Whenever graduation season rolls around I think of lessons learned during a past freelance gig working on a cookbook. The assignment taught me a surprising amount about the value of a college education. Or not.
Let me explain.
The assignment came unexpectedly. A frantic editor who had solicited favorite recipes from technology and entertainment success stories called me. Some were celebrities and others obscure. One name that I recognized, for example, was Craig Newmark, the founder of craigslist. One or two wrote for successful TV series; several had made millions in tech startups. The resulting cookbook was scheduled to be unveiled and sold during a national conference.
The publisher had hired someone to write scores of short biographies of each person who had contributed recipes. The bios had to be no longer than 200 words. But the chosen writer wasn’t quite up to the task. A few attempts could have made a race-car driver sound like an insurance salesman. The publishing deadline loomed ever closer. The editor asked, could I pitch in? Of course I could.
Within a few days I had researched most of around 100 biographies, and in doing so I realized that perhaps 10 percent went into the field that reflected their education - and a few didn’t have degrees at all.
The vast majority of those who graduated from college went into fields that were often dramatically different from what they had spent years studying.
Life happened. They were successful anyway.
One of my favorite stories among the dozens of bios I wrote was the native New Zealander who left her village of several dozen to attend a Midwestern college on scholarship. After her liberal arts degree she ended up creating one of the early adventure travel internet startups and selling it for millions of dollars. Another was in graduate school for art history when she wound up writing for Comedy Central and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and winning an Emmy.
College can be important for the worlds it reveals, transformative experiences and ideas to which a student might otherwise never be exposed. But getting a degree need not set life choices in stone. And graduates today can look forward to undreamed of possibilities. Of course, there is that oft-repeated statistic, more of an urban legend, that people will have seven careers in their lifetimes.
But there is another prediction on the World Economic Forum website: Two-fifths of the core skills workers have today will be disrupted by technological change by 2027. I wouldn’t doubt that, but technology also creates opportunity. My observation both in life and in my freelance gig editing bios, is that a college degree is far less important than the mindset of the graduate.
Two-fifths of workers’ core skills will be disrupted by technological change by 2027.
My friend Lucille Masone Brautigam is my favorite example of the importance of an open mind. She obtained a science degree from Merrimack College in Massachusetts. But during her first job after graduation, working as a biochemist, she soon realized that life in a lab or going to medical school wasn’t for her. She began to wonder about a career in entertainment instead. A chance conversation with another young woman in a New York City coffee shop and a tip about a job opening at The Actors Studio led Lucille to a decades-long career in all aspects of production management for around 50 movies. (Years ago, I wrote this article about her for The New York Times. )
Yet it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say Lucille never used her degree. She said that her classes in pre-med benefited her career in unexpected ways, particularly the careful, detail oriented approach she took to planning a movie budget or constructing a shooting schedule from a film script. “Everything you learn, you can use. Embrace what you are doing in the present, even the nightmare jobs,” she said. Timing also helps. What would have happened if she didn’t stop at that particular restaurant on Columbus Circle on that particular day, and sat next to a sympathetic young woman who shared the crucial tip about a job opening?
Timing can be a big deal, but so is openness and a willingness to keep trying - especially in the face of failure. Failing is the best teacher ever. I’ve failed at more things than I can count, but the gift of getting older is that it bothers me less and less. Instead, I try to fail upwards, just to increase the odds that the next attempt will be a little better.
Which brings me back to Lucille. The reason she had the time to talk to that young woman who gave her the tip that would change her life, is that she had a job interview scheduled at the offices of public television nearby. She had arrived on time, full of hope and no doubt ready to make the best possible impression, but the man who was supposed to interview her had left for lunch.
Discouraged, she decided to buy herself a cup of coffee and say hello to a stranger. The result was an amazing career.
You just never know.
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Very true. My next book has an entire chapter on the value of a college degree in the modern class system...its not the major...
Failing upwards, yes.