my practice. I don’t expect any payment at all. But down the road, if you like my work, perhaps you can refer me to other people you know who might benefit from it.”

Cost: $0.

Time: 20 hours a week spent in a combination of networking to get the gigs, and actually delivering services. Do this for 2-3 months.

Step 5: Develop Case Studies of Your Work

Timeline: Still Months 3-5

For 10 hours per week (when you are not networking or delivering services), blog about your experiences providing these services as case studies. Lessons learned, triumphs, mistakes, etc. Ask your client if you can use their name in the blog post, and show them what you’ve written before it goes up (so you don’t infringe on their privacy). Otherwise, hide and change all identifying details about the work.

Cost: $0.

Time: 10 hours per week, during the same 3-month period as in Step 4.

Step 6: Develop Relationships With Mentors

Timeline: Still Months 3-5

For the remaining 10 hours per week of this period, reach out to authors of the books you read and blogged about in Step 1, asking to interview them for your blog. The more time has passed since their last book came out, the more likely they’ll be willing to do the interview, as authors are almost always thrilled when someone shows interest in past work. (However, if they’re in the middle of writing or launching a new book, forget it! That’s like asking a pregnant woman for help when she’s about to go into labor.)

Now you are in the process of developing relationships with potential mentors in your field. This will pay off huge over the long run (for your career, personal development, and inner fulfillment).

Cost: $0.

Time: 10 hours per week, during the same 3-month period as in Steps 4-5.

Step 7: Learn Sales

Timeline: Months 6-7

Sorry, there’s no way around this. If you don’t learn sales, you will never reach the level of success you desire. Almost without exception, anyone who has achieved anything big in life was good at sales; if not literally selling products and services, then selling their ideas/vision.

Read SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham. In my opinion, this is the best book on sales ever written. The focus is on deep inquiry into the customer’s actual problems, needs, dreams and desires — through asking the right questions and listening well — rather than through sleazy pitching. If you’re only going to read one sales book in your life, that’s the one you’ll want to buy.

Once you feel you have a basic grasp of the concepts in the book, find someone in your social economy (see Step 2) who has some kind of business, whether it’s products or services. The bigger the ticket price, the better, as there is a direct correlation between the ticket price of the sale, and the integrity, empathy, listening skills, and caring you have to have as a salesperson in order to sell it.

Ask if you can sell for them, with zero base salary. Perhaps you can get a commission, or perhaps not. But at this point, you’re not doing it for immediate financial gains. You’re doing it to get experience in sales, and to put what you learned from SPIN Selling into practice. The reason you’re doing it in an already-existing business (rather than your own) is that you want to get lots and lots of experience actually selling face-to-face with pre-qualified prospects, not trying to find people to sell to! My own freelance income nearly doubled when I learned proper, effective, non-sleazy, high-integrity sales.

Cost: $16 for SPIN Selling. And you might actually make money in sales commissions.

Time: Devote 20 hours per week to a combination of studying the book and putting the techniques into practice in a friend or acquaintance’s business; devote the other 20 hours per week during this period to continuing Step 3 and building your social economy.

Step 8: Sell and Deliver Your Services Within Your Social Economy

Timeline: Months 8-9

You’ve got the basics of your craft in place (credentials be damned!), you’ve built up your social economy, and you’ve learned sales. Everything is in place for you to start earning real money in your chosen field. Now you just have to go out and do it!

Have individual meetups with 10 business owners — the ones within your social economy — over breakfast, lunch, dinner, or drinks. Tell them about the portfolio of results you’ve achieved in the last seven months, both online and offline. Have honest-to-goodness conversations about their needs (a high-integrity sales skill you learned during Step 7).

If they have a need you can address, use your SPIN Selling skills to get them excited about the idea of working with you. If they don’t have a need you can address, connect them with someone else in your social economy who you think can help them. (This is Networking 101: refer people to the best solutions for their problems.)

Tell them about the specific type of problem and/or business owner you can help, and ask for their best three ideas for meeting that kind of business owner. You’ll usually come away with several great ideas, and possibly even some referrals.

If you have been following the steps diligently, you’d have to get worse than a 1/10 closing ratio to not get a sale. If you can beat that (pathetically low) closing ratio, you’ve got a sale.

Congratulations! You’ve just hacked “job requirements” in the informal job market.

