Listen: Educating Yourself[audio:http://welchwrite.com/career/audio/2008/career-op-20080919.mp3]
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Once I left college with my Bachelor’s degree, I never really looked back at mainstream education. I did ok in college, but I often tell people that I think I learned more from spending every night in the theater than I learned in the classroom. Sure I learned about science, language, history and more, but in the theater I learned about people and, in many cases, the real world. Due to my regular role as a stage manager, I learned about management, personalities, organization, motivating others and hard work. Even within the relatively cocooned environment of college, I was already living in the larger world.
In the intervening years, instead of returning to college to get an advanced degree, as my wife has done, I have developed more and more ways of educating myself. I find that, for me, self-directed education seems the best fit for my sensibilities. One reason for this is that it allows me to explore interesting topics in much more depth than I might ever be able to do otherwise. I have a widely varied set of interests and I can’t imagine any degree program that would allow me to explore every one. One week I might find myself immersed in the history, art and craft of coffee, while in another I am learning everything I can about the WordPress blogging engine. Next week it could be the advertising market or a new plan for educating others. The only way I can deal with my roving eye for education is to manage it myself.
Let me say, though, that I am not denigrating established educational paths. For someone who is focused on a particular topic or field of study, getting your Masters Degree or Ph.D could be exactly the right thing to do. There is an established method for certain career paths and you are well advised to follow them. Look closely, though, to insure that you are making the right choice. Don’t just follow a path because others are doing it.
Developing your own degree
Over the years, I have found several ways of directing my own education. The first method involves a very established tool…the book. I make a point of reading any book — usually from my local library — that catches my interest. Typically these are non-fiction titles, but their subject matter varies widely and wildly. One day I might be reading about new scientific studies in genetics. On another it might be a book on management skills. On another it might be a cookbook or a history exploring the life of Michelangelo. I specifically don’t limit myself to any one subject matter, but let my interests direct me. In some cases, my interests are driven by business concerns. Books on management, finance and technology immediately catch my eye. Sometimes the books are related to my “non-professional” interests like gardening, cooking or food. It is improtant to read books that might not relate to business or your career. I find that any book on nearly any topic often provides insight into many parts of your life. Learning how to cook Italian food can teach you a lot about organization, management, group dynamics and a hundred other topics above and beyond Italian culture, so don’t dismiss these books as frivolous.
Next, I follow a large variety of web sites that have piqued my interest in one way or another. I have a category in my RSS reader for blogs about libraries and maps. While I am not deeply engaged in either of these pursuits professionally, I find I can draw insights from them all the same. The writers may be discussing issues specific to their business, but I find it easy to relate these same concerns to my business and work. They often turn up resources that I can use and recommend to my clients and the readers of my blog.
Finally, I create learning projects for myself. If I need to learn something for myself, it is very likely that my clients will need education in it as well. Over the past years I have developed projects in installing, maintaining and operating WordPress and other content management systems, installing and developing wiki-based information systems, developing and managing groups (see New Media Interchange at http://newmediainterchange.com) and delving more deeply into audio and video engineering, editing and production. These learning projects might go one for weeks or months, but from the very beginning I also work to apply them in the real world. A wise person once said that the best way to learn something deeply is to teach it. I agree wholeheartedly. Nothing clarifies a subject in your mind like explaining it to others. You very quickly find out where further research and study is required and you are applying the knowledge, so it quickly becomes part of your everyday skill set.
One additional part of these learning projects is mentoring. If you can find someone who has more knowledge about a topic, and is willing to share, you will find an accelerated path to that knowledge. They have the inside track on this information and can spare you trial and error that they once struggled through. This allows you to be more productive, more quickly than any other method. Conversely, if you mentor someone else in an area you are studying, you will both benefit.
If you are not engaged in a traditional educational program you owe it to yourself to immerse yourself in your own, self-directed, studies. In order to work effectively in our lives and careers, we need to be learning every day. Otherwise we are rapidly falling behind. Follow your interests and allow them to show you an educational path. Develop your own degree program and you will be on the right track to building the career you deserve.
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