An ‘A’ Won’t Get You a Career, But a Good Education Might

In May and June, graduating students have the chance to hear highly accomplished professionals speak at commencement ceremonies, and to gather some last words of wisdom to prepare them for life after academia. Commencement is traditionally a time to celebrate the achievement of completing a university degree, and to think about how your education has prepared you for the real world. But, perhaps paradoxically, the commencement addresses that have most stuck with me have been given by people who dropped out of college – Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey.

Although it’s been a few years since they gave their commencement addresses, you can still see their speeches on YouTube, which is where I had the pleasure to listen to them.

Steve Jobs – 2005, Stanford University

Bill Gates – 2007, Harvard University

Oprah Winfrey – 2008, Stanford University
(Oprah did eventually complete her college degree, earning her final credit over 10 years after her expected graduation date, after she was already a successful talk show host)

What I think sticks with me about each of these people and their paths is that, while each found education useful, school was not enough for them. They had the courage to go entrepreneurial and to break free of their “prescribed” career paths.

I did not drop out of school – though my educational path has not been “traditional” – but I decided early in college that doing just the requirements wasn’t enough for me either. The Romanian educational system, as in many countries, has limitations, and these limitations have forced students interested in their own development to find ways to work together, organize events and collaborate with companies and the government – activities that in other parts of the world are the responsibility of school officials.

I grew up in an environment where students learned to take the lead in their own education. Some of them are now even working on creating an alternative university, based on modern learning principles.

The importance of practical experiences for students became the subject of my school thesis, and later materialized into LEAP (Link Education and Practice), an organization I co-founded in collaboration with students with a similar vision. Our goal was to promote practical activities as a way to reduce the gap between the academic world and the workforce, making youth more employable.

The two years when I was in charge of LEAP were perhaps the most intense and creative of my professional life. Every day of my work was a validation that students are capable of initiating powerful and innovative projects. During this period, I also “made peace” with formal education. Unlike Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Oprah Winfrey, I graduated and, soon after, found myself on my way to becoming a student again, this time in the U.S.

After being in an entrepreneurial environment for a few years, it felt disorienting to find myself again listening to professors and striving after high grades. Fortunately, I found lots of opportunities at Vanderbilt University for out-of-classroom and practical activities. As it turned out, I could enjoy the sweetness of being a student again, while remaining in contact with professionals in the field.

Meeting professionals in the fields I have been studying, and hearing about their work and their industries, has shown me something exciting and scary about the future my generation will face in the workforce. I have come to understand that “linear” careers, and the stability that comes with them, are disappearing. Entire industries based on old models are collapsing.

A new workforce model is emerging from the collapse of the old one. But what it will look like, and how it will function, is far from clear. However, being informed and engaged will make students more responsible for their own growth, without waiting for some authority to give them the right answers. This awareness will help prevent them from preparing for jobs that will not be relevant by the time they finish school. Modern students should see the value in getting an A, but not see it as an end in itself. As Bill Gates very well said, “improving your odds doesn’t guarantee success in life.”

Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey may have dropped out of school, but they did not fail to get an education that prepared them to succeed. Their visions and passions led them, each in their own way, to break out of the walls of schools and revolutionize society.

As students we don’t have to drop out school to become successful. However, we should have an understanding of school larger than getting a diploma, and of work broader than fitting into a job description. The better we prepare for the uncertainty that comes with societal and workforce transformation, the sooner we can benefit from the opportunities change brings.