Cost: $0.

Time: 40 hours per week spent networking, conducting sales meetings, and delivering services on the sales you close.

Step 9 (Optional): Rinse and Repeat

Timeline: Months 10 and beyond…

If you continue to build on all the skills in Steps 1-8, you can carry on as a self-employed freelancer, working on your own schedule (often from a remote location), for the rest of your life. It’s not a 4-hour workweek, but it definitely allows you to “Escape 9-5” and “Live Anywhere.”

This is the lifestyle I’ve built up for myself over the last decade. As I mentioned, I took a much more meandering path than the steps above to get there, but if I was to do it all over again, that’s how I’d do it.

The steps I’ve described above take about 9 months, the time of one academic year. The cost is around $300, mostly for books (less if you go to the library). The entire cost of this program is less than the cost of 2-3 textbooks in college, and is an infinitesimal fraction of the cost of a year’s tuition at a private college. Yet I believe the results you could get from this 9 months of self-study and $300 will far surpass the career results you could achieve through a BA or MA program. With the right focus, these steps can guide you through the basics of getting started in just 9 months. Instead of birthing a baby, you are birthing a new life for yourself, of freedom, and prosperity.

Contest: Win 6 Months of Private, 1-on-1, Free Mentoring

The thing that frustrates me about all the statistics around dropouts vs. graduates, is that they always compare people who stayed in college, to people who not only dropped out of school, but who also dropped out of learning.

Take two cohorts of good, smart, motivated, ambitious 18-year-olds with similar intelligence, discipline, creativity, and work-ethic. Put one through a BA program, and one through the 9 months of self-study I’ve outlined above. I believe the cohort of self-studiers—the kind of people I spent the last two years traveling across the country to find and interview—will kick the BA group’s asses.

In the absence of means to conduct such a formalized study as above, I’d like to propose my own little informal contest.

I’m going to give one reader a chance to have my own mentorship on these steps, free of charge, for six months.

During this mentorship, you’ll have two in-depth phone conversations with me per month, along with follow up emails in between. And, if it makes sense, I’ll try to connect you with some amazing people in my network.

This contest is for any and all readers who were inspired by this article. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, if you’re a high school dropout, are in school now, or a graduate of Harvard Law School. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been unemployed for years, or are successfully employed now but wanting to switch careers.

The only rule for following this is: you must choose a field you have absolutely no work history, credential, or experience in. It must be a completely fresh field for you, starting from scratch.

If you don’t have full time to devote to this, due to school or work obligations, and can only devote your off-hours to this, no problem! I’ll take into account the whole picture of your life in choosing the winners. But no matter how much time you devote to it, the area you compete in must be completely new and fresh to you.

Here’s how to enter:

  1. Commit to yourself to follow the 9 steps above for the next 9 months
  2. Create a blog exclusively dedicated to detailing your journey of self-education along these 9 steps (as per Step 2.) It must be a new blog, not one you already own.
  3. On December 29, 2011 (three months from the date of this post), I want you to post a URL in the comments that links to a post on your blog detailing your progress. I will pick one person from these links to mentor for the remaining six months. I am looking for QUALITY of results achieved in three months, rather than speed of working through the steps. I would rather see someone get up to Steps 4 or 5 really really thoroughly in three months, than get to step 7 in a slipshod manner.

There you have it. My curriculum for excelling in the informal job market. Go out and make it happen :)

Final Thoughts

You might think that college dropouts who become successful are “outliers,” and if you look at the statistics, that is true.

But that statistic is misleading, for a simple reason pointed out to me by my mentor Victor Cheng:

Most people who drop out of school also drop out of learning.

If you drop out of learning, you’ll always be stuck in jobs that require little more than a pulse, such as mopping floors, or asking people about their desire for fries. That’s why most dropouts are in dead-end jobs.

However, there are people who drop out of formal education, while still maintaining an absolute passion and discipline for learning—informally, non-institutionally, in the real world (and without the tuition bills or student loan payments). Those are the types of people I interviewed in my book, people like Eben and Jena. They dropped out of school, but they never dropped out of learning.

I spent the past two years interviewing the world’s most successful people who have the least formal credentials for their success. I’ve interviewed almost 40 millionaire and billionaires, all self-made, and none of them finished college. In interviewing them, I was consistently struck by one thing they all had in common: a complete lack of regard for socially-sanctioned formal “requirements” for bringing success into their lives.

