Op/ed Fridays: Does “Stay in school, work hard” produce mediocrity? Can it produce greatness?

June 27, 2014 by Joshua
in Awareness, Education, Entrepreneurship, Tips

The more I spend time out of school, the more I find value in non-academic things I learned. The more I see people who just work hard—by “just work hard” I mean working hard for other people for a pay check without choosing the job—the more they don’t seem to create greatness or deep satisfaction with their lives.

The more I see the great people our society admires don’t seem to have emerged from our schools or from working hard at a regular job. They seem to work hard, often harder than most people, but at things that matter to them, often sacrificing pay, status, and such until they succeed. So I have to distinguish between working hard for someone else who directs your work and working hard on your passion.

Some people’s environments may force them to take what jobs they can get. Today I’m not writing about them. I expect few of this blog’s readers fall into that group. For my part, I recognize my schooling helps me.

Does “Stay in school, work hard” produce mediocrity? Can it produce greatness?

I decided one way to answer these questions is to look at how historically great people became great. Will it conclusively answer anything? Of course not, but I expect the results will surprise you and maybe suggest looking at the American or Protestant work ethic more skeptically.

I searched for lists of great people and settled on Life Magazine’s list of the Twentieth Century’s most influential Americans. Again, I’m not looking to comprehensively decide this issue, only to look at it more. This page listed them in alphabetical order, which seems to me to have randomized their backgrounds if I started from the top. Then I looked up their upbringings on Wikipedia.

Name How they achieved greatness From school or regular job?
Jane Addams Born to a rich, politically active family with connections to the White House. While she did some college and medical school, health issues forced her to leave early. She inherited over one million dollars (in today’s dollars) and, after a two-year European tour, paid for her first venture, apparently with money she never had to earn. Not sure she ever had to earn an income. No
Muhammad Ali Began boxing at twelve years old. One writer described him as “the most brilliant fight strategy in boxing history was devised by a teenager who had graduated 376 in a class of 391.” Worked hard as a boxer, but one could hardly call that a regular job. Famous for counter-cultural positions outside boxing, such as opposing the Vietnam War draft, which hurt his career and embroiled him in legal battles. No
Elizabeth Arden Dropped out of nursing school. Though her hard work at a pharmaceutical company paved her way to her success, that work was outside of what she was paid for. She was hired as a bookkeeper and took on the research herself, outside her job. No
Roone Arledge Graduated Columbia for college but dropped out of graduate school to work. Hard to call any of his early career in early broadcasting a regular job. Very entrepreneurial. 25%
Louis Armstrong Dropped out of school at 11. Played music and did odd jobs for money. Worked hard playing music, not a regular job. No
George Balanchine Went to Imperial Ballet School and Petrograd Conservatory. Worked hard in ballet. Yes
John Bardeen Earned PhD in mathematical physics at Princeton. Worked hard in physics his whole career. Yes
Irving Berlin Quit school at eight years old. Worked at odd jobs to make money, then singing, never as a regular job. No
Edward Bernays Graduated from Cornell. Worked hard in some regular jobs, but also created a new field. 50%
Leonard Bernstein Graduated from Harvard with honors and a musical institute after. Worked hard in music. Yes
Marlon Brando Expelled from two high schools. Studied with Stella Adler. Worked hard at acting, but not a regular job. 25%
Wernher von Braun Got PhD in physics and worked hard for the government on developing rockets, though the government was Nazi. Yes, but was a Nazi
Dale Carnegie Went to college. Worked hard in sales, but quit to become a lecturer and entrepreneur, not a regular job. 25%

This list’s people weren’t that famous, so I started with another list, Biography Online’s “Famous People of the 20th Century,” which had better known people and divided them by categories like political, humanitarian, scientist, artist, etc.

Name How they achieved greatness From school or regular job?
Elizabeth II Born to future King of England No
Winston Churchill Born into nobility. Did poorly in school. Joined military. No
Martin Luther King Earned PhD in theology. Became pastor, but civil rights work was not part of his job. 50%
Nelson Mandela Dropped out of college for boycotting. Was active as revolutionary, not a regular job. 25%
Rosa Parks Dropped out of secondary school. Worked as secretary, which wasn’t relevant to her great achievement No
Albert Einstein Well educated. Couldn’t get a job in academia so worked at a patent office. His so-called miracle year of four groundbreaking papers was entirely outside his work duties, though his work had some relevance to physics. He also said “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school” and ” The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” 75%
Pablo Picasso Dropped out of art school No
John Lennon Thrown out of school. Never had a regular job. No
Cliff Richard Passed school exams, but seem irrelevant to his career. Never had a regular job. No
Emil Zatopek Was working in a factory at 18 (not sure before that). Worked hard in running, but not at a regular job. No
Pelé Was playing club soccer by 15. Never had a regular job. No
Bill Gates Dropped out of college. Started his own company. No

Sometimes school and regular jobs don’t help

Some professions have almost zero chance of achieving greatness through working hard and staying in school, yet society holds them in the highest regard.

