What are you curious about right now? What frame of reference are you currently using to interpret the world?

To understand what I’m asking, think about what you would notice in an outdoor plaza on a busy summer day.

Would you notice the art installments? What about the strip of grass that is dead because everyone cuts across it? Would you notice the names and logos of the stores or the types of businesses that are operating?

What about the people? Would you notice the homeless person on the corner? The books that people are reading? Or would your focus be trained on the clothes that people are wearing?

At any given moment, the things you are curious about frame the way you see everything.If you’re starting a business, you would probably notice the businesses. If you are an aspiring artist, you would notice the art. If you love to skateboard, you would notice which rails don’t have knots on them.

For the lifelong learner, every day presents itself with an infinite amount of opportunities. Way too many, in fact, to focus on more than even a few at at time. This presents somewhat of a quandary.

Though a common mantra for success is “Don’t quit,” that may not always be the best advice. For years I felt bad about quitting, even if I hated something. I thought quitting was the easy way out, and that if I quit, I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough. I once spent two years too long in a job that I hated, and I became quite apathetic to progression in general because of that. It took awhile to get back on my feet, but from that, I learned that quitting is often necessary for progression.

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Rotating Curiosity

My curiosities and interests are constantly changing. The things I train my focus on today are not the same things that I trained my focus on a year ago. I like to call this phenomenon, rotating curiosity.

My curiosities rotate every six months or so, which makes things difficult as I make education and career decisions. One minute I feel like I’ve found my dream major or job, then six months later it no longer holds my interest. At that point I try to wring out every last drop of curiosity I have left, because I feel like something is wrong with me. How do I go from all-in to all-out in such a short time?

Though rotating curiosity has caused me some struggle in life, I wouldn’t change a thing. I have learned so many different things because of it. Honestly, I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to have at least a mild case of rotating curiosity. In fact, the winningest player on Jeopardy! encourages it.

During one of my many phases of curiosity back in 2013, I decided I was going to learn more about the human condition and talk to a stranger every day for a year (if I were in a plaza then, my focus would have been trained on the homeless person). I used an app called Lift (now coach.me) to log my daily interactions and to help establish the habit.

While I was using the app, a girl named Karen Cheng was also using it to help her learn to dance. She made a pretty rad video about it. Fast forward a few years, I came across another Karen Cheng video that reminded me of her original dance video. I wanted to interview her about how she she taught herself to dance to see if I could glean some insights for a blog post about self-taught learning. However, after I talked with her for a few minutes, it became very apparent that Karen also lives with rotating curiosity. Karen is no longer as interested in dance. She now runs a consulting company where she creates viral videos. Her client list is pretty impressive.

So here are the six most vital things I learned in my interview with Karen about self-taught learning, curiosity, finding success and knowing when to quit.

 

Feed your hunger

It was a long time before Karen actually jumped in and decided to learn to dance. She says, “I wanted to learn how to dance for a long time, but I just didn’t think I would ever be able to get that good. But I always had a nagging feeling.”

Karen refers to this nagging feeling on her website as a hunger. “If I didn’t have this raw hunger, there’s no way I would’ve had the discipline to practice every day.” Once Karen finally decided to feed that hunger, it grew into an obsession so strong that dancing became her life. Her doubts could no longer control her.

 

If you don’t love it, quit

Since Karen is no longer obsessed with dance, I was curious what her thoughts were on pushing through something once the newness of learning has worn off. Her response was straightforward and powerful, “Here’s what I do: I just quit, and I learn something else. It’s worn off for dancing, and now I’m doing video editing.”

It makes sense. Why waste time pursuing something if you don’t enjoy it anymore? Lots of professional athletes use that logic to decide when they retire. There are so many other things out there you could be learning that bring you more joy.

When I pushed further and asked how long Karen thought she would be curious about video editing, her response was, “Everything is temporary. I think it will hold my interest for awhile. It’s like 20 arts combined into one. Getting better at editing, and copywriting, and camera and lighting and marketing . . . It will take me longer to get tired of this than others.”

