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You Don’t Need a Degree to Live An Unconventional Life of Travel and Creativity

A while ago I did an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit about Global Goose, long term travel and my unconventional digital nomad lifestyle.

There were a lot of interesting and well thought out questions (as well as some trolling of course – it is Reddit after all). One of the common questions was about formal education.

“What kind of education should someone get if they are looking to travel the world as a freelance writer and travel blogger?”

“Do you need a degree to be a digital nomad?”

This was my answer:

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So, as promised (well, actually 3 years later. I’ve been busy traveling the world, give me a break.) I am now writing this blog post explaining why I feel that my Fine Arts degree is pretty much useless and why I could have spent 4 years and over $20,000 much more effectively. (Thank God I am Canadian, in the USA university costs so much more!)

My success as a freelance writer and digital nomad is due to hard work and risk-taking, not qualifications. My university experience mostly just cost me money and caused me frustration. I truly believe you don’t need a degree to succeed – especially if your dreams involve travel, the creative arts, entrepreneurism or other unconventional pursuits.  

My University Story

I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a Major in Visual Arts. When I was 18 I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew that I wanted it to be something creative. I had enjoyed art class in high school and I had met a few adults who made a living as visual artists, so that was the program of study that appealed to me.

What I wore under my gown on my graduation day from high school
Judging by my attire at my high school graduation, I didn’t have the decision making skills to make a $20,000 decision.

When I chose the visual arts program I wanted to learn a couple of things. First of all, I wanted to learn how to improve my technical art making skills – painting, blending colours, perspective, etc. – so that I could manifest the creative ideas in my head into a physical form. I also hoped that I would learn how to make a living as an artist and develop the skills of marketing myself, creating work that will sell, submitting it to galleries, etc.

I wanted to be able to create things that resonated with people and make a living sharing my unique perspective.

I learned absolutely nothing about how to do this. I found myself in a strange and surreal environment where everyone was trying to one-up each other with pretentiousness.

In one of my sculpture classes, a student placed a Starbucks coffee cup on a plain white plinth in the middle of the room. That was it. That was their art piece.

An avant-garde statement, or sheer laziness? I didn’t think she could get away with it, but my professor pondered over it for a moment before extolling its brilliance. He gently moved the coffee cup to the left three inches, hemmed and hawed, then proclaimed, “Now, it’s a completely different piece!” Everyone in the class stroked their chins thoughtfully and I wanted to bash my head against a wall.

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I honestly can’t believe I spent four years standing in class critiques talking about how an empty Starbucks coffee cup on a plinth is a comment on society. When I graduated, I still couldn’t paint or draw any better than when I started and I was fed up with the ridiculousness of the art world. I compare it to the well-known fable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. Even when an art piece was ridiculously pretentious, no one wanted to admit they thought so because they would look uncultured or like they “didn’t get it”. I went along with it to get the degree but it felt empty.

I can’t believe how many bullshit pretentious films I watched, how many meaningless assignments I got and how many hours I spent in class critiques with people saying pseudo-intellectual nonsense that really meant absolutely nothing. I sometimes felt like I was in Kindergarten.

Daniel Clowes, 1961. Art School Confidential,1991-
Daniel Clowes, 1961. Art School Confidential,1991-

My sculpture teacher actually drove us to the airport one class so that we could sit there for two hours and watch planes and helicopters taking off and talk about how they went through a “transformation in meaning” as they left the ground. I’m pretty sure she was high.

Before I was even halfway through the degree I wanted to get out and do something else. I wanted to travel, work abroad, study abroad or even just quit school and work in a coffee shop. I wanted to do something that would actually give me a learning experience or at least earn me some money – I was sick of spending $5,000 in tuition every year for this ridiculous circle jerk of absurdity.

Daniel Clowes, 1961. Art School Confidential,1991-
Daniel Clowes, 1961. Art School Confidential,1991-

But I stuck with it to the end of four years. “Maybe next year we will learn something valuable…” I kept telling myself. I felt pressure from my parents and from society to stay at university– after all, we are all doomed to be failures if we don’t get a degree, right? Well, I now believe that’s not true.

When It Comes to the Creative Arts, Qualifications Are Pointless if You Are Not Good at What You Do

“But Kelly, surely it’s good that you have some form of qualification, right?”

