Attaining a higher education means more to some than others. Many take the opportunity to learn all they can, involve themselves with clubs and extracurricular activities, and to meet people who have completely different worldviews and engaging them in rich discussions full of ethical koans, expressive metaphors, and philosophical solutions.

Most people, however, instead use the opportunity to drink heavily, partake in questionable sexual escapades, and spend a lot of their parents’ money to get a Communications degree that they will keep in the closet throughout the next decade while they work an entry-level job at a faceless organization of some kind.

You Can Have Both

I’m not saying you shouldn’t enjoy yourself in college. On the contrary, I had a very enriching college experience, and some of that enrichment was attained through making stupid mistakes and dancing drunkenly in clubs of ill repute. It’s all about finding the right balance, and a big part of finding it is deciding what your goal for college is in the first place.

I went to Missouri State University for college, and actually ended up going there by mistake, if you can believe that. I intended to attend the Art Institute in Chicago, but the costs were incredibly high, so I decided to go to a state school for the first year, get some of the base-level classes out of the way, and then migrate over to my first choice when I’d saved enough money to make it through the first semester. At this point I was an Art major and had vague plans to 1) create my own comic book series, 2) sell paintings at galleries to rich people, or 3) sketch tourists in Paris and live on Ramen noodles and tap water.

Partway through my first semester I was introduced to design, and my goals changed drastically. Suddenly, I found myself wanting to dream bigger dreams: I would be employable! Wonder of wonders! I put together a rough plan of where I wanted to be when I graduated, and made sure keep moving forward through this plan with each decision I made. The plan looked something like this:

Goal: run a design studio in a big city and make lots of money

  • Step 1: take prerequisite classes for design program
  • Step 2: get in to design program
  • Step 3: establish self in design program with high-quality work and niche skills
  • Step 4: get design jobs while still in school to build up resume and learn new skill sets
  • Step 5: graduate with good grades, lots of design experience, and several job offers
  • Step 6: work for other people until design studio model is understood
  • Step 7: start own studio
  • Step 8: flourish

Simple, right? And what’s great is that each step of the way, I was able to streamline what I was working on because I knew where I wanted to end up. Step 1 led to Step 2, Step 5 led to Step 6, and on and on. It’s like a math equation, but much more fun.

I was able to follow this plan, too. I got into the design program with one of the highest scores, worked a total of 4 different design-related jobs while attending college, and ended up starting my first studio and a culture magazine while there, as well. When I graduated, I had a lot more professional work in my portfolio than my peers, not to mention my on-the-job experience, and was fielding a handful of job offers in various fields from all over the world. I took a job at a studio in LA, worked there for a year, and then started my own studio. Life was, and is, dandy.

And I did this without sacrificing a social life or being able to make all of those fabulous mistakes one makes in college! I went out at least 2-3 times per week, dated several wonderful girls, and gained a remarkably talented, diverse and loyal group of friends that I still stay in contact with today, from half a country away.

This is not something that is unique to me, it just requires a little forethought, some hard work and enough trust in yourself to know that you can achieve each step and reach that end goal.

Update: April 23, 2016

A few things.

First, I don’t think a university education is required to succeed. Even more than when I was in school, on-the-job training, online self-education, and other means of developing skills are very relevant and legitimate, and increasingly accessible to more people every day.

Second, I did have a good experience at university, and though I had tens of thousands of dollars to pay off afterward (despite scholarships and grants), I still think it was worthwhile for me. That said, what I learned while working jobs I took while in school gave me more marketable education — what I learned in class was a lot of great philosophy and some basic skills, alongside the freedom to practice my craft under educational circumstances, rather than jumping right in working for clients. But the stuff that got me jobs was the work I did at the handful of jobs I worked outside of class, and the skills I decided to learn alongside school and work (like web development and UI design).

Third, it is quite helpful to have a goal in mind, because you can be certain you’re walking in the right direction, even if your plans change along the way. I moved toward the goal mentioned in this post like a bullet, and it felt good to see the distance stretch out behind me. When I decided to change course and run a solo practice in LA, and later, when I decided to leave that behind and start something completely new from the road, I pivoted, but still had a lot of skills and experience that were useful to my new path.