Self Qualified & Degree-less: How to Sneak in the Back Door to Your Career

A long, long time ago, there were no such things as schools or credentials. Your reputation in the community was your certification. Your diploma came from the school of real-world, hands-on practice.

Institutionalized training and schooling has changed that. You can now get a degree or certification in just about anything. And there are certain professions where this is a necessity (doctor, dentist, therapist, etc).

But this isn’t the only way you can build authority. Where there is a traditional, obvious path, there is always a less obvious, hidden path.

So, you can get someone to qualify you (degree, certification), or you can qualify yourself.

Qualifying yourself is what I like to call the backdoor method.

A lot of people will never take this approach, because it’s unconventional; it’s unorthodox. Not only that, it’s messy and requires a lot of self-initiative. Not that the conventional path doesn’t require self-initiative, because it does. It’s just that the unconventional path is not so neatly laid out. Without such a clear road map it can be hard not to get frustrated and give up.

I’ve pretty much taken the “self-qualified” or unqualified path my entire life. I’ve always been self-taught. I dropped out of high school. I went to college and didn’t follow a set course (I only took classes I was interested in). I’ve found ways to establish credibility and authority that don’t involve a set of credentials or transcripts.

Backdoor strategies for self-qualified success

  1. Find someone who’s done it. Seems obvious, right? If you want to learn how to write for magazines… contact some editors. If you want to learn how to be a firefighter, make a trip to your local fire station. Whatever you want to do or become, there’s a pretty good chance if you ask enough people, you can find someone who’ll be willing to answer some of your dumb questions. This is not necessarily done with the intention of being apprenticed, but to get a road map from someone who’s been there. Once you know what it takes, the mystery and scariness of the unknown diminishes.
  2. Get a mentor. After you’ve found someone to bug, the next step is to find someone that will actually take you under their wing. I personally found several mentors when I wanted to get into coaching. Finding someone to teach you can be as easy as being in the right place at the right time, or doing a lot of leg work emailing, calling, or showing up at events. The best way to find a mentor is to be where they always hang out.
  3. Get a library card. Books can’t teach you everything, but they’re a good way to go from not knowing your ass from a hole in the ground, to having a decent grasp of a subject. Books are great supplementary education. They’re essential for refining and exploring different approaches, and they’ll help you get started. They won’t take you completely to competency, but they’re a good, obvious place to start.
  4. Have conversations. Did I mention that this is a messy path? “Having conversations” sounds awfully ambiguous and imprecise. However, it can be highly effective. Simply starting conversations about the topic that you’d like to become an expert in will often lead you to unexpected insights. The more conversations you have and the more diverse group of people you talk to, the more you’re likely to learn. They will lead to gaining new insights, building relationships and making new connections.
  5. Tap into your tribe. Find out where the people in your industry hang out. Then go there. A lot. Go to meet-ups, conferences, summits, special events, workshops, parties, or whatever other kind of group meet-up you can find that relates to your pursuit. You can do this online as well, by hanging out in social media circles.
  6. Give yourself away. Once you’ve got a decent handle on whatever you’re trying to establish yourself in, try giving yourself away. Create a service and offer it for free. Whip up a mockup product and give it away. Hold a contest where the prize is consulting time with you. This serves two purposes: a) You get more experience and b) If you do things right, you’ll get free testimonials.

Once you’ve started to gain a foothold as a budding expert, you’ll need to find a way to demonstrate that authority to others. That’s how you’re going to build trust, create relationships, and ultimately… make money.

So, here are some “renegade” methods for creating social proof

  1. Create a blog. The word “authority” comes from the root word “to author.” By demonstrating knowledge and giving away content for free, you demonstrate your authority. Pretty simple, right?
  2. Borrow someone else’s authority. Authors do this all the time. They write a book and cite a bunch of other established authors. And in doing so, they borrow the credibility of others. You can do this, too. Write for other established blogs, get reviews by a-listers (or even b-listers to start out), hang out with leaders, write for a well-known magazine or website. There are plenty of ways to do this.
  3. Get recognized. This will eventually happen in some way or another. Someone might talk about you in an article, newspaper, website, or an event. You can then (with permission) use what they’ve said as an endorsement. This isn’t something you can directly control, but you can indirectly control it by putting yourself out there a lot. The more you put yourself out there, the more likely you are to be recognized.
  4. Give yourself away again. I know I mentioned this previously, but it’s worth saying again. Do something to give yourself away. Hold a contest and give the winner a consulting package in exchange for a case study or testimonial.
  5. Help others. The best way to generate social proof is to be a good person. The more you help others, the more generous you are, the more value you provide, the more people will talk about you. Word of mouth is the best credibility, because you don’t have to do any convincing; someone else is doing it for you.