No wonder they have so much success!

I’ll leave you with a simple question: What barriers, check-boxes, and credentials do you believe in that are keeping you from the jobs, opportunity, and success you desire?

As you’ve seen, nearly all of these barriers can be sidestepped, ignored, or hacked. It just takes some creativity and a few months of work.

What’s holding you back?

Footnotes

  1. This approach works better in some fields than in others. I do not recommend trying to “hack” the requirement of a bar certification or a medical degree, if you want to practice law or medicine! This approach should not be used for fields that require state licensure, obviously. However, for non-licensed fields such as programming, design, PR, marketing, IT, entrepreneurship, solo-preneurship, self-employed consulting and service businesses, journalism, sales, non-profits, the arts, and for your average “I need a decent job pronto!” type job searches, these approaches are golden. Back to Text
  2. There are some debates about exact numbers and percentages. After all, it’s very hard to measure what’s going on informally behind closed doors. However, virtually all career experts I’ve seen quoted on the matter agree that vastly more jobs get filled informally than get filled by people responding to job ads. As Steven Rothberg, founder of CollegeRecruiter.com, says on the MSNBC article, “[a]bout 90 percent of job openings go unadvertised, yet about 90 percent of candidates apply only to advertised job openings.” Back to Text
  3. Online social networking can be used to enhance/facilitate networking that is also happening offline, but it will never be a replacement. You can’t status-update a handshake or a good look in the eyes, and you can’t replace a two-hour dinner conversation with a tweet. Back to Text

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Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

363 comments on “8 Steps to Getting What You Want… Without Formal Credentials

  1. Hello Mike,
    What an inspiring post.It is amazing the meaning of true knowledge isn’t common knowledge.Education is education regardless of the pattern acquired.

    It will interest readers to watch the drama series Harry’s Law season one episode 8 featuring a boy who hacked the credentials of a doctor in a ghetto neighbourhood-he was actually the savoir of the community when it came to cheap healthcare and emergencies.He learned the skills via reading and online courses.The law caught up with him when he was found to save a gang member and the police chargd him for practising medicine without a licence.

    Though licensed professions cannot be hacked and should not be encouraged in any way, but such dramas emphasize the point you can achieve education and success alternately.Another interesting one is The Suits series -very interesting too,where brilliant Mike is hired by an associate in a law firm at Wall street.

    This post has enlightened many and hope the strategies will be applied positively and ethically for personal and societal advancement.

    If anyone or their loved one/friends has problems with infertility without success so far, they can contact me

    Knowledge is power Only if applied constructively.

    Good luck to all.

  2. Hi again everyone!

    Just wanted to say how awesome it’s been reading all of your blogs! I think we are all in great company in this contest and want to wish everyone good luck.

    Not sure if anyone’s been checking out my Health Coaching blog, but things are going great, here’s my latest entry on simple ways to integrate Ayurvedic techniques into your daily routine: http://bit.ly/wsD6ah

    Be well!

    Jackie

  3. Jackie, thanks for this great article and techniques! I’ve been “experimenting” with a couple of Ayurvedic herbs for hair growth (mainly amla) but know very little about this ancient form of healing. I did have hot water with lemon this morning because of you!

    Erica

    • OH awesome Erica! Are you still experimenting with Ayurveda? I’m a novice myself, but I have been sticking with the skin brushing/sesame oil regimen pretty well, and sipping hot water throughout the day. It’s all so relaxing, glad you are trying this stuff too :)

  4. I have also visited many of the sites and site back in amazement at how much value this post by Michael has created in people’s lives. Now, that value is going to be multiplied many times over as we all go out and start our personal journeys. Well, I know a winner hasn’t been announced on here so I hope I am still in the running. I have been adding some great content to my site. I have been focused on Personal Branding this month here is a taste http://jasonmccain.com/?p=99.

  5. So Tim, with what you have learned up to this point in life and if you could do it all over again, are you saying your college degree in East Asian Studies and Neuroscience and your mentors Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee and Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe didn’t help shape what you are today? Your resume you have posted on your sight surely boasts of your academia and accomplishments.

    I would have to disagree with you in that, you may or may not be where you are today if it weren’t for the Ivy League schooling, but more importantly, those top two mentors as aforementioned that helped shape your writing and philosophical way of thinking in life.

