Sunday, May 15, 2011

Think You Need to Graduate High School to Be Successful? These People Didn't

Did you know that people didn’t always have to go to school and that it wasn’t long ago that we even had Presidents who knew they could be successful without going to high school?  Did you ever wonder why it seems like people from history seemed to achieve success at much earlier ages than they do today?  Well it's because in the past youth were not required to go to school at all in many states in most of the 1800s. By 1918 every state required students to complete school, but in most states it was only elementary school.  This meant that by the time they were teenagers adolescents had a chance to integrate into society.  Some might be learning a trade, others the family business, some might follow a pursuit of writing or singing, some became entrepreneurs, some became interested in politics, and for some of the academically minded they might continue studying academics, though people like Einstein and other great minds found school too oppressive and confining.  

It wasn't until the time of the Depression that the age of compulsory attendance was increased.  John Taylor Gatto explains that this was due in part to keep youth out of the work force and in part to create a consumer society.  However, before youth was forced to stay in school until around 16 in most states, many youth were doing just fine.  Today, if you don't choose to graduate high school, you're often considered a drop out and kids are dropping out in droves.  Our nation has about 1/3 of students dropping out of high schools and in large urban areas like those in which I've lived (Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas) the rates are around 50% which is also the drop out rate for Black students.  Clearly something is not right.  Even many of our most successful students, like this valedictorian, (and me!) weren't happy with their high school education.

Well something you may not know, is no one has to go to school and you don't have to drop out.  You can opt out and head straight to an apprenticeship, career, or you can attend college without ever having to bother with high school.  If you've bought all the hype about the importance of a high school diploma, it may comfort you to know that there are many successful people uninterested in conforming to the mandates imposed upon them by boring teachers and classes they often don’t have a saying in selecting. Below are just a few such people who didn't bother getting a high school diploma and moved on to better pastures (Source: Dropouts Hall of Fame). 

  • Jane Austen, novelist. She left school at the age of 11.
  • William Shakespeare, playwright, poet. Only a few years of formal schooling.
  • Mark Twain, printer, riverboat pilot, prospector, newspaper reporter, humorist, author of the first great American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Left school in fifth grade.

  • Walt Disney, producer, director, screenwriter, animator, developer of Disneyland and Disneyworld.  Frederick Tudor, the Ice King. Left school at 13.
  • Lucille Ball, actress, comedienne, producer. Co-founder of Desilu Studios. Late bought out her husband's share to become the first woman to own and run a production studio.
  • Andrew Carnegie, industrialist and philanthropist. Elementary school dropout. Started work at the age of 13 as a bobbin boy in a textile mill. One of the first mega-billionaires in the U.S.
  • Richard Branson, billionaire founder of Virgin Music, Virgin Atlantic Airways, and other Virgin enterprises, balloonist. Left school at 16.

  • Christina Aguilera, singer, songwriter.
  • Mary J. Blige, Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, record producer, and actress.

  • Jerry Lewis, comedian, actor, singer, humanitarian.
  • Patrick Stewart, actor, producer, director, writer.

  • Abraham Lincoln, lawyer, U.S. president. Finished barely a year of formal schooling. He self-taught himself trigonometry (for his work as a surveyor) and read Blackstone on his own to become a lawyer.
  • Martin Van Buren, U.S. president. Little formal education. Began studying law at the age of 14 while apprenticing at a law firm.
  • George Washington, U.S. president, general, plantation owner. Ended his education after a few years of elementary school.
  • Andrew Jackson U.S. President, lawyer. Little formal education;
  • Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazilian president. With a fifth grade education only, he shined shoes on the streets of Sao Paulo as a kid but later became a steelworker union leader.

  • Albert Einstein, Nobel prize-winning physicist, discoverer of the General and Special Theories of Relativity. He left school at 15.

Public Servants
  • Lyon, education pioneer, teacher, founder of Mount Holyoke College (America's first women's college). Dropped out of high school. Started teaching at the age of 17.
  • Florence Nightingale, nurse. No formal education. Home schooled.
  • James Francis Byrnes, U.S. representative, U.S. senator, Supreme Court justice, U.S. secretary of state, South Carolina governor. Left school at 14
  • Yogi Berra, baseball player, coach, and manager. Quit school in the eighth grade.
  • Andre Agassi, tennis player, winner of 8 Grand Slam titles. Quit school in the ninth grade and turned tennis pro at the age of 16. His father would say he was driving the kids to school but, instead, actually took them to local tennis courts to practice.
  • Mario Andretti, race-car driver, author.