Yes, I have a qualification in Visual Art in the form of a very expensive framed piece of paper in my parent’s basement. But does that mean I actually improved my art skills?

I’ll let you be the judge. Here are some of my paintings. I apologize in advance.

You Don't Need a Degree
I call this one “Study in Amateurish Colour Mixing No.34”

This is the level that my skills progressed to in my art degree. These paintings are devoid of depth and perspective and they look simple, childlike and clumsy.

kellyart3

The only development I made in terms of technical art skills came from looking up techniques on my own or learning from other students (a classmate was the one who taught me how to mix skin tones).

If the only skills I learned were from my own research and practice, what exactly was I paying tuition for? I should have spent four years teaching myself how to paint from Youtube videos.

kellyart

I wanted to punch my painting prof when he said “I love how naive and childlike this one looks.”

I was going for surrealism, not naivety – I just can’t fucking paint!

“But, a degree looks good on your resume,” you might say. “A lot of people won’t hire you if you don’t have a degree!”

This may be true in many other fields, but it doesn’t really apply to the creative fields. If you want to be a lawyer or a doctor a degree is necessary. You simply need to have the qualifications to even get the job. This is good thing in these types of jobs – I wouldn’t want someone operating on me if they had not gone to medical school.

But in the creative fields? Your shiny framed piece of paper doesn’t mean as much as your hard work and talent. You are looking to hire a musician to play at your wedding. Two artists audition… do you choose the one who has the music degree – or do you choose the one who was a better performer?

When it comes to the creative arts, I believe that “the proof is in the pudding.” When someone is buying a painting, do they check up on the CV of the artist to see whether they have an art degree? When an editor is reading over a manuscript do you think it matters where the writer went to school? No, they make their decision based on the quality of the finished product. Would you be more likely to buy the shitty paintings above because you know that I have an art degree? Nope, the qualification doesn’t make them any less terrible.

I now make a full time living as a writer. I get freelance writing jobs based on the quality of the content in my portfolio – not because I have a BFA (which isn’t even in writing). I was good at writing when I finished high school, but the only reason I am better now is because of enormous amounts of practice – first as a hobby and now as a career.

I want young people to know that they don’t have to go to university to be successful in a creative career– and to think carefully about the choice because it might not be the best option for them.

If You Are Lazy and Directionless, University Won’t Help

When I make this point, a lot of people say, “Do you really think that young, immature 18 year old you would have been able to be successful without a degree? Maybe you would have just partied and messed around and accomplished nothing?”

You Don't Need a Degree to Live An Unconventional Life of Travel and Creativity
I suppose my job now involves working from hammocks, so I might appear lazy…

That’s not the point I am making. I’m not claiming that I had it all figured out at 18, or even four years later when I graduated. But why do people assume that if young people don’t go to university, they are bound to simply sit on the couch and play video games for the next four years?

Adults really sell young people short when they assume that, left unguided, they will simply take the path of least resistance.  Wouldn’t you feel terribly insulted if people implied that, without the structure of school, you would just become a useless delinquent?

If someone has a drive to accomplish thier creative goals and craft an unconventional living for themselves – going to university might not be the best way to do that. They may be able to take their enthusiasm and creativity and do something much better with it.

If they don’t have a drive to accomplish their creative goals and craft an unconventional living for themselves, university isn’t going to magically give that to them. They will drift just as aimlessly as before – but they’ll just be drifting deeper and deeper into debt.

In my university classes I saw quite a few students who didn’t show up to class, half-assed the assignments and barely put in any effort. They were not motivated to learn and being in a formal university setting didn’t change that.

I’m not comparing university with spending four years doing nothing – I’m comparing it to other alternatives that might be more suitable depending on the person, their career path, their interests, their learning style, their life goals. Some people will find university the best way to reach their goals. Others would benefit more from taking a gap year and working abroad, or perhaps volunteering in another country. Some would benefit more by working as an apprentice for someone in their field.

My point is that young me could have been just as prepared for success (or possibly even more) had I done something different with those four years. I could have worked as an apprentice to a successful artist and learned lots of skills from them, or perhaps worked as a salesperson in an art gallery and gathered insider knowledge about how the world of art marketing worked.

