How Formal Education Killed the Passionate Career (+ A Practical Guide for Students, Parents & Lifelong Learners)

How Formal Education Killed the Passionate Career (+ A Practical Guide for Students, Parents & Lifelong Learners)

“Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire.”

– W. B. Yeats

Note to Readers: At LYL we take our education very seriously. And while this article may start out as a bit of a rant (I couldn’t help myself), this is meant to be an in-depth resource for students, parents and all of us lifelong learners who want to get practical and applicable skills and results from a system we all know has some serious issues.

I don’t have all the answers. Not even close. The below is just the tip of the iceberg, but I believe it’s a useful place to start. If you have someone trying to sort out what do about their education (or that of their children), please forward this to them.

Now let’s dive deep…


I have some strong opinions on education.

Lately a friend of mine asked if I’d come by his house to share them with his son who was getting ready to consider his college plans.

To be honest, the education topic is one of my biggest fears about eventually becoming a parent (somewhere in the distant future).

Let me give you a small feel of why.

To wake us up a bit, here are a few stats from a recent report from renowned consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, and a talk Chase Jarvis gave at World Domination Summit: 

  • 48% of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that don’t require a four-year degree
  • 42% of visual and performing arts students said college didn’t prep them for employment
  • The average 2013 college graduate will owe $35,200 in debt (and will likely be paying it off in a job they hate)
  • Six times as many graduates are working in retail or hospitality as had originally planned – they’re becoming waiters, Gap salespeople and baristas, because it’s the only work they could find
  • 284,000 of college graduates (37,000 of those have advanced degrees like JD’s or PhD’s) will be working minimum wage jobs – like flipping burgers
  • 75% of people say they aren’t living up to their creative potential
  • And we already know that studies from Gallup and Deloitte show that 70-80% of workers are actively disengaged and don’t enjoy the work they do

This. Is. A. Tragedy.

While a lot goes into causing these numbers, I believe much of this comes from a lack of preparation and intention. A lack of discovering what we actually want to do, who we are and what impact we might like to have. Sobering stats like these also lead me to believe there must be some other alternatives. As long as we’re willing to get creative and do a little work.

And on top of that, the whole system, from when we are about eleven years old, is designed in a way that kills creativity.

We focus on rote memorization, test taking and regurgitation. And to make time for that, we almost entirely lose the focus on building and creating things. We stop learning by doing – the only learning that really tends to work. Because the system makes us focus elsewhere. And let’s be honest, because creativity is a lot harder to test on a Scantron multiple choice. (For more on creativity, check out Chase Jarvis’s enlightening talk at World Domination Summit.)

And this continues our entire life!

I could go on, but here’s the tough question for me…

How can you blindly suggest someone enter a system you know has a tremendous number of flaws?

The simple answer is you can’t. At least I can’t.

The only way to deal with it is to take the project on yourself. To take a proactive approach to building the kind of holistic education that gives you the best shot at actually learning the ideas, having the experiences and interacting with the people that allow you to build a meaningful career and life.

At Live Your Legend, that’s what we call Self-Guided Education.

And it’s probably the biggest role each of us have – not only in building our own lives, but as parents, mentors and peers – in guiding and encouraging those who look up to us to do the same.

How and what we learn will have a profound impact on our future. This we already know.

And the simple truth is that no one is going to figure it out for you.

No advanced degree, fancy program or top-ranked school is going to give you all the answers.

Unfortunately that’s why many people get MBA’s, masters degrees and PhD’s – they don’t really know what they want to do and they figure spending a couple hundred grand and a few years of their life will give them the answers. But instead most graduate more in debt, more confused and more committed to a path that never really mattered to them in the first place.

This is why I wrote How Business School Killed the Entrepreneur, and is probably why it’s one of the most popular articles I’ve written.

But it’s not just advanced degrees. It starts much, much earlier.

a childs education starts on day one

We cannot depend on any one system to give us the answers.

We are the ones who must create, provide and encourage that system for ourselves and those who look up to us for guidance.

Don’t get me wrong – I loved my college experience. I attended one of the most beautiful colleges in the country at The University of California, Santa Barbara. I met lifelong friends and even a few mentors and future colleagues. But my studies in economics and accounting were so theory driven that I had to relearn everything when I started my first investment management business a few years later.

