An educational degree is usually considered the foundation of any burgeoning career, particularly in today’s job market; the odds of nailing that dream position within a desirable company, or even getting a foot in the door, without a diploma seem near impossible. But near impossible is not the same thing as impossible—in fact, some of today’s biggest success stories involve college and even high school dropouts, proving that sometimes it takes the perfect mix of naiveté and gumption to make it.
Gates is considered one of the greatest college dropouts of all time. The former Harvard student was far more interested in computers than he was in basic studies, and opted to leave the prestigious university to start his own little computer company, otherwise known as Microsoft. His name is now synonymous with the personal-computer revolution, all because he decided to forgo the more traditional path to success.
Of course, Gates wasn’t the only one who recognized how bright technology’s future was. In part because of high tuition costs, Jobs dropped out of Oregon’s Reed College in 1972 to pursue his dream of creating computers. He founded Apple in 1976 with friend (and fellow college dropout) Steve Wozniak; together, they’ve built an empire over the last three decades. With the iPhone, iPod, and iPad considered some of the hottest gadgets today, Jobs continues to stand as a revolutionary, despite his lack of a diploma.
One of America’s most iconic photographers, according to CollegeDropoutsHallofFame.com, once said, “I was very lucky, in working for these magazines, to learn by doing, but I always regretted not having a formal education.” The woman who helped define Rolling Stone with her work as the magazine’s chief photographer attended the San Francisco Art Institute. She left school to pursue photography full-time, but her ongoing career speaks for itself.
It’s one thing to overcome the lack of a college education, but it’s another entirely to succeed without a high school diploma. And yet one of the nation’s most well-respected newsmen did just that. Jennings, a Canadian native, dropped out of high school after the tenth grade. (He told Reader’s Digest in 2002 that he was simply more interested in girls and comic books than in school, adding, “And for reasons I don’t understand, I was pretty lazy.”) His education was achieved the hard way—on the job—and he was better for it. Until his death in 2005, Jennings ranked among TV’s best journalists.
He was a self-taught lawyer before he stepped in as the sixteenth president of the United States. With a mere eighteen months of formal education under his belt, Lincoln taught himself subjects like trigonometry and read the works of William Blackstone to learn the law. His educational underachievement ultimately made no difference in the grand scheme of things, as he’s regarded as one of America’s greatest presidents.
In 2006, MySpace was the top social-networking site nationwide. Everyone from musicians to middle-schoolers could be found there—until Harvard dropout Zuckerberg opened up his creation, Facebook, to the public that same year. He knew he was onto something when his simple site, designed for his Harvard classmates, began attracting tens of thousands of students. Facebook now eclipses MySpace in the social-networking arena, and Zuckerberg’s effort has made him one of the youngest billionaires this year—and a movie star. Check out The Social Network, the film based on Facebook’s rise (starring no less than Justin Timberlake, and Jessie Eisenberg as Zuckerberg), out in October 2010.
He’s a well-recognized chef the world over, thanks to skills he’s honed since age fourteen, when he dropped out of high school. These days, Puck is known as much for his celebrity status as he is for his cooking (including serving as the Academy Awards’ official caterer). He may have failed to finish school, but he’s soared as a restaurateur and businessman ever since.
Not all great directors come from film schools, but most can usually claim a high school education. Not Oscar-nominated director Tarantino. As his story goes, Tarantino immersed himself in all things cinematic, rather than in school lessons, as a child. That much time spent in grindhouse theaters and drive-ins was bound to leave a lasting impression on a guy responsible for such classics as Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and Inglourious Basterds.
Frank Lloyd Wright
He’s another great man known for many achievements—he was an architect, interior designer, and writer—but completing his formal education isn’t one of them. Still, Wright’s designs continue to resonate with and influence the architectural world to this day. The American Institute of Architects labeled Wright “the greatest American architect of all time” in 1991, proving that his creative vision clearly trumped any educational skills he may have lacked.
Some people are inherent innovators, visionaries, geniuses. Those included on this list triumphed by thinking outside the box—and that line of thinking simply can’t always be found in schoolbooks.