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Straight Up From ‘Scratch Beginnings’

Straight Up From ‘Scratch Beginnings’

    With nothing but $25 and a backpack, Adam Shepard set out to prove whether the American Dream still exists. He headed for a city he didn’t know — Charleston, South Carolina — with the goal of having $2,500, a car and a place to live by the end of the year. Shepard chronicled his experiment in Scratch Beginnings. The book holds a few gems for average people working on their own lives — and you don’t have to be completely broke to learn from Shepard’s experiences.

    The Attitude of Success

    In Scratch Beginnings, Shepard makes it immediately clear that his goal is not to create a rags-to-riches story. Instead, he set out to refute Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch, along with similar books that claim that “working stiffs are doomed to live in the same disgraceful conditions forever.” Shepard’s goal was to discover whether, with self-discipline and the attitude of success he could actually move beyond homelessness in under a year.

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    The Long View

    Shepard first stop in his experiment was a homeless shelter. The majority of the book is devoted to the seventy days he lived at the shelter and the men he met there. Those men fall into two simple categories: the guys with plans for lives beyond the shelter and those who have become utterly complacent with their lives. It’s a simple lesson. The guys with plans couldn’t be sure that their plans would work, but the guys who had stopped looking to the long view were certainly not going to make progress.

    Many residents of the homeless shelter Shepard landed in relied on a local day labor operation to provided them with money.

    The attraction of just showing up and working and getting cash at the end of the day is, to some people, superior to working a real job. True, some of the laborers are temporarily unemployed, and some are working while they have days off from their permanent jobs, but still others simply come to work a few days a week whenever they need cash. If they don’t fell like working, there’s no need to call the boss faking an ailment or yet another death in the family. They just don’t go.

    It’s an easy way to get by when you don’t have a long-term plan. You can cover your basic needs and just sort of continue along without a particular course of action. It took Shepard only a week to understand that his priority had to be getting a permanent job. But making a long-term plan, whether you’re living on the street or making ends meet, is the only way to move forward. Without plans and goals, we’re all stuck exactly where we are today.

    Guts Get the Job

    Few employers are willing to take a chance on a worker who’s only address is the local homeless shelter. But there’s one thing that can overcome just about every obstacle in getting a job: sheer guts. Don’t have the skills? Don’t have the education? Don’t have the address? Going into an employer’s office and asking for an opportunity anyway takes guts, but that can be enough to land you a job. Shepard learned that fact the hard way, by getting passed over by a moving company uninterested in a prospective employee who lived at the local homeless shelter. Shepard made the moving company a particularly gutsy offer:

    Let’s make a deal. You send me out for one day with one of your crews. Any crew. And I’ll work for free. You will have the opportunity to see me work, and it won’t cost you a dime. If you like me, super, take me on. If not, well, then we will part ways and I can promise you I won’t be a thorn in your ass, coming in here every day begging for a job.

    Not only did the manager say that he’d never heard an offer like that, he was impressed enough to hire Shepard on the stop. That willingness to be bold got Shepard through a few other rough patches chronicled in his book and it’s one of the greatest lessons I think most people can learn. You don’t win big when you won’t play big.

    In The End

    Adam Shepard wound up cutting his experiment short by three months: his mother had cancer and Shepard went home to help her. He’d more than met his goal, though. Nine months through his experiment, Shepard had already purchased a used truck, rented and furnished an apartment and saved $5,000 — double what he had hoped to save in 12 months.

    He did it without the connections and advantages many of us take for granted. He landed a job through sheer guts, not listing his college degree and other qualifications on his applications. He figured out frugality on his own. He even earned a raise during his experiment. Shepard’s story proves unquestioningly that it really is possible to reach your goals and beyond, even if you start from scratch. I think he more than made clear that success — at every level — isn’t so much about the opportunities you’re offered. It’s about the opportunities you make for yourself, your willingness to plan big and your efforts to chase your goals. Scratch Beginnings is certainly worth a read, especially if you want a little inspiration without saccharine sweetness.

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    More information about both Shepard and the book is available on ScratchBeginnings.com.

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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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