As if people don’t need another excuse to feel worse about themselves in this chaotic world we live in, not having a degree (plus 15 years experience for an entry level, $10 an hour job) has turned into another way to keep the working class down. Being judged for not having one can have a lasting effect and be a dream killer for a lot of people.
One of my biggest insecurities in life has been a lack of a degree. Back in high-school I was alarmed at the fact I had to choose my career before I could even legally vote. Everyone around me seemed so sure! I played along, but deep down I was terrified of being in debt and getting in too deep only to find that I hated my major.
I was an athlete and Sports Medicine/Athletic Training superstar. Always top of my classes getting A’s across the board (except for math - I was later diagnosed with dyscalculia). Everyone assumed I’d go off to college, succeed at it all and end up in the NFL as a head trainer. It sounded great in theory but I was still unsure.
I applied to 6 universities and got 6 acceptance letters some even with scholarships. All I had to do was choose. The only thing I could use to narrow it down was whether or not they had a lacrosse program, I was a jock at heart and nothing else really mattered. Why? Because I had zero clue about what I wanted for my life!
I couldn’t do it. The deadlines lapsed and I stayed home half assing my way through a community College athletic training program and realized very quickly how unhappy I was. I had no guidance. No one in my family had ever went to college. I was just expected to do it because it is what you are "supposed to do." I was to fall in line like the rest of my class and when I didn’t, I was the loser, the outcast.
I became depressed and angry and partied my brains off slowly flunking out of all my classes until I finally just gave up on the whole institution. I left behind my old life and friends and just accepted that I no longer belonged.
One thing I did know was that I wanted money and lots of it. So I took a job as a receptionist at a bay area law firm. Within my first month I became inspired, surrounded by strong men and women who commanded any room they entered. Paralegals were treated like gods and I wanted in. I worked my ass off learning every single thing I could and soon worked my way up to a full time legal secretary/paralegal and went back to school to get my degree in Paralegal Studies. (I was never issued my degree due to my inability to pass math -7 times!- but thankfully my transcripts saved my ass) Throughout this time I began taking on Executive Assistant (EA) and Personal Assistant (PA) tasks as well. The organization and structure of it all lit a fire in me; I was expected to give perfection, to know exactly what to do at the drop of a dime, to read the minds of the Managing Partners and execute.
I had finally found my calling...Well I more fell into than anything else but I was on a high and I didn't plan on coming down. I continually looked for more challenges and as I grew and moved on to higher caliber positions in the legal field my skills as an EA became unrivaled. I took every play in my book learning from the hardest hitting and most demanding attorneys in the Silicon Valley and beefed up my EA resume.
Every day I worked harder, I felt like a ravenous wolf devouring everything and everyone in sight.
All the while my old friends are graduating college, finally taking their first steps into the real world, while I was already established with 5 years of hands on experience making close to six figures, no student debt and on a clear, concise and confident career trajectory that I craved.
Though I make it sounds like it was a breeze, I struggled... a lot. Not having a degree really put off alot of people hiring me despite meeting and beating every other qualification on their stupid checklists. Thankfully I made sure to always try and leave a strong lasting impression on my previous employers giving me the ability to provide glowing references to potential employers. It helped but it wasn’t a guarantee. I ran into more rejections than offers but I never allowed it to dim my light. If my resume wasn’t good enough without a stupid piece of paper then they are not the kind of people I wanted to work for anyways.
I put my head down and clawed my way past the naysayers and eventually got my big break with a semiconductor company as an Chief of Staff/EA. I finally got my shot to make a difference and really showcase my skills. I took on every challenge with ferocity beyond even my wildest dreams which allowed me the opportunity to create and enact policies, lead teams, lead a company, build systems and learn new skills I would have never learned anywhere else. I never allowed my lack of "education" to stop me and to this day I believe I am better for it.
I was an unstoppable force. Not because I had a piece of paper showing I could sit through years of useless torture but because I fought tooth and nail, took every single opportunity no matter the size as a tool to add to my toolbox and made sure to use every resource my companies made available to hone and perfect my skills*. Instead of allowing doubt and insecurities to rule my life I chose to use them as leverage in my own career. Just when people counted me out I came out better and stronger than ever before.
I soon realized that even after reaching such a high in my career that I still wasn’t satisfied. I wanted more.
Thus came my brainchild, The Executive Solution. A place where I could take my skills building out startups and small businesses and helping solo entrepreneurs on an Administrative, Executive and Operational level. Their one stop shop for everything admin. I would be able to do what I loved as an EA all while being my own boss.
It has been a long hard road but the reward is unparalleled. I am no longer making a six figure salary but I have found something so much more valuable; I have found my happiness. The money will come, that I know, my skills and passion for EA work will guarantee it, but the missing link was happiness.
So many believe that your degree will secure you money, power, titles and endless perks thus creating some form of happiness but it is not always the case. Experience, hard work and a willingness to push your boundaries is what gets you far in the Silicon Valley. So many of the most successful CEOs and Entrepreneurs here never finished our their college degree, and though I can’t speak for them, I can speak to the fact that the most successful people here are the ones willing to put in more time and effort into their dreams, finding out what they truly love and building their career around that rather than picking a major out of a hat then sitting in a room listening to someone else preach about their own success from 20 years ago.
Success is earned through hard work and lots of failure, not in a classroom. When I hire my EAs it’s a rigorous process but one factor I could care less about is your degree. A degree shows me nothing that your references and hands on experience won’t back up.
Now, please don't mistake this article for disdain against those who chose the collegiate route. I have the utmost respect for anyone who was able to earn a degree, but respecting those who know that is not their path is just as important. College is not for everyone and that is ok. The Silicon Valley is built off of dreams of a bunch of kids who were crazy enough to chase them, and I feel blessed to be among them.
Being an EA is not just for the people who have no degree and nowhere else to turn. We are a very talented and powerful group and it is up to us to break the stereotype of the "glorified secretary." For all who are looking to break into the EA industry, get advice or just want to share their experiences, contact me. If anyone will understand the struggle, it’s me.
*A major perk of Silicon Valley life is that most companies now offer to pay or subsidize fees for classes and webinars for job specific skills. Take advantage of every single one!