Become More Awesome Through Constant Learning

As a nerd, learning what I can about just about anything is just an inherent part of who and what I am.  Continuous self-upgrading through daily learning is so important to me that I made it one of the foundational principles of the get-badass-slowly approach I am using in my Awesomeness Upgrade Project.   I was delighted this morning to read a great article by Paul Jun over on 99u titled Never Stop Learning: How Self-Education Creates a Bullet-Proof Career.   The points that Jun makes are right in line with the process that I have gone through with the AUP.

Even with a strong desire to learn new things, fitting them in between work and other responsibilities can be difficult.  In Jun’s words:

After a long day at work, Netflix sounds more seductive than spending one or two hours diving into a book that challenges you to think deeply about what you do and who you are.

It’s a lot easier to fit in learning new things when you are young and most of your day is devoted to learning.  That’s one of the reasons I emphasize with my children the importance of learning everything they can in school.  There are some ways to make room in your life for learning, though.  When I was studying classical Japanese in college, the chair of the foreign language department was a very wise man with many talents.  He shared with me his secret: he turned off the television.  He said that one day he realized he was spending an hour a night trying to find something to watch, and several hours watching whatever he ended up settling on.  By turning off the TV, he was able to concentrate on things he intentionally chose to do, and had the feeling of a lot more free time.

For me, staying with a new subject after I have mastered the basic fundamentals has always been more of a problem than being motivated to learn in the first place.  Making contact with the ball, sewing an item, painting a picture, writing a poem, learning a few conversational phrases all have more immediate appeal than mastering the game, becoming an accomplished tailor, becoming a great painter or master poet, or achieving full fluency. Sustaining interest is critical. Jun recommends embracing a student-like mindset and turning self education into a daily habit.  He offers four ways points that he suggests will help ignite and sustain a passion for learning:

1. Start with heroes from the past

2. Take advantage of free educational resources

3. Explore unrelated subjects

4. Make learning a habit

Those four points really resonate with me – especially because they are all principles that I have adopted myself in my own struggles to be more than I am.

1. Start with heroes from the past

As part of the AUP, I listed out the people that I would like to be more like, and the attributes they have that I want.  Mine weren’t just heroes from the past, although many of them were.  And mine weren’t all real people.  In the midst of great giants from the past, I also had fictional characters like Bill Adama, Kurosaki Ichigo, and Rocky Balboa.  Then I broke those attributes into lists of things that are innate and those that can be practiced or learned.  I made myself a list of the things

2. Take advantage of free educational resources

We live in an amazing time when more of the World’s knowledge is available to more people than every before.  Public education, libraries, and the Internet make knowledge available with a lower bar to entry than ever before.  And now with free online courses in subjects from Art History to Zoology, even the skills and understanding  you could previously often only get at great expense are now there for the taking.  Apple’s iTunes U, Coursera, edX, Kahn Academy, Code Academy, MIT’s OpenCourseWare, and others all offer free online classes in a wide range of different subjects.  Students do readings, watch video lectures, interact with other students in online forums and through other mechanisms, and then do homework which is often peer reviewed using principles learned in the classes.  The price of the class doesn’t (necessarily) determine the quality of the education you are getting – it is still true that what you get out of an education is influenced predominantly by what you put into it.  If you do the work and build the skill and develop the habits, a free education can be as good or better than a Harvard degree (although I don’t suppose Harvard would agree, even though they are one of the producers of free online courses).

Jun makes a really good point related to free educational resources:

Picture your great-great-grandparents learning that you have access to all this information. They would likely be stunned that you didn’t spend all day reading and learning.

While I can’t answer for all eight sets of great-greats, I am sure at least a few of them would smack me silly.  Then again, I think that many of my ancestors would smack me silly for any number of differences between their lives our our modern world.

I know that I use free educational resources all the time.  A couple of weeks ago I changed the alternator in our van following instructions in a YouTube video.  I actually learn quite a bit from YouTube (how to draft a sewing pattern, how to play a barre chord, how to spey cast, how to play the Okinawan sanshin, etc).  Last year, in the midst of starting the AUP, I decided that I really needed to level up my organization/operations management skills, so I took a couple Coursera courses on organizational analysis, operations management, and accounting management.  These were real courses offered through real universities but offered for free in a MOOC format through Coursera.  I use the skills and ideas I learned from those free classes almost every day in my job.

3. Explore unrelated subjects

I don’t know whether to call this one a slam-dunk no brainer or to to express confusion at its meaning.  As a nerd, there are very, very few unrelated subjects.  I get the point, though.  There are only incremental personal improvements to be found in studying subjects you have already mastered.  Those incremental improvements are important and can be profound, but they are just more of the same.  Learning something new, like flexing a muscle you never knew you had, can help you to grow in unexplored directions.  When I am learning something new, I find the ideas I am studying leaking into all of the rest of my work – whether it is applying lessons learned from the reign of Lucius Cornelius Sulla to the operations of a non-profit board or adjusting the colors on a report cover or recognizing a key principle from psycholinguistics within a contract negotiation.

4. Make learning a habit

This is the part that is so hard to do.  It’s easy and fun the first few days of learning Klingon.  Days four and five are harder.  I wonder how many get to week two?  Paul Jun has a number of recommendations for this to, including things like organizing a study group and keeping an information book in Evernote.

Not only was this a great read, but it underscores a lot of important principles in becoming more awesome.  Read Paul Jun’s article at 99u.

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