The story is quite simple. I reckon many of you can relate to it. After the institutionalized education my life lost a thrill that was very important to me and I think it somehow defined my persona for some people. I was that guy who “knew something about everything”. Through college I would devour books, articles, videos or forum discussions on whatever subject felt exciting and new to me. I’ve always had this core interest in social sciences, politics and cybernetics, but that wouldn’t get in the way of also being drowned in digestible physics content. Then my childhood ended.
What to do when the childhood ends?
The first full time job takes its toll on the time and willpower at our disposal. Both are those you need the most to be able to self-educate. Time is something we could manage, but willpower… that’s something else.
You see, throughout the day every decision, every mental calculation, every time you go out of your comfort zone, everything you don’t really want to do but you’re supposed to do – feeds off your ego. Thinking as an activity burns through a lot of sugar. This is why, if you can relate, sometimes you are not really tired physically but every new activity you try to partake in almost hurts in your mind. What worse is that it requires a great deal of empathy from other people to understand this condition and not to mistake it for plain laziness. So often times you can get your ego pushed even more.
It hits you hard that reality is not as carefree in general and some jobs are even more ego depleting than the others.
So is there a way to stay on the top of your game?
Yes, there is. It requires a decent amount of planning and work, but I think it is achievable.
1. First you have to make sure you have the willpower when you need it.
It means that you need to get good with using your leisure time mindfully. Your rest needs to be satisfying. That means making sure if what you call relaxation isn’t further exploiting your ego in the first place. After a hard day at the office, it isn’t very reasonable to get into another mentally demanding task. Likewise, you need to rigidly plan days in which you will self-educate, because it will take a lot of your willpower just to start.
To make it easier for your ego you can try to gamify your self-education plan – it means to create a game-like mechanic so you know exactly what to do and what prize you will get for doing it. In most popular quest-based games tasks are reduced to the most self-explanatory form and you know the exact prize before undertaking it. The majority of popular games have the “experience mechanic” where you work towards filling some kind of a meter and every task you finish results in supplementing that greater effort. But beware, once you put an extrinsic value on the outcomes of your efforts it won’t be easy to motivate yourself without such a reward.
- Plan your work week around self-education if you want to succeed
- Try to not plan your education on Friday night, when it will be hard to follow new habit
- It takes on average three weeks to create a new habit
- Respect your leisure time and rest accordingly to the type of your work
- Try to gamify your efforts
2. Make sure you know “what” you want to learn, “why” and “how”
It can be really easy to get yourself pumped about a new skill or a topic of interest. It is now easier than ever to buy books, bookmark certain knowledge base into your feed or to start a new course on Lynda.com, Treehouse or Udacity. But if you are like me – easy to excite – you have to keep your cool and be rather picky. You’ll commit at least 20 hours to learn a new skill – that’s the amount of time you won’t be getting back through guarantee procedure. If you find something new or get bored within few hours of training, you have basically just wasted one resource which is definitely nonrenewable. Be honest with yourself about what really interests you and what you are capable of learning quickly. Time is, in my opinion, the only asset you should really care about.
It is very reasonable to “spill-over” from one interest or skill to another. It means to find and learn a new skill that has something in common with what you already know. For example, the transition from Web Design to UX Design can be called a spill-over tactic but maybe not so much in case of transition from programming to welding. Within various skills there are sub-skills or methods that are easily translatable to other broader sets – try to build on that. That way you will have more control over the things you learn and sacrifice your time to.
- It has never been easier to start self-educating
- Be sure you commit at least 20 hours of mindful training to a new skill
- “Spill-over” from skill to skill to leverage easily translatable methods
- Build on your strengths and further your capabilities
3. Use new skills. No book or course can teach you about real-life obstacles better than those exact obstacles
There is a great value in knowledge. No doubt. Yet most of the capabilities I can think of are like muscles – if not used they shrink. Memory builds itself on principles of brain plasticity. The more you explore certain paths, the more they get dopamine. The more dopamine they get, the stronger they grow and quicker they respond. “To understand the process” – yes, it is necessary. Unfortunately most skills use a lot of memorized, intuitive commands. The more you can do intuitively, the more resources of your rational mind are at your disposal to polish vital subtleties of particular capability. Think of a racing driver that needs to perform heel and toe breaking pattern – if the procedure isn’t memorized he would be taking care of the procedure first, not the best breaking point, the apex point of the turn and when to accelerate again so the whole operation can be as efficient as it can get. Sole “understanding” is good enough for the commentator in studio watching the whole race.
- Unused capability shrinks. Train it so it won’t
- Understanding is great, but without developing an actual skill it is not good enough
- Memorize a lot as it will sharpen the edge of your skills
- While intuition works hard on mundane procedures you can focus on an actual problematic situation and take control over your new capability
4. When can you tell if you possessed a skill?
Can you put a finger on whether you are skilled in something or not? Let’s say you are a musician. To the outsiders, you can certainly play the instrument of your choice, but you still think that you cannot really play it because there are many great heights ahead of you. I myself would tell you that I cannot play the guitar, because I cannot play some of the virtuoso-level pieces. Yet when someone asks me to play something, I play. Who is right? Well, the outsiders. If not, then no one really can do anything and yet somehow shit gets done. Simple as that.
To get a skill, in my opinion, is to learn it for a fair amount of time (at least 20 hours), do something with it that can be criticized and feeling comfortable to put it on your resume as a skill if needed. If those three are met – you possess the skill in question.
- Don’t get too romantic about your new skill. You don’t have to be famous for doing something to do it and make a living out of it
- Do something with your new skill and get criticized for that. The less you know your critics the better for your skill
- Get 20 hours of training and if you don’t feel comfortable, get another 20
Epilogue: Why 20 hours?
Someone very wise once said that it takes on average 10k hours to master a skill. And that may be the truth. Yet to master and to be able to do something useful with a skill are two very different criteria. We then have to put somewhere an arbitrary quantity of training-hours needed to say that the skill is “known”, and we did so in the past. Your average college course lasts for 15 to 30 hours, driving license course (in Poland) lasts for 20, you can master 5 songs in 20 hours if you are new to guitar, most courses on Coursera counts from 20 to 40 hours. There is a lot to be done in 20 hours of specific and well thought out efforts to learn a new skill. Of course the more the better, but 20 hours isn’t too much either, so we can more easily commit them to self-education.
P.S. Please, tell me in the comments section if 20 hour is too little or too much? Or maybe it doesn’t make any sense to put such an arbitrary value on it?