The only directly useful classes I took were three entrepreneurship courses I found hidden in the engineering department. They didn’t even count towards my various course credit requirements, so I had to pile them up on top of my existing required elective courses such as geography and dance (Dance 45 was the only class I got a C in during my whole college career! Those of you who have seen my breakdancing video know why ;).

But these entrepreneurship classes were priceless. They were taught by real business owners, operators and entrepreneurs who focused on real life practical application. They taught me how to communicate, built rapport, develop and idea and build something meaningful. These professors are still friends and mentors of mine. One professor and friend, John Greathouse, writes an awesome blog for his students and the world about his entrepreneurial experience building and investing in startups.

And to UCSB’s credit, they have done amazing things to develop their Technology Management Program, which has grown into over a dozen practical business related classes. I just wish it existed earlier!

But the problem isn’t a lack of classes on how to build a business. Because that’s not everyone’s things.

However, I do firmly believe that we’d all be better served (and much better prepared for life) if we were taught to think like entrepreneurs, even if you had no desire to become one – but that’s for another article.

The real problem is there is next to ZERO time spent on learning about who you are, what you’re excited about, what you’re good at and the actual career path you want to take. Not to mention the fun, exciting and practical skills required to go along with it.

For years Dick Bolles, author of What Color is Your Parachute, the 30-years running bestselling career and job change bible, has been trying to get his book included in college curriculums. It routinely gets rejected because it’s apparently written at an 8th grade reading level. Forget the fact that it has sold well over 10 million copies and has probably produced more fulfilling careers than any other single tool on the planet.

That’s the problem.

How the hell is there not a required double major for every single college student called “Learning about yourself, what you’re good at and what you actually want to do with yourself?”

It’s a joke.

Most college freshman spend more time picking out a dorm room TV set than they do picking a major. And without knowing it they set themselves on a meaningless path that almost ensures they’ll finish their four years with just about as little direction as when they started.

So should you go to college or not?

That’s the big question.

And it’s not one I can answer for you. My rant above is not saying to give up on college or traditional education.

What I am saying is that these systems are seriously flawed. They will not provide answers to some of life’s most important questions. So don’t fool yourself.

Whether or not you or your kids decide to take the traditional education path or not, no matter what, you have to take a proactive approach to building the practical education you know you need.

And if you do decide to forgo traditional school, realize you must be damn motivated to piece it together on your own. Either way a lot of work is required if you want to actually learn to fish and get the results you want and deserve.

Learn to fish and feast for life

Get a fish, eat for a day. Learn to fish, feast forever.

So if I were considering college or higher education right now, here’s what I would do:

Note #1: For those parents and students at a much earlier stage in your education, I strongly suggest you check out Leo Babauta’s recently launched site Unschoolery – where he covers the ins and outs of unschooling your kids. Leo is a successful entrepreneur (founder of ZenHabits) and an even more successful family man (father of six kids, with his wonderful wife). And he’s unschooled them all. More details here or at end of this post. 

Note #2: This topic is endless and the below list is of course not inclusive, but I believe it’s a powerful start. Enjoy…

7 Education Hacks for Students, Parents and Lifelong Learners to Force Practical Results from a Broken System

“What we learn to do, we learn by doing.”

– Aristotle

1. Travel.

Gap years are priceless. Too bad the U.S. doesn’t embrace them. The most valuable part of my college education was living with a Spanish family for six months in Sevilla, Spain. The cultural and life experience was so transformative that I moved back for another year after graduation to start a business and be a tour guide on the weekends. That experience forever changed my view on, well, everything.

Explore the world. Learn about new cultures and people. Open your eyes to new perspectives. Take a year after high school. Then another after college. Thinking about pausing your career to get an MBA or PhD? Take time to explore. At least a few months, but ideally a year. If money is an issue then start a campaign to raise money for a cause or do an internship or apprenticeship across the world. If you make travel a priority, there are ways to make it happen. This alone might be the only alternative education you need.

For more proof, here are 14 Very Short Stories of How World Travel Made Me an Entrepreneur.

