8 Steps to Getting What You Want… Without Formal Credentials


(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?


  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

Posted on: September 29, 2011.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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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)

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

  1. haha I absolutely love this:
    “Create Your Own Damn Credentials; Create Your Own Damn Job”

    It’s so true. I did this with a juggling course that I now sell online and through some affiliate niche blogs that generate me income.

    I’ll definitely be using these steps for more products that I create. Thanks for sharing!


  2. If I had kids I would still tell them to get both (education and skills). Neither one is the end all. Great education guarantees nothing. Neither does self education.

    In my experience a great education + rigorous self education and skill building will produce enormous synergy.


    • That’s very true, but it’s not always possible. I would love to go to college to learn to become a strength & conditioning coach/personal trainer, but the school situation is ridiculous in Estonia.

      I would have to study either physical therapy or physical education. Both of them have a lot of classes that have little to do with my field. School also requires me to take tests, which require me to study facts, and I simply hate that. And I also think learning in college is extremely slow and ineffective, because you can’t design your own schedule very effectively. Besides, I just enjoy freedom to choose so much.

      If you went to college here in Estonia, you’d have a very hard time finding people that are as passionate about learning as I am.

      The thing is… I believe that life should be enjoyable. There is nothing enjoyable about seeing sad faces (very few people like to be in school; most feel they have to). There is nothing enjoyable about learning stuff that really doesn’t seem to be that relevant for what you want to accomplish. It’s also too theoretical; I also want to practice my skills, not just study some out-dated material.


      • Risto,

        You are so right. There is a lot of wasted time in college, in individual classes and overall. There is also a lot of issues with school and college in the U.S. that are beyond reform. It’s at a point of revolution. School and college really have changed much in 200 years. But as time passes, not only is there change but sped up change. And if everyone is going to average several career changes because of the creative / destructive nature of capitalism, there needs to be change. I don’t coach or teach knowledge. What I teach is self-sustaining techniques, attitudes, and skills that enable the individual to not only learn but learn better, faster, to retain the knowledge, to be a more creative, intuitive problem solver. I teach the student how to self-teach for education today more than ever before is individual not institutional. They’ve been doing it poorly for so long that it’s catching up to schools and colleges. Change is coming, and it’s here.


    • Hey Kris, having both is of course better than having either one. But you only have so many hours in life. If you want to pursue a formal education, ask yourself what else could you be doing with that time? Is getting a BS the best way to spend your time?

      Michael illustrated that with the Yellow Pages Portfolio.

      That’s the whole point of the post.


    • I don’t think that’s necessarily the case for everyone though. I think having a clear end game is more important than having a clear path. It ultimately depends on what the kid wants to achieve. Yes there are situations where college is absolutely necessary. Yes there are situations were college will be synergistic with skills. And then yes there are situations were college is just flat out not necessary.

      You can’t support a one-path-fits-all when no one has the same end game. The beauty is in the difference and the wisdom is knowing which one works best for the situation.


  3. I am a firm believer that the traditional methods of education are getting pushed to the wayside. The power of our information age and the opportunity to tap in is completely at our disposal. Times are changing brother and the years to come will be wild to watch.

    Living the dream baby!

    Patrick Hitches


  4. When I entered the workforce during the Pleistocene Era, I was told the main reason many companies wanted college graduates is because they came with a built-in network accumulated over the 4-6+ years spent @ university. If you can demonstrate that you are capable of building and influencing a similar network without such credentials, you’re probably way ahead of a recent grad who make have book learning but can’t carry on a conversation in either real or virtual time.


    • Bonnie,

      I’ve heard of that, but I think schools and colleges in general need to speed it up, steam line it, and enable self-sustained learning via acquisition of proper attitudes, awareness, and skills. We should be training people to think creatively and intuitively, for this is the age of the creator what with 1/2 of all money made in the states coming from the creative sector. Like never before we need self-learners what with the change and complexity afoot.


      • I agree. But if schools were all about the students, and imparting self-education, then they wouldn’t be increasing construction and raising tuition just because they can due to the artificially increased demand the government creates via guaranteed student loans, grants, etc.

        A very basic rule of economics is people act in self-interest. A second basic rule is throwing money at an industry raises prices due to increased demand… and increases the engagement in it.

        People who bought slaves to free them only stimulated more slaves capturing. Outlawing drugs makes selling them profitable, that dealers will give out free samplers to get people hooked, ultimately increasing usage.

        Following same spirit as this blog, the only answer to prosperity ever lied in freedom.


    • Well I didnt want to be rude with my language but I really was thinking this is like porn to my ears. Makes my brain squeal in delight to know that I’m not a crazy rebel just doing my own thing. Of course I don’t mind being a crazy rebel if it works…and it DOES!


  5. Michael Ellsberg: this post convinced me to buy your book. There is a lot of wisdom in here and I can totally related, because I’ve been doing this for the last 5 years.

    In today’s world, access to people is crucial. For people who are looking for company to work for, I would recommend the company where you have the opportunity to work with someone you want to learn (mentor) from AND where you can expand your people network.

    I’m looking forward to reading this book. I’m a big fan of Eben and I did not know he was in a rock band! Haha.


  6. I feel like I’m spreading myself thin! I just started the last $1M challenge. I’m also a mobile chiropractor making house calls (and not charging as much as I should). After reading this post, I realize I was doing it wrong on some parts, and right on others. I’ll start following the guide above, and can’t wait to see where it takes me. Thanks for the post!
    Dr J


      • I started about March 2011, so here’s what’s happened so far.
        Step 1 /right/: Defined my business. Had to write business plan to get a loan, which got turned down twice, gave up buying a practice and instead went mobile, very low overhead.
        Step 2 /right/: Started blogging once a week about topics my current clients are facing. Starting to think about writing for clients I want to have. Also set up facebook and twitter. Have not updated linkedin in 3 years.
        Step 3 /right/: Sorta. Networked with friends/family, which got me started but referals plateaued. Will use techniques from your video
        Step 4 /right/: Instead of free, accepted donations and forwarded them to charity (Japan Tsunami). This’s also how I figured out my pricing: “Donate what you think my service is worth.”
        Step 5 /wrong/: HIPAA privacy prevents me from doing testimonials. Changing names to keep them anonymous defeats the purpose. Not sure what to do here. Obtaining patient consent to testimonials haven’t held in my state. :(
        Step 6 /right/: I have a consultant, and have good relations with other chiropractors, but haven’t found another mobile chiropractor, which’s what I do.
        Step 7 /right/: Took me 2 years to get this down. I have a pretty good closing rate. I’ve started adding more value and service, and bumped up my price, but still 1/2 of where I think it should be.
        Step 8 /wrong/: Fear. Fear of rejection, fear of success. I’ve got a script and email to pitch to local business owners, but haven’t done anything. I’ve got script/email/brochures for non-profits and charities, but haven’t even contacted 1. FEAR!!! Fear of unknown. :( But one-on-one, my closing rate is good.

        I still want to take on your challenge, and expand. So I’ve chosen to get into government contracting. I think I qualify, this’s brand new to me, I’ve got no experience and know nothing. It does require some licensing/certification, but still something that anybody can do. So count me in, will set up a wordpress blog tomorrow, head to library and pick up a book, and start networking for this.

        Thanks for writing this up, and thanks for personally responding, I feel like I’m talking to my idol. I’m shaking as I type this, :)~ Would love to get any tips/pointers especially about asking for referals, step 8, and fear. Thanks and good night!


      • Hi. First of all I would like to thank you and to thank Tim for this amazing post. I really liked it. Don´t get me wrong Tim. I´m a 4hour fan but this is the first time that I make a comment. Maybe because of the similarities between what Michael describes and what it has happened to me on the last year and a half. Too bad I already started my adventure.

        I agree with most parts of what you said but I would like to say that the rules are really different depending on the country you talk about. I have been lucky to visit the US a few times and there are always some people willing to pay for new adventures, new ideas… Very different from my country (Spain) where there is almost 0 opportunities for entrepreneurs. I believe that being part of this reality everyday, makes everything much easier.

        But if any reader, outside of the US, think that these steps can´t be applied to his or her life because they don´t have the same opportunities there, either because of their cultural or social pressure or because of the lack of income (I had 0 euros. Well I had debts so it was less than 0). I would suggest to adjust these steps before not considering at all. I wish I had read this article the last year. It would have saved me a lot of time. And tough situations.

        In my case, my background (Licensed acupuncturist, wich unfortunately is not a university degree) is different from my passions (languages, and designs)

        I started to teach Spanish to English speakers via skype and gchat almost by accident, after the Spanish economic crash (well, I can´t really tell we are out yet). Little by little I started to create my own method to teach Spanish based on the repetition of a large variety of exercises to “work out” (that´s how I like to call it) the specific parts of the language you need to practice.

        Creating a system to “train a language” instead of learning a language was a good idea but I paid the price of my naiveness. And that is why I believe this post can help a lot of people everywhere.

        Building your network and having sales skills are the most important things to start anything. You can have the greatest idea ever (of course I´m not saying that is my case) but if you don´t have a good network you will be sad, disappointed and also depressed because of the lack of results. In my case I became obsessed to teach faster and make people to learn Spanish from 6 months up to 1 month. And of course that is not healthy and it doesn´t guarantee better results.