    The important part for you and your blog followers to remember is, in life, many times, it’s not what you know, but who you know.

    A huge part of being an entrepreneur is NETWORKING and if you look at the top one percent of successful people, yes they first and foremost had a deep desire to make a difference in the world. But, with making that difference, they realized they needed to surround themselves around smarter people then them, which you did. They obviously needed some type of education as a ENTRY POINT, depending on what their craft, product, or servcie entailed.

    So, whether education gave you the jump start or if you would have still had those opportunities without Princeton, nobody will know because you did go to college and you did a huge thing in business entrepreneurship…..called LEVERAGE your KSA’s (Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities) to your advantage.

    With that, nobody can knock you for your “hustle” and self promoting you have done….but, I would have to still say and think, you wouldn’t be as far as you are today without your aforemetioned education or those mentors that shaped you…..plus, you learned a little about the tech world like many of the Silicon Valley types out there today.

    Now, your friend Micahel Ellsburg, he too may or may not be where he is today without his Journalism Degree and making connections with various networking he has done.

    Of course, you can debate, with the various entrepreneurial success stories from Eben and Jena you mention, but I have noticed a common theme with your success stories….they all have some type of technology variable to them.

    What I am getting at is, if you were to share a story about a guy who really was lacking the academic credentials, started a business from nothing, and worked his ass off and HUSTLED his way to becoming a self-made millionaire or multi-millionaire, I would say you were on to something here…..you should have used your old story and invterview on Daymond John below:

    http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2011/04/07/fubu-daymond-john/

    Even Daymond John, if he was honest, would have to admit without LL Cool J promoting his gear (clothing) in Rap Videos and being in right place at the right time, no matter how smart or educated one is, there has to be a big break, networking, or some type of connection….it’s like what I have taught in business coursework with marketing.

    If the consumer doesn’t NEED your product or service or WANT your product or service, then the bottom line is there won’t be a bottom line.

    Enjoyed your article, but still believe the Daymond John’s, the tech savvy entrepreneur, etc….are few and far between and folks without a good education will 99 percent of the time not succeed without it……that leaves I guess the 1-percent that are the top entrepreneurs, free thinkers, the outliers, etc….that everyone wants to try to be like, but most of the time never will.

    Peace !!!!

    and East Asian Studiesor

  6. Hi Mike

    Thanks for the article, its realy inspiring.
    I just finished reading right now and im starting to apply these steps straight away.

    Well lets talk after 9 months when im well stablished.
    Thanks one more time and count me in!!

    Mario!!

  7. Hi again everyone!

    Michael, for what it’s worth: I’m still whole-heartedly into this contest! I’ve been continuing to post on my blog since October, but haven’t done so as frequently, because now I’m actually in business! I’m excited to report that almost 20% of my income this month has come from my Health Coaching business, and I have some amazing networking opportunities coming up in the next few weeks. This is becoming the most amazing journey of my life! Also, I wanted to mention that I’ve been accepted to several grad schools, including University of Southern California, which is ranked #7 in the country for my program! It’s a huge honor, but I have to admit that going back to school is not where my passion lies anymore. Anyway, just wanted to put it out there, that I still believe that I’m the perfect candidate for your methods!

    Here’s my (brand spankin’ new) Facebook biz page for anyone who’s interested:

    http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Jacqueline-Burton-Holistic-Health-Coach/232980736786244

    And my official Health Coaching website:

    http://jackie-burton.healthcoach.integrativenutrition.com/

    As always, good luck to everyone!!

    Jackie :)

  8. Hi Guys,

    At this point, I think it is pretty obvious this was a marketing tactic between good friends Michael and Tim, they have been friends since 2000, for Michael’s book.

    I think the best thing to do at this point is to follow Michael’s plan, work hard, network, and do the best you can and surpass Michael Ellsburg.

    As Tim Ferriss stated, Living well is the best revenge.

    X

  9. Agreed, Joshua!

    That’s actually one of the things I admire most about Tim (and Michael, although I’m less familiar with him since he’s been “famous” for a shorter period of time)- they are pretty good about being transparent about letting you know what they are getting out of the situation. And in this case, a bunch of us also greatly benefitted- by getting the motivation to start up our blogs and businesses. I’ve loved and benefitted from anything I’ve ever read or watched from Tim or Michael- I say it’s win-win.

