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Choices and Consequences

Choices and Consequences

Choices and Consequences

    Consider this: In three weeks time, you have a big presentation to a long-hoped-for new client. Three weeks is plenty of time, though, so each day you sit down at your computer and, instead of working on your presentation, play game after game of Desktop Tower Defense. Three weeks and a day later, you’re clearing out your desk after being let go for failing to get that big wished-for client.

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    Or this: It’s the night before the Big Exam. For weeks you’ve been skipping class or, when you did show up, wiling away your classroom hours by texting back-and-forth with your friends. Now, with imminent failure facing you, you decide to go blow off steam with your friends. Hung-over and unprepared, of course you fail the Big Exam. Which means you fail the class and, since your GPA has slipped to an unacceptable level, you lose your athletic scholarship. You won’t be back in the Fall.

    Or this: The Coach purse in the display window looks so pretty, so alluring, that you just have to have it. It will pull you up a little short on this month’s budget, but you’ve been good lately, right? Surely you can tighten your belt a little in exchange for treating yourself to something nice? Three weeks later, the transmission craps out on your car. With no money in the bank, you’re forced to use public transportation for the first time in your life. Not knowing the schedule very well, you’re late to work every day for a week; on payday, the boss tells you that they won’t be needing your services any more.

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    This is not a post about making bad choices, though you’d be forgiven if that’s the lesson you’ve drawn from it so far. No, it’s not so much about making poor choices as it is about making a certain kind of choice, a choice made in the moment, for the moment, with little or no thought to consequences.

    This kind of choice doesn’t always result in the kind of dire circumstances I’ve described above. Sometimes, everything works out fine. Occasionally, last-minute strokes of luck even pull our bacon out of the fire.

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    That’s not the point. The point is this: You can choose your actions, or you can choose your consequences, but you can’t choose both.

    All the stories above are stories of people choosing their actions. Once you choose your action, the consequences follow from that choice with a will of their own. Choose drinking over studying? The consequence is liable to be failure. Choose hanging with your friends over seeing your child’s Spring recital? The consequence is liable to be the loss of your child’s trust, and possibly the lost respect of your spouse and other family. Choose to drive too fast to show off? There’s a good chance your action will lead to accident, injury, even death for you or someone else.

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    Or you can choose your consequences. If the outcome you want is success in your job, you probably have a pretty good idea of the actions you need to take to get it. Certainly prioritizing work over goofing off is part of it! If academic success is the consequence you’d like to enjoy, your plan of action is also pretty clear cut: a certain amount of study and organization is demanded. Maybe you’d like to build a loving, positive relationship with your children? You’re going to have to make a certain amount of time for that, even at the expense of other things you might like to be able to do.

    You only get to pick one or the other, though. You can’t choose to drink and party and have the consequence be automatic success. You can’t choose to slack off at work and have the consequence be promotion. You don’t get to choose to spend your money frivolously and as a consequence have plenty in reserve when emergency strikes.

    Now, we can’t always act according to clear-cut consequences, and certainly it’s worthwhile to live in the moment now and again. Which brings me to the last and most important part of all this: whatever you do, own your choice. If you choose dumbly, take full responsibility for the consequences of that choice. If you choose to act towards a desired outcome rather than deviate from that path, own that too – don’t kick yourself, or let others kick you, for your commitment.

    It’s not so bad that people act in the moment and make poor choices; what makes it ugly is when they’re shocked, shocked I tell you, to find that they didn’t achieve the outcome they’d desired. Don’t be that person: if you can’t accept the consequences of your actions, don’t do them! No matter what you do, remember: the choice is yours.

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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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