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15 Inspiring College Dropouts Who Prove Hard Work is the Way to Success

15 Inspiring College Dropouts Who Prove Hard Work is the Way to Success

One of the foremost concerns in most people’s lives is education. Whether you face high expectations, difficult life circumstances, or simply struggle to flourish in formal learning settings, it can be easy to get carried away with letting your academic pursuits define you. Regardless of how successful you are in school, it’s important to remember that academic pursuits only define a handful of our potentially outstanding qualities. While academics is the most reliable way to find a comfortable career, working extremely hard is the key to success – with or without a degree. Whether academics appeal to you or not, these 15 inspiring college dropouts can teach us all a thing or two about going the extra mile for our careers.

Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates: Jump In

Three tech giants we expect to see on any list of successful college dropouts are Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates. Despite many of us knowing some of their stories, this doesn’t make their accomplishments any less impressive.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both dropped out of school because they were passionate about business opportunities. They then went on to be integral to home computing. Mark Zuckerberg, on the other hand, launched the early version of Facebook while at school, then dropped out to make the site grow beyond a social network or a few universities. In the process, he changed the way we interact with each other online forever. Before this, however, all three completely immersed themselves in their pursuits. They spent months eating, sleeping, and breathing their new journeys, turning a few innovative ideas into huge waves in the technology industry.

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Ellen Degeneres: Persevere

One comedian beloved by nearly everyone is also successful college dropout. Ellen Degeneres, famous for her sitcom, talkshow, and voice acting, dropped out of college after only one semester when it was clear she was not happy in class. After leaving school, Ellen worked for years in mainly restaurant and customer service positions, all the while pursuing non- or low-paying stand up nights at local clubs and coffee shops. Four years later, in 1981, she became an emcee for a local comedy club. She then toured for years, but didn’t get a real break in her career until 1986, when she was featured on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

After following her dream with little success for nearly a decade, Ellen finally found herself with opportunities in film and television. A true testament to where hard work can get you, this is one dropout who never lost her positive outlook.

Brad Pitt: Follow Your Dreams

Another college dropout who clearly had a better plan is Brad Pitt. This famous actor left the University of Missouri to pursue his love of film just weeks before graduating. Brad Pitt worked odd jobs around Los Angeles for about five years, all the while landing bit parts in TV shows. In 1991, nine years after enrolling in university, Brad Pitt landed a role in Thelma & Louise that opened the door to more movie roles. However, it took another two years before Brad gained attention for his roles in A River Runs Through It and Kalifornia. Another college dropout who required dedication and persistence, Brad Pitt’s devotion to his passion made all the difference in his career.

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Oprah Winfrey: Ignore Detractors

Another super famous college dropout, Oprah left the University of Tennesse midway through her studies when she was offered a job. Oprah worked on radio as she began her university studies, then quickly became the first black female news anchor when she joined a local news crew in Nashville. Oprah was then offered a co-anchor position on the evening news in Baltimore, leaving her formal education behind. From there, Oprah joined a morning talk show in Chicago. Oprah took the show from last place in the ratings to first, all in a matter of months. As they say, the rest is history, but dropping out of college certainly doesn’t seem to have held Oprah Winfrey back.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: You Are More Than Your Grades

F. Scott Fitzgerald, the literary genius and author of The Great Gatsby, rarely comes to mind when we think about college dropouts. However, this great writer left his education at Princeton because of failing grades. In 1913, F. Scott Fitzgerald enrolled in Princeton, but quickly focused on extracurricular writing activities. Despite success in school writing publications, he was placed on academic probation in 1917. He then joined the army, but was never deployed, as World War I ended soon after.

This author was broke for several years, ending up writing in his parents’ house and doing car repairs. F. Scott Fitzgerald continued to see himself in a different light, however, and finished a novel that was published in 1920. This writing legend’s rise to success came soon after, inspiring proof that no one is defined by his or her school performance.

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Ralph Lauren: Do It Yourself

Another name rarely associated with successful college dropouts is this high-end fashion designer. Ralph Lauren originally studied business, but only completed two years of study. He then joined the army, but eventually became a necktie salesman. Inspired by European tie designs, he pitched his own design to the company he worked for. The company rejected it, leading him to start his own tie company from a small office in New York City. After only a year, Ralph Lauren attracted the attention of Neiman Marcus, who ordered 1,200 ties. From there, Ralph Lauren started his own store, eventually moving into clothing design as well. Highly respected around the world, particularly for his contribution to semiformal attire, Ralph Lauren is another incredibly successful college dropout.

