Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
As a teenager, I was one of those annoying students who would wait until the day before an exam to study, then cram for six hours straight. I saw good grades as something I knew I could get, but they held little value for me.
But in my final year of high school, I decided to prove the nay-sayers wrong. I studied like I never had before and graduated in the top three of my school. I had succeeded. But by whose measure of success?
Now as an entrepreneur, I ask myself that same question. What does success look like to me — and is there an unusual but better path that’ll take me there?
Let your goals dictate your actions — not the crowd
There are 1 million fewer students at college in the U.S. than there were in 2019. But this number gives me more hope than anxiety.
I dropped out of college twice. A love for technology led me to studying IT, then graphic design and then film. The business world and the prospect of innovation were calling to me. Would a diploma hanging on the wall really help me get there?
Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely upsides to college. Crucial learning for professions like medicine or law, for example. The chance to meet people from all walks of life. But when it came to business, reading from a textbook wasn’t going to get me to where I wanted to be.
Knowing what your version of success looks like is more important than what it looks like to the rest of the world. As you continue down your entrepreneurial path, put every decision you make to the test: Does this follow my values, or the world’s?
If you’re unsure whether your current path is the right one, there are a couple of important ways to evaluate. Let’s see how taking the path less traveled can move you in the right direction.
Know your learning style
I was studying IT at an Australian university (my first kick at the can) when the host family I was living with showed me their new DSLR camera. I had zero idea how to use it, but the manual didn’t really engage me. Instead, I took the camera down to the lake every day and practiced using it. I watched YouTube videos. Talked to people I met about photography. Instead of just learning how to use a camera, I was actively learning how to be a photographer.
Eventually, that story played out again in San Francisco. I studied film there for a year, and while the practical sessions satisfied, the theories and classroom time lost my interest. The majority of my learning as an entrepreneur actually came from shadowing and speaking with tech executives.
Here’s the thing. There’s no right or wrong answer. Some thrive in a classroom, others drop out, and some dismiss the idea altogether.
The more you learn, the more impactful your actions can be. But learning takes many different forms. If a particular learning method leaves you dragging your feet, don’t force yourself. Try something new. There are even quizzes to help determine your unique learning style.
Business books leave me sleepy, but a YouTube video that relates the same content? I’m all ears. Reflect on past learning experiences, as well as school, and ask yourself: When did I learn the most?
Get work experience (even if it’s not in your intended field)
After I left college, I ended up living in a building that was full of innovators and entrepreneurs. I would chat casually to big tech executives, shadow them in meetings, even intern with some of them. And I always credit those experiences with where I am now.
If you’re done with school (and you aren’t looking to join a profession like medicine or law), find a position at a local company in an industry you like. Even if it’s as an intern for a bit. Joining a professional community can further that experience, allowing you to connect with people in a chosen industry in a more social format — it’s like college without the classroom. Your job title doesn’t matter, but the hands-on experience and insight into what working in that industry looks like do.
No one at the age of 18 knows what his or her future holds. It’s about exploration, and sometimes taking the path less traveled can give you the biggest adventure and reward.