Six ways to educate yourself outside of formal education

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We can all agree, without a doubt, that education is one of the most fundamentally important things in life, no matter who you are or where you live. However, a lot of people these days have their doubts about the actual value of post-secondary education. Given the rising/high costs of such education in certain parts of the world and the growing opportunity and possibility of making a living in non-traditional manners, I can understand why such doubts are becoming stronger in people’s minds. Anyway, that is not the point of this post, as the title suggests.

School is great in making you competent academically – that is, it’s geared towards developing your ‘hard skills’ – but not enough if you want to become more. It’s not enough if you want to become a better colleague, be a better communicator, learn how to set goals for yourself in your life/career, improve your body language, heck even if you want to become a more loving partner to your significant other. At this age, nobody is going to do the hard work for you, so that begs the question, how do you learn ‘soft skills’ in life? Don’t get me wrong though; hard skills (like knowing how to code or being a brilliant mathematician) are well and good but I believe that to become truly valued as a person and as an employee, your soft skills will make the difference. But what are soft skills though? Wikipedia, the ever-brilliant source of wisdom and knowledge, defines it as the following:

A combination of interpersonal people skills, social skills, communication skills, character traits, attitudes, career attributes, and emotional intelligence quotient (EQ) among others that enable people to effectively navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals with complementing hard skills.
— Wikipedia

Soft skills are criminally undervalued and neglected skills in life and, if you think about it, they are never really emphasized or taught in formal education. Sure, in kindergarten you learn to share with others, be polite, wait your turn, and all of that which is obviously totally necessary in order to be a functioning and somewhat bearable human being. But fast-forward to high school (yes, those crucially important years of your life) and you just hit the books and figure out soft skills through your own experiences. You learn them at home, at school, through TV, and all kinds of places.

Honestly, I always believed that you can be the best, say, engineer in town but if you’re an absolute nightmare to work with because your social skills, communication skills, attitude, and emotional intelligence are garbage, people just will not want to work with and/or hire you. This is obviously not an absolute truth, but I think that for the most part it’s a pretty fair statement. Although I don’t want to encourage going to the complete other extreme – being the best communicator, nicest guy, and emotional genius but not knowing how to tie your own shoelaces – if I really had to pick one of the two extremes, I would prefer having a lack of hard skills but an excess of soft skills. Especially in this day and age, with the rise of Artificial Intelligence, you better be able to do things that computers can’t do if not there will be a robot coming to a town near you to replace you.

With all that said, I tried to think back of all the ways in which I improved (and still try to improve every day) my soft skills over the last few years. I still have a long way to go, but nevertheless I boiled it down to six methods which I thought really helped me to do so:

1. Podcasts. Probably the most valuable educational tool outside of school that I’ve ever used. Despite their astronomic explosion in popularity over the last decade or so, they’re still a relatively new, non-mainstream phenomenon. I say that because really, podcasts are simply on-demand radio (in the same way that Netflix/Hulu is on-demand television, you watch it when you want it) but the average Joe on the street probably doesn’t know much about podcasts while everybody knows radio. Dan Benjamin actually has a very entertaining 10-minute rant about the state and development of podcasting in Quit! Episode 59 (from 32mins onwards). Anyway, a few suggestions I have for podcasts are: Quit!, The Fizzle Show, StartUp, The Art of Charm, TMSIDK, Freakonomics Radio, and Ask Women. Just search iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud, or Spotify for a topic you like and get started!

2. Books. I know, this is such a no-brainer that it’s probably insulting for you so I do apologize in advance. But come on guys, ditch the Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter for just one second and read a book (or e-book on your Kindle, whatever). Want to read 10 minutes, 15 minutes, or 30 minutes a day? Prefer reading fiction and for leisure instead of non-fiction and for serious education? That’s fine, just commit to a routine and get it done. From my experience, reading for leisure is really nice in triggering your creativity and changing the way you view things in life while reading non-fiction is effective in learning more concrete, ‘real’, and actionable advice. Whatever you do, just get in the mindset of committing yourself to a course of action and getting shit done because only you are responsible for the things you do and don’t get done.

People don’t realize that with the proliferation of the Internet, there is so much stuff for free online!

3. Blogs. Another tremendously powerful tool. I suggest using Medium because it has a very nice, clean interface and aggregates lots of bloggers on one platform. It’s a great way to find fascinating topics to read about and follow thought-leaders on a consistent basis. Outside of Medium, I recommend blogs like Wait But Why, The Sparkline, and James Clear. Again, take some time to explore different blogs/bloggers and then find a few that you really resonate with and connect to.

4. Role models/Thought leaders. Following from the last two points, find a few people (bloggers) who write content that you seriously resonate with and follow their work on a consistent basis. Learn about their routines, their mantras, how they became who they are, how they learn, and, most importantly, how they failed to get to where they are today (everybody has failed at least once, surely). Usually, they have podcasts, which is nice because you can hear their voices, style of speech, and sense of humor. Some people that I really admire are Dan Benjamin, Tim Vickery, Merlin Mann, and Chase Reeves.

5. Free stuff. People don’t realize that with the proliferation of the Internet, there is so much stuff for free online. Free webinars, e-books, guides, and much more. Something that big bloggers often do is that if you sign up to their newsletters, you get a free e-book or guide or something like that. So what are you waiting for: make use of those things! Tip: I have two email accounts, one for business/personal stuff and the other for newsletters, online shopping accounts, and all those random things.

Whatever you do, just get in the mindset of committing yourself to a course of action and getting shit done because only you are responsible for the things you do and don’t get done.

6. Ted Talks. The trick is to find a topic that you’re kind of interested in but want to learn more about (unless you’re really explorative and want to learn something completely new). They’re usually only around 20 minutes or so as well, so it’s not like you’re spending hours on end watching them.

Bonus: LinkedIn Groups and Quora. A bit of a hit or miss, but can still be useful from time to time. Joining LinkedIn Groups (for your industry of interest of course) can be a nice way to find free webinars about a range of topics although I expected these groups to have more personal discussions. Hence, Quora fills that need for discussion quite nicely. It is an immensely powerful way to have discussions with a large number of people, both experts and mere mortals, about literally anything (thank you Internet!). You can post anonymously as well, so have no fear about disclosing your identity.

Do you have other methods you think are better than the ones I proposed? Then leave a comment in the comments section. Regardless of that, remember that nobody is going to do the work for you, so stop making excuses and start taking action. Don’t forget to subscribe if you want to stay updated with future blog posts when they come out!

See you, Space Cowboy.