I was in my thirties when I confronted the beast that was my education to that point. There I was, in a management job I loved (Director of H.R. for a large diversified manufacturing and marketing firm), without the usual college degree. I’d attended a big university for nearly five years, unable to settle on a suitable major. Or, unable to sit in a seat in a classroom and focus, depending on how you view my bad decisions. Or, if you view them as my parents did, more interested in social opportunities than educational opportunities.
Some of us do better in jobs than classrooms; I was one of those. I liked working with others; professors back then tended to view collaboration as cheating, which meant you didn’t hear your profs say “Break up into your groups” as often as you do today. Once I was employed, I enjoyed the constant feedback of the workday. I loved the noise and interruptions of the workplace, the novelty, the chance to solve a real problem for someone, and, I’ll admit it, the drama of operations.
And apparently I did well enough to be moved up a few times and there I sat, missing a critical credential, when it became apparent that the fortunes of my employer were heading south, and the trend was picking up speed.
Having a job without all the usual punches in your ticket is not that unusual or difficult. Replacing that job if you lose it can be not only difficult, but can take a very long time, if you can even do it. Careers take place in two forums, What You Can Do, and What Other People Will Let You Do. Others are less likely to trust you if you haven’t got all the usual ticket punches for the job you want.
Human Resources professionals and other decision makers work with a concept known as the Bona Fide Occupational Qualification. BFOQ derives from and is outlined in federal equal employment rights laws and is set forth with the intention of prohibiting employers from establishing standards of selection that adversely affect protected minorities.
A college degree is a common BFOQ. It is almost always required for management jobs, and you will increasingly note graduate degrees as a requirement, too. The complexity of both the workplace and the world are creating increasingly higher standards for employment.
But, you say, what about Bill Gates? Mark Zuckerberg? Well, if you start your own business, you can do what you want. But if you want to be employed by someone else, you have to be competitive. Basic ticket punches are required.
So, here is my advice:
1. Start by acknowledging that you can do this. Get out of your own way by just making the decision that you will, and that it will change your life for the better if you do.
2. Make the economic changes that you must. If money is the issue, find a community college–most classes are arranged for the working professional. You can take classes online, and you can’t afford not to, if you think about it.
3. If you are employed, let the folks around you know that you are serious about this; do not hide either your goal or your reason.
4. Be serious about this. Do well. Get top grades. Attend class regularly.
4. Celebrate your discipline and let it bleed over into other aspects of your life. Rearrange your priorities and recalibrate your attitude. Take things less personally; view the world around you from a different path.
5. Meet new people and connect with a new network. Make new friends. Take the opportunity to remove yourself from the rut.
Education is only one aspect of the credential gathering that a career entails; there will be others. Most people you meet in your day to day job may not realize that you haven’t gone to college, or finished college. But you know it, and you know that it’s a critical element in your many next steps. In the long run, it’s really easier to just do it, get the degree, finish (or start) your education, than it is to rationalize why you shouldn’t have to go to all this trouble for just a piece of paper.
It isn’t just a piece of paper. It’s your career.