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Bootstrapping Life: Five Tips

Bootstrapping Life: Five Tips
Kaizen

If you had just one tool for improving yourself, what would that tool be? A casual study of the world’s self-made millionaires, past and present, may not reveal it, but all of them were likely successful bootstrappers. Bootstrapping, at its simplest, refers to getting by in an entrepreneurial endeavor simply with what you have. You take what you earn and cycle it all back in. Only grow as you are able – no major loans.

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Thus, the ultimate life hack is, arguably, bootstrapping. Bootstrapping is a time-honored way to grow a business, but it can also be used for learning a language, improving your skillset, designing and creating something and much more. Bootstrapping is a way to go from essentially nothing to a more desireable result. It comes in a variety of flavors, with variations from numerous cultures. The following terms are not exactly synonymous, but they are related. Most of these terms have complex meanings; I’ve only given one for each, and generically refer to all of them collectively as bootstrapping.

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  1. Kaizen.
    Kaizen is a Japanese term for a Chinese concept. The gist of its meaning is continuous improvement by slow degrees of change. It has applications in quality improvement (at least in the US) but can be applied to many disciplines. You don’t set out to be perfect immediately. Start with what you have and slowly improve it through continuous/ daily actions. This methodology can be applied to anything. I use this principle to improve my websites and that of clients. The wikipedia definition of Kaizen gives a much fuller explanation which mentions three core principles that must be applied. I’ve only covered the gist.
  2. Top-down design.
    Top-down design/ modelling is a process typically used in software development and programming. However, it is used in other disciplines. Start with nothing but functional specifications, write up the skeleton/ outline, then flesh out each section. Using this technique, I’ve written 1,000-3,000 line programs in just a few days, when the industry standard has been 2 lines of code (including research, design, coding, testing, and revision). I use top-down design to write books, e-books, manuals, and larger articles as well.
  3. Bootstrapping.
    Bootstrapping is a classic method used by entrepreneurs for starting a business with pretty much nothing, and reinvesting all revenues and efforts back into the business to help it grow. Loans are at an absolute minimum, if any at all, and growth is controlled. (Keep in mind that most new businesses fail in the first year, some because they grow to fast for their cash flow.) Bootstrapping is also applied to numerous other disciplines. Want to know more? Read Guy Kawasaki’s article The art of bootstrapping and Seth Godin’s free ebook The bootstrapper’s bible.
  4. Tunneling.
    In an article in the Consumerist entitled How to: move to New York City, Ben Popken mentions the term tunnelling as a way to use the resources in your current job to help you on your way to a better career. This is very much in the same spirit as bootstrapping: use what you have to get what you want.
  5. Refinement.
    Refinement is probably the most general form of bootstrapping, but is more in the vein of Kaizen. It is sometimes used synonymously with top-down design, but I feel that it has some distinctions in the stage of use in a project. For example, stepwise refinement is used in mathematics and physics to use existing data to develop a formula, then refined to be more accurate bit by bit, as new information is available. The distinction for refinement is arguably that it is used in a later stage, after the fact, to improve what you know to already be incorrect, whether that’s a formula or software or something else. SEO techniques often use “tweaking” of content, which is essentially stepwise refinement. You could also say that physical tools have gone through a long history of refinement, with existing tools used to create new tools, then refine older ones.

In the generic definition, bootstrapping is a non-linear activity. Small actions combined eventually produce a greater synergy and exponential growth or successes. These techniques can thus be used to build a new career, a new product or software application, slowly build a successful business, fix something that isn’t quite right and so on. When applied to bootstrapping your life, each unit of action you apply must not only be within your ability to do, but you must feel in control of each action, and each must carry you forwards. This is a necessity if you want to be a self-starter.

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Raj Dash writes about professional blogging, learning and productivity, and ghost writes for several other sites.

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Last Updated on August 20, 2019

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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