establishing credibility



While I was speaking at DePaul on Monday, a student raised her hand and asked a very interesting question. She wondered whether I was hindered by not having a professional degree in the life and home parts of my career. She also asked me whether I was thinking of getting a degree in either area as a way to establish myself as a professional.

I was glad she asked the question since this topic gets me feisty. It’s also something that many of my clients and I discuss as well. Many people are scared to go out and do something creative they deeply want to do because they fear that they are not “expert” enough on their topic.

But this is so often not an actual problem at all.

Sure, there are degrees for many fields like medicine, law, and engineering where schooling can be extremely important, if not essential. I’m personally not interested in getting a broken leg fixed by a doctor who hasn’t graduated med school, or doesn’t have a good history of helping patients. And likewise, in creative fields there are many degrees you can get which may give you a certain form of expertise.

However, in the creative world there are thousands of people who did not rely upon a degree or certification to make a huge impact. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs didn’t wait around in college to get a degree in computer hardware and software before launching their empires. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t put in four years to qualify himself as an expert in social media platforms. Joyce Meyer only went to high school, yet runs a $64 million dollar non-profit. And people like Sarah Richardson and Nate Berkus, well established designers, never went to design school.

Part of why I love the blogging world is that it’s impossible to get a degree in “blogging!” All the panelists at Alt Summit had their real-world experience with blogging to back up their advice and information. Sure, some had degrees that might have helped them out here and there like graphic design, writing, or business. But most did not gain a massive following based on a degree.

Their success is based on their experience and what they managed to accomplish with their wits, creativity, and connection to their audience.

This new online frontier gives clients a chance to get to know someone before working with them. We don’t just have to look up someone in a phone book under “wardrobe stylist” and dial blindly. We can follow their blog and see their perspective on the fashion industry before working with them. We can get a sense of their style from their outfit posts and decide to hire them help us perk up our own wardrobe.

Our online presence acts as a portfolio of our work, a living resume, and an indication of our personality. 

We now have the ability to consume content shared by someone before we work with them. We can follow along anonymously until we get to a point where we feel comfortable and trust that they are going to be able to help us ahead of time.

For the creative business owner, this means that the time we spend sharing our lives or businesses online is really all about establishing trust.

The more we can clearly communicate who we are and what we can do for others, the more people will be lining up to work with us.

The best part? Clients are able to self-select the best candidate for their needs. Which means they already admire our skills and want to work with us! They don’t have to go blindly on a friend recommendation, bulletin board posting, or banner advertisement without knowing what to expect.

The technology we have today also makes many creative tools more available and affordable. You no longer need to go to art school to do graphic design. You can simply go to a few local college classes, Blogshop, or do Pugly Pixel’s online tutorials. Or, like myself, you can have a friend sit you in front of a computer for 60 minutes and show you the basics. Then, you can figure out the rest yourself over the next eight years by using the program everyday.

Schooling, whether it’s a formal degree or just some tutorials online will not make you a good designer. Same with business school. Which is probably why I’m so disillusioned by formal schooling in general.

After graduating with a business school class of hundreds, I know that if I was looking to hire a business person to help me, I would not trust anyone based solely on a business degree.

Likewise, none of my business clients have cared more about my business degree than my 14 years of actual entrepreneurial experience.

I learned everything I needed to know about running a business from running a business since I was 15. I went to business school hoping to “take things to the next level” only to find that my time talking to buyers, designing my products, and selling to customers after class helped me learn and grow the business effectively.

Heck, the life and home services I now offer are actually results of reader and client requests. People saw how I have designed my life with intention and asked me to help them do the same. Others saw my apartment and design sense and knew that I had the style they were looking for in their own commercial and residential spaces.

Some might wonder whether my business degree still did really help me to take Jess LC to the next level after graduation. I honestly believe that though I learned a lot about life in college, I think that I would be further in my career had I used those four years to solely grow my business.

Sure mentors, coaches, and experts in relevant areas of my business would have been awesome. And I definitely suggest that new business owners gather a team around them to help them bridge the gaps in their business understanding.

But I could have received that targeted advice at a fraction of the cost of the whole college program, which was largely irrelevant and unfocused on my core needs.

Which is why I’m personally really saddened by the loads of student debt that so many kids are graduating with these days. In order to pay down the insane amounts of debt, they often feel like they have to find jobs that pay top salaries despite the fact that they would rather do something else entirely. Their loan repayments can often now limit their choices.

Your talents and unique perspective draws people to your creative work, not a degree. Or, if they are interested in you due to your schooling but your work does not meet their expectations, they will disappointed.

However, it’s not that schooling is always a bad thing. Teachers and mentors can be powerful allies in tapping into our potential. But if your gifted and you spend a lot of time devoted to your craft, you will naturally grow and strengthen your skills.

To expand on the different forms of expertise, my exuberant client, Kate, sent me an article which explains the four different forms of creative expertise. If you are interested in a creative business, I highly encourage you to take a look at the different variations and identify your expertise.

Now, I’d like to go back to the student’s initial question at the beginning of this post regarding whether my lack of certification has hindered my career. I honestly could only say “no.” The fact that I don’t have degrees in life and home services is not an issue. Because the clients that reach out and work with me are already aware of my experience and background.

If other potential clients are looking for those formal degrees, I never hear from them because they have presumably gone somewhere else and found someone who has the certifications they seek.

Which is really the most beautiful part of it all: people who want to get certified in their creative careers can serve those who value those certifications, as well as those that don’t. And those who do not have a formalized degree in their craft can serve those who are excited to work with them regardless of their schooling.

Because in the end, sustainable careers are maintained by talent and service.

This Post Has 0 Comments

  1. I don’t have a degree in web or graphic design but that’s what I make a living doing. I was passionate about it and am mostly self-taught — online tutorials, and a lot of trial and error. I occasionally get asked what my degree was in, but I’ve found that my work is far more proof of my worth than my degree. I personally don’t like being in a classroom, but had a desire to learn and made it work for me 🙂 Great post Jess!

    1. Jess Lively

      I’m not surprised! I think these days portfolios are the most important part of a graphic designer’s arsenal! Happy to hear you don’t feel limited by the lack of formal degree!

  2. jordanmcbride

    This give me such a huge a boost of confidence!

  3. I totally agree! While I have a degree in graphic design, and I’m really glad that I do, I also think that having a college degree is just barely scratching the surface of what there is to learn, and in no way establishes you as an ‘expert’. Have you read Outliers? Malcom Gladwell says that you need 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient at something, which rings true to me – and for me, design school was just the beginning.

  4. Jess Lively

    I’m glad that this helped you feel more confident!

  5. Lemon Drop Love

    You go, girl! This post is a home run 🙂


  6. Love this post, and this topic! You really can self-teach yourself most anything you want to know these days, and I think it will be interesting to see where eduction/online education goes in the future – especially because tuition costs are absolutely out of control. That said, ever since kindergarten, I’ve loved the experience of going to school, and I always loved socializing and collaborating with my classmates. Who knows what the future holds for education, but I love how blogging can open so many doors, no “official” degree required!

    1. Jess Lively

      Thanks! I am glad you like it and thanks for sharing the article!

      1. Jess Lively

        Opps! Crazy!! You happen to have the same name as the person who sent me the article link and I got a bit confused! : )

  7. Erika

    I couldn’t agree more… many times it is easy to listen to the lies in your head that say–well–you can’t do that because you don’t know “enough”. Can we ever really know “enough”? I think it is more about passion and influence and hard work. Thank you for posting!

  8. I love this post! First, I will say that I was a teacher before I went to school to learn how to be a teacher. I absolutely hated that program. I learned EVERYTHING I needed to know from actually teaching, and the classes were just fluff.

    Secondly, I love this because I’ve been thinking of creative endeavors lately and worried about not having the correct schooling. I find myself saying I should’ve studied communications instead of English, but after reading this it has silenced that voice a bit. Thanks. 🙂

  9. Thanks so much for sharing this. I went to school for product design, and always had an interest in learning graphic design. I talked to a graphic design professor one day and was swiftly told that since I didn’t have a formal education I should, “leave the graphic designing to the graphic designers” Of course, at that point all of my confidence was drained and pursuing those skills felt completely unattainable. It’s funny how one opinion can do that to you! Since then I’ve realized that professor was wrong. Yes, there is definitely value in formal education and there is often a noticeable difference between the work of someone formally trained and someone who picks up the craft as a hobby. But does that mean there is anything wrong with pursuing something that you lack formal training in? Absolutely not, and as you said, your portfolio/work will do the talking! I’m so happy to hear people like you encouraging dialogue on this subject. Thanks for a great post.

  10. Emily Harden

    Thank you for this post, Jess! I think it is one that can spark quite a bit of discussion.

    Education has always been something highly valued in my family. I am the first person in my family (both sides) to have graduated from college and this is something I cherish and hold dear to my heart. The fact that my parents and grandparents worked diligently to ensure that every grandchild in our family has the opportunity to do something their parents never dreamed of is incredible. Not going to college was never an option, it was always an incredible privilege that I never questioned. Now, almost a year post-graduation and with no ‘big girl’ job on the horizon, I sometimes get discouraged about school. I sometimes wish it was easier to find a great job now that I hold a degree. But I never regret my choice to attend school.

    I have spent my first year post grad living with two co-workers and in turn, surrounded by their friends (my fault for signing a year long lease three months before graduation). There are tons of people surrounding me who have dropped out, drink all the time, do drugs, and just mostly waste their lives. And that is why I worry about telling people that you don’t need a degree to do well in life. Do I agree that determined, smart, motivated people like yourself don’t necessarily need a degree? Absolutely. That has been proven a million times over. But in general, I still believe that college is the key to the future.

    These thoughts don’t stem from the knowledge gained in the classroom, but rather from the real life knowledge that one gains in those four years. No, not everyone takes school seriously and does well, but a lot do. And a lot of people need those extra four years of structure and discipline to become the great people they will be one day.

    I agree completely with everything you said in your post, I just worry that on the flip side, discouraging people from finishing degrees often leads to hoards of young twenty-somethings wasting their youth, and that scares me.

    Thanks again for sharing, I look forward to your posts everyday!

    1. Jess Lively

      Hi Emily,

      Thank you so much for your kind and very well thought out post! I totally agree that the idea of not finishing a degree in order to “waste” their time and life doing unproductive or unhealthy things like drinking etc. is definitely not what I recommend nor was I trying to share that it is.

      While I do still maintain that discipline and experience can be gained outside the classroom without a degree it is not the best course of action for everyone, which is why it’s a great idea to follow your intuition on all levels.

      Seeking validation and approval solely from professors, society, or a program is not the key to success. Following your gut will lead you to the right path.

  11. I adore this post. I have been in and out of post-secondary education since 2007 (I got a certificate in 2010 and moved to freelancing instead).
    Experience begets experience. I don’t foresee myself returning to school to increase my salary. I have been working for awhile to establish myself as an employable writer, editor, et cetera. At this point, I feel that returning to school would hinder my ability to actually do work. Therefore, work it is.

Leave a Reply