This is a quick-start guide. The more you follow this course, the more you’ll discover ways to qualify yourself and create authority.

This route isn’t for everyone, though. For those who prefer a more established, secure approach, the conventional path may be the right choice. For those that prefer a more messy, self-taught path, this will work incredibly well for you. Of course, you can also create your own mix of both.

Follow a proven framework to earning a living from your passion

My bestselling course on making your first $1k from your passion helped a community of over 2000 adventurers. You can be our next success story.



Comment & Add Your Voice

Travis Webster-Booth February 9, 2010 at 5:54 pm

What a fantastic post. “Qualify yourself”- I love it.

I especially like the mention of libraries- perhaps the most underused and free resource available. From audiobooks for long car rides to books on any subject, it’s all there.

“You dropped 150 grand on a fucking education you could have gotten for $1.50 in late charges at the public library.”
-Good Will Hunting


Marcus Sheridan, The Sales Lion February 9, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Jonathan, great post man. Really strong stuff…I loved your points about how just about anything is possible with a strong mentor and good books. I talk to so many people about their dreams and what they truly would like to be doing and most of the time they feel handcuffed because they see their only method of achieving such goals is by attending classes, having multiple teachers, etc…Now I’m not saying ‘schooling’ is a bad thing, but let us not use it as a crutch– which is why I find your story so appealing. Keep up the great work.


Mike Turitzin February 9, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Thanks. This is useful info on a topic that isn’t spoken about much.

I’d like to add one tip to your list: Collaborate with others.

Even if your collaborators have no credibility of their own to lend to your project, simply having multiple people working on a project gives it an air of credibility — especially given the amount of one-man bedroom projects in many fields, like music. I know from my experience that I’ve felt more “legitimate” working on projects with a team than I have on my own, even if there was no real difference between the projects beyond how many people were working on them.

Also, it helps to have another person or two out there promoting the project to their contacts. And of course, you can divide the workload and gain a lot from multiple perspectives.


Avil Beckford February 9, 2010 at 10:44 pm


I liked your post. I do not see the situation as either or. I have the traditional education, but I am big on continuous learning. Reading your post was really good for me because it gave me hope that I am not whistling in the dark. I blog at the Invisible Mentor, and an invisible mentor as defined by Washington State University professor Karen L. Peterson is a unique leader you can learn things from a distance.

I believe that people can be mentored by the types of information that they consume. Recently, I have written several articles tying in minute mentoring, mentoring circles and invisible mentors. Yes there are many ways you can get qualified and become an expert by using backdoor means.

On the blog I do book reviews and interviews of highly accomplished people. I learn so much from interviewees. My interview post for tomorrow is with a First Nation Elder, and just interacting with someone who is different from you can turn your thinking upside down, which is the perfect way to innovate.

Thanks for making me feel validated.


Ade Shokoya February 9, 2010 at 11:22 pm

Excellent post. And makes a lot of sense when we realise that ‘being qualified’ simply means “having the qualities, accomplishments, etc., required to fulfil a role, purpose, office etc”.

Unfortunately the school system has caused many of us to equate ‘qualifications’ with some external recognition of our abilities.

But truth is, being qualified is about knowing how to do what to do when required to do it. In other words, adding value. And anyone who’s persistent, passionate and committed to following the steps in your post will get their qualification from the best educational system of them all – the “University of Life”



Craig Thomas February 10, 2010 at 2:11 am

Nice post. A piece of paper shouldn’t mean so much – I’m a competent web developer without any qualifications in the area, therefore by society standards – I can’t be a web developer unless I follow similar steps you outlined such as finding a mentor etc


Jen February 10, 2010 at 2:48 am

Great post Jonathan. I also think people with degrees etc are finding that the traditional career paths aren’t for them anyway (that’s what I have found) and need to make their own paths to really create work that fulfils them. I really like the practical advice, there are ways of creating our own work (especially with the web), we just need to think outside the box.


zip February 10, 2010 at 8:02 am

Great article. I hate schooling always. It should not be compulsory.


Gianpaolo Pietri | The Optimalists February 10, 2010 at 8:47 am


Love this post. I have been living by these words my entire life and always valued the concept of being self-taught. We should all have a choice in what and how we choose to learn growing up. I’ve always had a pretty good sense, based on my internal compass, or my ‘personal manifesto’, of what books I needed to read and what things I wanted to do.

