The Personal Website of Mark W. Dawson
Famous Autodidactic Americans
Much of the following list is from the website smartandrelentless (which also has non-Americans listed), with some additions of my own. Please note that this list does not contain entertainment or sports figures, as such a list would be rather long and laborious to produce. Some on this list were foreign-born but spent their early or adolescence years in America, which is a sufficient reason to include them in this list. Also, some on this list attended college for a few semesters but dropped out and did not graduate.
Copland – Composer
Aaron Copland was an American composer, composition teacher, writer, and later a conductor of his own and other American music. Copland was referred to by his peers and critics as “the Dean of American Composers”. The open, slowly changing harmonies in much of his music are typical of what many people consider to be the sound of American music, evoking the vast American landscape and pioneer spirit.
Lincoln – 16th President of the United States.
Finishing only less than half a year of formal schooling, the 16th U.S. president self-taught himself most of what he needed in order to become a lawyer and, ultimately, a president. Abraham Lincoln served as the 16th president of the United States from 1861 until his assassination in 1865. President Lincoln led the nation through the American Civil War and succeeded in preserving the Union, abolishing slavery, bolstering the federal government, and modernizing the U.S. economy.
Peter Giannini – Banker.
Amadeo Peter Giannini founded the Bank of America and never even reached college-level education, dropping out of high school because he realized he could do better in business than in school.
Jackson - 7th President of the United States.
Andrew Jackson was an American lawyer, general, and statesman who served as the seventh president of the United States from 1829 to 1837. Before being elected to the presidency, Jackson gained fame as a general in the United States Army and served in both houses of the U.S. Congress. An expansionist president, Jackson sought to advance the rights of the “common man” against a “corrupt aristocracy” and to preserve the Union.
The world-famous landscape photographer made an impact on the world with his photographs despite dropping out of high school.
Robbins – Motivational Speaker.
Robbins did not attend university and still managed to become head and shoulders above all life coaches within the self-help industry. He prides himself on being self-educated. In his own words, “As a young man, I decided I was going to read a book a day. I didn’t quite read a book a day, but over seven years, I did read more than 700 books…”.
Gates – Technologist.
Bill Gates was a dropout of Harvard, quitting the university to follow his passion for computers. He founded Microsoft, which is one of the most successful software companies in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Harland David Sanders – Technologist.
The iconic face behind fast-food giant Kentucky Fried Chicken, Colonel Sanders founded the legendary fast-food chain despite having dropped out of elementary school.
Green – Businessperson.
The founder of the arts & crafts corporation Hobby Lobby, he founded the company with only $600 and a high school diploma.
Karp – Technologist.
The founder of the blog site Tumblr dropped out of school at age 15 and did not bother to pursue college.
Wallace – Businessperson
The founder and publisher of Reader’s Digest dropped out of the University of California twice.
Williams – Technologist.
Yet another entrepreneur who left college to pursue his career, Williams is notable for founding several internet companies, such as Blogger and Medium, as well as being CEO of Twitter.
Fitzgerald – Author.
Having flunked Princeton University due to poor grades, Fitzgerald went on to achieve limited success in his lifetime and is now regarded as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
Eastman – Businessperson.
Without Eastman and the Kodak company he founded, photography today would not be what it is today. Eastman dropped out of high school at 14 years old to support his family financially and worked a number of jobs before launching the photography company in 1880 at 26 years old.
Gershwin – Composer.
George Gershwin was an American pianist and composer whose compositions spanned both popular and classical genres. Among his best-known works is the orchestral compositions Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris, the songs “Swanee” and “Fascinating Rhythm”, the jazz standards “Embraceable You” (1928) and “I Got Rhythm”, and the opera “Porgy and Bess”, which included the hit “Summertime”.
Washington – 1st American President.
America’s first president never took a college course and still managed to be a most influential person of his time. Instead of getting a formal education, he earned a surveyor’s certificate. He was an American military officer, statesman, and Founding Father who served as the first president of the United States from 1789 to 1797. Appointed by the Continental Congress as commander of the Continental Army, Washington led the Patriot forces to victory in the American Revolutionary War and served as the President of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which created the Constitution of the United States and the American federal government. Washington has been called the “Father of the Nation” for his manifold leadership in the formative days of the country.
S. Truman - 33rd President of the United States
Harry S. Truman was the 33rd president of the United States, serving from 1945 to 1953. A lifetime member of the Democratic Party, he previously served as a U.S. Senator from the State of Missouri from 1935 to 1945. He was chosen as incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s running mate for the 1944 presidential election. Truman was inaugurated as vice-president in 1945 and served for less than three months until President Roosevelt died when he became President. Truman authorized the first and only use of nuclear weapons in the war against the Empire of Japan. After the onset of the Cold War, Truman oversaw the Berlin Airlift and Marshall Plan in 1948. When North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, he lobbied for intervention from the United Nations in the Korean War.
Ford – Businessperson.
Dropping out of school at 16 years old, Ford later founded the Ford Motor Company. If he were still alive today, it is estimated that we would be worth $199 billion.
Melville – Author
Herman Melville was an American novelist, short story writer, and poet of the American Renaissance period. Among his best-known works are Moby-Dick; Typee, a romanticized account of his experiences in Polynesia; and Billy Budd, Sailor, a posthumously published novella. Although his reputation was not high at the time of his death, the 1919 centennial of his birth was the starting point of a Melville revival, and Moby-Dick grew to be considered one of the great American novels.
Berlin – Composer
Irving Berlin was a Russian American composer and lyricist, widely considered one of the greatest songwriters in history. His music forms a great part of the Great American Songbook.
London – Author
John Griffith London was an American novelist, journalist, and social activist. A pioneer of commercial fiction and American magazines, he was one of the first American authors to become an international celebrity and earn a large fortune from writing. He was also an innovator in the genre that would later become known as science fiction.
Cameron – Filmmaker.
A filmmaker best known for making science fiction and epic films, he was behind the success of Avatar, and he has found much success in other undertakings despite dropping out of college.
Monroe - 5th President of the United States
James Monroe was an American statesman, lawyer, diplomat, and Founding Father who served as the 5th president of the United States from 1817 to 1825. He is perhaps best known for issuing the Monroe Doctrine, a policy of opposing European colonialism in the Americas while effectively asserting U.S. dominance in the western hemisphere. He also served as governor of Virginia, a member of the United States Senate, U.S. ambassador to France and Britain, the 7th Secretary of State, and the 8th Secretary of War.
Rohn – Motivational Speaker.
The American entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker left college after just one year. According to him, “Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.”.
Osteen – Motivational Speaker.
Head of Houston’s Lakewood Church, with a growing population of more than 40,000 members, the televangelist and pastor never finished college.
D. Rockefeller Sr. – Businessperson.
Two months before his high school graduation, Rockefeller dropped out. The man behind Standard Oil then went on to become the wealthiest American of all time.
Kelly – Publisher.
Having dropped out of the University of Rhode Island after one year, Kelly is most famous for co-founding and being Executive Editor of Wired magazine.
Ellison – Technologist.
Having dropped out of two different colleges, Ellison still managed to be a billionaire after having co-founded the Oracle software company.
C. J. Walker – Businessperson.
Recognized as the first female self-made millionaire in the United States and founder of the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, Madam Walker’s schooling mostly comprised of non-formal as well as self-education.
X – Social Leader.
Having been indirectly told that there was no point in a black child pursuing education by his teacher, Malcolm X dropped out of school. He went on to leave his mark on history by promoting African-American empowerment.
Loew – Businessperson.
Another elementary school dropout, Loew is considered a pioneer of the motion picture industry, having formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Loew’s Theatres under his achievements.
Twain – Author and Humorist
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer. He was lauded as the “greatest humorist the United States has produced,” and William Faulkner called him “the father of American literature”. His novels include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the latter of which has often been called the “Great American Novel”.
Zuckerberg – Technologist.
Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard University to start Facebook, which is now the most successful social media site in the world with over 2.01 billion active users (and counting!).
Kay Ash – Businessperson.
The founder of cosmetics and personal care products company Mary Kay Ash Inc. did not need to pursue a college education to find success in her business.
Mullenweg – Technologist.
Best known for developing WordPress, Mullenweg dropped out of the University of Houston to work at Cnet from 2004 to 2006 before founding WordPress.
Dell – Technologist.
Starting a company from a college dorm is no easy task, but Dell accomplished just that when he found Dell Computers during his stay in college. This would eventually lead him to drop out and pursue the companies’ interests.
Hershey – Businessperson.
Receiving only 4th-grade education, confectioner and philanthropist Milton Hershey would go on to found Hershey Chocolate Company.
Dorsey – Technologist.
A dropout of NYU, Dorsey moved to Oakland, CA, where he founded Twitter.
Allen – Technologist.
Before he co-founded Microsoft alongside Bill Gates, Allen dropped out of Washington State University to work as a programmer for Honeywell in Boston.
Cashmore – Technologist.
Another young prodigy on this list dropped out of college and founded Mashable.com at only 19 years old.
Ray – Media personality.
The Food Network cooking show and food industry entrepreneur never attended college and has no formal culinary arts training.
Kroc – Businessperson.
Another man behind a fast-food chain on this list, Ray Kroc, dropped out of high school and later founded McDonald’s.
Limbaugh – Media personality.
Leaving university after two semesters and one summer, American radio talk show host and political commentator Rush Limbaugh did not have much interest in anything besides radio.
Fanning – Technologist.
The developer of one of the first popular peer-to-peer file-sharing platforms dropped out of college at 19 years old to start development on Napster.
Jobs – Technologist.
Jobs dropped out of Reed College and went to co-found Apple, which is now the most valuable public company ever, according to the New York Times, with a staggering market value of almost 1 trillion dollars.
Wozniak – Technologist.
The billionaire co-founder of Apple helped make the company what it is now despite dropping out of college.
Spielberg – Filmmaker.
The legendary filmmaker’s application to film school at the University of Southern California was never accepted. While not technically a college dropout, he managed to find most of his success without a college degree, only completing his degree by 2002 when he was already an esteemed director.
Jakes – Motivational Speaker and Filmmaker.
Dropping out of school not one but TWO times – once in high school and the next in college – Bishop Jakes went on to become a megachurch pastor, a successful author, a playwright, and a movie producer.
Wright Brothers – Inventors.
Orville and Wilbur Wright managed to invent, build and fly the world’s first successful airplane without formally graduating from high school.
Edison – Inventor.
The mind behind many devices in fields such as electric power generation, mass communication, sound recording, and motion pictures was primarily home-schooled. These inventions, which include the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and early versions of the electric light bulb, have had a widespread impact on the modern industrialized world. He was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of organized science and teamwork to the process of invention, working with many researchers and employees. He also established the first industrial research laboratory.
Warner – Businessperson.
The founder of the stuffed animal company Beanie Babies is yet another notable entrepreneur who dropped out of college and still managed to make a name for himself.
Perry – Filmmaker.
The actor, playwright, screenwriter, and filmmaker, who now has a net worth of $600 million, found much of his success despite being a high school dropout.
Disney – Businessperson.
The man behind Walt Disney Company founded the legendary animation company without even finishing his high school education.
Whitman – Poet, Essayist, and Journalist
Walter Whitman was an American poet, essayist, and journalist. A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works. Whitman is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse. His work was controversial in its time, particularly his 1855 poetry collection Leaves of Grass, which was described as obscene for its overt sensuality.
Irving – Author
Washington Irving was an American short-story writer, essayist, biographer, historian, and diplomat of the early 19th century. He is best known for his short stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.
Huizenga – Businessperson.
Dropping out of high school to join the army and then dropping out of college to pursue his business endeavors, Huizenga eventually founded the WMX garbage company and helped build the Blockbuster video chain.