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

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

Principled Thinking

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While I haven’t finished reading it, I have been thinking about the book Principles by Ray Dalio.  As the title of the book suggests, Dalio has published his comprehensive list of principles that Bridgewater Associates uses as part of its decision-making framework.  He encourages others to adopt this method for refining processes and capturing on paper a person’s or organization’s core beliefs  through carefully considered principles.  The thinking is that these principles create a process for filtering information so that decisions remain within scope by removing extraneous considerations.

I have a notebook that I use to jot down thoughts about myself and my personal development.  I needed a place to collect my thoughts in one place about where I am, what direction I am heading, and where I want to go in both life and career.

Recently, I started sketching out some ideas for what my own list of Principles would look like.  I suppose “principles” might be the wrong word.  “Beliefs” might be a better word; “aspirations” also fits in there because I know that I don’t always do the things that I believe I should do (for instance, 5a and 5b below are things I conveniently forget when I’m mad at someone).

This is an incomplete, work-in-progress list.  I’m not even sure that I’m heading in the right direction, but these were the five things that came to mind when I first sat down to start collecting these thoughts.  Below, I have transcribed the notes seen in the photo above.

Many of these ideas have been taken from the various books I’ve read over the last few years.  I suppose it’s a bit of a distillation of all the ideas that were strong enough to make an impression with me.  I expect that this list will need many more additions and revisions, but keeping it a living document would be beneficial to capture how I grow as a person over time.

Principles

1.) Establish a locus of control
a.) Live intentionally, not reactionary/re-actively
b.) Don’t fly on autopilot on non-value added things (watching Netflix, YouTube)
c.) Automate necessary tasks; set-it-and-forget-it routines

2.) Extreme Ownership
a.) Take ownership over outcomes
b.) Bad stuff happening might not be your fault, but it’s your problem and your responsibility for the solution
c. View setbacks as opportunities for new or different things (“Good” ~Jocko)

3.) Radical Forgiveness
a.) Accept that you are flawed and subject to irrationality
b.) You will make mistakes (and have bad judgement)* – be comfortable with that
c.) Mistakes are fine as long as you learn and grow from them.  Don’t do it again
d.) Dust-off, re-centre, recalibrate, re-engage

4.) Define the problem – Gene Kranz
a.) Determine the scope
b.) Focus on delta’s, not negatives
c.) Never bring problems to your boss unless you genuinely can’t solve them

5.) Empathy
a.) Remember the Fundamental Attribution Error
b.) You don’t know the struggles people are grappling with, or their history prior to your interaction
c.) People want assurance that they are being heard;  that they matter
d.) Never attribute to malice which can be accounted for by ego, ignorance, or differing priorities

*Note added after I photographed the page from my notebook

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

My Best Blog Post (to date)

I set up  this blog as a way to force myself to write.  With a few minor exceptions, I’ve managed to put out a post every Monday morning for the last few years.  While the tone and theme of the blog shifts around a bit, it’s been a pretty consistent thing.

One thing that is surprising to me is the top blog post on the site.  There is one post that consistently gets more traffic than any of the others (almost daily, in fact).  If I didn’t have access to the metrics, I would have never guessed which one it is.

My best blog post, to date is ……. (*drum roll*)….

Zombies, Run! 5K Training App Review

Yeah, no kidding.

It’s far and away the most popular post.  It’s more popular than my landing page, which means that people often find my blog through a Google search before clicking through to the rest of the site.  Below is my top 15 pages according to views.

Top 15

I suppose there are a few good takeaways I could make use of if I were looking to optimize this blog for hits or monetization.  First, writing reviews of popular apps gets a lot of clicks.  As does talking about health and fitness (or, more specifically, failing at health and fitness).  And finally, people like reading about life/career developments – and posting your content to Facebook for your friends and family to read will get you a good number of hits each time.

I suppose now I have a goal to write something that will drive more traffic than Zombie, Run!  Good luck to me.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Office Cards

Until I started working in an office, I had never experienced the “office cards” thing myself.  I actually didn’t realize it was a thing until recently, either.  This is likely to be attributed to the gendered roles of emotional labour – I, as a man, don’t really think about these sorts of things because they aren’t expected of me.  But, in our office, cards are reliably circulated and initiated by the women of our office.  I’m not saying this is right or fair.  The truth is, I should take a more proactive role in these sorts of community-building activities because of my membership to the group.   In my personal life, I’ve taken the habit with a few friends to regularly send letters or thank-you cards for things that happen, but within a work context, I’ve yet to take the initiative.

Before I left the office for my wedding, my colleagues and bosses gathered around my cubicle to give me a card and wish me well for my upcoming nuptials.  The gave me a card with a gift inside.  The gift was thoughtful, but truthfully I appreciate the card more.  Everyone in the office had signed it without me knowing (as is protocol).  A part of me knows that taking a moment to sign a card (especially when everyone is doing it) is a fairly low-effort discharge of obligation; you sign it because someone puts it in front of you and you’d be rude to refuse.

Nevertheless, when I read over the card, and saw everyone’s signatures and well-wishes, it made me happy to be included.  I felt a surge of warmth that my colleagues took the time to do this for me.  I felt the same way when some of the faculty also signed a card to my wife and I.

And this morning, a card was circulated to celebrate one of our faculty members becoming a grandmother.  I felt joy to sign the card, to wish my colleague well and celebrate the birth of her grandchild.  It’s such a small but powerful gesture.

But it’s something I felt like I’ve lost until only recently.  I don’t know if it’s because it wasn’t as common with my family to give cards when I was growing up, or (the more likely case) that as a child I didn’t understand its significance.  That lack of understanding and awareness then was transformed during my transition to adulthood by my lack of care for these sorts of emotional efforts in general.  As I mentioned at the top of the post, men aren’t socialized or expected to perform these sorts of tasks, and I’m no exception to this.  It isn’t asked of me, nor am I expected to think of these things.  Further, no one would blame me for not thinking of this, and I would likely receive a lot of praise if I did.

Truthfully, I’m a lazy person, and I like that this kind of expectation isn’t placed on me.  It gives me a free pass to coast and disengage.  But, I also acknowledge two things: first, it’s not fair that I get a pass for being a guy while these tasks are expected of women; and second, that receiving signed cards brings me joy, which should motivate me to do the same for others in similar circumstances.

Card that express joy for others fortunes, or cards that acknowledge pain and grief in others are worth sending, because it’s a small, uncommon way to stay connected to others in personal ways.  It’s something I should do more often.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Student Coaching

Lately, I’ve noticed that in addition to my roles of administration and teaching, I’ve been spending more time coaching students.  It tends to come up in small ways, such as offering suggestions on how to word emails or how a student should approach talking to their professor about something in their class.  At first I was a little uncomfortable with taking on a coaching role when it wasn’t really part of my job.  That’s not to say I’m uncomfortable with doing tasks that are not explicitly written into my job description.  Instead, I was uncomfortable because I wasn’t sure if it was my place to offer guidance.  Sure, I might be a decade older than most of the students, but I sometimes struggle with the impostor syndrome: what do I know?  I’m just a lowly administrative assistant.

Having said that, I recognized a fundamental truth that I think many people take for granted – students are young.  I don’t just mean young in age, but also young in experience.  Most students haven’t had the same experiences I’ve had, whether that is my post-secondary schooling, grad school, or work.  Things that I take for granted that come second nature to me are wildly new for students just coming into school.  It’s even worse for students who are first-generation college/university students (like I was).  For some, they haven’t had a lot of experience navigating systems on their own.

We bemoan the helicopter parents and make snide remarks that students don’t know anything (i.e. “life skills”), but I think we should have more empathy.  Post-secondary is a big, scary place to navigate.  If it’s your first time living away from home, having to manage your own schedule, finances, and life, would you not also feel overwhelmed?

Instead of starting with the assumption that students are lazy, or wanting everything fed to them on a silver spoon, I try to take the approach that students don’t know how to narrow down their options or choose a path.  They are the modern Buridan’s ass stuck between competing options with no practical way of making decisions or selecting priorities.  Instead they focus on what’s immediate and take the path of least resistance (for them at the time).  Without a longer view and a chain of successes, their choices may seem short-sighted, but in their context it makes sense to them.  If you couple that kind of decision framework with the complex, convoluted machinery that is “real life,” you can hardly be surprised when students make sub-optimal decisions.

In light of this, my response is not to infantilize them, nor chide them for what one would judge to be their bad decisions.  Instead, I offer my perspective and anecdotes to provide teachable moments.  I provide insight into byzantine rule structures and explain my reasoning.  And I ultimately leave decisions or action up to them.  They must take ownership of the process because they have to be accountable for the outcomes.  The point of education is to create a safe space to fail and learn.  Therefore, our goal should be to set students up for success but also provide them with the opportunity to learn through their mistakes, not by punishing them into doing the right thing.  Rote learning works in some contexts, but in order to make deeper connections between ideas and develop ones ability to reason, students need to be coached on how to shift their perspective and see new connections.

And so, I sometimes coach students.  It’s pretty interesting so far.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan