Most of us would agree the standard model of success begins something like this: Go to school, study hard, get good grades, graduate, find a job and build a career. No doubt this is some good wisdom to follow, but a good education alone does not a successful career make. Likewise, lacking formal education is not a sure cause of failure. The story we’re talking about here is a close cousin of the inspirational “rags to riches” stories we love to hear about, except the “rags” in this case are a choice to abandon that old tried-and-true wisdom, to veer off the main road and track your own path through the brush. It doesn’t quite work out for everyone, but every so often one of these trailblazers leaves behind such a fine clearing, that those from the main path begin to take it. That is what distinguishes the stories on this list.
These wildly successful and influential Renaissance men owe their achievements, in some part, to rejecting the standards of achievement imposed on them. Rather than slip into the world through the usual channels, they worked hard at a way for the world to come to them. Here are the stories of 10 people who changed the world without a high school diploma:
10. Quentin Tarantino: Movies
The legendary director with an estimated net worth of $90 million was a serial drop out. He left High School at age 15 after only one year to attend full-time acting school. Two years into his acting course, Tarantino quit again to became a lowly employee for a video rental company. It was there he claims to have learned the bulk of his directorial trade, doing field work on the kinds of movies people loved to watch. He has since gone on to write and direct classic films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill with enormous box office success. In 2005, Time Magazine included him in their 100 Most Influential People in the World list. Today hailed as an iconic writer and movie director with a groundbreaking sense of plot and aesthetics, he has also penned some of the most recognizable lines in movie script history (In France they call it “le Big Mac”). His most recent production, Django Unchained, raked in over $425 million, making it is his most successful film to date.
9. Dave Thomas: Fast Food and Branding
When the founder and CEO of Wendy’s died in 2002, he left behind a net worth of $4.2 billion dollars. Dave Thomas has been called one of the most successful brand developers in history, appearing in more than 800 advertisements from 1989 to 2002 and transforming Wendy’s from just another burger joint to a global franchise with over 6,650 locations. As of 2012, Wendy’s dethroned Burger King to become the second largest hamburger fast-food chain in the U.S.—despite this, Dave Thomas dropped out of high school when he was only 15 years old to work at a small restaurant. Thomas later went on to obtain a GED in 1993, when he was 61 years old.
8. J.D. Rockefeller: Banking and Oil
Just hearing the word Rockefeller brings dollar signs to mind. One of the richest men in American history, the legendary baron and businessman spearheaded the modern oil industry in America and made so much money that he managed to give away over $540 million (in 19th to early 20th century dollars) before he died. Oddly enough, young John Rockefeller left high school two weeks before graduation to take a modest ten-week business course in bookkeeping. Some forty years later, J. D. Rockefeller retired from running his co-founded Standard Oil Company and lived, quite comfortably, another 40 years. Today, his net worth is estimated at $336 billion.
Thomas Edison: Inventing
One of the most prolific inventors in American history, Edison’s name is tacked on to everything from the light bulb to the motion picture camera to the phonograph. A far cry from the mad basement scientist clawing away at bits of scrap metal, Edison transformed patenting and inventing into a qualified, quantified science using the principles of mass production. A penner of many an inspirational quote, Edison attended elementary school for a grand total of 3 months before the age of 10. By the end of his life, he held 1,093 US patents in his name and had founded 14 different companies, one of which, General Electric, still remains one of the largest publicly traded companies in the world. Today, he has an estimated net worth of $12 million dollars.
6. Sir Elton John: Music
The stage seemed lit up for Reginald Kenneth Dwight from the start. The iconic singer-songwriter and performer took up piano at the age of 4, and won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music at 11 for his talents. But young Reginald had his own plans for success; six years later, just before graduation, he dropped out to pursue a rock career. Changing his name to Elton Hercules John and forging a partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin, he would go on to craft one of the most illustrious and successful careers in musical history. Elton John’s estimated $370 million dollar net worth comes from a five-decade career which has sold over 300 million records with 25 Top Forty, 16 Top Ten and six Number One hits. The now knighted Sir Elton is both noted for his activism against HIV/AIDS, and notorious for his lavish spending on real estate, cars, parties and art.
5. David Karp: Tumblr
Learning HTML at the age of 11, Karp dropped out of high school at 15 and spent his adolescent life working on various software projects while being home-schooled. After a successful gig with an online parenting forum called UrbanBaby, Karp launched the microblogging platform Tumblr in 2007. By its second week, the platform had attracted 75,000 users. Today the most popular blogging platform on the web, Tumblr was acquired by Yahoo! for $1.1 billion in May of last year, and Karp remains the CEO with a net worth of over $200 million.
4. Walt Disney: Animation
The man needs no introduction, but let it be known that The Walt Disney Company today has estimated annual revenues of $35 billion. Disney’s legacy is so huge that it’s easy to forget he was actually a person. His very name conjures images of fantastical worlds and dream-like orchestrations, like a scene from Fantasia itself. Disney was a master at delivering animation and imagination to the masses, creating arguably the most timeless characters and films in the history of not just motion pictures, but fiction and mass-culture. The estimated $5 billion artist-businessman extraordinaire left high school at age 16 to join the army, got rejected for being too young, then opted for the Red Cross by lying about his age. Being sent to France as an ambulance driver following World War I, he collaged his ambulance with future Disney cartoons.
3. Ray Kroc: Fast Food
McDonald’s is by a long way the largest and most successful food enterprise in human history, sporting some of the most powerful and culturally cross-cutting brand images in the world – yet few would recognize his face as the man behind the McDonald’s success story. As a young boy, the Czech businessman left school at 15 and, like Walt Disney, lied about his age to become a Red Cross ambulance driver (the two actually met in training, and remained lifelong friends). After a long career in various sales jobs, Kroc joined McDonald’s in 1954 after selling the original McDonald’s brothers a handful of milkshake machines. Seeing enormous potential in the barbecue burger joint, he offered his services as a franchising agent and gradually grew the company into a worldwide operation. At the time of his death in 1984, Ray Kroc was worth an estimated $500 million, with Mcdonald’s holding 7,500 locations in 31 countries and a company value of $8 billion. Today, Mcdonald’s serves around 68 million customers daily in 119 countries, and has a net worth of $90.3 billion.
2. Henry Ford: Cars
On one hand, Henry Ford is the quintessential American entrepreneur. On another, he is the face of an entire conceptual framework which came to define industrial production in 20th century North America. Henry Ford is a lot of things: the man who gave everyone a car (so long as it’s black), the man who invented “the $5 work day” (that’s $120 today), the man who popularized the assembly line, and the man who had some not-so-kosher opinions about Jews. What most people don’t know about Henry Ford is that he dropped out of high school at age 16 to work as an apprentice machinist. A rare talent for mechanics and technical tinkering, Ford quickly rose through the ranks of the Edison Illuminating Company, and began investing time and money into gasoline engine experiments. Within twenty years, he started the Ford Motor Company which unleashed the Model T onto the world, and the rest is history. Ford’s net worth today is an estimated $199 billion.
1. Benjamin Franklin: Founding Father
Yes, the man on every $100 bill in America had no official schooling past the age of 10. Ben Franklin began working for his dad at the age of 12 in Boston, and spent his teenage years apprenticing for his brother in the printing trade. An early talent for writing and highly ambitious, Franklin went on to be one of the most influential and instrumental figures in 18th century America, and of course, a Founding Father by the end of his life. A renowned polymath, there was seemingly nothing Ben Franklin couldn’t do, with invaluable contributions to fields like print and journalism, political and economic theory, the science of electricity and heating, and moral philosophy. Though he never defined himself by his wealth—he famously wrote he would rather die useful than die rich—Ben Franklin amassed quite a lot of it in his lifetime. According to his will, he left behind several homes, 3,000 acres of land, a hoard of jewels, and a hefty account.
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