  10. Lesson #1: Do not underestimate the passion of Tim Ferriss’s audience!

    Holy moly! On the day the contest ended, December 29th, I received over 60 submissions, in both the comments here, and emailed to me through my site.

    I suppose I could have outsourced the reading of these blogs people created, to an assistant. But I figured, if you took the time to take this contest seriously, I wanted to take your submissions seriously. So I personally read every word of every post of every blog submitted.

    Like those restaurants say, “We handcraft our menu items so please allow for extra time”- I handcrafted my decisions after lots and lots and lots of reading. I apologize to those of you who had to wait a while for my response. If I do a contest in the future, I’ll figure some way out of getting you the personalized attention you deserve without taking so darn long and keeping you on the edge of your seats for so long!

    At any rate, thank you for your patience, and thank you all for your amazing participation, I was blown away. And, we have a winner…

    http://www.ellsberg.com/mentorship-contest

  11. Excellent post! I was raised to learn by reading, researching, TRYING, gaining experience and making mistakes. My parents never pushed me in academics, but they always were encouraging my ability to learn and find answers on my own. This has given me excellent problem solving skills that I never would have learned in a classroom. My mother taught me to read at age 2, and I have been a voracious reader since. I am a firm believer in self-education. The information is out there. Drive, passion, patience, and a little bit of hustle go a long way. I know PhD’s who are less educated than my father who is a respected expert in many areas and never graduated college (he is completely self-taught).

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post and will be subscribing to your blog.

  12. Ok so I am thinking about removing my website from Tumbler and get it to a WordPress site. I believe this is a wordpress site right? If it is, may I ask where you got the theme? Thanks a bunch!

  13. Marketing idea:

    If you’re looking to get into marketing or PR, do the above steps with Kickstarter projects, for free.

    Find those projects you love, that you would fund, ask to help them get the word out about what they’re doing or get funded. (You could also improve their copy if you’re a writer, or improve their video if you’re an editor)

    In return, if their project gets funded and you and can prove you brought something to the table, ask them to write a recommendation for you on LinkedIn (or for a blog post above)

    Projects only last a few weeks, not much risk to you. Not much risk to them b/c you’re free. Once you’ve had some success with a few projects and numbers or portfolio of what you’ve done for them, start doing paid work.

    Does anyone think this idea is worth a damn?

    • I’d say: go for it, man!

      Just come up with a way to track the contributions coming from you. I have some ideas, if you don’t know how to do that.

  14. Now that we know who the winner of the contest is, tell us about financial success.

    Many of you guys here have followed the program and have “hacked” your way into a new career. But are any of you guys making good money from your new career?

    Has anybody been able to quit their old job and focus solely on their new hacked career?

    Has anybody become rich or even doubled their income from their new hacked career?

    I know many people like to think of success in intangible terms and gain value from learning new things, meeting new people, travelling, gaining new experiences. But I would like to hear about financial success. It is important to me because gaining financial success is the ultimate justification for going into a career field.

    Any stories?

  15. This is what my boyfriend did. When he was a kid in the late 80s and 90s, he started playing video games and wanted to be a game designer. His dad was a programmer and he would get his dad’s books and teach himself programming languages.

    So growing up that’s what he was learning when he wasn’t going to public school and not hanging out with friends. Since his dad was always busy he didn’t help my boyfriend. He didn’t even help him with his first job.

    Eventually my bf got his first job at 18 as a Jr. programmer in the late 90s, all on his own. His first professional job. He’s gone to college on and off when he could while working as a programmer.

    To this day my bf is still a programmer. It can be done. He also learned how to interview well and write a good resume, and that’s how he lands his jobs. He’s never had the luxury of knowing someone at a company before working there.

    He’s thinking of going back to college to get his bachelor’s degree, maybe.

    Honestly, I kind of think that college is overrated. Its an outdated model. The teachers lecture the class and everyone leaves after. There are no great debates, no great poet societies. The first 2 years are pretty much a repetition of high school with general ed. classes. Each year tuition and book fees hike up.

    I have about only a couple of classes to take to finish my Associate in General Studies but I want to be an artist and I’m not interested in going to college when I could put up my products online through an e-commerce website like big cartel or shopify. I already bought my own domain name. Right now I’m going through the process of sorting which artwork I want to sell and how to market it.