        So I hope people with tough economic situations like Spain, Greece, or even tougher like Colombia, Ecuador… don´t give up and keep trying new ways to do things. And of course, read this priceless blog.

        Thanks Michael and of course thanks Tim.


  7. this is a great article!

    i’ve basically followed these steps to become a filmmaker. my big regret is not focusing enough time and energy on networking. networking is definitely one of the most important factors in becoming what you want to be in life.


    • Yes, more and more I have come to believe that relationship-building (which I actually think is a more accurate term than “networking,” even though I do use that term in the article) is *the* place to be focusing your energy for your professional development. It’s not a nice afterthought, it is not something to do when you have some free time. It is *the* thing, if you want to get to a higher place in your career than you are now. Much more, actually, than improving your craft further.


  8. Michael,

    Great post! Funny, I just started this process in regard to “Making” and DIY culture. I now have a regular column on Make Magazine’s blog, Zero to Maker. Can we still enter if we started the process a month ago?

    Rock on,


    • Wow, like you’ve come a very long way in a month! I’m not saying that facetiously, but with sincere congrats. But to be fair, for the contest, everyone who wants to compete needs to start from scratch. You’re already quite far into your craft, my man. Which is great. Keep going with it. Follow the steps and you will go far. And post your progress anyway, for your sake and for our inspiration.


  9. Combining this methodology with Ramit Sethi’s Earn 1K course produces some unbelievable results. Which is exactly what I’ve done.

    Got my BA 10 months ago, took Earn 1K 8 months ago, blended it with many of these same strategies, and now I make several thousand dollars a month.

    This post is the real deal. Think I’ll go grab a copy of “The Education of Millionaires” right now.


  10. wow, this is exactly what I need. I’m starting my web dev / seo business right now and I’m going to use everything in this to get going.

    I’ve already started, so I’m not exactly a candidate for the contest, but who cares.

    And I’m sharing this with all my friends who are saying they need school to get somewhere.



  11. Interesting article. I totally agree with SPIN Selling being one of the best, if not the best sales book ever written. The article also contains some Napoleon Hill philosophy, which appeals to me. Reading Hill’s ‘Think and grow rich’ it became clear to me that school education isn’t necessarily an absolutely needed must-have in order to be successful (see Henry Ford, Thomas Edison,…). Other qualities are much more important than an MBA or so.

    Regards from Greece,


  12. This is something that I believe in greatly. A degreed / certificated / arbitrarily authorized individual has no monopoly on achievement. Personally, I have worked as a musician, computer programmer, stand-up comic, college professor, writer and entrepreneur with no formal training in any of those endeavors. Sometimes “a way” of doing something can inhibit “your way” of doing something. Success and achievement does not have “a way” either. It is “your way” or comes about individually based in a great variety of backgrounds, perspectives, understanding, etc. A very successful marketer once said that even on any give day he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, even though he does have a daily plan. But he stays open to what is happening at the moment (thinking on one’s feet a critical success skill) to inform him what to do. We all need to be able to self-educate and self-inform, especially today. For like never before things are speeding up and the greater variety is coming and going faster than ever before. One needs to be open and flexible in their thinking, not closed and on dimensional. Amen! ;o)


  13. I graduated college with an associates degree & plans to continue my formal education and get my BSc, but 5 years later that has yet to occur. This has been causing me to stress out and worry excessively about the damage I may be doing to my career path the longer I wait to finish.

    Since then although I’ve earned other industry credentials and have attained a position of some authority within my company, the real money has yet to appear.

    This post has given me some great ideas for networking with professional contacts to promote my own business; something which is in fact encouraged where I work, but that I have yet to do. I still want to finish my degree, but growing my own business is what I need to do to finance that education.



  14. I’m using this principle in a rather unusual venue… farming! With a location independent, flexible-schedule, software job providing income on the side, I’ve spent several hundred hours this summer with mentors offering free labor on their farms in exchange for knowledge and skills.

    This winter, my husband and I will spend 3 months in Hawaii, also on a (tropical) farm, escaping the bitter midwestern winter, also for free (except airfare over – $600 for 2 tickets). Our labor in exchange for free room and board. All of this has cost me nothing but time, and has given back to my mentors free labor in exchange for knowledge and experience.

    Perhaps a different type of learning than the post, but it sure has worked fantastically well.


  15. Absolutely fantastic blog post, Michael!

    Really resonated with me. Learned a few of the principles you teach from Keith Ferrazzi’s “Never Eat Alone” – specifically the chapter “Build it before you need it”.

    I’m actually going through the process of of folding my failed startup and I’m relying on the relationships I’ve built (through my giving) and asking for help, but only showing that I’ve demonstrated some value and ability to get things done to my network in some tangible or intangible way.

    Will have to reinvent myself in the next year as I transition careers and I’ll refer to this blog post extensively :)