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How to Hack Your Education: 5 Things to Consider

How to Hack Your Education: 5 Things to Consider

I have been self-educating since I finished school. I’ve tried all kinds of different ways to learn and to educate myself. Over time I became so good in my field that I not only got several jobs, but also surpassed people who only went to university. During the past three years, I’ve learned which five things you need to take care of in order to easily surpass regularly educated people and successfully hack your education. Here they are:

1. Develop a routine.

Since you don’t have a professor or teacher “harassing” you with deadlines and “forcing” you to study, you need to develop solid working habits. You have to experiment and try out different things. This is the first hard step and where most people fail because they are not able to maintain discipline and work on a proper routine. Unfortunately, there are no universal guidelines as to what works and what doesn’t, so you need to find out for yourself.

There are two books that are incredibly helpful in getting the necessary motivation and being inspired by what successful daily routines look like. Nick Winter’s Motivation Hacker will give you a dozen techniques on how you can ensure you’re motivated to work every day, get up early, and keep up with your schedule. In his book Daily Rituals, Mason Currey summarized the working habits of 200 famous artists, writers and scientists. You can get inspired by the habits of Goethe, Einstein, Hemingway and Andy Warhol.

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2. Learn to learn.

Most of us who come straight from school or college have horrible learning routines. Often many students rely on the strategy of cramming the night before exams. If you want to educate yourself and learn something in order to apply it in real life, you need to develop good learning strategies. You should also experiment on these and not stick with the first one that works, since the better your strategies, the more effective you are.

Here are two books and blogs essential to learning how to learn and taking your learning techniques to the next level. Cal Newport, a straight-A student, analyzed the way America’s best students are able to learn and still have a lot of spare time. His book, How to Become a Straight-A Student, will help you learn more effectively and enable you to have tons of free time. He also has a blog.

Scott H. Young might be the role model of many self-educators. He studied four years of electrical engineering at MIT in only one year, without being enrolled at MIT. Scott has an incredible work routine and amazing discipline. Check out his blog, where you can find all kinds of information about learning techniques and developing a successful working routine.

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3. Find the best resources.

Nowadays, you can learn from a lot of quality resources, completely for free. Most of these resources are either identical to a college education or far better. Find out which resources are the easiest to study for you. I am a huge fan of reading books and developing a relationship with the authors and asking them more detailed questions. Also, since I am becoming a therapist, workshops and seminars are essentials for me. Check out different things and track your learning progress to find out what suits you best.

Websites like Kahn Academy or MIT Open Courses often provide very good content and can also be a major resource.

 4. Learn from the best.

The advice above will put you ahead in terms of knowledge compared to those people who follow a conventional education. But still, a college degree comes with a certain status. Therefore you need to put yourself ahead of the usual learners when it comes to status. Telling a potential employer or partner that you read a lot of books or studied online won’t necessarily impress him or her as much as a college degree. So, in order to keep up with applicants or competitors with a college degree, you need to find another way to display professionalism and status.

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Since it is possible to connect with everybody world wide, start to connect with the leading figures in your field of interest. Outstanding figures in a certain field are often willing to answer your emails, as long as your questions are smart or interesting enough. Send out different emails to the stars of your field and evaluate which get the best responses. By asking the best in a field you will get unique insights, as well as valuable connections. In the first years of my career, I built almost all my reputation this way, and often knew things others didn’t because I talked to the people on the cutting edge on a regular basis. Having these connections will give you unique knowledge and will show a potential boss that you are not a scam.

 5. Learning is more valuable than money (at the beginning).

Since you are not following a regular educational path, you need to hustle for internships or opportunities to gain hands-on experience and to show what you are capable of. Students often have this included in their course of studies, but you don’t.

At an early stage, you should take on any job and any offer and even work for free. You need to build a portfolio and display your skills. For me as a coach and speaker, I was hustling for any possible speaking gig or for any opportunity to coach people. This gave me experience, as well as a reputation. During the first year, I was giving talks at esoteric fairs next to fortune tellers and people who claimed to talk to ghosts. I did this because somebody offered me the opportunity to talk there. Obviously, this is not an area I want to be associated with, but it was my best chance to get hands-on experience and talk in front of over 200 people. Eventually, this helped me land my next speaking gig at a university, and later to organize my own workshops and seminars. I never wanted to speak at the esoteric fairs, and felt completely out of place, but it was necessary to do so simply to become a better speaker.

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Whatever your field of expertize is, try to gain hands-on experience as fast as possible. In some areas it is easier than in others, so be creative and think outside of the box!