    The only classes I’m interested are entrepreneurship classes which I can take at my community college for my art business. The only reason I would be interested in going for a bachelor’s is for my parents. But honestly you can’t live life for your parents. I love them very much but I respectfully disagree with them in this case.

    Don’t get me wrong, they’re wonderful people and they’ve done a lot for me and I appreciate everything they’ve done for me but I can’t live my life for them. I don’t enjoy classroom learning and this last year I’ve only taken online classes from my community college. I find them less irritating. I feel they waste my time less. :D

  16. Credentials will become less important and colleges know it that is why many resort to some direct selling techniques to woo students from degree to terminal degree programs like some state run antipodean unis that commanded instalments for their programs with no sight of completion. Fortunately, I think that the Net is a great equaliser for our thirst for knowledge and will render like some software tycoon said, universities will be put out of business. I think the days where institutions charged a premium for their services would be over. Already, there are some that are giving discounts as more are willing to learn over the Net for free rather than paying for it. A degree does not guarantee a job and a DBA may render some unemployable.

  17. Howdy! This post could not be written any better!

    Reading through this post reminds me of my good old
    room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this article to him.
    Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!

  18. Crowdfunding makes this whole way of life a heck of a lot more feasible! I’m getting the book but mostly because I like to read about things I’m currently doing. Makes me feel less kooky.

  19. This is all too much. I’d rather be on the government dole. It’s soooooo… much easier! Besides, what are you working for? Money. And money is the root of all evil. You can’t take it with you. Live off the system! Better yet, move back in with your parents and live off them AND the system!!

  20. I did the Masters thing when I was 30 and it got me a few steps up the IT ladder, now its time to do something I enjoy. this article gives me some great info on how to achieve this without more formal study, great content

    Shawn

    • Yes it’s a great article but honestly… I don’t think everyone can do it. I mean get “what you want” without formal education… Most of us is unable because of FEAR. Very basic thing.

      This article is an eye opener for sure, for most of us. But… so what…? 90% will read it and after 15 minutes will be back in their routine.

      I have no formal education, no masters or even bachelors. I tried very hard to make it, three times… three different courses :) I spent 3 years of my life trying to get that “paper”.

      Finally I realized that this isn’t right for me and decided to make some business instead.

      Thanks to all gods out there, it was the best move I have ever made.

      I guess what I’m saying is that this path isn’t and can’t be for everyone… and it shouldn’t be! Yeah everything sounds cool and nice but it calls for thick skin because in reality, this is all about selling very unique product… YOU.

      Regarding money…

      Money is the root of all the beautiful things out there! (and bad things as well… nothing is perfect).

      I love money, it makes world easier place to live. If someone don’t like money or think that it’s root of all evil, well then my advice is get your ass up from the sofa and go and try to survive in wilderness for just 24 hours… because that’s how world looks like without monetary system.

      And just skills can help one make money (obviously not degree by itself!- we don’t like sloppy thinking right?), however, where one is going to get those skills is a different story.

  21. Hello,

    This article has spoken to me on many levels I did not get a formal education but I have educated myself over the years I’m 32 years old and right now unemployed I’ve done everything from Fudging the truth on resumes and outright lying but recently I’ve been reading a lot about subjects and I’ve met a few people that and have encouraged me to start writing and I didn’t know how to contact you and see about a mentorship.
    I look forward to hearing from.
    you thank you

  22. I personally believe that perceived credibility is always more important in real life than diplomas and titles. However, I have to admit that this article opened my eyes even wider. Absolutely great job! Thanks for nourishing my brain with some great stuff before heading to bed. I’m definitely getting your book Michael.

  23. Good education occurs both formally and informally.

    I do think you may be contradicting yourself a bit though by saying that it’s okay to get a degree to enrich your career and then say degrees contribute nothing to the job but solely helps the recruiter’s selection.

  24. You may be the modern day Napoleon Hill.

    I’m currently working on creating my own job after being consistently rejected for not having “the right degree(s).”

    Thank you for the motivating article and technique. I will definitely put it to good use.

  25. Hi,
    thanks for this. I was skeptical if I can learn a new skill and market it.
    I now will try and give feedback after 1 year.
    I am a programmer. would like to become a financial risk manager.
    regards
    vinodh