Does a College Degree Mean Success?

My brother Mark and I took very different paths in life. I got good grades in school, stayed out of trouble and went to college. He skipped class, got into fights and dropped out after taking a few classes.  Now, I work in his company. So, who took the better path? Well, that’s the wrong question to ask, and a misguided conclusion to draw. I could never have taken his path, and he mine. We’re simply made differently.

I excelled within the system. I went to military school and served in the Navy. I did well, earning excellent evaluations, promotions and praise from my Commanding Officers. I left the Navy and got a job with a company that had similar hours (6-6), and a similar structure. In order to succeed, I had to figure out how to fit into the mold of the organization; to succeed from within. I had to learn how and when to “fly below the radar” to avoid being noticed, to make it look like I cared about things that I didn’t and make alliances with people solely based on their alliances with others. These skills of well-timed wins, networking and survival served me well. My brother could never do that. He charted his own way, but it was no less difficult.

Mark skipped college. He went straight into business with his best friend. For the next 10 years they started and liquidated company after company. There were 8 in total. They included a car dealership, medical supply store, a newspaper and an online retailer.  There were times where they barely made it by with no income. Once, they both almost wound up in prison by dealing with the wrong people. They went on and on, failure after failure. Each time they came out hungry for more; it was sheer determination and grit. They weren’t trying to survive within an organization. They were competing for customers. It was a no-holds-bared fight day in and day out. There wasn’t any time to posture to look good in front of one another. This made it as exciting as it was terrifying. For a long time, my parents were scared for his future; thinking he’d made the wrong choice. But the 8th try they hit the nail on the head; they found a product that sold well. Soon Mark and his partner Ron found themselves running a multi-national organization with over $50 million in annual sales. That’s where I came in.

The company was too big for them to run alone. They needed a professional management team that an organization of that size demands to be successful and continue growing. Mark and Ron’s lack of management training made it difficult for them to run such a staff. They struggled in writing evaluations and other documents such as standard operating procedures. They had difficulty expressing themselves to educated people. Yes that sounds bad, but it’s true and they were the ones who told me this (In fact I still write emails for Ron when he has to communicate with other CEOs). So they asked me to help. It wasn’t without it’s challenges.

I was used to taking charge of teams within an existing organization. Standard procedures and job descriptions were already in place. I took things for granted that I learned the hard way weren’t there. I relied on people I shouldn’t have. I spot-checked completion of tasks when involvement in details was required. It was nothing like taking charge of a ready-made unit. It took a mind shift.

Unlike me, my brother never needed that shift. He was always ready, willing and able to jump on a task, no matter how menial. He would dig deep, find a solution and move on, having done the work of 3-4 people in the process. Everyone came to rely on him to tell them what to do. This got a business off the ground. However, it wasn’t scalable. There’s only so many people one person can direct. So we both had skill gaps. I’m happy to say, though, that we both caught a little of each other’s strengths.

I’m now more willing to jump in and “make it work” to get through a situation by doing tasks of several levels below me if I see no one else can. Then I deal with who should have done what. He’s more willing to stand back and let problems be solved without micro-managing. We both learned from one another. We also realized we need each other to succeed.

I’d never take the risk to start a company, but I could take one to the next level. Mark couldn’t manage a growing management team, but he was able to start an amazing business and has street smarts that I’m still learning. There’s also big difference in risk. Mark makes more money and has the prospect of making even more if he sells. However, he has no backup. If the company fails, he stands to lose everything. He’d be right back where he started; no profession or degree. I make less money and work as part of an organization rather than as an owner. I’m not sure if I could handle the pressure of being the person at the very top. But I have my degree to rely on if the company goes south; I wouldn’t be in financial ruin. So how can you say one of us made a better choice? We both pushed ourselves to our limits. 

There are statistics that indicate college as a factor in lower unemployment. But there are also other avenues to pursue like trade school and entrepreneurship. Either way, individuals aren’t statistics. My brother and I took different paths. We both pursued our interests. We never stopped learning. As a result we were able to continue to grow and succeed. I supposed therein lies the real lesson.