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.
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.
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.
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.
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.