  • Actors
  • Musicians
  • Artists
  • Athletes

Though I have to note the exceptions of Balanchine and Bernstein.

Conventional wisdom holds that these fields have high risks and high rewards, suggesting that the fields create a lot of failures too. Maybe. It’s hard to say. Even if it’s accurate, that metric of success almost certainly means economic, not emotional awareness, emotional skills, life satisfaction, happiness, and other things we value but can’t quantify as much. I’ve come to value these things more since leaving school.

Sometimes they do, but rarely

Some fields seem to require education for greatness. The lists above show three scientists who achieved greatness, though one also became a Nazi and another, Einstein, put down conventional education.

  • Science

I was going to write engineering, but many great engineers seem to have tinkered outside the bounds of formal education and succeeded entrepreneurially outside the bounds of a regular job, like Elizabeth Arden, above. Henry Ford, for example, had a modest education but always tinkered with machines. He worked as an engineer, but only for two years, giving him the means to branch out on his own. Thomas Edison had almost no schooling and worked at many odd jobs. His tinkering and experimenting got him fired.

What other fields, if any, require going to school and working at a regular job for greatness?


Very successful people seem rarely to emerge from schooling or working at regular jobs. If we leave out science, the trend becomes nearly perfect.

Today’s mainstream society views advising against staying in school and working hard at a regular job as heretical, at least as I see it. I think mainstream society also believes if you try to succeed outside regular jobs you risk disaster. I think that while mainstream society may accept that some greatness may emerge from bucking that advice, it also believes people who don’t follow it populate the realms of failure—skid row and welfare, for example. Come to think of it, I think mainstream society follows the “great man” theory, or I would say myth, that those people were born with greatness in them that they would have succeeded no matter what, and everyone knew it about them, so if you don’t already know you’re a great person, you had better follow that advice.

I don’t believe in that myth. Nor do I value business and material success so much above the rest of life. Nor do I believe failure in business means disaster—on the contrary, I believe it leads to growth, however painful, nearly impossible to get otherwise. And I believe following other people’s paths distracts you from learning about yourself, which I consider more important than material success.

My background includes a lot of school—twenty-four years of full-time education including graduate and business school—which gives me an atypical safety net, though I’m still paying off loans, so it created a burden too. My background biases my view, but everybody’s background biases their view. The tables above seem very one-sided against staying in school and working hard for someone else though they show only part of the picture. Maybe people who bucked that advice also populate skid row. But then again, maybe they don’t achieve business or material success, falling off mainstream society’s radar, but they value their experience enough to consider themselves successful.

Maybe because I interact with so many entrepreneurs, I’ve found many people risk disaster yet continually re-emerge stronger, more capable, and interested in trying again.

Maybe because I coach successful people and know many Ivy League alumni, I find people who succeeded in school and climbed the corporate ladder didn’t find greatness. Some are wealthy, even very wealthy, but not greatness, especially not outside business. Many of them struggle to create or find meaning, value, importance, and purpose (MVIP) outside of creating a family. In my experience and observation, learning and understanding MVIP comes more from failure, however painful it feels at the time.

In romance, we know and expect that we will fall in love, get hurt, and learn to love more for it, despite the pain and risk of becoming jaded. As much as we wish we could avoid heartache and we advise friends and family to avoid entering relationships that might leave them hurt, we know it will happen. Mainstream society doesn’t seem to have that acceptance and understanding in business. It seems to suggest leaving the mainstream risks everything, not just a period of recovery. It also seems to value your business success over any other type of success, except family. It doesn’t value happiness, for example, nearly as much as material success.

I think we would help ourselves and each other more to accept experimentation outside “stay in school, work hard” like we do with romance, even to value what we learn from it. That way we might view failure as temporary, not total, and create more ways to recover from it without becoming jaded.

I can’t help but conclude that the advice to stay in school and work hard, if it means at a regular job, if you don’t want to become a scientist, seems designed to limit failure rather than to create success and therefore leads to more mediocrity than most people want. It devalues achievements outside business and making money, especially social and emotional growth. It devalues the growth that comes from failure.


I propose instead of advising staying in school, to advise always to learn, experiment, tinker, play, and challenge yourself. I also propose more experiential and project-based learning over the lecturing style of learning that dominates our educational system.

Instead of working hard at a regular job, I propose learning enough about yourself and others to find something that impassions you enough to work hard at it for your own reasons. If that leads you to work hard at a regular job, great. If not, work hard at it anyway, even if you have to take a regular job to pay your bills.

Sorry no more comprehensive advice than that, though “stay in school, work hard” is hardly comprehensive either. I only want to show that “stay in school, work hard” has alternatives.

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