John Lennon: You Don’t Have to Fit In

Another college dropout who certainly wasn’t held back by his lack of academic achievement is John Lennon. One fourth of The Beatles, John Lennon remains one of the most famous people in the world. John was always more dedicated to music than school, failing all of his high school graduation exams. John Lennon wheedled his way into art school, but was expelled after a few years because of distracting behavior. John then began touring with the band he formed in high school. Around the time of their tour to Germany, the band was renamed The Beatles, and replaced two members with George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Obviously headed for greatness even without an academic qualification, this is another successful college dropout who is a testament to aiming high.

Lady Gaga: Try, Try Again

More well known for her high energy pop tunes and eccentric fashions, Lady Gaga is also a college dropout. Back when she was known as Stefani Germanotta, Lady Gaga was one of twenty students accepted into a conservatory program at an art campus of New York University. After her second year, however, Lady Gaga dropped out to pursue a music career. After working with two different music groups, spending years playing clubs and bars, and a few failed record deals, the singer/songwriter rose to fame with her first solo album. Consistently one of the world’s top-selling artists, Lady Gaga is just as successful as any other college dropout on this list.

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Daniel Ek: Start Now

Another technology giant who is also a college dropout is Daniel Ek. A strong interest in business early on led Daniel to start his first company when he was just 14. After graduating high school, Daniel pursued a degree at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, but dropped out before finishing. Daniel has been most successful with his site Spotify, a highly used online music streaming service. Currently estimated to have a net worth of $400 million, Daniel Ek’s early forays into business taught him to take initiative and pursue ideas immediately.

Wolfgang Puck: Work, Work, Work

Another testament to what a hard-working attitude can get you, this world-renowned chef dropped out of school to become an apprentice in a kitchen at Hotel de Paris in Monaco. The position required long hours and hard work, but Wolfgang Puck was unusually dedicated to his craft. Puck became so skilled that when he moved to the United States at age 24, it was only two years until he became a part-owner of Los Angeles restaurant Ma Maison. Yet another example of hard work making all the difference in life.

Tom Hanks: School Isn’t the Only Place You Should Study

Known around the world for his acting skills, Tom Hanks clearly was not held back by dropping out of university. Hanks studied theater at university, which he attended for a little over two years. Tom was an eager student, but traded his formal education for an internship opportunity with a theater company in Ohio. He eventually spent years with the company, learning all aspects of theater production. Tom Hanks was also fond of constantly watching theater shows, attending by himself and growing familiar with great playwrights. Six years after starting with the company in Ohio, Tom Hanks landed the role in the film Splash, which was his first big break.

Matt Mullenweg: Just Go for It

Another incredible college dropout from the tech world is Matt Mullenweg. Best known for co-creating WordPress, Matt studied Political Science before dropping out of the University of Houston. While studying at university, Matt began working on a coding project with a few friends. The project soon became the first versions of WordPress, a massively popular online blogging service. When the technology site CNET asked Matt to work with them on WordPress, Matt left school to further perfect the service he started. Soon, Matt founded Automatic, a company that, along with WordPress, runs a number of online sites. Proof that when you have a great idea, you should commit to it.

Arash Ferdowsi: Know When to Move On

This tech innovator is known for creating the popular storage site Dropbox, which he first launched with his business partner while attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While in his final year, Arash thought Dropbox could be bigger, but was limited by his location. Arash left MIT for San Francisco in order to raise venture capital for his new site. Now valued at $5–10 billion, this successful company was definitely the right move for Arash Ferdowsi.

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Alicia Prince

A writer, filmmaker, and artist who shares about lifestyle tips and inspirations on Lifehack.

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Last Updated on June 26, 2019

How to Create Your Road Map to Success (A Step-By-Step Guide)

How to Create Your Road Map to Success (A Step-By-Step Guide)

Everyone has their own definition of what success means to them. Well, at least we all should by the very fact that no two individuals are created 100% alike.

Our road map to success should be different to the person standing next to us. But we can get caught in the dangerous trap that someone else’s ideas of success should also be ours. Be careful.

Regardless of whether or not we’re talking about your working career, business or personal life, it is truly hard to resist the contagious excitement surrounding those fantastic dreams and goals you allow yourself to explore.

The ‘come-down’ after attending a euphoric state-inducing personal development seminar can often result in you feeling the slump of post-seminar blues. Worse still, your everyday circumstances don’t accommodate the changes you swore to make that weekend. Nothing changes.

Get ready to kiss goodbye the post-seminar blues and skip to each destination on your roadmap to your successes. By repeating over and over these simple steps, the quality of your life will improve.

You will want to use these steps as standard strategies to carry you toward further success in whatever shape or form you choose.

