The Craigslist Test of the Value of a B.A.: Introduction to The Education of Millionaires

Around two years ago, at the age of thirty-two, I came to a shocking realization.

Not one penny of how I earned my income was even slightly related to anything I ever studied or learned in college.

I was bringing in a very solid income as a direct-response copywriter, on a freelance schedule that many of my friends with paychecks and bosses envied (never at my desk before 10:30 a.m., lots of time for Rollerblading in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, in the middle of sunny weekdays). One could say I learned writing in college, but it is more accurate to say that I had to unlearn the turgid, academic style of writing favored in college, in order to write anything that moved product or made money for me or anyone else.

What’s more, I wasn’t making solid money (somewhere around $75,000 as a freelance copywriter, plus additional money coming in from my own book writing, which pushed me over $100,000) simply because I had become good at writing copy. I was earning money because I had become good at marketing and selling my copywriting services. There are boatloads of good freelancers who are broke, simply because they don’t know how to market and sell their services. Think I learned any marketing or sales at Brown University? Rather, I spent my time writing papers decrying the capitalist system in which marketing and sales take place (and most of those papers came back with an A on them.)

Beyond career, for the first time in my life, I was also having the feeling of being successful in my personal life. I had just gotten engaged to Jena and was enjoying a loving, stable, fulfilling relationship with her. This was after about a decade (my entire twenties) of being a total mess in relationships. It didn’t just happen by accident that I was now enjoying a great relationship; I learned how to be a better partner, by investing in a zillion workshops and reading a zillion books on the topic, until something started to shift.

I was also enjoying vibrant day-to-day health for the first time since college. Years of partying (starting in college), combined with poor eating habits, began to take their toll in my twenties, as I began seeing a gauntlet of doctors and specialists for symptoms of depression, constant low energy, and mood swings. I didn’t get better until I started paying a lot more attention to my diet and lifestyle. After doing that, I began to feel energized and vibrant on a consistent basis for the first time since I was a kid.

In other words, for the first time as an adult, I was absolutely loving my life. My professional and personal life were exactly where I wanted them to be. Yet, as I took stock of my life in this moment, I realized: the fact that I had done well in college—even the fact that I had gone to college in the first place—had absolutely nothing to do with my adult happiness, fulfillment, success, or contribution to others. Zero. Zip.

I had learned a lot about how to live as a successful, happy adult. Yet nearly all that learning had been self-education in practical matters, out in the real world in my twenties, outside the bounds of a classroom.

This got me thinking: What would education for a successful life look like? You can define a “success” any way you want—wealth; career; family; spirituality; sense of meaning and purpose; vibrant health; service and contribution to community, nation, and humanity—or any combination thereof. What would an education look like that was laser-targeted only toward achieving these real-world results, and zealously cut out all bullshit not directly related to living a happy, successful life and making a powerful contribution to the lives of the people around you?

Certainly, this education would look nothing like anything taught on current college campuses, or anywhere inside our nation’s entire educational system. If you wanted to take this course of study, you’d have to do so on your own, outside of college, as your own teacher, because this course doesn’t exist anywhere within the halls of academia.

So I decided to write this book, in which I pose these simple questions: What do you actually need to learn in order to live a successful life? How and where can you learn it?

While there are many ways I could have gone about answering these questions, I decided to answer them by interviewing and learning from successful people, like Bryan Franklin, who did not finish college.

I first got the idea to take this tack after entering into a serious relationship with Jena, who is now my wife. Jena, a year younger than I, did not complete college. Yet during her twenties, she amassed far more wealth than I did, despite the differential in our educational credentials pointing solidly in my favor. What did Jena learn during her self-education about making her way in the world that I did not learn during my college education?

Around ninety-percent of the people I interviewed and feature in this book are literal millionaires, and several are even billionaires. Some are famous, many are not. I’ve also chosen to include, for around ten percent of my interviewees, people like Jena, who are not millionaires (yet!), but who are clearly on their way, who exemplify the spirit and lessons of this book, and who are accomplishing amazing things in the world, via the strategies described in this book.

For the record, I’m not a millionaire myself, and I did complete college (Brown, class of ’99.) I’m not an example of the self-educated millionaires I write about in this book. But I’ve learned a tremendous amount from them. I write extensively about the changes I’ve experienced in my life applying the skills and lessons I’ve learned from them, so you can see how these skills apply to all people, not just those who are already millionaires, and not just those who didn’t complete their formal education.

All of the millionaires and successful people I interviewed for this book said “no thanks” to the current educational model. And with their self-education, they have built businesses, amassed fortunes, helped others live better lives, and even changed the world.

These are the people we’re going to be learning from in this book. They have much to teach us about how we can educate ourselves in the practical skills we need, in order to be successful in a rapidly evolving, shape-shifting, and self-reinventing economy. They are going to teach us how we can get, for ourselves, “The Education of a Millionaire”: the real-world skills that these millionaires studied and learned in order to get where they are in life.

What they have to teach applies to you no matter what age you are and whether or not you’ve been to college already. Lifelong learning and professional development are necessities in the current career environment; this book is your guide to self-education for success in the twenty-first century.

The people in this book also have much to teach us about what kinds of practical life skills and career-oriented content your children should be learning if our educational system is to take the new realities of this twenty-first-century, digitized, globalized, flat-world economy seriously—an economy in which every traditional assumption is being turned on its head, shaken up, and called into question, including traditional assumptions about education.

We Americans are obsessed with success, and we readily snap up books promising insight into the lives of successful people and how to emulate them. Yet, up until now, there have been few voices making this obvious point about success (normally only spoken about in hush-hush tones, as if it were a dirty secret): despite sixteen years or more of schooling, most of what you’ll need to learn to be successful you’ll have to learn on your own, outside of school, whether you go to college or not.

I am passionately pro-education. There are few things I care more about than reading and learning constantly.

Yet, the lives of the people profiled in this book show conclusively that education is most certainly not the same thing as academic excellence. We’ve conflated them, at great cost to ourselves, our children, our economy, and our culture. And, while education is always necessary for success, pursuing academic excellence is not in all cases. As Mark Twain said: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” (Twain dropped out of elementary school at age eleven to become a printer’s apprentice.)

The driving theme of the stories in this book is that, even though you may learn many wonderful things in college, your success and happiness in life will have little to do with what you study there or the letters after your name once you graduate. It has to do with your drive, your initiative, your persistence, your ability to make a contribution to other people’s lives, your ability to come up with good ideas and pitch them to others effectively, your charisma, your ability to navigate gracefully through social and business networks (what some researchers call “practical intelligence”), and a total, unwavering belief in your own eventual triumph, throughout all the ups and downs, no matter what the naysayers tell you.

While you may learn many valuable things in college, you won’t learn these things there—yet they are crucial for your success in business and in life. Whether you’re a high school dropout or a graduate of Harvard Law School, you must learn and develop these skills, attitudes, and habits if you want to excel at what you do. In this new economy, the biggest factor in your success will not be abstract, academic learning but whether you develop the real-life success skills evinced by the people on these pages, and how early you do.

This is a book about practical education. Street smarts. It’s about what you have to learn in order to be successful in life and how you can go about learning it on your own, outside of traditional schooling. It is about the skills, habits, and mind-sets you need to make an impact on the world and find happiness and success doing so.

If you’ve already gone to college, you still probably want to make a bigger mark on the world than the one you’re currently making. Even if you’re a doctor or a lawyer—and you literally could not practice your profession without having graduated from college and graduate school—these real-world success skills are every bit as relevant to you for accelerating your career. And they definitely weren’t on the curriculum at law school or medical school.

If you haven’t started college yet—or if you’re in college and wondering what you should do there and whether you should stay—then this book will also be an important read. If you do choose to go to college, or to stay there if you’re already there, this book can help you get the most out of your college experience by helping you to avoid a lot of the BS you’re likely going to encounter and to pay more attention to learning things that will actually be valuable to your achieving your dreams later in life.

This is the book I wish I had when I was sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen. If I’d had it then, I would have saved a lot of misery, stress, and drudgery in the rest of my education. I would have been more focused and clear on my path.

It also would have been useful to me as soon as I graduated college. If I’d read this book when I was twenty-two, I may not have spent a good part of my twenties wandering aimlessly.

In fact, this is the book I want now, at age thirty-four, well into my career. It didn’t yet exist, so I wrote it. I’m definitely still learning, with more appetite than I’ve ever had before.

If I can give just one person the value from the book I wish I’d received at the age of seventeen, eighteen, twenty-two, or later, the whole endeavor of writing it will have been worthwhile.

Next: Our Current Educational System Is a Typewriter (Would You Like a Wi-Fi-Connected Laptop Instead?)