2. Learn everything you can about yourself.

Take career, personality and strengths tests. Learn your values, what you love, what you hate. Discover the things that actually excite you.

This is a constant process that should start as young as possible and should go on throughout your entire educational and professional career.

If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’re never going to find it. That starts with understanding yourself. Any of the thousands of books on career, purpose, passion, etc will serve as a great starting point – as long as you actually pick one up, read it, and apply it.

This is obviously the core of Live Your Legend and why I poured my heart into creating our Live Off Your Passion Guided Discovery career course in the first place. Another awesome resource is the Strengths Finder 2.0 online assessment. We don’t have an affiliation with SF but I swear by this $10 test.

3. Learn a couple practical skills that interest you.

If I could have done college again I would have probably majored in communications, computer science and graphic design. Knowing how to code and understand people, systems, processes and technology is at the core of understanding how to build most things in today’s world.

I’d kill to be able to at least half understand a little Java, PHP, HTML and CSS. I’d still hire an expert for my projects, but having the foundation would be priceless. It also allows you to rapid prototype and experiment in a much faster, fun and practical way.

The online resources available for learning just about any skill on the planet, will blow your mind. I think it’s the most exciting and potential-filled area on the Internet right now.

Here are a few places to start:

  • Code Academy: Free step-by-step way to learn code
  • Creative Live: Free video courses from world-class experts on everything from business building to public speaking, overcoming fear or blogging (founded by Chase Jarvis)
  • Animation Mentor: An online school for animation – that also finds you a job when you’re done! (founded by my friend Bobby Beck, who was the guy who actually created Nemo of Finding Nemo)
  • Craftsy: Online video courses for those looking to learn everything from photography to cake decorating (I actually just met their founder, Josh Scott, yesterday while snorkeling in Hawaii)
  • Udemy: Online courses on just about anything

For a much more detailed list, check out our Self-Guided Education List of 30+ Online Resources, available for free to all LYL email subscribers.

4. Build things!

Don’t just read books or listen to talks. That’s maybe step #1 or 20.

Experiment with things. Build out ideas. Test them. Share them with others. Learning by doing is the only way most of us actually learn. I built my first blog as an experiment after reading in a book (Internet Riches) that you could create a website without knowing code. Looking back the site was hideous, but I was damn proud of it. And it’s what eventually turned into Live Your Legend. Without that one little weekend experiment seven years ago, our Revolution here would not exist!

A blog is always a super easy and rewarding place to start. If that’s your thing, here’s an article I wrote about how and why to start a blog (and how to do it in under 30 minutes): The Experimenter’s Dilemma & The Most Powerful (& misused) Online Tool for Developing & Monetizing A Passion

5. Become an apprentice.

Find someone who’s doing work you admire and build a relationship with them. Ideally connect with them through mutual family or friends. Come to them with the skills and passions you’ve been developing and let them know how much you admire the work they do. Show them how how serious you’re taking your education and development and that you’d love to do anything to help move their project forward. Start by sweeping the floors if you must.

There is no better way to learn things than by working with experts. There’s also no better way to figure out if you actually enjoy what you think you might enjoy. One thing’s for sure, it’s never as glamorous as outsiders like to think. Learn that first hand. Develop the relationship and help how you can.

Taking this a step further:

One of our Living Legends, Victor Saad, recently took this to an entirely different level. He didn’t want to spend money on an MBA so instead he went on a quest to study under 12 different experts in different fields around the world for one month each. He called it The Leap Year Project, and wrote a gorgeous and graphical book about it. He also started his own university to help other students take a similar apprentice/practical-baed approach. It’s called Experience Institute. Very worth a look.


6. Create a personal board of directors.

A brain trust of sorts. Think of the mentors and experts in different fields that interest you. Find a few people you can interact with and bounce ideas off on a routine basis. Start with family friends, old bosses or professors (assuming they are people you really admire and want to learn from). These people won’t just serve you for current career endeavors, but for the rest of your life as you learn and experiment. Having these guys in your corner will be priceless.

This and #7 below are exactly why we created our How to Connect with Anyone course and community.

7. Form a mastermind group.

This is the foundation of it all. Dating back to the days of da Vinci, Einstein and Jefferson – these guys all had close groups of people who made them better.