Even though I went to some good schools for Undergraduate and my Master’s, I could have cared less about the degree requirements and often found myself battling it out with my professors and administrators. In away, degrees are a form of distraction that keep you from focusing on what you really want to get out of your studies, because that’s what they are, YOUR studies. Let’s not forget that we are the ones that pay their salaries and fatten up their endowments.

There are some great tips on how to take that desire to be free, and make it work for you as you grow older, and turn your youthful passions into a productive successful career.

The one thing I have always struggled with is finding a mentor, and I’m not sure why.


Michele February 10, 2010 at 10:06 am

This is the first time I’m posting here, but oh Jonathan, I just love you today!

I do have an education…a BA in Legal Studies…and I was a paralegal for five years. (I earned my degree at age 44, after being a SAHM who then divorced). I excelled at family law, but got “worn out” from dealing with the egos of attorneys and the daily huge pressure regarding billable hours. And I knew that what I really wanted, what I was really good at, was to be an Internet researcher, an information professional of some sort, in some way. I just have to figure out that niche of where I could be MOST successful.

I got an opportunity last year on a temp job, as a researcher in a very large law firm library doing NON-legal research as my specialty (there were 9 librarians.) And I LOVED it. I came home singing at night. I was just so overwhelmingly happy. The first week I was there, my boss said, “You’re unlike any other temp we’ve ever had. You just ‘get it.'” And I did, I did! It was such a natural career choice for me. And I’d known that all along. This verified it.

But what I see happening is that, as an unemployed person, even though I discuss with great pride and enthusiasm my two(!) previous temp research jobs, friends and family are only wanting to tell me they’ve seen paralegal jobs–and not even in the specialty I knew about and loved. They just want to shove me back in that slot that I SO do not want. And when I talk to people about research work, who are doing the work, they tell me, “Oh. You have to have an MLS or MLIS for that.” Immediately. Without hesitation. Without even asking me what I KNOW.

No thanks…they’re not killing MY dreams. I have read information career/knowledge book after information career/knowledge book, bookmarked so much online, and absorbed it all like a sponge. This is the perfect career choice for me. It’s what makes my heart sing!

I have already done some of what you suggested. I’m on the right path to success with this. But I have not done other things you’ve written in this post. So I just wanted to say thank you! Today you gave me some more hope, some more courage and a LOT of inspiration!


Michele February 10, 2010 at 10:50 am

One other comment…what I would ultimately like to do is start my own information brokering business. I am well aware of the information brokering manuals that are out there (such as the one written by Sue Rugge). But as you said, Jonathan, “find someone who’s done it.” So has anyone here done anything in the way of information brokering? Thanks!


Robert February 10, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Sensational title AND action oriented advice, say it ain’t so!

Loved these tips and re-reading them to implement. I’ve fallen away from tapping into my tribe or getting a mentor…I’ve been trying all give away heh but one needs a teacher. Loved everything you had to say here. Very much in the same vein about my thoughts on finding success at the little project I’m running on life design. Awesome!


Laura Lee Bloor February 10, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Thanks, Jonathan, these are excellent, concrete steps for someone who is starting from scratch. It definitely takes a lot of free, consistent hard work at first, but that shouldn’t be a problem since you’re performing whatever service because you love it anyway.


Leon February 11, 2010 at 12:38 am

The backdoor approach is pretty much all I’ve ever done. For some reason I’ve always had a problem with authority. I’ve never liked when those that had their certifications in “blah”, or degrees in “bleccchh” attempted to look down their noses at me like my self-taught education wasn’t “the real” education and I must be delusional. Then I’d go ahead and kick their ass in whatever subject we were debating about to begin with. As an example, me apparently being an audio engineering newbie (though I’ve experimented for over 15 years) having the best, crisp, final project (tracking and mastering a 4 minute song with all acoustic instruments) in class compared to the 4 year advanced students’ so-so handovers. It just feels good.

Someone told me that if you read just one book a month in your chosen topic you could become an expert in it in about 5 years. That’s cool and all, but I’d also like to add that if you inundate yourself, utilizing your 3 main senses, and catering to your preferred learning style whether it’d be visual, audial, or kinesthetic plus some simulation time coupled with going out and making mistakes on purpose… I’d say you would be pretty much on your way to mastering “it.” And you know you’ve mastered something when it becomes congruent with your character and no longer something that has to be thought of. Reacting instead of acting. Kind of like what they teach you in Jeet Kune Do and Wing Chun with those massive amounts of drills.