1. Define What Success Means to You

Is it just having enough money or more money than you might ever need that allows you to feel and judge yourself a success? Is it about having a beautiful house worth more than $2,000,000 on the upper east side of Manhattan?

Is it about having a loving partner who supports you in your endeavors? Do you equally support each other?

Is it through the tertiary education roadmap that you only feel valid you can make a meaningful and successful contribution to help the world economy turn? Is that your definition of success or is it someone else’s? Maybe your mom’s or your dad’s?

When her daughter Christina found her on the floor of her office, in a pool of blood having hit her head and breaking her cheekbone as she fell, CEO of Thrive Global and celebrated author of Thrive, Ariana Huffington had a wake-up call in more ways than one.[1]

The exhaustion and overwhelming stress which had led to her fainting drove Huffington to radically introduce new work ethics, values and rules at the editorial.

Ten years on from her accident, Huffington still leads the conversational charge amongst global leaders to change the badge of honor that successful people need to work 24/7, and give everything of themselves and more, even it means compromising their health.

As opposed to letting power and money be the two measurements of success, she explains wisdom, well-being, wonder and giving will give you greater success by nurturing your psychological well-being.

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We can’t argue with Huffington that without that, we are proverbially dead in the water.

Warren Buffet stated the way he defines success nowadays has nothing to do with money:

“I measure success by how many people love me”.

You can’t but fall in love with the wisdom and nobility these words seem to reflect, but keeping it as your only definition of success is probably dangerous. Lacking today’s wisdom at 20 years of age, would Buffet have had the same definition of success?

Think about where you are on your journey. You are likely to have different goals and different measures of success as you navigate your roadmap. Huffington and Buffet explain non-tangible ideas of success are crucial for our overall success.

Let’s also not forget though that through tenacity, persistence and many other success habits, these business leaders also rate extremely high on the power and money metrics. However, that’s not all there is to it.

If you are not sure how you would answer if someone asked you what your definition of success is, here are some clues to get you thinking and feeling.

As your head hits the pillow and before you close your eyes, what’s most important is that you can internalize that you have chosen your definition of success and you can full responsibility and accountability for deciding upon it.

2. Review Your Progress and Satisfaction in Life

Review the main areas of your life. Not just those where you feel you need to make changes. Review all of them:

  • Your career vocation or business life;
  • Your relationships – your intimate or life partner, family and friends;
  • Money health and financial management strategies;
  • Commitment to your faith or religion and spiritual personal development;
  • Your physical and mental health;

What leisure or recreational activities you pursue for fun to energize your spirit and enrich your soul.

Do you have ideas of what success looks like for you in each of these areas?

Neglecting to look at even one area is like trying to restore function to a beautifully crafted Swiss watch, whilst failing to attend to a rusty-looking cog in the tiny internal workings that needs attention. Turn one cog, the others all turn. Ignore a damaged one, the system malfunctions.

For each area, give yourself a rating out of ten – one signifies the least satisfaction and ten signifies the most – and ask yourself the following questions to help you start identifying what’s important to you:

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  • How satisfied or content with this area of my life am I presently?
  • Where would I like to live this current level of contentment to?
  • What would that new level of satisfaction look like, feel like?
  • How important is this area compared with the other areas of my life?

Regardless of what areas you recognize need to be your core focus, consider making personal development and improvements to your physical and mental health, and well-being a constant feature of your action plan.

You will need to continually recognize obstacles you’ll face from your outside world, as well as those internal psychological battles that will arise from within.

Without your mental and physical health intact, it’s unlikely the rest of the ‘cogs’ are going to turn properly.

3. Get to Know Your Values and Priorities

Don’t make the mistake of thinking goal setting can be done in one sitting. You want to make sure the pursuits you put down on paper aren’t fly-by-night moments of excitement that ebb and flow with the rise and fall of tidal trends.

Become better at identifying your priorities by exploring how you feel about each of your life areas. Think about the ratings of satisfaction you might have denoted for each. And now write down what you want to be, do and have.

Put aside your initial literary ramblings and revisit them in a couple of weeks or one month. Without looking at your initial thoughts, do the process again and see what consistencies show up. What keeps coming up as feeling important? Around what ideas is there the same yearning or emotional pull?

If you’re unsure about what you feel you wish to head towards, be in allowance of this. Don’t be jumping to quickly fill the void. The desperation is likely to have you catching the tail of the last exciting concept in fear of missing out, or trying to fill the void of excitement you yearn for.

Increase your practice of pausing and asking yourself:

Why does this resonate with me? Could this be a distraction which complicates the route I have mapped out? Am I becoming that person who proverbially chases two rabbits and catches none?

In his book The Heart of Love, Dr. John Demartini explains how becoming strongly aware of your values and priorities helps you understand why you are and where you are in your life at any given moment.

If you don’t know what you feel you stand for, look at where you direct your time, energy and attention. Look at your behavior and work backward.

You might think making money and creating financial wealth is high on your radar. However, if you spend more than you earn and allocate money to depreciating objects as opposed to appreciating assets, your behavior is inconsistent with those typical of someone who is financially astute.

Look back to your areas of life and ask yourself if the goals you have set are in alignment with your values. Look at your daily behaviors and ask yourself if the way you operate satisfies steps which take you further toward those goals.

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If not, all is not lost. You’ve simply got some harsh truths and reality checks to face before you can go any further on your roadmap to success.

4. Make Room Deliberately to Work with a Coach

You have to come to terms with the fact that you’re likely to be swimming against the tide.

Once you make clear unwavering decisions about what goals you’re aiming for, prepare to be un-liked, unpopular, criticized and potentially ostracized. There’s a high possibility you’ll lose the friendship and support of some however you will gain new friends and the support of others.

Regardless of what area/s of life your goals pertain to, make room to work with a coach. Choose wisely who that person will be to encourage and walk beside you.

Whether it be a certified coach, a family friend/mentor or qualified therapist, find someone who knows how to work with the specific issues and challenges that lay ahead without any agenda other than your success.

Having that impartial guide can be an invaluable constant. This helps keeps you on the straight and narrow even if other areas of your life aren’t going swimmingly.

5. Get Highly Familiar with Your Habits and Behaviors

Despite the scientific evidence in support of it, we’re not recommending you need to start getting up at 5:00 am and exercising for an hour before you even think about starting your day.

You should start asking yourself these questions far more frequently:

  • How well do you know your habits and routine ways of operating?
  • Do you know what choices and patterned behaviors help or hinder you?

You know what you want to work on. Greater clarity on your values has enabled you to discern which priorities are high on your list and which ones are low. It’s now time to reinforce and reward the habits that carry you forward on your roadmap to success, and adjust those habits which delay or divert you staying on course.

Remember though that part of the joy of the human experience is to be fallible, so don’t suddenly shelve all those character-building ‘vices’. Your flaws are a necessary part of your unique success jigsaw puzzle; they are the inspiring reasons you’re going on this journey in the first place.

Demartini and New York Times journalist and author Charles Duhigg both explain in their books how recognizing your unhelpful behavioral patterns needs to take place first. You identify the emotional and psychological rewards which rule over whether you sustain, break or make a habit.

When you know the rewards that light you up like a Christmas tree, you link them to new or modified habits that support values you want to make a higher priority.

Say you love eating out. You love artisan cuisine and get giddy at watching the episode of Heston Blumenthal create chocolate water in his food chemistry laboratory. As much as you say you want to increase your investment in appreciating assets, your spending habits speak otherwise.

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So, you might start looking for discount opportunities on your higher-end dining. The dishes may not rival Heston’s masterpieces, but your taste buds still enjoy a culinary roller coaster AND you also now to get feel-good allocating the discounted amount to a saving’s program.

Your tummy is singing as is your bank account. The whole experience goes well beyond short-term gratification and satisfies several values and goals.

Tweaking habits and forming new ones isn’t hard; it’s just a matter of finding a happy marriage. Take time to find it. There will always be ways.

6. Celebrate the Wins and Monitor Your Progress Along the Way

You must become good at deliberately rewarding yourself when you make changes that take you further along your roadmap to success.

Professor of cognitive neuroscience Dr. Tali Sharot explains how the brain responds and adapts far better to rewards than punishment when it comes to learning behavior and creating new habits.[2]

When we apply punishment, we reinforce the traumatic memory as being more important than the actual lesson we might have been meant to learn in the first place.

When we gamify rewards on our success journey, we inject fun and humor. We also reduce the stress that often comes with learning new things, habits and adjusting to new ways of being, doing and having.

Final Thoughts

If you hit a progress plateau at any point, you might need to allow yourself to plateau and switch your attention to another priority.

The switch may allow you to think more freely and clearly about how to move past your roadblock. Or it might simply be a good time to stop and smell the roses.

Your muscles grow stronger in their resting phase after a workout. Animals hunt profusely to build up their energy stores before going into hibernation.

Remember that continually forging ahead is not a natural rhythm. Repeat the cycle of rest, recovery and rallying forward then…start again.

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Featured photo credit: Tabea Damm via unsplash.com

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