Self-Education Resources

Post-secondary education has never been more accessible to the average person.  We may have a long ways to go in terms of making courses more accessible for learners and reducing the financial barriers that keep students from being successful in school, but it is nevertheless an undeniable fact that there are more people who have been to post-secondary schooling than the entire history of people attending higher learning.

One issue with the proliferation of access is that it’s getting harder to stand-out in the workforce.  With so many people carrying credentials, the golden ticket that a diploma or degree used to confer has lost some of its value.  Your choices are to either go to industries where they are starving for workers (if you are looking for a solid career with good prospects, you should become a welder NOW), or figure out a way to become a better problem-solver to stand out amongst the crowd.

Another issue that complicates matters is that industry and technology is changing at such a rapid rate that you can no longer rest on your laurels that your program of study will adequately prepare you for work in your industry.  The techniques, technologies, and skills you learn in your first year may be obsolete by the end of your final year.

Therefore, it’s important to develop your ability to self-educate.  Knowing where you can find free or cheap resources can be a huge advantage when developing yourself in your career.  Here are some of the resources I use to teach myself.

Top Spot: your Public Library

In my humble opinion, the public library is one of the greatest inventions of all time.  Whether you are taking classes they offer, using resources in their catalog, or availing yourself of the free access to materials like online journals and portals, there is almost no limit to  the access your library card can provide.  When my HVAC system went on the fritz, I was able to check out an HVAC manual to help me learn just what the heck an HVAC system does so that I could understand what repairs were needed, and how to better care for the system in the future.

YouTube

YouTube changed the game when it comes to sharing knowledge.  Don’t get me wrong, books are great (the necessary precursor to the greatest invention of all time; see: public library entry), but unless your book has incredibly detailed diagrams, the video format will always be the superior resource for teaching hands-on skills.  When I had to fix my roof, I turned to videos to learn how to remove individual shingles and replace them myself.

Coursera

Coursera is all the benefits of attending lectures without the associated costs.  Granted, if you want formal recognition of completing Coursera courses, you’ll need to pay for the access.  However, nearly every Coursera course has the option for you to audit the course for free, which gives you access to the lecture content and some of the supplementary material.

Reddit (and other specialty discussion forums)

I suppose I should have used “Google” as the category here since I often will search for solutions through Google’s indexed results.  However, dedicated online communities are some of the best resources to learn from.  They often post comprehensive resources and how-to manuals, and are usually great about providing solutions when you are stuck on specific problems.  If you can find a good community that isn’t locked behind a paywall, you can lose yourself for hours in it’s wealth of information.

Lynda.com

While not a free resource, this is something that my employer has provided to its employees at no cost.  You should check to see if your employer offers any services for employees to self-develop because you might be missing out on a ton of non-financial benefits.  Lynda is a great resource for comprehensive courses on a wide variety of tech and business topics.  It’s a bit restrictive if you are looking for non-business courses, but it’s worth checking out for learning the basics you’ll need to navigate your early career development.

Udemy

Another paid service, I find Udemy great for high tech courses where I want to develop specific skills, such as in Python or in using Adobe software.  I wait for courses to go on sale, and I snap up courses up to 90% off their full price.

Ask friends

My final suggestion is to tap your friends to see if anyone can help you learn new skills.  Obviously, you don’t want to exploit your friends – you should pay for their services where appropriate.  However, in some cases your friends can be great resources to tackle projects.  Not only do you get to leverage their unique skills or experience, but you also get quality time together.  My entire podcast and music run for Woot Suit Riot has been some of the most formative experiences I’ve had, all because I was making stuff with friends.

All of this is framed as advice to help you in your career, however the truth is that you should be seeking to educate yourself for any project your’re interested in, regardless of whether you can get paid for the skills or not.  I took painting classes earlier this year at my local art store because I wanted to learn how to paint.  This isn’t a skillset that directly will get me promoted, but it rounds me out and allows me to explore my creative side.

The point of self-education or self-development is for you to become more of the person you want to be.  It’s often hard work, but the experiences are well-worth the effort.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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Tracking Ideas – A Technological System

Here’s a cool trick you might find useful.