Jonny | February 11, 2010 at 1:33 am

Impressive. Incredibly helpful and very well written.

I have been very impressed with your blog in general.


Amit Sodha - The Power Of Choice February 11, 2010 at 6:02 am

Nice approach using the backdoor method, I conveyed a similar message when I wrote an article recently on why it’s pointless going to university to get a degree. There are so many ways to get to where you want to go, uni is not the only one!

Great post!


Srinivas Rao February 11, 2010 at 9:55 am


This is really interesting to me. I’ve been brought up in the ultimate academic family. My dad is a college prof, and my sister is in med school. We’re Indian (every family needs one doctor). That being said I look back at college and realize I studied things because I thought they would be useful.

Now, with MIT’s opencourseware anybody can get an MIT education at no cost. I actually went to their site the other day and I started thinking about how I would approach it if I only studied what I was interested in. With they way the world is today there are so many backdoors to learn. If a 16 year old kid wants to start his MIT education it’s already there for him.


Nacho Jordi February 12, 2010 at 6:02 am

Great post. When I was at the university I had a hard time with people who considered that a degree was some kind of safe-conduct for the rest of their lives, so once they got it they could stop struggling, learning, improving. For me, university,”orthodox” education, is more like a tool, you can have it in your toolbox or not, but in any case, it should not be your only tool, and, by no means it should be the foundation of a somebody’s self-esteem. Luckily, I think things are changing a lot on that aspect.


Farouk February 13, 2010 at 2:51 am

you know Jonathan, that’s exactly what i am trying to do , your post just motivated me to keep going and made me feel more that i am on the right track :)


Klaus | Guitarhabits February 14, 2010 at 2:17 am

Hi Jonathan,

Thanx for the great insides and reminders.

It’s all about getting out there, getting involved and giving.

Klaus Tol


Duff February 14, 2010 at 2:41 am

Self-qualifying is a pretty conventional path amongst personal development gurus and Life Coaches. I’ve done a lot of it myself, for better and worse. Self-qualifying has advantages and disadvantages.

For instance, Joe Vitale and others have sought out and attained Ph.D.’s from online diploma mills to gain the appearance of expertise. James Arthur Ray appeared on Oprah and Larry King Live, giving him the necessary fame to bilk many thousands of victims out of almost $10,000 each for his deadly workshops.

Many people argue that this kind of self-qualifying is what gave Ray the power to abuse people and that we should only listen to qualified therapists, rabbis, etc. Yet not all of the self-educated and self-qualified are scammers and frauds, and some legit doctors and therapists hurt and manipulate others (hence things like malpractice insurance).

Even amongst the schooled, some amount of selling yourself and networking is necessary for success. In entrepreneurship specifically, success often depends very strongly upon who you know and your reputation…and who has the biggest list.

Advantages to self-education and qualification include thinking in ways not taught in school and “street smarts” which can evade the academically minded. The drawbacks include lack of critical thinking and higher propensity towards fraudulent activity and petty fame-seeking.

Advantages to institutional education include rigorous training in thinking, participation in an established field with a time-tested methodology of study and practice, and much easier credibility (yet some amount of politics, fame-seeking, and selling yourself still applies within academia). Drawbacks include overspecialization, elitism, often a lack of thinking “outside the box” of how you were taught.


Rick February 15, 2010 at 6:05 am

Man, this is crazy! I remember when this site was still brand new, (Seriously, I think I was here when you only had like 5 posts, not even a guest entry on Zen Habits. I remember watching this blog grow and seeing your guest posts become more and more frequent on Zen Habits, I started to see you on other personal development blog rolls.

Then you dissapeared for like two weeks straight only to come back and announce you were working on an eBook.

I’ve seen the evolution of a blog(ger) go from absolute beginner to professional and successful.

All thanks to you. Not to mention you’ve helped lift my mood countless times.

Cheers Jonothan… Mead? For some reason I remember you as Mr Mead, I don’t know why. Maybe thats your sir name or something… Anyway I’m rambling now so I’ll stop.

… Now.



mutuelle February 15, 2010 at 6:50 am

Dear jon, I do not find the words to qualify your article :)


Dan @ Anxiety Support Network February 15, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Good post about taking the road less traveled. People, for the most part, aren’t taught to take this road in life and because of its unfamiliarity, it is a very scary one to most.

But, another important point to keep in mind is that it is fun, you learn a heck of a lot, and you get a great story to tell. I am not a full-time entrepreneur yet, but I am navigating the path, and it’s always inspiring to see others discuss it. Thanks for the post!


Linda Sewell February 17, 2010 at 7:47 am

GREAT post…one of your best, IMHO!
GIVE YOURSELF AWAY is the best advice for someone starting a new venture…
I married and started my family at age 20, so I didn’t have the luxury of going to college. I wanted to be a “commercial artist” (this was a long time ago) so I took a job as a secretary at an agency…learned the business from that perspective and ended up starting my own freelance business. Granted, I gave a lot of my time and energy away, but I was learning my craft and didn’t expect to earn top dollar while I was still making mistakes. My graphic design friends kept chanting “never work on speculation” but sorry guys – I did a LOT of that just to build my portfolio. I can understand why someone with an expensive degree would resent the people who open their own shops “with no qualifications” – but from my experience, being honest about your qualifications with potential clients gives them the opportunity to choose to pay more for an experienced professional, or pay less and give an up-and-coming designer a chance to prove their ability. If I didn’t have a paying client for a time, I’d pretend that I did and work just as hard on my portfolio with fictional companies and products. The point is, anyone can put their name and title on a business card and just DO it (thanks, Nike!) – and though that doesn’t make you an “expert” – it does give you the confidence to say who you are and to what you aspire. Then you have to put up or shut up when the paying customers start calling…


Voranc February 22, 2010 at 11:18 am

Thank you for this post, it came at the perfect time!


Minimalist Ninja March 7, 2010 at 9:45 am

Great post Jonathan! So many of us haven’t achieved society’s acceptable level of institutional education, and a post such as this really needed to be written.


Chris Wolfe April 14, 2010 at 2:28 pm

I read this a couple months ago and stored it away for future reference. Coming back to it again I’m impressed again with how simply you’ve laid out key points to a process that can be so chaotic and fraught. It’s an excellent primer for the next steps I’m taking in my unconventional career as a storyteller, coach, and performer. Thank you for getting information out.


The Dame June 25, 2010 at 3:35 am

I finished high school, but I dropped out of the conventional 9-5 bullshit in my early 20’s having worked since I was 15.

I have no qualifications but Ive been a voracious reader, am a fast learner, curious, observant and if I wanted to, could run a business with employees by myself.

So, I fully endorse the ability to become self qualified. It takes having an open mind, a need for knowledge, being inquisitive, learning from others and reading books to do so.


Leisa September 20, 2010 at 6:30 pm

A mentor once said to me that you are an expert because you say you’re an expert and you do expert work! You have taken this concept to a whole new level! This is one of the best articles I have ever read for someone like me who has three years of a four degree finished with no desire to finish that last year.

Thank you!


Thomas Edward Mrak April 21, 2011 at 3:07 pm

I am proud to be a dysfunctional uneducated “moron” with a penchant for making “beep beep” noises in the form of electronic music.

I am not against higher learning; I am against what formal learning has become.

Education used to be about the enrichment of the self, now it’s about filling in one’s resume for many people; which I think is wrong, and detrimental to the individual, and in turn society.

We need innovators, dreamers, and risk-takers.

I don’t see people like that coming out of University. Instead I see people concerned with pleasing others so they can get a corner office, get a “good job” or go to grad school.

If your goal in life is to do these things for yourself, I commend you. However, I caution the young, and those considering returning back to school to examine themselves first, and find out why they are doing so.

I am not fond of the career concept-

We no longer live in a world where the vast majority of people will stay with the same firm for 30+ years and collection retirement benefits.

I am far more interested in see people who Move the World by the work which they or their organizations do.

Life is too short to sit in a cubicle just so you can surrender who you are to it.

-Tom “Voltage Control” Mrak


Iris November 6, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Jonathan, the longer I follow you the more I come to like and appreciate your advice. Thank you.


Jonathan November 6, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Thanks Iris, we like you too. ;)

saibal de June 12, 2013 at 1:46 am

I have discovered an epoch-making process of physiotherapy which is able to recover even the symptoms of the giant neural disease, MOTOR NEURONE DISEASE.According to proved theory of medical science it is impossible in the world but I made it possible practically. crores of dollars are spending for it’s research in all over the world. I am only graduate in commerce and diploma in physio & yoga being less qualified I can not proceed with this to publish the paper as an inventor. Through this process I want to advance my profession. so .I can represent data in support of mine if you want.I am doing this work I need your help


Leave a Comment

Sites That Link to This Post

Previous post:

Next post: