How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree

07/02/2012 03:31 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2012

Imagine the plight of the typical college-bound 18-year-old today.

On one hand, we bombard her with stories and data that show college to be an increasingly poor return on investment. Go to college, spend five years there, and when you graduate -- if you graduate -- you'll be rewarded with terrible job opportunities and an ungodly amount of student loan debt. Good luck.

On the other hand, we continue to talk about college as an irreplaceable, golden opportunity. College graduates earn more and get employed more! They have incredible life experiences! So take on that debt, ignore the dire job forecasts, and push on, young explorer -- even if you don't think college is right for you.

Instead of only giving 18-year-olds (and education-seekers of all ages) this Sophie's choice, let's give them a third option: self-directed learning.

First, here's what "self-directed learning" doesn't mean.

It doesn't mean becoming the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. While these dropouts (and many others) show that it's fully possible to achieve wild success without traditional schooling, they're also the outliers.

It isn't about taking a bunch of free online courses. While EdX, Coursera, and Khan Academy are important innovations, courses are only a fraction of what goes into a higher education.

Rather, embracing self-directed learning as an 18- to 23-year-old means embracing your fundamental nature as an entrepreneur at a younger age than most. It means crafting a life of autonomy, mastery and purpose -- the three ingredients necessary for self-motivation -- while also creating value for other people in the process.

What does this look like in real life? To find out, I spent the last two years interviewing dozens of young adults across North America who purposefully chose self-directed learning over college. Many had led highly self-directed lives as teenagers; others floated through the traditional system for years until finally jumping ship. No matter their backgrounds, all these young people followed a similar pattern:

• Instead of following someone else's curriculum, self-directed learners begin by asking themselves what fascinates and drives them. Their journey begins -- and ends -- with self-knowledge.

• Instead of taking full-time classes, self-directed learners give themselves assignments that they find interesting, eye-opening and challenging. They start businesses, find internships, travel the world, read and write about things that fascinate them, and work for organizations they admire. (Many college students do these things too, but the difference is that self-directed learners don't wait for anyone's permission to begin learning.)

• Instead of working on homework, papers, and presentations destined to be seen once and tossed into a trash can, self-directed learners turn much of their hard work into useful products for other people. They write blogs, build startups, create art, record videos, teach their skills, and sell their services. They keep an eye out for the innumerable ways that they can improve someone else's life.

• Instead of relying mainly upon professors and college guidance counselors to help direct their educational process, self-directed learners seek the mentorship of a variety of accomplished individuals. They consult family, friends, businesspeople, writers, researchers, working professionals, retirees, or anyone else who might help them. They keep themselves accountable by sharing their goals publicly and asking friends and mentors to keep them on track.

• Instead of purchasing peer community through college, self-directed learners meet friends through their work, hobbies, travel, networking, and social media -- just as people do in the real world. They try to surround themselves with as many smart people as they can.

• To become financially secure, self-directed learners figure out how to market themselves, get hired in unconventional ways, start their own ventures, and live within their means. They recognize that these abilities -- not a degree -- are the true assets of an economically resilient life.

By doing these things, self-directed learners gain many of the benefits that we associate with higher education -- knowledge, skills, self-awareness, exposure, emotional growth, self-discipline, and work opportunities -- for a radically lower price than the tuition of a traditional college. And they don't take out a single penny in student loans.

Yes, aspiring doctors, lawyers, and members of other licensed professions will still need to go to college. No, not everyone has the background or inclination for full-time self-directed learning. But for the wide swath of young people in the middle -- those with the modest resources, family support, and initiative necessary to craft a personalized education -- self-directed learning offers a viable alternative to the overpriced and too-quickly-taken college path.

Going to college doesn't necessarily equal success, and skipping college doesn't necessarily equal failure. Let's do our 18-year-olds a favor: stop promoting this false dichotomy and start experimenting more with self-directed learning.

College students and teens may download Blake's book, Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree, for free.