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

 

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

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