Even if I had a day job that was totally unrelated to art, I could have enjoyed the stable income while building up a freelance art career on the side. After all, that’s how I managed to become a full time freelance writer – by working an entry level job in childcare during the day and writing on the evenings and weekends until I established myself. It took discipline, hard work, relentless self-promotion and dedication to make a full time income in the arts – not a degree.

Create Your Own Learning Experiences

A couple of years ago I saw an article about a study abroad program at NYU that was so absurd it actually annoyed me. It was a program where young writers would live abroad in Paris for a month in order to emulate the experiences of great writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Joyce. I thought it was absolutely hilarious that students were paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition to imitate the lifestyle of poor writers in Paris.

you don't need a degree
Paris, France

I added up the total cost of the Writers in Paris program and it is $9,200 for one month in Paris. The program only includes one 2.5 hour workshop per day and some writer’s talks in the evenings. I could go to Paris for a month and spend my time writing and networking with other writers and learn just as much, for a fraction of that price.

Next they will have a “Frida Kahlo Art Program” where you will pay $10,000 to sit there and paint in a body cast for three months in Mexico City so that you can pretend you have been in a bus accident. But seriously, I see University programs like this as being similar to expensive package tours. It would cost a quarter of the price to organise the same experiences on your own, but many people choose the packaged option because taking control of their own travel seems intimidating.

If it is your dream to emulate Hemingway and the Lost Generation in Paris, that is awesome. You don’t need University for that. Simply buy a cheap flight to Paris, rent a cheap apartment, live on next to nothing, hang out with other poets, writers and artists, meet this generation’s Gertrude Stein and write as much as humanly possible. You don’t need a degree to do that. 

Hemingway wasn’t in Paris on a summer semester abroad from NYU.

The writers that the program focuses on were experiencing Paris on their own terms in a way that was not conventional at the time, which is what made them so influential and brilliant. You know you want to create an unconventional life for yourself that is based on your interests and passions. Why in the world do you think that following the path of conventional formal education is the only way to do that? It’s not the only way and sometimes it can be as frustrating as trying to draw a sunset with grey charcoal.

you don't need a degree
Andes Mountains, Argentina

Is University Worth it For You?

If you are studying to be a brain surgeon, an engineer or an electrician this doesn’t apply to you. It is true that conventional jobs are more friendly to those who have some form of higher education. However, this article is for you if you know you want to make a living in an unconventional way and you aren’t sure how that fits into the “blueprint” that society has laid out for you.

If you are a young, creative and adventurous teenager you might be wondering whether it is worth attending university or not. Is it worth the money, or can you craft your own learning experiences that will be more cost effective and valuable? What if you want to do something like travel long term, start your own business or create a freelance career, but everyone you know is encouraging you to follow the conventional path of higher education?

It’s hard to get an unbiased answer out there, especially when articles like this one are obviously sponsored by universities themselves and are similar to a pig farmer telling you that pork is very healthy for you. Just like the ways adults scare young people away from travel in this article, the advice you are receiving might be coming from people who don’t really understand or appreciate what you want your life to be.

I can’t tell you if University is worth it for you – it’s up to you to decide. However, I just want you to know that’s okay not to go, especially if not going means that you are doing something that works better for you. You don’t necessarily need a degree to live a successful and fulfilling life.

you don't need a degree
You can go your own way…

Awesome Resources

Here are a few resources you might find very interesting:

The Self-Guided Education Manifesto – It’s long, but totally worth reading.

7 Strange Questions to Help You Find Your Life’s Purpose

LifeHack – DIY Education

About Kelly Dunning

A Canadian freelance writer with a love of art, culture, literature and adventure, Kelly loves exploring foreign lands and expressing her experiences through the power of the written word.

2 comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more in this article! Despite having a minor degree in English and my major in Media Arts, I didn’t get that far. It wasn’t until my previous job as a CX agent, where I wrote emails everyday to customers is when I learned the craft.

    On the subject of traveling, don’t fall for the packaged deals. They’re overpriced and if you just plan accordingly, you can do it on your own and save money!

    Just practice, practice, practice, until crafted the work to your liking.

  2. Fascinating & from the heart Kelly! Great read.

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