  1. Einstein did not opt out of high school ( He had a lot of help with his learning at all stages, including with figuring out the ideas he published in 1905 that granted him the near-idol status he's now given. (His first wife did a great deal of his math, but because she was mentally ill and female, she got no credit.)

    Please don't feed the myth that Einstein discovered the secrets of the universe without any formal education through innate brilliance. It's as wrong as the myth that getting A's is the purpose of education.

  2. @Anonymous,
    You are incorrect.

    Einstein did not like school and his teachers did not like him. He did indeed leave school at 15 feeling the way I and others do...Grouping people by date of manufacture makes no sense and people should be able to own their learning instead of having others impose their agenda upon them.

    Rather than finish high school, Einstein decided to apply directly to the prestigious Polytechnic Institute, however even there he would often skip class, preferring to stay home and read about the newest in scientific theory. When he did attend class, Einstein would often make it obvious that he found the class dull.

    Einstein did not conform to the system and educators ain't too happy with that.

    Once out of school, Einstein had a difficult time finding a job because none of his teachers liked him enough to write him a recommendation letter.

  3. I've commented on these types of posts before, but I have to say again - they really bother me. There are always examples of people who "beat the odds". It's called that BECAUSE it's hard to do!

    I think having a job tends to be a good indicator of a healthy lifestyle. If you disagree, then this argument will be meaningless, but I'm hoping that you also think having a job is important. This is from Canada, but I suspect the data is similar in other countries:

    In addition, young people finding work can be incredibly important, as I think it gets them started on being successful, as well as creates a good nest egg for them when their expenses may be less because of no house, or children, etc.

    And while money isn't a huge thing, having more of it can be nice, so before we go off and tell kids "oh, it's okay if you don't go to university", make sure they know what they're giving up.

    There are other tables, but those show a decent snapshot of just how important a post-secondary education can be.

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  5. I would agree with Graeme. This type of post perpetuates the wrong idea in education today - that those who "drop-out" will easily find success in alternate ways. Those individuals listed above were exceptional in many ways - which is why they stand out. They had extraordinary talents in some area. That is not the norm. We should be promoting success at all levels of education. I would agree that in today's world we should also look at alternate paths, but we are no where near ready to put that out as an equally valid path at this time.

  6. It is well-known that school is one way to achieve something. What a post like this is good for, is to challenge the idea that it's THE ONLY WAY. There are no guarantees of success in this world, no matter what you do. Lisa isn't saying that you can or will be rich and famous if you dropout of high school, but it is important to point out that some people have done so, and inspire those who never thought there were any other options besides going to school like everyone else.

    All of the people mentioned here have found success through hard work. It's not just like they dropped out of school and magic things fell into their laps. It's ok and sometimes necessary to look at extreme examples, keeping in mind that they are extreme.

  7. Also meant to say there are lots of examples of people who didn't graduate high school and are not rich and famous, but are leading happy lives. They just aren't as flashy or as easy to put into a list like this.

  8. The indoctrinated obsession and desperate dependence we have on school is really horrifying to me. There are so many who are still so insecure in their own ability to thrive and learn that we assume these cases above are just extraordinary rare cases of luck... I weep for the future of humanity - that we are still so consumed and addicted to school - that the idea of life without it terrifies us. I enjoyed the post, some of the commentary is very disheartening to me though.

  9. It's not all luck, but it's partially luck, as any success is.

    Look at the numbers - there are many more people who have chosen to "live without school" as you put it who cannot feed their family or earn money for themselves. Would a degree change that? Well, the numbers seem to indicate yes.

    In all of this, I would encourage moderation - it's not all or nothing. Going to school works for many people. Not going to school works for some others. Simply pointing out the few successes we have as a society while ignoring the failures is not how we should be teaching children.

    Until we as a society decide that the stupid pieces of paper (and they, generally speaking, are just that) are meaningless, we need to encourage our students to jump through the hoops in order to have a better (albeit not guaranteed, but better) shot.

  10. I know its not the point of the article. But Einstein "leaving school" is kind of misleading and I think you misrepresent what happened.

    I know Mary Blige got her GED. I watch VH1.

    I also think most of your examples weren't because they were unhappy with school, there just wasnt much school available.

    Again, I'm nitpicking, I understand your point.

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  12. It is worth noting that all kids may be "giving up" by not going to university is a HUGE tuition bill. In this country we give school iconic status. Kids are expected to attend college "just because." It is a moral imperative. We pressure them to go even if they are not sure what they want.

    With ANY OTHER INVESTMENT we sit down with a financial advisor (hopefully) to assess the risks and benefits (potential return) of that investment. With a university/college investment, there is no "why" (is what you are paying for valuable-if so, HOW valuable?) just a "how are you going to pay for it?" A question that is not often answered until after graduation when the newly minted "adult" is set forth into the world to try to earn a living to pay for their extensive loans potentially in a profession that they have now decided that they don't really like but are stuck with because they spent so much money on it. It's foolish.

    I don't think the statistics provided by Graeme can give us an accurate picture of the relative success level of schooled vs non-schooled individuals.....for sooo many reasons. Just one: There is a vast difference between just "dropping out" of school with no other options in mind vs CHOOSING self directed learning options. They are two distinct mindsets (well probably more than two :). Apathy vs. curiosity/engagement. They will produce two different sets of results. I could go on and on....

    I think the point that many people are missing when they jump straight to indignation at the mere suggestion that there might be another way or a better way than school is that nobody is saying that school isn't ONE of the ways. Especially a school that teaches us a particular skill that we WANT TO LEARN that is most aptly learned in that setting. For me it's the homogenized "package deal" that I find useless and insulting.

    I attended part of high school in Australia. I can't speak for how it is there now but at the time I was there in the late 80's....high school was set up to have different learning paths. Many kids would leave after year 10 to pursue apprenticeships in trades. Some kids would attend vocational high schools and some would attend college preparatory high schools. It wasn't assumed that EVERYONE had to attend college to be successful or to complete their requisite "trial" of schooling. It still wasn't prefect but it made more sense IMO.

    And why why why are we complacently accepting that we HAVE to jump through hoops. WHY? I for one have always rebelled against that notion. I STILL have not completed my college degree because I REFUSED to believe that it was key to the universe and I didn't like the deal I was being sold. I have a job, I have a business (a couple of them) and my family eats and is happy.

    Choices.... More than just A,B,C and D. I'd most often choose E - None of the above. We don't have to eat it up just because it is being served....

  13. I have to agree about the idea that choosing only the cream of the crop in people who didn't finish formal schooling can lead to a false sense of possibility.

    Also, Richard Branson finished school, to its compulsory age in the United Kingdom, the equivalent of graduating from high school (but they don't call it that, they call it being a school leaver and there isn't a negative connotation).

    There are stastitics in the US like the ones you posted Graeme, if you google Education Pays! you can see data for the past few years in chart form about earnings and unemployment rates, and see how much higher unemployment is for people who don't complete high school.

    Of course there are plenty of ways to gain knowledge, but statistically the results are in the favor of education or programs that lead to a certification that indicate to others you hace completed a program recognized by others in the field as being legitimate.

    I think we can find ancedotal examples to fit our point of view, but that is why anecdotal evidence isn't accepted as good research methods.

  14. In response to several comments here about education = more success, I will be writing more on this in upcoming posts and I have in the past as well. The "research" on this is incredibly skewed as it acts as though college is the only factor that makes a difference when the reality is that those from a higher SES generally go to college and parents SES is a greater indicator of future earnings than level of education completed. These surveys also usually don't take into account the new "Generation Debt" that college grads are now called today.

    Additionally, there is more and more information on "The College Bubble" which is very close to bursting.

    Finally, as Vickie mentioned above, I mentioned high profile cases because these are people everyone knows but I have dozens of bios and blogs from folks here on my blog who opted out of school and into a life of extreme happiness and satisfaction. I have heard from hundreds of parents and youth who are "choosing" this option and they have all been extremely positive.

    Most teens don't know they have a choice. Hopefully this guide will change that.

  15. I also wonder how many parents and youth commenters like Jessica, Graeme, and Bill have connected with who have made the choice to opt out of school. My guess is not that many because such people are usually exuberant that they realized there was a different and better way to succeed and they are excited to share and connect with others. I have yet to hear of any young person or adult who has made the decision to go this route say they regret it. On the other hand every week when I go into schools I am met with administrators, teachers, and students frustrated by their passionless, boring test-obsessed learning experience.

    They want to escape. They wish there was another way. They just don't know it exists, which is why I worked to create this guide.