This is similar to your board of directors but instead of mentors, these are peers who are as dedicated to building and creating things as you are. People at a similar stage in career and life where you can offer each other mutual accountability, support, introductions, ideas and guidance.

Pick 4-5 people whose standards are as high or higher than yours. Meet with them every week to discuss progress, setbacks and goals. Form a bigger group as well that might meet monthly. The key is to be spending your time around smart, passionate, inspiring people who dream as big as you do. This is the ultimate practice.

One of our readers, Davis, who’s a junior at Yale, has taken it upon himself to create The Yale Live Your Legend Series – where he’ll host a series of talks and workshops for his peers and him to explore the ideas we cover in our community here. I cannot wait to see what that turns into!

This rule is simple: Do not try to go at this alone. You’ll either get very suboptimal results or fail entirely.

This is exactly what John Lusk did when he went to Wharton MBA – he and four friends swore to each other they would not get sucked into the standard MBA trap of becoming investment bankers or consultants. They were determined to start businesses, and they made a pact to hold each other to it. They all went on to become damn successful entrepreneurs, and John ended up being one of Tim Ferriss’s earliest mentors. John has since started multiple companies and wrote his story into a book, The Mousedriver Chronicles, that’s now used in over 200 college and MBA curriculums.

Here’s the interview I did with him: Difficult Decisions: How to Turn Down a $1,000,000 Check to Keep Your Integrity 

You are the average of the five people you spend most time with. Choose wisely.

Plus, almost all meaningful jobs come as a results of who you know. For reinforcement, check out this article by Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn: Connect to Human Networks to Find Breakout Opportunities.

At Live Your Legend we take environment very seriously, so be sure to take advantage of our free tools to transform your surroundings:

If you don't where you're going any road will do

Your Education is YOUR Responsibility

No one will make the discoveries for you. I don’t care how famous the program, professor or university.

It is on you to learn the things that matter.

I’m not saying kids shouldn’t go to college. Or that you shouldn’t get that MBA or advanced degree.

But I’m not saying you should either.

I just want you to give it the thought in deserves. And approach it with a strategy that gives you a decent chance at success.

If you feel lost now, you’ll likely feel lost when you graduate too.

You’ll just have a lot more debt, obligations and heavy psychological commitments to go along with the confusion.

If you dedicated your education to nailing the above, I am confident you will find work you love, opportunities that excite you and a way to have an impact on the world that no single education could provide on its own.

You can always start over.

That’s the beauty of it. If you’re thinking about investing four years and a hundred grand into an education. Why not defer that for a little while? Take a year to deeply integrate the above into your world.

See what comes of it.

Who knows, you might find a more productive way to invest that $100k.

And if you don’t, the traditional school system will still be waiting for you a year later. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere.

Take responsibility.

Learn who you are.

Pursue projects and experiments that excite you.

Surround yourself with people who make you better.

That’s what I call a real education.

That is our biggest responsibility. Both for ourselves and for those who look up to us.

Take it seriously. And have some fun with it!


For the comments: What are your favorite tools for learning skills and crafting your own education? Tell us in the comments.

Help a future student: Do you know someone who’s considering a big education decision? Please email this to them. Help provide the spark that could set the fire.

Are you a parent and feel a bit lost?

Since I don’t have kids (quite yet), I haven’t felt what you’re feeling. But I do know someone who has…

A very close friend, mentor and successful family man of six kids and a wonderful wife, Leo Babauta (founder of ZenHabits) has “unschooled” his kids for years, and has recently created a new in-depth website purely dedicated to how he’s tackled the education dilemma for his family. The site is called Unschoolery. Very wroth checking out. Here’s an article he wrote on ZenHabits about the new site.

And be sure to check out Victor’s book and alternative school, The Leap Year Project. Using discount code “LIVEYOURLEGEND” will save you 33%.

For the uber-dedicated, here’s more on LYL about Self-Guided Education:

And finally, last year, when I first wrote about this topic, we created a manifesto of sorts. Feel free to use and share it as you see fit…

Self guided education manifesto

Image Credits: All images are my own. If you’re interested in seeing more, come on over and follow me on Instagram