“A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career, but I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” – President Barack Obama
When it comes to useless college degrees, according to the President, I might possibly have hit the lottery. Art. Of all the things you can study at university, art has to be the subject most often associated with useless, navel gazing, impractical pursuits of higher learning. I mean, what could you possibly do with a degree focused on creativity, communicating abstract ideas, and viewing things in their appropriate context?
And according to PayScale, (Figure A) not only did I get a worthless degree I also should land just somewhere above a barista on my earning potential! Starbucks, here I come!
Figure A: Why I should be Broke
So sarcasm aside why didn’t that happen? Why doesn’t my resume read like a list of fast food and coffee shops? Looking back on my studies and career, there are common themes to my success (and failure). As well, you can apply those heuristics to other people I’ve tried to pattern myself after regardless of their degree.
Much has been made recently if getting a college degree is necessary in the age of information. And although I still believe that having a degree has never “hurt” my career, what you actually DO with that degree is as important as the letters on the diploma.
And as well, as someone who has always felt that educationally, I bring a knife to a gunfight, the most important aspect of these themes is that they are completely under my control. So to all my fellow art majors and everyone else who feels that their degree (or lack of one) is an obstacle, here is my list of attributes that got me to where I am today.
If Woody Allen was right, and 90% of success is showing up, then I would say the same percentage applies to your attitude. I would rather work with a less skilled or educated person with a great attitude than with a “smart jerk”. I’ve seen countless PHD level employees or otherwise over-educated candidates that can’t figure out why they aren’t getting promoted, raises, or just generally more success at work. Almost to a person, the common denominator was a bad attitude.
Knowledge work is hard enough and the problems we are often trying to solve are abstract, so lets not make it worse by being difficult to work with. In my experience a healthy dose of empathy, teamwork, and mucking in and getting on with it go a very long way on the road to success. I’ve never seen much value in complaining and if perception is reality, creating a reputation as being someone people want to work with is easy to do and makes a big impact.
I have always considered myself a “dyed-in-the-wool” opportunist. I volunteered to help start up our college tutoring program even though I wasn’t and education major. (Figure B) I said “yes” to my first international move to London having never been there. I agreed to give the overview of our SQM practice performance at the annual company meeting even though I never spoke in public before. I volunteered to pilot building a team in India at UBS.
Figure B: Evidence of Two Things
There are countless other examples of opportunities I either took or created to put myself in a situation to learn or add value to my company. Too often I see people self-select out due to fear when they should take Richard Branson’s advice: “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!”
So much of our lives is down to nothing more than dumb luck. Where you were born, who your parents were, how much money you had growing up, and a whole bunch of other variables (completely out of your control) contribute a great deal to your chances in life. The longer I’m around and the more people I observe, I come to realize the large part luck has played in my own career. So if so much of it comes down to luck, what part can we play in guiding our own destiny?
That boils down to one thing for me: hard work. How hard I work is one of the few things I have complete control over. I am definitely not the smartest guy you’ll ever meet. I had a State education in a degree that doesn’t do a lot for me. But I will work harder, longer, and do more research than just about anyone you’ll meet. I am determined to do more with the limited resources I have available than the competition, and I’ve seen that this one thing has been the primary differentiator in my career.
Looking back on my career, I’ve lived abroad for almost 10 years in the UK and Singapore, travelled to 18 countries for business, worked for multiple Fortune 100 firms, and run teams of thousands of testers worth millions in budget. Now I’m the co-CEO of my own company building an outsourcing center in the US and talking about software testing at the White House! Living a charmed life? Maybe, but I like to think I am living proof for all us “art majors” that attitude, opportunism, and hard work are ultimately what’s going to make you stand out from the crowd.
Good luck and keep learning!