  16. After reading through the comments, I'd like to make a clarification. I am not suggesting people don't pursue an education. I am suggesting that learning happens with people and not just in places called "school." I am also suggesting that when people learn outside of "school" they are empowered to personalize their learning and it can happen by listening to someone telling you about something, reading about something, watching something, or my favorite choice...doing something.

    I have not mislead with my list of dropouts. My point being that you don't have to go the traditional route of getting your high school fact you can skip school all together and still get into an Ivy League college or move onto a successful career without school at all.

    The problem is that this option is rarely discussed. Another reason this guide is important.

  17. This blog post if the first of yours I have read. I found it via another blog (Vickie's). Just read your guide. I didn't realize there was a guide. Love it but I am chuckling as I realize that my above comments must look like I FIRST read the guide (or other posts of yours) and then commented. Thanks for articulating in such a comprehensive manner that which I have always felt/ known!

    I would have been greatly relieved to have found this guide when I was a teen. Even still, I DID opt out and follow my own path but I had little support and a scant network (if any) of like minded folk. I struggled through my 20's to find my "peeps." I took classes in things like survivalism and Native Spirituality (Tom Brown), Equine Massage, Hypnosis etc etc. I pored over publications from the SCA (Student Conservation Association), Earthwork, the Caretaker Gazette.. looking for opportunities to apprentice or work doing amazing things in amazing places. I moved west and lived in the canyons of Orange County fixing up a travel trailer to carry me on my exploits. I took off running for the Pacific Northwest where I encountered many amazing places and events. An anti-logging rally in the old growth forests of Northern California, Crater Lake (Oregon), the Oregon coast where I worked at an outdoor school....

    I could go on and on... The rest of my life reads in much the same way. I am ever curious as are my two unschooled kids. :) Great Blog! I will definitely be passing it on. I thought about giving the guide to my 10 year old to read....or reading it to her. Good stuff!

  18. One of my best friends all through middle and high school was a home schooler and I am friends with two families who d unschooling that I met while living abroad, I think that there are a mix of positives and negatives to each and for the families abroad they made important steps to build their own learning networks and a lot of cool things together, which I love.

    I am not against people opting out at all, I'm just saying that the picture presented is pretty one sided and that it is not the norm. We see 50% of students in urban areas "opting out" of school and I don't think many of them are achieving the things that would create success for them. I work with a very underprivledged population of students and while a few probably are working in jobs that they can turn into lifetmie careers and find success in, the majority don't have an inclination to do much and without finishing their last two years of school aren't going to be given the oppurtunity in the future in any other way without their piece of paper that says, "hey I stick with things I start and did at least the minimum asked of me" and this is how MOST people do that.

    Of course there are people who are successful who don't do it that way, something is never ALWAYS true. You can bet on the dark horse and make a killing, but oftentimes your winnings come out better by carefully chosing proven winners.

    I know that students successes are often determined by the amount of money their parents make and if they are getting free or reduced lunches, but it is those students who benefit the most from finishing high school, going to college, etc. (I can't find the article link now that outlined some reasons why) because they don't have the right connections or the larger world view and their parents probably can't afford to give those things to them and they are mostly likely to get those things in a school. (Even though I do know that schools are becoming more and more narrowed through the testing hype, which I find absurd and wrong for various reasons that are not directly related to this conversation.) But still the imperfect school can often be the better choice to the imperfect and impovered home life of some students.

  19. @Jessica, you make smart points. Here is what I agree with. If a child has no better alternative than school, then s/he should choose school, however, for many the alternatives I suggest in my new teen guide to opting out of school will serve many students better than an institutionalized setting.

    As far as your statement about students who "Opt Out," I would argue that there is a difference being "Opting Out" of school and "Dropping Out" of learning. For those who opt out of school to opt into real learning the possibilities are very encouraging and for many will result in a much more successful path.

    I'm not sure if you've read any of my writing in response to Race to Nowhere such as this article ( or the "Fix the School, Not the Child" guide on my blog. Many children are getting physically and emotionally sick from the test-prep obsessed school environment and ridiculously inflated requirements to graduate with "the right" credentials for a good college. The movie was dedicated to a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide as a result of such pressures. After several of my posts I've had students and parents confide they have considered doing the same.

    If parents and teens want alternatives, they need to know they exist. Ironically such alternatives are not addressed much and few are aware. Hopefully, the new teen guide and the existing parent guide will help those who are able to pursue options that are best for their personal learning, growth, and success.

  20. This post just proves that grad school will be futile if you have not the right attitude to pursue your dreams.