Many successful entrepreneurs, business owners, and world leaders have something in common. When asked how they achieved their success, they point to a role model they knew personally or were familiar with during their formative and most inspired years. The role model lived a life that seemed appealing to them. That’s how many young entrepreneurs look at people like Bill Gates today, whether or not they’re fans of Microsoft. After all, Bill Gates dropped out of college and is now the world’s second richest man. That’s some serious inspiration for you — not because of the money but because of the opportunities brought about by wealth.
Gates’ story isn’t exactly rags to riches. He had opportunities many other kids in high school did not have, and he was the kind of person who sought success and worked hard to learn what he needed to know. He didn’t fail out of college like many drop-outs; he made opportunities for himself that made his college education superfluous.
That’s not going to be the case for everyone who considers dropping out of college to start a business. The idea of striking out on your own, accepting a significant amount of risk, betting on yourself to succeed like Bill Gates despite the odds against you, is not a decision to be taken lightly. For Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and other successful people held up as examples by a crowd turning against higher education and its higher costs, their success story was written before they even entered college.
So how do you know when you’ve got what it takes to abandon the educational system in favor of a potentially lucrative career as a major force in the world? Before you even get to questioning whether there’s a market for what you’d like to do, you have to evaluate yourself and determine whether you’re the right person to make this life change.
Is there anything else you could see yourself doing?
This is a question I remember from my time in college. When selecting a major for which it would be very difficult to make a great living, professors will often start the introductory class by asking this question. I studied music education in college, and took most of my classes with students who were studying music performance. It can be hard enough to earn a living as a teacher in a field like the arts, but being a professional classical musician is just asking for financial struggles unless you can be one of the top performers in the world. Someone like Josh Groban may be the Bill Gates of music; many people aspire to follow in their footsteps, but few will be remotely as successful.
If you’re going to pass on the typical path of acquiring a college degree, working for a company, and possibly building something of your own over the course of time in favor of dropping out of college and getting started now, you’re going to need passion and determination, as well as a singular focus on what you want to achieve. If there is any doubt, any thought that you could be just as happy doing something else, you’ll always have a psychological cushion. The fear of having no other choices will help propel you forward.
Do you have a support system?
Here’s a paradox. While on the one hand, you have to convince yourself that the alternative path is the only thing you can see yourself doing, as I described above, it’s a risk that must be mitigated. Had Microsoft failed in its early days, you can be sure Gates’ family and friends would have been able to provide emotional and financial support as he changed direction. Dropping out of college to start a company in an untested field is a risk that you should be able to hedge. At worst, he could have re-enrolled and finished his degree, paving the way for him to take another chance later on.
Having the mental capacity to quickly adapt to the quick changes that abound in a new field will serve you well. The singular focus must be flexible so that when the world trends in a different direction than your original plan, you’re able to adapt. This is a skill that you must develop well before you consider the crazy idea that could lead to your being the next great entrepreneur.
Are you succeeding in school, and if not, why not?
If you seem to be having trouble with your college courses, what makes you think that starting a business is going to be any easier? The most famous drop-outs probably would have excelled in their studies had that been the outlet of their determination. If you fail in school, changes are stronger you don’t have what it takes to succeed in the business world at a high level.
There are many reasons you might not be performing well in college, though. If you are spending all of your time working on your business ideas, giving those particular goals the attention that should be reserved for your studies, your professors might not be happy, but you could be honing important skills that will help you succeed later.
Are you unique or do you have a rare skill?
In 1993, if you knew how to design web pages, you could have quit college to start a business. You would have owned one of the first website development companies, and if you handled the business well, you could have made a name for yourself in a field in its infancy.
Twenty years later, middle schools teach students how to design websites, and there is little novelty in starting a web development company. Even if your skill as a college student is designing mobile applications — yesterday’s web developers are today’s app developers in terms of specialization — you’re competing in a wide open field.
Bill Gates and Steve Jobs found themselves with the skills needed to be leaders in the burgeoning era of personal computing. The latest similar movement in the tech world has been mobile computing, and that train has already left the station.
Have you already built strong connections with other successful entrepreneurs?
If not, you’re starting with a significant disadvantage. If you don’t already have a mentor who is succeeding in the world in which you want to succeed, and if you haven’t grown a network of people who are enthusiastic about your vision, you’re going to start off alone. No one succeeds alone. There’s more to dropping out of college than just quitting your classes if you see this alternative path of success for yourself. You can’t wait until you’re already free from the shackles of lectures and labs, out of the dean’s reach, before you start forming your business or taking the first steps towards your individual success.
Do you accept the fact that the failure rate is significant?
It takes a special kind of ego to believe you’re different than just about everyone else. It’s not that most businesses fail — though a lot do — it’s that the chance of building a business that does more than just get by, providing a life for the owner better than he might have had as a college graduate, is much lower.
A few are a cut above the average, though. And, although statistically it’s unlikely, it might be you. You have to accept nothing but the best from yourself and those around you to succeed. You have to demand excellence and you have to put other priorities aside.
Be honest in your self-analysis.
If less than all of the above applies to you, you may not be right for following in the footsteps of Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and some of the other names that the media have thrown around as examples for entrepreneurial-minded students considering whether to drop out of college. A recent article in The Atlantic postulates that the media’s emphasis on role models who drop out of college is making the country poorer — most who follow this trendy path find themselves in financial trouble rather than becoming billionaires. The idea of a successful college drop-out is a myth, despite the glorified stories of those who beat those odds.
These are the less-than-one-percent. While the modern interpretation of the American Dream seems to be that anybody could be the next Bill Gates, the vast majority of those who try will not reach that particular level of success.
The best thing one might do is learn to be satisfied with much less than stardom.
Published or updated March 15, 2013.