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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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

The Gap Between Reading and Doing

 

“For studying courage in textbooks doesn’t make you any more courageous than eating cow meat makes you bovine. By some mysterious mental mechanism, people fail to realize that the principal thing you can learn from a professor is how to be a professor — and the chief thing you can learn from, say, a life coach or inspirational speaker is how to become a life coach or inspirational speaker. So remember that the heroes of history were not classicists and library rats, those people who live vicariously in their texts. They were people of deeds and had to be endowed with the spirit of risk taking.”

— Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Skin in the Game

One of my big personal shortcomings is my inability to turn knowledge into action.  A few weeks back, I talked about how I tend to read a lot in the area of personal development, to the point of feeling over-saturated in the field.  However, for all the books I’ve read in the past two years in this area, I can’t really point to a lot of areas where I’ve successfully translated what I read into meaningful action.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t personally developed myself since 2016; I would say I’ve come a long way in two years to improving my life and myself.  Yet, in a pure comparison of books to identifiable changes, I can’t really say that a lot of specific changes have been made.  This seems somewhat at odds with the nature of the “advice” these books give, where you can deploy specific hacks, tips, and protocols, and everything will be better.

I don’t have a good explanation for why this is the case.  I feel it goes beyond just being lazy (though I am quite a lazy person).  I think the closest explanation that I can offer is something akin to a lack of confidence meeting decision paralysis.  I lack confidence in my ability to make decisions, so I research and read to see what others have done.  But there comes a point where I have too many options available, and I fail to cross the threshold from knowing to doing.  Rationally, I know that seeking more knowledge does not necessarily mean I’ll be more likely to act (there’s a quip that if knowing more was the solution, no one would need to diet and everyone would be healthy).  The gap between knowledge and action, where the will lies, stubbornly refuses to shrink for me.  This could be my fixed reality, but I’d like to think that I haven’t found the right combination of motivations yet that would bring me to where I want to go (setting aside the problems with the notion that I have to wait around for a muse to motivate me).

This could also be a problem because I have too many things on the go (the old “I’m too busy” rebuke).  With too many balls in the air, I’m worn down with just managing how things are going in the present, and I have little cognitive bandwidth left to steer me in a direction I want to go for the future.  This, too, is a personal shortcoming for me, but I think it’s a separate concern from the action-gap.

Truthfully, I don’t have a meaningful, satisfying way to close off this post.  I don’t have a magic bullet that will fix the problem for me.  I can’t say that I’ve found a solution to the problem, and that this post is building towards a resolution.  It’s an ongoing problem for me, and I hope that by bringing it to the surface, I can at least be aware of the problem and try to work around it until the gap can be plugged.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

Reflections on Self-Help and Diminishing Returns

If you were to ask my fiancee, she’d tell you I have a book-buying problem.  I buy books faster than I can read them, and I have a small collection weighing down my shelves at home.  In a month’s time, we will be moving houses and part of the burden is to box the books and be mindful just how heavy books in boxes can actually be.  I prefer printed books, but I also have a steadily growing Kindle library and now an Audible library.

For 2018, the pace of my reading has slowed down significantly since 2016 and 2017.  At present, I have only completed 10 books for the year (with many half-read books strewn around the house).

If you go through the books I’ve read since my first reading list in 2016, you will notice a large proportion of my books fall under the self-help and personal development banners.  While I acknowledge that these books have been helpful in kicking off my attempts to make positive changes at work and in my life, I’m noticing a trend – I’m not really getting as much out of the books as I used to.  I seem to have hit a point of diminishing returns.  I started noticing it in the books I was reading, but it’s also spilled over into the daily lists of articles I get from Quora, Pocket, Medium, etc.

There is an over-saturation of the same studies being cited and a dearth of tips, tricks, tactics, protocols, hacks, systems, routines, mental models, and insights that tend to recycle similar themes.  Especially mental models – those seem to be in vogue right now with the online think-pieces and people creating courses for you to enroll in.

I also noticed that the further out from primary sources you get, the more recycling you find.  There tends to be four broad classes of folks who populate this domain:

  1. the innovators who write reflectively about what they did or the systems they created (the Ramit’s, the Dalio’s, the Covey’s, etc.);
  2. the populizers who interview, report, and connect ideas from the innovators (the Gladwell’s, the Duhigg’s, the Ferriss’s, etc.) ;
  3. the repeaters who recycle from columns one and two (this is typically the people writing Medium and Quora posts and asking you to sign-up for their email lists); and
  4. the folks who spend a year doing a thing then write a book about it, which pairs something they experienced with a study/book/system that is supposed to give insight or explain what happened in case study format (I won’t name names here, but the books are usually structured like those in group 3 above).

I wish the insight above was mine, but in full disclosure I had read this idea from someone and for the life of me I can’t remember where (the irony is not lost on me).  I suppose the only thing I’ve added to the above is item four.

I know it’s not fair to pigeon-hole people into only these four categories.  Some people in the second group produce novel insights that place them in group one, and some who write in group one are also guilty of slipping into group two from time to time.  The point is not to dismiss the books that are coming out, but rather to try and objectively draw circles around them in meaningful categories.

I think the diminishing returns I’m seeing is a result of my desire to find a magic bullet to fix whatever problem is “holding me back” from being in a place I want to be, mixed with one of my greatest flaws – I will read, and read, and read, and never make behavioural changes to take action.  Instead of making progress towards my goals in a meaningful way, I instead stay “productive” by reading.

Will this stop me from reading these kinds of books?  Probably not. Let’s be honest, these books are designed to be appealing.  They are a mix of relatable narratives and the promise of a better tomorrow.  They are my harlequin romance novels, my pulp reads.  They are easy to digest because someone else has done the thinking for you.  It’s my own kind of soma that keeps me peaceful and happy.  I know it’s not really that nutritious, but I enjoy it as a guilty pleasure nonetheless.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

A Reminder to Myself

Last week was a crazy week.  At work, it was the perfect storm between closing out the business of the previous semester, getting the next semester off the ground, and working to start all program reviews before the college faculty disappear for the summer.  In that time, I had meetings on top of meetings (and in one case, two meetings running concurrently).  I had students queuing up to see me for help.  There are agendas to be set, committees to chair, and a hundred messages waiting to be read.  Last week was hell, but I survived.

I had to remind myself of one important thing.  In my job, nothing is so important that it can’t wait.  Sure, there are critical deadlines looming over my head, and a number of people rely on me for deliverables.  However, despite the pressure I was feeling, I knew that there was nothing that was so critical that it couldn’t be added to the list of things I needed to do in favour of focusing on more important tasks.

I’m lucky, because not all jobs have this kind of luxury.

This reminder to myself isn’t meant to show-off or flaunt my job.  It’s not to show that I don’t have accountability, or that I’m allowed to slack off.

It’s a reminder of Eisenhower’s Matrix – there are lots of things that are urgent, but it’s critical to recognize and prioritize what’s important.  In Covey’s language, you put first things first.  For Koch, 20% of your tasks will create 80% of the value.  And on, and on.

Last week, it was important to remember these lessons.  I couldn’t serve everyone at once, and that’s ok.  The best thing to do was to focus on making headway where I could, and leave the rest for next week.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Trying Something New – Painting

A few years back, I stumbled across Bob Ross videos on YouTube.  His Joy of Painting series made painting seem accessible and fun, and it stoked in me a desire to try it out.  My experience in creating art mostly was concerned with drawing and sketching.  Only once (in high school) did I attempt to paint a picture (a large Spider-man poster, which was meant for us to experiment with painting along one side of the colour wheel).  Painting has largely been intimidating for me to try until I watched Bob Ross.

A friend who paints suggested I try starting off with an easy medium, like acrylic paint, since oil painting can be both challenging and dangerous if you don’t take the right precautions.  I made a New Year’s resolution to try out painting before the end of the first quarter, and in February I found a local art store that runs beginner acrylics classes.  For four weeks, you learn lessons from a local artist and complete a painting each week to take home.

This week will be the last class.  I’m sad that it’s over already and I’ve really enjoyed the experiences so far.  I’m hoping the store sets up the intermediate class soon, as I will gladly pay to attend that class as well.  When you sign up for the beginner class, you are given the option to purchase a starter kit with some paints, brushes, and canvasses.  I’ve already started buying additional supplies, such as more paint colours, a medium to extend the acrylic drying time, a new kneadable eraser, and more canvasses.  Below are the paintings I made from the first three weeks of the course.