I carry a physical notebook with me pretty much at all times so that I can jot down to-do lists, ideas, quotes, etc.  While my commonplace book system is great, I wanted a better system for tracking those spur of the moment ideas that I want to file away for later, such as blog posts, vlog ideas, career ideas, etc.  I could record it in my notebook, but then I would either need a way to collect them at the end of each month when I switch to a new notebook, or I would be forced to copy them over month to month.

The system needed two things.  First, it needed to be mobile.  My notebook is mobile, but for the reasons above, it was proving to be inadequate.  Tracking ideas in a document or spreadsheet from my computer solves the ease of use problem, but it limits the mobility.  Similarly, just having a digital file on something like Dropbox is cumbersome because, while I can access it from my smartphone, navigating the file directory on my phone is tedious and updating files on a small screen is frustrating for something that I wanted to be quick and painless.

The second need, alluded to in the problems above, is that it needs to be frictionless.  The more complex a system is, the less likely I am to use it over time.  Hacks, systems, tricks, and tips are great, but if it’s a chore to use and implement, I tend to abandon them relatively quickly because, let’s face it, I’m weak-willed and lazy (see any of my posts about failing to go to the gym…)

With those two considerations in mind, I stumbled on an option and found inspiration in a video my vlogging partner, Jim, posted on Youtube:

 

I set about to appropriate his system and adapted it for my own use.

I created an IFTTT (IF This Then That) action that when I made a note from a homescreen widget on my phone, it would automatically save it to a designated spreadsheet in my Google Drive.

IFTTT ingredient

 

I have it set up to just record the date and time of the note, and the notes content to the next empty row.

In Google Drive, I set up a new spreadsheet with multiple tabs.  This way, all the ideas come from my phone to the first tab of the spreadsheet.  From there, I can move the ideas to different tabs to better organize them by category.  In the green cells, I note where I moved the idea, then I hide the relevant row when the information is copied over.  This allows me to have all the ideas collected in one place (the front page), but completed actions are hidden to streamline the process.

IFTTT spreadsheet 2

 

All that was left to do was set up a widget on my phone and start recording ideas.  The widget for IFTTT was already available as an option, so I didn’t need to download any extra applications.

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From my homepage, I tap the round icon at the top-right of my screen.

 

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From there, I type in the idea, usually with a preface comment to help me sort things later.

 

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I then tap the blue circle at the bottom of the note and it sends it to the spreadsheet. 

 

IFTTT spreadsheet

 

It’s been a handy system so far.  I can access the sheet from my phone, but primarily I need it on my computer, so the cross-platform utility is great for me.  It also allows me to captures a wide variety of ideas without needing to put them to separate lists initially, whereas if I captured these in my notebook, it would be hard to sort, search, and categorize without dedicated lists.  I like the flexibility and the streamlined process.

Let me know if you have any systems that you find handy.  I’m always on the lookout for good ideas to test out.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Problem Solving – A Framework

In my first post on principles, I had an entry regarding problem solving – specifically, guidance on defining problems.  That entry is actually a condensed version of something I have hanging in my cubicle at work:

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I printed the post from a Lifehacker article, and have since annotated it with a few extra ideas.  On the left, I stole a line from Tim Ferriss’s Tribe of Mentors to supplement the step for generating possible solutions to your problem.  The simplicity of the question, “what would this look like if it were easy?” allows me to limit the choice pool by excluding unlikely scenarios while thinking about the positive outcomes.

When it comes to evaluation consequences and narrowing down the options, I have added three additional tools.  First, I borrow again from Tim Ferriss where he uses “Fear Setting” to determine the worst case scenarios possible, and then he goes through each outcome and asks himself whether the cost is something that he could live with.  By doing so, he reframes his concerns away from merely worrying about negative outcomes to only focus on the things that matter to him.

I also added a note to myself to ensure I’m capturing my assumptions.  A lot of the time I start with my conclusions and assume they are transparent in their reasoning.  However, if I ask a series of clarifying questions (usually the 5-why technique), I often end up drilling down to hidden assumptions or emotions that motivate the conclusion (rather than pure reason).

The final note I scribbled is in reference to Enrico Fermi who had an uncanny knack making stunningly accurate “guesses” off the top of his head.  Fermi used probabilities and statistics to make educated guesses to solve problems, which could then be further refined.  It’s a tool for quick and dirty estimates, and it helps to narrow down the choice pool.

My annotations aim at four tools I can use to supplement Kranz’s method: what is the best/easiest solution, what’s the absolute worst case, how easily can we figure this out, and what motivations are driving my decisions.  I try to keep those considerations in mind, though I’m not nearly as rational as I pretend to be.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Principled Thinking (part two)

Since my last post on principles, I’ve jotted down a few more ideas in my notebook.  I’ve transcribed my thoughts under the photo below.

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6. Where appropriate, seek to reduce or limit choice pools.
a.) Too many choices is paralyzing.
b.) Extraneous choices impacts rank(ing) orders.
c.) Choice + paralysis  will cause decision friction –> procrastination, and inertia will  grind things to a halt.
d.) Time and resources get wasted in the decision process –> you trade off value.
e.) Most decisions can be whittled down by routine and quick preference (gut reaction) –> use 80/20.
f.) Invest time in deliberation for high stakes outcomes or decisions that interest you.
i.) Also invest when decision process is educative for you.

This entry largely captures what my behaviours are like when it comes to making decisions versus where I want them to be.  By nature, I’m a risk averse and indecisive person.  I tend to sit on decisions far too long, to the point where they can cause anxiety when it’s finally time for me to make the call.

I also tend to lack preferences in a lot of things.  For instance, I usually don’t have a strong preference when it comes to picking a place to eat, so I’m terrible at deciding where to go but I’m perfectly happy to go along with choices made by others.  There are many things I’m starkly black-and-white about (which is really annoying to my wife), but most of the time I sit in a middle state like Buridan’s ass.

Therefore, this set of principled notes captures where I want to be – to quickly narrow down extraneous choices (because too many options usually leads to diminished outcomes), and to automate where I can.  Then, I can focus on the really important decisions or use the deliberation process as a teaching tool for myself.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

The Value of a Myers-Briggs Test

There seems to be a publishing cycle, where every year a new slew of articles are released to damn personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs.  Lifehacker published one recently, and a book was released at the end of summer about the mother-daughter duo who created the assessment tool, which can be paired with a book released a decade ago discussing personality tests more broadly.

A few years back, I was thinking about my career, and I happened to take the test.  According to it, I’m a INTP, the Logician, an introverted big-thinker who is logical but adaptive.  A year later, I took the test again and I drifted into ENTJ territory; apparently in that time I became more extroverted and more rigid in my planning.

This, of course, is the biggest issue with these personality tests.  They tend to overly rely on generalizations of fluid behaviours and attitudes.  People rarely have stable traits over time, and the test tends to loosely clump these together in attempt to create a meaningful picture.  In this, the Myers-Briggs is nether reliable nor valid from a scientific point of view.  As the Lifehacker article points out, along with many others, it’s dangerous when you base decisions on the conclusions drawn from these tests for things like dealing with others or hiring employees.  The best thing you can do, the article claims, is to use it as a fun conversation starter and nothing more.

But I find value in the tests for another reason.

Humans are drawn to stories.  We like crafting narratives to explain events and give meaning to our lives.  While we would want our stories to align with true accounts of history or phenomena (a book I recently bought argues that it’s not possible), we can still find value in stories that are not, strictly speaking, true (I’m appealing to a coherence-model of truth, rather than a correspondence-model of truth; I never thought I’d drag that grad course back up in conversation again…).  We can find value in a story even if we are agnostic towards it being literally true or corresponding to a fact “out there” in the world.

When it comes to my career, one problem I have is that I have a hard time knowing how to sell myself.  When you are crafting your resume or CV, or when you are interviewing for a position, you are trying to create an appealing story of yourself.  You are painting a picture of the kind of person you are that aligns with the demands of the job or the needs of the employer.  Sometimes, it’s hard to create a compelling story for yourself.  You don’t know what to include, what to leave out, and what needs some mild spin.  You have to decide how to play-up key points and downplay unsavory details.  How you choose to connect the dots can make a large impact on what others will think of you as a candidate.  You don’t want to be dishonest, but sometimes the “truth” is very compelling.

One critical area that the Myers-Briggs can offer value is providing inspiration for how to tell that story.  It creates neat little packages that arranges details in interesting ways.  It allows you to take the generalizations and apply them to your own experiences.  It’s the same trick astrology uses – if you make a statement sufficiently ambiguous, you can find confirming evidence to support it.  Using this to your advantage, you can create a compelling backstory for yourself while also prompting you to fill in the details with good stories.

And if something does fit?  Leave it out and move on.

As long as you don’t pigeonhole yourself, you can tell a story about you that shows how valuable, interesting, and desirable you are to others.  The Myers-Briggs can offer some themes and typologies to help sell the best version of you.  Just don’t believe everything you read.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Post-Script: After I drafted this post last week, Seth Godin posted some thoughts about changing your story.  If I’m randomly coming up with ideas that coheres with advice from Seth, I count myself in good company.

~R

Hot Yoga Kicked My Ass – Some Thoughts

Last week, a group of friends and I attended a hot yoga session.  We, as a group, meet once per month to do an activity, and the October leader chose to have us join him for hot yoga.  I had some prior experience attending yoga classes, but this was my first time in a “hot yoga” session.  By the end of the hour, I looked like I had jumped in a lake.  My Fitbit tracked my heart rate and it had looked like I was running sprints.

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My max heart rate was 153bpm, during the hour-long session.

It was challenging, uncomfortable, and brutal.  In other words, it was awesome!

I’m not saying that I’m going to sign-up with my local studio or start buying into the lifestyle; I’m still paying for a gym membership that I don’t use, so I don’t need another cost to my monthly budget.  However, I found the experience interesting and invigorating, and I’d gladly go again in the future.

Cultural appropriation concerns aside, I’m fully on-board with the physical practice of yoga for health and fitness.  Western yoga tends to have a lot of stereotypes and negative perceptions attached to it, but the act itself can be a legitimately hard, physical activity that raises your heart rate, requires a lot of strength for the body-weight movements, and provides the same calming effect you get when you focus on process movements.

I’ve attended a handful of classes and tried routines at home a few times, so I’m not qualified to offer any opinions on yoga.  However, I’ll offer a few observations and thoughts on my experiences as a beginner:

  1. While I’ve never had a bad instructor, I was incredibly thankful that the two people I’ve had leading classes were super friendly, approachable, and accessible.  You feel incredibly awkward walking into your first class, and you assume that everyone is silently judging how bad you are at it.  Having a good instructor in front of you really helps you get into things, and their ability to break down the poses and movements with verbal cues really aids in immersing yourself in the experience.
  2. At the recommendation of a friend, I’ve attempted doing yoga at home by following along with an instructor’s video on YouTube (my go-to channel is Sarah Beth Yoga).  While doing yoga at home is more convenient, cheaper, and less awkward, I still find value in doing yoga in a group setting.  It feels more rewarding in the end to share the experience with others, and having a dedicated time to show up makes you more accountable.
  3. If you are going to buy anything, I recommend buying your own mat.  I’ve used it for yoga as well as doing tabatas at home.  I also recommend buying a thicker mat (the standard mat is really thin) because being a heavy guy, it helps cushion my wrists and knees in the various poses.  Bring a towel because the thicker mat doesn’t appear to have the same grip when you’re sweaty.
  4. BRING WATER!  STAY HYDRATED!  This applies to non-hot yoga as well.
  5. I found the act of yoga to help clear my mind.  Again, cultural appropriation questions aside, going through the motions intentionally and being mindful of what your body is doing or “saying” to you helps with the mind-body connection.  There is something about focusing on your breathing and your movements that creates a singular focus that pushes extraneous thoughts out of your mind.  The added layer of music and sanskrit words pulls your attention away from the past or future considerations and instead into the present.
  6. Speaking of sanskrit, I don’t get too bogged down in the culture.  When in the yoga studio space, I try to be mindful of others and the practice, but because I don’t know too much about the history or origins of yoga, I remain agnostic but open towards the cultural or spiritual side.  It’s not my place to judge, and smarter people than I can weigh-in on the validity of different kinds of yoga practices.  I find value in the physical movement and the slower pace of the activity.
  7. Having said that, I know that as a white dude participating in an appropriated practice from Hinduism, India, and the Desi people, it is loaded with problems (see the link above).  My participation adds to the watering down of a rich culture from which the original practitioners were forced to suppress their ways at the hands of their colonial occupiers.  I can’t square that circle and have to acknowledge it for what it is.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What I’ve Been Reading (As of October 29th)

While it’s only been a month since my last reading update, I’ve turned-over a fair number of books in that time.  Here’s what’s on my nightstand or playing from my speakers this month.

If You’re In My Office, It’s Already Too Late by James J. Sexton

No, I didn’t get this book because my relationship is in trouble.  In fact, it’s the exact opposite.  My relationship with my wife is great, and I want to keep it that way.  I first came across Sexton in a Lifehacker podcast along side Esther Perel and I thought he had some interesting perspectives on relationships as a divorce lawyer.  This book distills his 20-years of law experience and covers a gamut of reasons why relationships fail.  The thinking is that while he doesn’t know what makes a good relationship, he knows all sorts of reasons why they don’t work, and the reader of his book can learn from the mistakes of his clients.

The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene

I pre-ordered this a few weeks back and it just came in the mail, so I haven’t had a chance to get very far into it.  I first encountered Greene through a book recommendation from a friend of mine for his book, Mastery.  I was intrigued with the material in Mastery, so I’ve kept an eye on Greene since.  I listened to a the audiobook for the 48 Laws of Power, and I listened to a bit of his Art of Seduction (though I never finished it).  Greene, like his protege Ryan Holiday, is a master of research synthesis.  While his books are a bit of an animated bibliography, I think it’s the best representation of the genre.  He digs into history to learn lessons from key figures to articulate his thesis.  Instead of reporting on the achievements of others, Greene feels like a chronicler of insights.  I’m looking forward to what this book has to offer.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read this one until now.  I’m familiar with the well-known courtroom scenes from the movie, but I was never assigned this while I was in school.  Since I’ve been reading a steady diet of non-fiction, I thought I should dig into some quality fiction.  I’m less than an hour into the audiobook, but already I find Scout to be an intriguing character (narrated by Sissy Spacek).

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling

While my wife and I were heading off on our mini-honeymoon after the wedding last month, we found it difficult to talk about anything that wasn’t about the wedding.  The planning and lead-up to our nuptials was over a year in the making, so in the afterglow of the party, we didn’t have much to talk about.  Instead of riding in complete silence, we bought a copy of the Deathly Hallows on audiobook for the drive.  I’ve only read the book once, and that was way back in 2007 when it was released (I bought it during a layover in Heathrow Airport on my way home from Kenya).  We only listen to the book while together in the car during long(ish) drives between cities, and it’s funny how often we shut it off to talk about the story, or how stupid Harry (the character) is when you really think about it.  It’s honestly among my favourite times spent with my wife.

Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles

I bought this book with high hopes, but sadly I’m finding it a bit of a let down.  The Ikigai concept has floated around the interwebs and on my radar for a little over a year now.  It got picked up in the blogosphere (mostly on Medium for me), so when I saw the book I thought I should check it out.  This particular book is a hard animated bibliography.  I think its greatest sin is that it talks about Ikigai by first covering other well-known philosophical ideas, such as Frankl’s work in Man’s Search for Meaning.  I had hoped the concepts would stand on their own, or at least be situated with the original Japanese contexts that they were born out of.  Instead, it cobbles together a bunch of summaries of other publications and presents them in digest format.  Because the book is short with big font, I’ll slog through it, but it’s not what I had hoped it would be.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan