Graduation season may, on its face, seem like a universally happy time of year. As smiling people of all ages don caps and gowns and hold up scrolls for the camera, the pictures that flood social media in the spring are pictures of achievement. Degrees of all kinds are congratulated, and why shouldn’t they be? Attaining a degree — any degree, whether it’s for passing kindergarten or getting a PhD — is a feat. However, a degree is not the only measurement of success. Just because you’ve got no tassel hanging from your rearview mirror, doesn’t mean your achievements aren’t worth celebrating.
The trope of the trailblazing entrepreneur who dropped out of college (see: Steve Jobs and Zuck, just to name a few) is a popular one, especially among dropouts who are trying to feel better about their decision, but there’s definitely validity to the fact that a degree is not an automatic key to fame, fortune, or even success in your field. A college education does statistically decrease your likelihood of ending up unemployed, but it’s certainly not a guarantee that blowing tens of thousands of dollars on school (particularly a school in the creative arts) will secure you a spot at a cushy job. It’s also just not something that’s possible for everyone.
Just as we often (incorrectly) speak of freelancing as if it’s always a choice made by those who are able to opt in and out of the kinds of work they like best, a degree is also not something that many people even have the option to consider. The high cost of higher education, coupled with the opportunity cost of taking time away from work or even possibly having to move to another city or state (or country!) which has a campus makes college, art school, and even trade school out of reach for many curious learners. As a result, many of us end up going it on our own, designing our own curricula through a combination of on-the-job training, YouTube clips, clever Googling, and a whole lot of trial-and-error.
But of course, there’s no degree in autodidactism, and there’s no greeting card section for teaching yourself a new skill.
Regardless of whether your achievements came with a piece of paper and a firm handshake from an older fellow dressed like an extra from Harry Potter, the things you do in life matter. This graduation season, congratulate yourself on what you’ve done and, especially, what you’ve learned.
And to all the new graduates, congratulations. You worked hard. You earned it. Keep learning.