Karen also shed some light on career possibilities for those of us who suffer from rotating curiosity. “Every job, after 6–9 months, I get tired of it. So am I doomed? For my life? Getting jobs every year? That’s not feasible. Then I started my own business consulting, and I run my own agency now. What’s great about it is that I don’t have a job that I show up to everyday. I have clients that change day by day and month by month. It’s always new projects. And I can change the nature of what I’m offering. I have finally—after many years—figured out a way to find a career that works for this novelty seeking personality type.”

 

Track your progress

Karen tracked her progress extensively. As she learned to dance, she recorded herself on video so she could watch the video over and over to identify where she still needed to improve. She also kept an intense dance journal so she knew how long she had practiced and what she still needed to work on.

Though Karen no longer tracks her dancing, she still keeps track of everything she does. “I have a lot of spreadsheets. I like to see progress. By tracking it, you can understand how you’re progressing. I track how much time I’m putting into projects.”

he even tracks things like her sugar consumption. “I was hopelessly addicted to sugar, and I didn’t want to give it up because I want to still enjoy my life. But I wanted to have less of it. And I don’t do well with hard rules like, ‘you can only have X on Y days.’”

So Karen began tracking her sugar consumption, “I had to take a picture of every dessert that I ate, and I put it in a Photo 365 calendar. . . . What gets measured gets improved.” If she saw that she had eaten seven desserts in seven days, she knew to slow it down on the eighth day. And after three months, she kicked her habit!

“That has been really effective. So effective that now I feel like I’m no longer addicted to sugar. I’ve actually just recently stopped using the calendar. I don’t need it anymore. But it was such a useful tool for the three months when I was using it.”

 

Coach yourself

When Karen was learning to dance, she learned to effectively coach herself. That got me curious about how she was able to be an effective coach. It seems like a difficult challenge. For example, I have no idea how to dance, and I couldn’t tell you what I need to do to get better. I just don’t have that understanding of the mechanics of dance. I don’t have the skills to coach myself on those things.

I asked Karen about that. At first, Karen wasn’t the best coach. She just learned to imitate dancers from videos on YouTube. She began looking at every part of the body individually, comparing small pieces of her dances to people like Michael Jackson.

Then she began to notice how physiological differences in male and female dancers made certain moves look better or worse. Eventually, she took a ballet class because she wanted to create her own style, a more elegant style of popping and robot dancing. That is a decision that took her two years to realize. Coaching yourself takes time, but if you’re dedicated, it will pay off.

 

Learn from the best

Karen did everything she could think of to learn how to dance. She went to classes, talked to teachers she really liked, asked for private lessons, watched YouTube videos and practiced everywhere. When I asked her what her favorite way to learn something new is, she said, “I usually find the best person that I can find and ask them to teach me. . . . The fastest way to get good at anything is to find someone who’s really really good at it and learn from them” (Check out how Degreed’s Ryan Baylis is putting this philosophy to work).

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Don’t get caught up in career ladders

The last thing I asked Karen was, “What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from your experiences? I’ll let her take it from here.

“The most valuable lesson that I’ve learned is not to worry about career ladders. There’s an old-school analogy that we buy into, which is that you pick a major and then you go on that ladder, and you climb that career ladder, and you try to get up as high as possible. That is what makes the idea of switching careers so daunting. You look at the next ladder over and think about starting at the bottom of that ladder. I have changed careers four times now.”

“What I’ve discovered is that you don’t start from the bottom at all. Instead of thinking of it as a career ladder, think of it as a jetpack of skills. You go around and you collect a bunch of skills, and put them in your jetpack. As you learn more skills your jetpack gets stronger, and when you change careers you bring to it a lot of skills that you learned from your previous one. Like I’m in film now and I had a previous career as a designer, that definitely comes in handy. I previously had a career as a project manager, that really helps with coordinating film crews. I previously had a career as a CEO of a tech startup, now I know a lot of tech startups that are my clients. Each of my past careers help in a very significant way with my current one. In a way, if I’d have gone to film school, I wouldn’t have all these advantages.”

Ancora Imparo

These two words are often credited to Michelangelo, the great artist and architect whose work is still considered to be some of the finest in the world. Roughly translated, ancora imparo means ‘and yet I learn’ or ‘still I am learning.’ What’s impressive about these words is that they came from Michelangelo when he was well into his 80s. He lived true to that mantra throughout his life.

Though he began painting the Sistine Chapel in his 30s, it wasn’t until Michelangelo was in his 70s that he began working on the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica. Thus, proving that the human capacity for excellence doesn’t have to run dry with age.

As a human being only two years away from entering my 30s, I find it hard to stay hopeful as what seems like a constant barrage of stories about the young and successful fill my news feeds. As magazines and websites pump out their various “30 under 30” or “to watch” lists, it’s hard not to feel depleted, like I missed my chance for greatness. Side note: Respect where respect is deserved: S/O to Degreed’s own Kat Archibald for being named as one of Utah Business’ 30 Women to Watch this year!

So if you miss the marks set by the world—if you’re not a super successful mogul by 40—does life just flatline from there?

I know I’m being dramatic here. Obviously life doesn’t flatline at 40. But when you feel like you still have so far to go, it’s hard not to feel that way. Especially if you’re going through a time of failure or stagnation. But never fear, it’s never too late to learn and Malcolm Gladwell is here to help:

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In his article, Late Bloomers, Gladwell unrolls the idea that there are two kinds of geniuses: prodigies, who bloom fast and bright; and late bloomers, who have to struggle through years of experience and failure before they achieve greatness.

For example, Picasso was a prodigy. He had innate talent from an early age and knew exactly what he wanted when he started a painting. On the other hand, the artist Cézanne, who started painting at about the same age Picasso did, was flat out horrible. People even told him so. But over the years, he began to improve. He had to experiment and put in much more time than Picasso did, but he eventually arrived at greatness. In a sense, he had to let his efforts and experience age like a fine wine.

History (and the present) is full of stories like Cézanne’s and Michelangelo’s. Stories of people who made great strides later in life. Stories the prove that those who continue to learn and progress will always have a bright future. That’s the hope we all need to have if we’re ever going to do our best work and make it through our failures. I’m here to tell you that hope is real. But you don’t have to take my word for it!

 

Diana Nyad

Diana Nyad, who was breaking records in open water swimming left and right in her 20s and 30s, didn’t accomplish her most coveted goal until she was 64 years old. As she stumbled out of the ocean and into the record books after a grueling 53-hour ocean swim, she managed to force these words out of her swollen mouth:

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Harland Sanders

Sanders seems to be the most common name that pops up as a late-bloomer success story. Most know him better as Colonel Sanders. He had a slew of failures, including a failed restaurant, before he sold his first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. He was 65 years old.

Grandma Moses

Anna Mary Robertson Moses, nicknamed Grandma Moses, was an embroidery artist for many years. But at the age of 78, after arthritis made it difficult for her to continue embroidering, she began painting instead. She was entirely self-taught, using whatever she found around the house to paint her early paintings. It wasn’t until age 90 that she was discovered and began exhibiting her work internationally.

Nola Ochs

When Nola Ochs became the world’s oldest college graduate at the young age of 95, you would have thought she was done. Nope. Nola WENT BACK to school and completed a master’s degree at the age of 98!

Harry Bernstein

Bernstein, who lived through incredible difficulty during his first 25 years of life, struggled as a writer for years. It wasn’t until he was 96 that his writing took off on the heels of his memoir. But that’s not all! He kept going and published two more volumes to his memoir in the following years.

Stan Lee

The comic world would be a very different place if it weren’t for the comics written by Stan Lee. But it wasn’t until Lee was almost 39 that he had his first hit with “The Fantastic Four.” And in the years after that, he created all that is the Marvel Universe. As it stands, movie adaptations of Marvel’s comics have grossed $8.3 billion.

Momofuku Ando

Though you may not recognize his name, if you’ve spent any time as a penniless college student, you’re likely very familiar with his work. As a penniless 47-year-old man due to a bankruptcy, Ando invented what we now know as Cup Noodles and Top Ramen.

Vera Wang

Wang was a standout figure skater in college, placing fifth in two U.S. National Championships. She even spent 15 years in journalism at Vogue. But it wasn’t until she was 40 that she really hit her stride in the fashion industry, opening her first bridal boutique. Today Wang is “arguably the most prominent designer of bridal wear in America.”

We all have bright futures ahead if we just keep pushing ourselves to be better. If you don’t hit your stride now, don’t stress. You have plenty of time to get there, and it’s never too late to learn.

“…sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.”

– Malcolm Gladwell

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Admittedly, I’m somewhat of a newb to the world of podcasts. Though I have been a fan of audiobooks for years, I took my time getting into podcasts. Last year when everyone was listening to Serial while they ate their cereal, I was going strong on my serial habit of sleeping in and skipping my cereal.

Six months ago I finally caved and decided to give Serial a try. I finished season 1 in a week. It wasn’t hard for me to understand why it has shattered podcast records. And I only know that fact because of an interview I listened to last week with Ira Glass… on a podcast. I’m sincerely grateful for Sarah Koenig opening the door for me to a new avenue of learning. Once I was done with Serial, I couldn’t just stop. I began exploring other podcasts. Now I consume at least 4-6 hours of podcast content per week.

After I had worked my way through the most recent episodes of the podcasts I was familiar with, I got the the point where I had to start branching out and searching for new content. As I tried other podcasts out, I realized that liking one episode of a certain podcast didn’t always mean that I would enjoy all of the other episodes.

Originally, I just browsed for new stuff by scrolling through the top picks list on the iTunes Podcasts app. But that was time consuming. After trying out the search functionality on the app, I wished I could search a little better. I decided to look for other resources that I could use to further dial in my selections. Turns out there are some pretty good websites/apps out there to help you do just that. Here are a few of the best ones I’ve found.

 

Player.fm

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First up is Player.fm. In terms of topic-based searches, I probably like this one the best. For example, just look how it breaks out the general topics into much more specific areas. Searching through those areas not only yields a list of the top podcasts relevant to the topic, but also the most recent episodes from any podcast that talks about the topic. You can run this app right on your phone (Android only) for free. As an iPhone user, I just enjoy using the search features on the website. My favorite part is the “play later” functionality, which allows you to save individual episodes instead of having to subscribe to the whole podcast and then remember where the episode was.

 

NPR Podcast Directory

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The NPR directory only searches and references podcasts that are produced by NPR. This American Life, which is an NPR podcast, basically invented the system by which most podcasts produce content today. So it’s safe to say they know their stuff. NPR owns a pretty good share of the podcast market. You’d be hard pressed not to find something you enjoy from an NPR podcast. The site also has recommended picks and category search functions.

 

Learn Out Loud

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This site might not have the most elegant design, but it still has a ton of functionality. You can search through all kinds of categories and topics to find content that is interesting and new. A lot of content is free, but you can also access their premium content for a fee. And they don’t stop at podcasts, how do you feel about free audiobooks?

 

Stitcher

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If you’re a frequent podcast listener, you’ve probably heard of Stitcher. But for those who might not know, Stitcher is a solid way to find and curate podcast content. The name Stitcher refers to the app’s ability to “stitch” together multiple shows into a customized station playlist—kinda like Pandora for podcasts. You can also try pre-set stations that are curated by Stitcher’s editors. One of the things I like is how it tracks the movement of the top podcasts. Those insights into how a podcast is trending can help you find great content that you may have overlooked otherwise.