I’ve even started experimenting with paining at home – last week I attempted my first run at mixing flesh tones to paint people (I hope to attempt a self-portrait in the near future).

I’m glad I invested the money in this experience and am looking forward to practicing this new set of skills.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Skills Worth Developing – Resisting “That’s Not My Problem”

The job I have at the college is my first full time job after I finished university.  Prior to the position I’m in, I have worked only full-time hours on contracts and a smattering of part time jobs.  I thought, like many others, coming out of university that I knew what it would mean to have a job, be an employee, and work responsibly.  I wouldn’t say I was unprepared to enter the workforce, but it would be charitable to say that I had a lot to learn, and many beliefs to update.

This is, in part, why I decided to occasionally write thoughts in a series of posts loosely connected with the theme “Skills Worth Developing.”  There are many hard skills that employees should pick up over time to help them do their jobs better and advance in their careers.  Organizations like Coursera, Udemy, Lynda, etc. are excellent resources to help one pick up those kinds of skills.  But many other skills (usually dubbed “soft skills”) are usually picked up through experience and self reflection.  This blog serves both to force me to write, but also to force me to make permanent any self-reflections I’ve had, and these reflections might be valuable to others.

The last time I discussed Skills Worth Developing, I discussed the merits of storytelling as a communication tool.  This time, I want to reflect on a phrase I heard a lot when I first started working – “That’s not my problem” or “That’s not my job.”

You might be wondering why I lump this in with the notion of skills, instead of some other attribute, such as attitude.  True, something like this will overlap with one’s “attitude” while on the job, but I view this as a skill because it’s a habit and ability that can be modified over time, practiced, and strategies can be employed to use it in the workplace.  Therefore, I loosely connect it under the skills area that should be developed and practiced over time.

One other observation I want to make is that this skill – avoiding falling into the “That’s not my problem” mentality – is something I exercised as a beginner.  I think this is a fantastic skill to develop early in your career, but I’m not entirely sure of it’s value when you are well-established in your role.  The value of this skill is that it increases your value to the company when you are still differentiating yourself.  The same can not be said for someone who is either well-established in their company or field, where their value is tied directly to their ability to focus on problems that they can uniquely solve.  In those instances, it’s probably a better strategy to limit distractions from your primary role and duties.

And so, we come to the problem of “That’s not my problem.”  I found early on that many employees in a work environment can take on the “not my problem” mentality for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps they were burned in the past and now refuse to extend themselves.  Some feel overworked and overstretched.  Some are lazy.  For whatever reason, they resist helping others in their duties.

I find two issues with this kind of mentality.  First, it goes against the spirit of cooperation, collaboration, and teamwork.  The workplace is a team of employees who are working towards common goals to advance the interests of the organization (while hopefully advancing their own personal interests in parallel).  Any time someone says to a coworker “that’s not my problem,” what they are in fact saying is “your problems aren’t important enough for me to take an interest.”  They end up placing themselves above the interests of their coworkers and the organization.  I’m not saying that this is wrong per se – I am sympathetic to the ideas that this mentality is easy for organizations to exploit, and that there is no moral imperative to place the company’s interests above your own, so you should guard against it taking advantage of you.  What I am saying is that taking this as a default position undermines the team.  Everyone is supposed to work together to solve problems and strive to the company’s mission.  If you don’t want to do that, what’s the point of working at that company?  I would hardly think that it’s just in service of the paycheque.

The second issue I have with this attitude is it closes you off to development.  I directly attribute my success so far to my willingness to learn outside of my prescribed job.  By helping others with their tasks (so long as it does not prevent me from taking care of my own job area), I am able to develop new hard skills and learn about areas laterally and vertically from my position.  I am better able to see how my role fits within the larger context of our department, which continuously exposes you to new opportunities for growth and development.  You become more valuable to the team and you strengthen your ties with your coworkers.  When you are just starting out, this is a valuable way of integrating yourself and setting yourself up for advancement.

When you ignore the impulse to say “that’s not my problem,” you acknowledge that your coworkers are people with their own problems, concerns, hangups and worries, while also setting yourself up as a person of value for the team.  It is a perfect opportunity to step up and be noticed in your workplace.

That is why I think resisting the impulse to say “that’s not my problem” is a skill worth developing.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan