There’s no question that self-education has never been easier.
We can consume countless blog posts, articles, books, videos, TED talks, and Reddit AMAs. We take MOOCs, and can study along with course syllabuses from Ivy League universities. It’s awesome. And best of all, no one can criticize effort spent on becoming informed.
But there is a dark side to this glut of free information. It’s enabled a whole industry of self-help gurus, life coaches, and social media marketers to sell snake oil to the masses, tricking people — people who genuinely want to improve their lives — into thinking they can get something for nothing.
I would never discourage someone from learning, especially extra-curricular learning. I’ll just say that it’s only an education (in the schooling vs. education sense of the word) if that learning is turned into knowledge.
And knowledge requires more than just books and instruction. It requires experience. It needs the interplay — the back and forth feedback loop — between theory and practice, hypothesis and results, ideas and action. Reading case studies and listening to the latest social media gurus isn’t going to get you very far unless you have something to practice the lessons on. Education without experience is masturbation. As the saying goes, non scholae, sed vitae discimus — not for school but for life we learn.
So how do you do it? How do you turn lessons into action? Information into insight?
First, you have to just start. As Austin Kleon put it “Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.” That’s the whole point — you figure it out by doing. So none of this nonsense about “being ready.”
This is both the simplest and hardest way to separate yourself from your peers. Why? Because while everyone else is studying, you’re working. What makes it hard is that we’ve been told our whole lives that we need a degree, we need prerequisites, we need to be properly trained. Drop out, get started.
Of course, your education is never over. Doing and learning feed into each other and the sooner you start, the better. As Plutarch puts it, “I did not so much gain the knowledge of things by the words, as words by the experience of things.”
So don’t hold out for your dream job or the perfect opportunity. The perfect opportunity is the one that exists, that gives you any kind of experience, the one that allows you to put anything you’ve learned into practice. The perfect opportunity you keep picturing in your head? That’s your ego protecting you from change — the feeling of pain and failure that is deliberate practice and experimentation.
Don’t wait to be paid for it either. The opportunity is the payment. You want a good job for purely selfish reasons here — you want a place where you can experiment with your ideas and theories. Think about it like being a grad student, you want access to the laboratory where you can run experiments (that they pay you a little bit is a bonus). For some more thoughts on this, check out my piece on mentorships, Charlie Hoehn’s Recession Proof Graduate, or Robert Greene’s chapters on apprenticeships in Mastery.
Second, process. It’s very easy for learning to go in one ear and out the other. Making a concerted effort to record and process what you’re observing and being taught helps prevent that.
If you read a lot, take notes on what you read and transfer those notes into a commonplace book, where you can organize your thoughts. Repeating and reiterating what you’ve learned helps make connections and improve memory. Organizing it into a system means it will be so much easier to retrieve when you need it. There’s a reason that smart people often carry around a notebook.
Writing articles is my favorite. I am always looking for ways to take interesting things I’ve seen, heard, or read and see how I can write about them. Using a quote you like forces you not only to recall it better, but means you have to add analysis and interpretation to it. If I experience something provocative, I try to write about that too.
It doesn’t have to be writing, though. You can process by talking, teaching, or a lot of other means. Struggling to explain what you’re working on feels painful, but it helps. By the end of it, you understand it better. Trust me, it also helps with your sanity.
The point is you have to articulate and analyze what you are seeing. It’s the only way to take the sparks of thought in your brain and turn them into a coherent understanding that you can use for other things. Don’t worry about form over function here. It doesn’t matter if no one reads your blog posts, if your friends only half understands your breathless explanations. Just do it.
Third, expose, then apply. Analogous thinking (where thinking from one domain is applied to another) is incredibly powerful — it’s where real creative breakthroughs happen. But you know, there are two critical ingredients there. An interest in something, and the initiative to try to translate it.
I remember exactly how I got into marketing. Before I worked for Tucker Max, before American Apparel, I had a job working at a restaurant between high school and college. I had developed a relationship with the owner, who could see I was more than just a kid. And I had been avidly reading these local political blogs and noticed that the bloggers would talk about stuff other than politics. I suggested that the guy offer a few of them free meals if they would come in and review the place. The bloggers gave him a bunch of free press. I think he paid me $250 for this idea. Even in my wildest expectations, I never would have guessed I would later write a book about these exact kinds of transactions.
I was working as a server but I had learned and studied something on the side. I combined the two. My career followed. Connections between ideas don’t magically happen. Knowledge doesn’t become action on it’s own. You have to do it. But my idea was only possible because of step one and two — I’d taken some crappy job rather than sitting at home and I’d been fooling around learning and writing. Then I connected the two.
Read and learn widely, but apply those lessons to whatever you happen to be doing. Make connections — however absurd they may seem. You never know where it will lead.
The bottom line is that you can read the best books, have the best teachers, and go to the best schools in the world, but compared to people who do things for a living, you’ll still be a fool. I love reading more than almost anything, probably more than I should. But even I’ll admit that it would be a waste of time if I just let it all accumulate in my head. More than that, I wouldn’t truly know what I’d read because I’d never put myself out there, applied it or made connections.
You can’t put your stamp on the world being a passive student. The proving grounds are in the real world. This means taking risks, it means exposing yourself to new things and putting your own spin on them.
So get going.