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13 Comments

  • Reply E August 18, 2011 at 4:02 AM

    I left school when I was 15 yet my last two roles were Operations Manager. The only thing I lack is the inside language of business.
    Unfortunately it’s an employers market here in New Zealand where, like your friend Bryan’s experience above, there are 200 applications or more for every job advertised. The process of elimination is tertiary and industry qualifications. If you have neither, you’re instantly binned.
    Most of my roles have been with ‘Bryans’ who can see through the type and value life experience (of which I have a Masters) over letters after a name. The Bryans are always more honest in their communication, realistic in their expectations and thoughtful in their rewards and I will happily wait years between Bryans for these very reasons.

    I really enjoy your writing style and have had similar life experiences to you (sans TC!) so I’m looking forward to reading your book. Have you thought of releasing it as an audio book? That seems to be how I do all of my reading these days. (Truth is that audio books on my MP3 player makes the mundane events in life such as going to the gym and housework more entertaining!!)
    Can’t wait to see what you come out with next…

  • Reply Beth Barany August 18, 2011 at 11:14 AM

    Not many people know this but I dropped out of college for a break of a year and a half. I lived and worked in Paris and started my writing career there, with persistence and more persistence, until the editor finally said yes to publishing one of my articles. But only after I came to his office to pitch him face to face. I did go back to finish my degree, well almost. I didn’t complete the final paper for many years. I learned more out of school than I ever did in school. And school never taught me how to succeed in business. Bryan did. Looking forward to your book, Michael.

  • Reply SG August 19, 2011 at 5:43 AM

    Good article Michael. Street smarts and book smarts, as well as smarts in general versus motivation to succeed, are entirely different things. I commented recently on this subject in a recent post: http://spiritualgrowth.blog.com/2011/08/17/on-self-esteem/

  • Reply @BrianHoffstein August 26, 2011 at 6:15 PM

    Michael,

    As someone going into his senior year at Claremont Mckenna College, I can only say it feels like this book was written for me.

    I share many of the same sentiments you have expressed, and am very eager to explore in depth the ideas you mentioned in this introduction.

    I just pre-ordered the book to my kindle, and look forward to its release.

    Best wishes and good luck,

    Brian

  • Reply Marian Schembari August 30, 2011 at 8:36 AM

    I cannot WAIT until this book comes out. It’s already epic.

  • Reply Genius Intelligence August 31, 2011 at 9:22 PM

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  • Reply Kashif September 2, 2011 at 9:58 AM

    Adding to your point of Academic Intelligence vs Practical Intelligence, I think Home Schooling is the way to raise kids rather than sending them to schools with herd mentality.

    • Reply Stephen Sadowski September 10, 2011 at 5:59 AM

      I would have to agree with you with the small caveat that an unschooling approach to home schooling is optimal for releasing the creativity and boundless energy of youth. A great resource for kids that are stuck in high school is Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook, written in a similar vein to this one, i.e. succeeding outside of the walls of formal educational institutions.

  • Reply John Taumoepeau September 8, 2011 at 3:13 AM

    Awesome read……very though provoking. Where is education headed? Etc., Can’t wait for the book!

  • Reply I blurbed a book — The Education of Millionaires - UnCollege September 12, 2011 at 8:23 PM

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  • Reply Clarence October 3, 2011 at 2:02 AM

    Man I have been reading about Micheal and this book for two days!! This information comes at a very pivotial point in my life. I have a BA in English (class of 07) and I have not been able to find a job. I decided at the beginning of this year to go back to school and
    get a degree in design. I planned to go for a bachelors in this because I was told that employers want to see it. But I found out that I have almost spent all of my federal loan money on my first degree. I will only be able to get a associates. I was hurt. Then I checked my facebook feed on friday night and I felt better, I began to read about this Micheal Ellsberg and his book I will get it No Doubt!!

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  • Reply Joe Magnotti October 12, 2012 at 3:03 AM

    Not sure I agree with what you say here. Back in 2002, the economy was in the shitter and that’s the only reason the MBA would apply for a $10 an hour data entry job. Agreed that the economy is in the shitter again, but now is the time to take advantage of talent at a reduced price. I would make the argument that Bryan’s case is a bad example — not that education means much, but a history of success is what I look for when hiring. You rarely find that with a HIGH SCHOOL dropout. He should have leveraged the situation and found a better employee at a reduced cost. In the end it worked out, but most of the time it won’t.

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