Over time I have met many outstanding self-educators, who have helped me to improve and develop my own strategies. A great platform to meet other self-educators is Extreme Learners, from Institute for the Future. I am super excited to hear about your strategies, please feel free to share them in the comments below.

Featured photo credit: UGL_UIUC via Flickr

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Last Updated on April 23, 2019

How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

Stretch goals are a lot like physical fitness. When you adopt a physical sport such as running, continual practice leads to increased stamina, growth and progress.

While commitment to the sport improves performance, true growth happens when you are stretched beyond your comfort zone. I know this from personal experience.

For years, I was an avid runner. I ran with a variety of running groups in the Washington, D.C., area and in Columbus, Ohio, where I lived prior to moving to the nation’s capital in 2011.

While I was initially fearful about slacking off on my exercise habit when I moved to D.C., running enthusiasts in the area provided continual motivation, inspiring me to lace up my shoes day after day. Much to my surprise, many of the area’s running stores (including Pacers and Potomac River Running) boasted running groups that met in the mornings and evenings. So, it was relatively easy for a newcomer like me to connect with like-minded peers.

I was never a particularly fast runner, but I enjoyed the afterglow of the sport: being completely drained but feeling a sense of accomplishment; setting and reaching goals; buying and wearing out new tennis shoes. The sound of throngs of feet pounding the pavement in semi-unison is still enough to bring tears to my eyes. Yes, I sometimes tear up at the start of races.

Of all the groups I ran with, the Pacers Store group that met on Monday nights in Logan Circle boasted the fastest runners. I met up with the group week after week only to be the slowest runner. It was difficult to muster the courage to get up every week and meet the group knowing what was waiting for me: sweating and watching the backs of fellow runners.

Each time I joined the group, I was stretching myself without even realizing it. Instead of feeling like I was transitioning into a better running, for a long time I felt I was torturing myself.

Then something remarkable happened. I went for a run with a different set of runners and noticed my time had improved. I was running at a faster pace and doing so with ease. What was once uncomfortable for me I now handled with ease.

The reason I was becoming a better runner was because I was taking myself out of my comfort zone and challenging myself physically and mentally. This example illustrates the process of growth.

Fortunately, we can create situations that stretch us in our personal and professional lives.

What Is a Stretch Goal?

A stretch goal – as authors Sim B. Sitkin, C. Chet Miller and Kelly E. See detail an article “The Stretch Goal Paradox” in Harvard Business Review[1] – is something that is extremely difficult and novel. It is something that not everyone does, and it’s sometimes considered impossible.

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In general, you establish stretch goals by doing things that are difficult or temporarily challenging.

For instance, when I was first promoted to a senior communications management role, I knew I needed to beef up my relationships with media personalities. I set a goal to once a month book a day of media interviews in New York City – which is home to many media outlets, including SiriusXM radio, CNN, NBC News, HuffPost, VIBE.

This was a huge goal because it meant not only identifying the right people to meet with but convincing them to meet with me and my team. While I didn’t end up meeting the goal of doing a full day of media interviews in New York City, I met more people than I would have met had I not established the goal and instead stayed in the comfort of my D.C. office.

It is important to note that just because you establish a stretch goal doesn’t mean you’ll achieve the goal each time. However, the process of trying is guaranteed to provide some level of growth.

The Importance of Creating Stretch Goals

The beginning of the year is a perfect time to assess where you are excelling and where there is room for you to grow. I typically start the year by creating a yearlong strategic plan for myself.

I think about the things that are necessary to do and things that would be cool to do. I assess the people I should know and think through how to meet them. Then I ask myself if the goals are realistic and what would need to happen for me to achieve them.

Over time, I have learned that there are five things I can do to set stretch goals:

1. Get Outside of Your Head

If I exist within the confines of my imagination, I imperil my own growth and creativity.

If I examine my accomplishments and celebrate them in isolation of others’ accomplishments, my vantage point is limited.

I want to be comfortable with what I accomplish, but I also want to be motivated by watching others. In some respects, stretching is about expanding your network of friends, associates and mentors. These are the people who will propel or slow your growth and development.

Since two are better than one, I always value being able to share my progress with others, seek feedback and then map a plan for success.

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2. Focus on a Couple Areas at a Time

When setting goals, it is important to focus on a couple of areas at a time. Most of us are only able to focus on a few things at a time, and if you feel you are unable to tackle all that is before you, you may simply disengage.

I see this in so many areas of life:

When people get in debt, if they believe the debt is insurmountable, they refuse to look at incoming bills for fear of facing down the debt. Unfortunately, many businesses go awry when setting stretch goals.

In “The Stretch Goal Paradox,” Sitkin, Miller and See note:

“Our research suggests that though the use of stretch goals is quite common, successful use is not. And many executives set far too many stretch goals. In the past five years, for example, Tesla failed to meet more than 20 of founder Elon Musk’s ambitious projections and missed half of them by nearly a year, according to the Wall Street Journal.”

Goal-setting is like a marathon, not a sprint. It doesn’t all need to happen at the same time, and pacing is extremely important if you want to get to the finish line. It is better to focus on a couple goals at a time, master them and then move on to the next thing.

3. Set Aside Time Each Year to Focus on Goal-Setting

When I was a managing director for communications for the Advancement Project, I spent the first part of every year facilitating a communications planning meeting.

The planning meeting began with the team members assessing the goals the team had established in the preceding year, and whether those goals were realistic or not. If we failed to meet certain goals, we broke down why that happened. From there, we brainstormed about possibilities for the current year.

For instance, one year we set a goal of pitching and getting 24 opinion essays published. This was audacious because no one on the eight-person team had the luxury of focusing exclusively on editing and pitching opinion essays to publications around the world. We would need to focus on pitching in between the rest of our work.

We hit this goal within the first eight months of the year. Remarkably, in total, we ended up getting 40 opinion essays published that year, which was an indication that our original goal was too low. We upped the goal to 41 the next year, and amazingly, we hit 42 published opinion essays or guest columns.

From this experience, we not only learned what was feasible, we also learned the power of focus.

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When we focused as a team on getting the commentary on our issues out in the public domain, we were successful. The key in all of this is that there was a ton of discussion around which goal we’d pursue and why.

Equally important, as a manager, I didn’t set the goals alone; the team members and I established the goals collaboratively. This ensured buy-in from each individual.

4. Use the S.M.A.R.T. Goal Model to Set Realistic Goals

S.M.A.R.T.

is a synonym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. For the sake of this article, the realistic portion of the acronym is most important.

While you want to set audacious goals, you want to ensure that they are realistic as well. No one is served by setting a goal that is impossible to accomplish.

Failing to meet goals can be demoralizing for teams, so it’s important to be sober-eyed about what is possible. Additionally, the purpose of setting goals is to advance and grow, not depress morale.

For instance, my team would have been discouraged had I begun the year asking it to pitch and place 40 opinion essays if we didn’t already have a track record of placing close to two dozen essays.

By using the S.M.A.R.T. formula, we were able to achieve all that we set out to do.

5. Break the Goal up into Small Digestible Parts

I am a recovering perfectionist. As a writer, being a perfectionist can be counterproductive because I can fail to start if I don’t see a clear pathway to victory.

The same is true with goal-setting. That’s why I join Lifehack’s fellow contributor Deb Knobelman, Ph.D., in noting that it is critically important to break goals into bite-sized chunks.

When I had a goal of doing daylong media meetings in New York City, I had to think through all the barriers to achieving that goal and all the steps required to meet the goal.

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One step was identifying which reporters, producers and hosts to engage. Another step was writing a pitch or meeting invitation that would capture their attention. Another step was thinking through the program areas I wanted to highlight and the new angles I could offer to different reporters.

Since reporters want to cover stories that no one else has written, I needed to come up with fresh angles for each of the reporters I was engaging. An additional step was thinking through who from my team I’d take with me to the various meetings.

I was clear that, as a talking head, as public relations reps are sometimes called, I needed the right spokesperson in order to land repeated meetings with different outlets.

A final step was thinking through what I needed to bring to each meeting and which reports, videos and testimonials would buttress our claims and be of interest to media figures.

As I walked through what was needed to bring my goal of doing daylong meetings to reality, I realized that not only was the idea within reach, but I was excited to tackle the challenge.

From that point until now, I have learned to break down goals into smaller parts and tackle the smaller parts on the path to knocking the goal out of the park.

The Bottom Line

These are my recommendations for setting stretch goals, and there are a ton of other resources to support you in the workplace and in your community.

For instance, LinkedIn’s Lynda.com platform has a wonderful suite of leadership development videos, including ones on establishing stretch goals. This is a paid resource but may be worth the investment if you lead a team or want to invest in tools for your own growth and development.

Featured photo credit: Avatar of user Isaac Smith Isaac Smith @isaacmsmith Isaac Smith via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Harvard Business Review: The Stretch Goal Paradox

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