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.

 

Screenshot_2018-11-30-10-24-52
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

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

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

 

Public Speaking Bomb

Happy Labour Day!  Things have been busy here at work while we gear up for the new academic year.  Students are around, schedules are messed up, and people are scrambling to get back into the right mindset to kick off the new term.  Things are bustling and busy.

I don’t intent to keep a post trend going, but I wanted to ride some of the wave from last week’s psych-out post and talk about another recent failure I experienced at work.

Last week, I had to give a short presentation to college faculty about the research ethics board I’m on.  The purpose of the presentation was to remind faculty that the board exists, and to have them consider whether an ethics review is needed for their or their student’s projects.  I had a 15-minute block of time and a slide-deck provided by our board coordinator.

After the presentation, I sat down and wrote out all the ways the presentation sucked.  In fairness, two of my colleagues went out of their way to complement my presentation,  and that they took away the two main deliverables (that student research projects should be run by the board, and that I’m available on campus to answer questions).  I checked in with my boss and she, too, agreed that the presentation was not a failure as I saw it.  I know that my perception of how things went will be dramatically different than how others perceive me.  Nevertheless, I know that I am capable of doing much better and the main culprit of my failure was because I didn’t practice out loud before the talk.

Here is the list I generated:

Everything that went wrong (and why):

  • Didn’t practice the slides
  • Didn’t build the deck (it was pre-made and sent to me; building the deck would have made me more familiar with the content by necessity)
  • Too rushed
  • Unstable speaking patterns (rambling ticks)
  • Poor intro
  • Poor conclusion
  • Didn’t plan my transitions
  • Didn’t know how the transitions were set in the slide (i.e. need to click to reveal text)
  • Missed content from the page.
  • Had to look at screen to figure out where I was
  • Didn’t know I’d have to hold a microphone (I knew this from past All Faculty meetings, but I should have anticipated it)
  • I was holding the mic and the presentation remote – my hands were full
  • Didn’t pause to calm down or collect my thoughts
  • Bad presentation but saved with good will from prior relationships with faculty + my position (junior to the faculty)
  • finished in 8min or 15min.
  • Didn’t have a firm point in mind that I wanted them to take away from talk.
  • Didn’t edit slides to remove non-essential content

You can’t win them all, but it’s important to know where you go wrong so you don’t make the same mistakes again.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

The Animated Bibliography

*Update: I’ve added bullet points to the bottom since the time of original publication.  New points are identified as “New.”

I’ve made references to the concept of the “animated bibliography” in a few recent instagram posts.  I first started conceiving of the idea when I wrote a short self-reflective critique of my habit of reading self-help books.

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-/16 The Achievement Habit by Bernard Roth. The concept of design thinking and Stanford's "D School" has been on my radar for a few months. The book was listed in an article I read so I checked it out. Given what I've read over the last year, it's pretty par for the course. It was refreshing that it wasn't an animated bibliography of research like other books I've read in the genre. Instead, it is written with a lot of anecdotes from the author's life as a mechanical engineer and professor, which I found quite enjoyable and a nice change. To be honest, the thing I was more excited about was that I listened to this for free on the #Libby app using my @kitchenerlibrary membership. While I like my Audible subscription, I love my library more and am glad they offer this for audiobooks. #books #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #productivity #habits #learning #audiobook

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I doubt I’m the first person to notice this trend in publishing, and I’m not entirely confident that this is a new trend at all.  The more likely explanation is that this is something that has gone on for a while and I’m just too stuck in reading the same books listed on every “must read” list to see the broader context.  Were I to read books that were published earlier than the last decade, perhaps I would see that book have always used this strategy to convey information.

Nevertheless, it would be fun to take on a bit of a research project to see whether this trend has proliferated from a certain point in time, who the early adopters were, and how quickly it’s accelerating.

For the moment, here are my early observations:

  • The animated bibliography is a style of nonfiction where the author uses a micro expression of some authority to explain or contextualize some broader universal “truth.”
  • The authority is either scientific studies or biographical case studies.  Biographical case studies are not always literal examples, but can also be mythical or metaphorical examples.
  • The material is rarely discussed from the negative; that is, the material is presented as a causal relationship to explain a phenomenon, but less commonly are counter-examples, counterfactuals, or false-positives discussed.
  • The author is usually repackaging the work of someone else, rather than the original author of the micro expression.  For example, there is a difference between Daniel Kahneman writing a book reflecting on behavioural economics and his original studies, and someone invoking a study published by Daniel Kahneman to explain an phenomenon.  The animated bibliography would be the latter, but not the former.  The animated bibliography is a presentation of the things the author has learned.
  • The animated bibliography has parallels to how research papers are written at the undergraduate level.
  • The animated bibliography can be thought of as a narrative stitched together.  A series of vignettes (chapters) that bring stories together under a broader meta-narrative that provides a unified theory.
  • The animated bibliography is a method of delivering nonfiction, but it is not necessarily meant to be a moral lesson.  It is protreptic in aim – it attempts to be explanatory, if not educative.
  • The animated bibliography typically falls under a few key genres of nonfiction: business, productivity, leadership, personal development or self-improvement.
  • In isolation, the animated bibliography is merely a geneology of ideas, but taken as a genre it becomes self-referential.  The same studies and case studies start popping up over and over.  These, in turn, get meta-referenced by popular authors who write about them.  For instance, a reference could take the form of a book referencing another author’s book about a series of published studies.
  • Hypothesis: this phenomenon (if it is a new phenomenon) is an emergence from the overlapping worlds of start-ups and founder idolization, social media-fed ennui, high technology, scientism, and people’s inability to move from idea to action.  The books are proliferated as instructionals and how-to’s to solve a behavioural problems.  They paint an ideal way forward, but the fact that they keep getting published, and that a market still exists, means that no one book can actually be held up as the definitive voice.  The plurality exists because they singly do not provide broad answers.
  • The market creates a series of urtexts that spawn and inspire secondary and tertiary levels of reference.
  • *New* The author takes on an authoritative tone in the books, but uses the references to others as the source of their authority.
  • *New* Rarely is the book the result of a lengthy period of research or work in the field as a practitioner.  Instead, the book is the product of some period of immersion or research in the topic at hand (e.g. the author spent a year working on the topic and is writing a book about it).

I’ve deliberately kept things vague in terms of which authors and books I have in mind when I make the observations above.  Perhaps in time, I’ll have more courage and name names of those I find to be the biggest offenders of the genre.  For now, though, I choose to remain silent.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan