The Third Door: why higher education isn't the only way toward career development

“Life, business, success… it’s just like a nightclub. There are always three ways in.

There’s the First Door: the main entrance, where the line curves around the block; where 99 percent of people wait around, hoping to get in. There’s the Second Door: the VIP entrance where the billionaires, […] slip through.

But what no one tells you is that there is always, always… the Third Door. It’s the entrance where you have to jump out of line, run down the alley, bang on the door a hundred times, crack open the window, sneak through the kitchen - there’s always a way.”

- Excerpt from The Third Door* by Alex Banayan

The analogy of the Third Door

In this post, we’ll examine career development with this Third Door analogy, and how one can progress in ways that aren’t necessarily the status quo.

Commonly, education is the First Door for knowledge work in the tech industry. Formal education for data science and software jobs are “the main entrance, where the line curves around the block; where 99 percent of people wait around, hoping to get in.”

As a preface, I personally feel that gatekeeping with higher education is flawed, and aim to point out viable alternatives, alongside pointers on how to make the most of one’s current credentials.

The wording from the Third Door quote seems to suggest that the First Door tends to be slow and highly competitive, compared to the Third Door, where rarely anyone goes. I myself used the First Door, waiting my turn to get my bachelor’s and master’s degrees before entering the job market.

The “line curves around the block” for the job market, that is certain. However, luckily, for industries where there is high demand for talent, the club venue capacity is large. That means the line is moving faster, and more new people in line are entering the club, compared other clubs which have already hit full capacity. Hence, even though I used the First Door to enter data science, it was relatively unobstructed.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Inside the data science or software “club”, there are multiple floors. Entering the club via the First Door of the first/ground floor (with a formal university degree) is only the beginning. There are actually more gates within where they check if one has a second floor ticket, third floor ticket, and so on. Each of those floors also have their respective First, Second, and Third Doors.

For simplicity, the Doors can be summarized as:

(Note, as should be common sense, but worth explicitly saying, the Third Door doesn’t include illegal or dishonest ways of entering - which more likely than not will eventually get one kicked out of the “club” entirely.)

The Third Door as applied to data science or software careers

Some observations:

  1. What gains access to the club’s first floor might not work to enter the upper floors of the same club. For example, a bachelor’s degree by itself might run out of steam on the 3rd or 4th floor.
  2. It is possible to ascend all the floors without ever going through a First Door, but rather by using Third Doors - for example someone that doesn’t have a university degree, and didn’t rely on obvious factors such as tenure, becoming VP.

Let’s examine these observations, to see how one can purposely apply this to their own career development. For the sake of only discussing what we have control over, I will skip the Second Door (hereditary factors).

To first discuss observation 1, here is an additional illustration: someone becomes a data scientist with a bachelor’s degree, but feel that they might need an advanced degree such as a master’s or PhD to progress further.

While I have observed that this is common, as most senior and managerial people I have worked with in data science do hold an advanced degree, with a master’s at the minimum, I want to point out 2 limiting beliefs at play here.

If turned away at the First Door, sometimes it is indeed more straightforward to go procure the “entry ticket”, a degree, and try again. However, as established by the Doors analogy, this is never the only way.

In this situation, using observation 2, it follows that it’s worthwhile to see if a Third Door is available. Perhaps one can work on high impact projects and demonstrate that they are ready for the next step in their career, bypassing the assumed education requirement, or start a consulting company, gain experience, then come back to corporate at a higher level.

Oftentimes it comes down to balance. It might not be that simple to find the Third Door. It could even be locked up so tightly, to the point it would be more time-saving to use the First Door method to pass through.

The most important part is to not simply believe that the First Door is the only option, or walk away without attempting to scout out a Third Door option.

Unblock your career planning - two examples

To further make practical use of this analogy, consider some questions I have received from people interested in entering the data science field, but can be applied to any types of careers.

“If I get [this degree], can I get a job as a data scientist?”

The answer is, yes, of course! But this is the behavior of trying to enter via the First Door, where many people are lined up. The line could be moving slower due to entry level roles becoming saturated. If one keeps applying to jobs forever, they will get in, but is the time worth it? Is there anything else one could consider?

“I took a bootcamp instead, which I think is the Third Door. Why am I still not being let in?”

The Third Door is by definition hidden. Just because one door worked for others, doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. By the nature of the Third Door, it is more likely that one needs to try multiple times (hitting dead ends, or finding doors that just lead to the storage room) before they find the way to their own Third Door, that in turn leads inside the “club”.

Related reading:


I use several high level examples in this post about the Third Door analogy from Alex Banayan’s book*, but I think it can apply to most situations in life. Don’t give up because the line to the First Door is too long: try out some ways of finding a Third Door. However, it is often a delicate balance, as the Third Door is quite elusive and might not be worth the additional effort.

I hope this post was in any way helpful!

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