 

Audiosear.ch

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Audiosear.ch has some really awesome visual graphics that help you understand various metrics of current podcasts. For example, there is a frequency graph that shows you who the most mentioned people are in their podcast database. And if you are curious about how many podcasts Macauley Culkin is mentioned in, you can find that in their People Index. There is also a feature called PodLikeThat that suggests podcasts that are similar to your favorite podcasts and podcast episodes. For those who might want random podcast suggestions, there is also a Pod-A-Day email you can sign up for to get a new podcast in your inbox daily.

 

Hopefully at least one of these websites/apps will help you more easily find new podcast content that fits your taste! And don’t forget, you can track all your podcast listening on your Degreed profile!

 

 

knowledge

Do you know Harry Truman’s middle name? What about the number of the last manned Apollo mission? In the scheme of things, these facts may seem irrelevant, even useless to know. After all, how would knowing the name of the president’s dog make you better off? Well, that all depends on what your definition of ‘better off’ is.

I love this piece of the Degreed manifesto: “There is no single path to expertise. And our success in solving our unique problems depends not upon uniformity, but on our diversity, because our differences and uniqueness make us powerful. Everyone deserves recognition for their expertise, no matter how they got there.”

To some it may be trivial knowledge, but if you are an expert on something as unique as 18th century fashion, you deserve recognition. Who knows when that knowledge may solve a unique problem. In previous articles, I’ve focused mainly on learning that is isn’t super unique. For example, a lot of the focus of learning today is based on the most widely marketable skills like foreign languages, communication, or computer science. However, there is another kind of learning that doesn’t get the same love and attention. It’s a type of learning that admittedly isn’t as marketable as other skills, but can still be relevant.

This other kind of learning produces what can be described as “know-it-all knowledge.” Ken Jennings is the poster child for this kind of knowledge. If you are a fan of the TV game show, Jeopardy!, you know the name Ken Jennings. In 2004, Jennings won Jeopardy! a record 74 times in a row. That takes a ridiculous amount of dedication to know-it-all knowledge.

Don’t Forget

In a TED talk given by Jennings in 2013, he described his style of learning as being “curious about everything” or “universally interested in the world around [him].” It’s almost as if he sees random facts as unique LEGO pieces that he can use to build an imaginary LEGO kingdom of knowledge in his brain. Every new subject is an opportunity to add more pieces to his masterpiece.

To keep all that information accessible, Jennings uses his memory constantly. In fact, he’s the kind of guy who longs for the days when everyone knew phone numbers by memory instead of relying on phones to keep track of them. That’s because he understands that when we stop using our brains to remember things and instead outsource our memory to digital devices, parts of our brain can literally shrink. One of the parts that is most vulnerable to this is the hippocampus.

The main function of the hippocampus in the brain is memory and spatial awareness. Studies have been done that suggest the hippocampus actually shrinks in people who use GPS in their car instead of navigating by memory. One of those studies by the Wellcome Trust Center for Neuroimaging looked at brain scans of taxi drivers and bus drivers. The taxi drivers had more gray matter (that’s a good thing) in the hippocampus than the bus drivers. The difference was that bus drivers follow the same route, while taxi drivers are constantly challenged to know every corner of a city. Substituting brain power for digital crutches can be detrimental to your mental capacities. 

Super Computers

In 1997, a computer developed by IBM named Deep Blue beat a world champion chess player at chess. Not content to stop there, IBM searched for a new challenge that would push further the limits of computer vs. human. In 2004, Ken Jennings’ domination of Jeopardy! piqued the interest of IBM. For the next seven years IBM developed a question answering (QA) computer system aimed at beating Jennings at his own game. They named the computer Watson. In 2011, Watson faced off against Jennings and another elite Jeopardy! contender. Watson defeated them both.

After his defeat, Jennings had the following thought:

What happens when computers are better at knowing and remembering stuff than we are? 

In essence, what’s the point of putting the effort into learning if we have Google on our phones? In answer to that quandary, Jennings arrived at the conclusion that humans still have two advantages over “those who can just Google something.” The advantage of volume and the advantage of time. 

Advantage of Volume

The world is incredibly complex. As Jennings says in his talk, “…the scope of human information is now doubling every 18 months or so.” That is way too much information to have to continually look up. One example he gives to illustrate the importance of learning vs Googling is how we make informed decisions on who to vote for, which is a decision that requires correct judgement in relation to all kinds of different facts and information. As proof, a 2006 National Geographic Literacy Study said that roughly 63% of young adults who vote in presidential elections—a time when it’s obviously very important to understand foreign policy— couldn’t actually find Iraq on a map. In addition, 75% had no idea Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world.

In Jennings’ own words “If you can’t do that first step, are you really going to look up the other thousand facts you need to know to make an informed decision on foreign policy? At some point you will give up and just make a less-informed decision.”

Advantage of Time

In 2004, a ten-year-old girl by the name of Tilly Smith was on vacation with her family in Thailand. While they were out enjoying the beach, Smith noticed troubling patterns in the ocean and told her parents that they needed to get off the beach. Only a month prior to their vacation, Smith learned about tsunamis in her geography class. She recognized the signs and informed her family and the lifeguard who was then able to quickly get everyone off the beach.

The advantage of time won’t always be that dramatic. Most of the time it will be something simple like a social situation. Something where you meet someone new or you’re in a job interview and a topic comes up that where you can connect with the other person. Those are the situations where asking someone to wait while you Google facts about their hometown doesn’t really work.

In your pursuit of learning, don’t shy away from learning what you may feel are seemingly useless facts about the world around you. Gather up some know-it-all knowledge. Be curious about everything. And while you’re at it, try turning your GPS off every once in awhile. Your brain will thank you.

 

bb_TrumanAs sad as it is, being snubbed is part of life. But we can’t let that derail us from doing our best work. What if Dicaprio would have given up after one of his many Oscar snubs? Recognition is nice, but it shouldn’t be the reason you do something. You should do things because you love to do them, because it brings you joy. Otherwise, you’ll inevitably find yourself snubbed one day, and have nothing to measure your success on. Success shouldn’t be measured on awards anyway.

Rosalind Franklin was a scientist who got snubbed in the 50’s—pretty significantly might I add—and not many people know about her as a result. So I’d like to tell you a little bit about her story and what we can learn from it.

A Future in Science

Rosalind Franklin was always a bright girl. She excelled in science, math and language from a young age. Her parents were also pretty well off so she never had to worry about finances. She was always able to pursue a good education, and she was determined to excel. In the words of her mother, “Rosalind knew exactly where she was going, and at sixteen, she took science for her subject.”

Rosalind Franklin

In college, Franklin majored in physical chemistry. By the time she finished her undergraduate studies in 1942, World War II was still raging on so she decided to focus her PhD work in an area that would be helpful to the war efforts. She spent the next four years studying coal and carbons. In her research on the subject, she identified micro structures within coal and learned how to utilize that knowledge to more accurately predict the performance of different coals. Her findings were considerable.

After the war ended, Franklin began learning x-ray crystallography, which is the process of taking x-ray photos of crystallized structures. Some of her first work using that method yielded discoveries that would form the basis of carbon fibers.

Later on, Franklin was given a research scholarship at King’s College to improve their crystallography efforts in the study of DNA. Maurice Wilkins, her colleague, was already working with crystallography, but he arrogantly assumed that Franklin was just his assistant. The rift in their relationship would ultimately lead to Franklin’s greatest snub.

 

The Mystery of DNA

Franklin wasn’t just any crystallographer, she was exceptional at it—one of the best in the business. She was able to get some of the highest resolution photos that had ever been taken of crystallized DNA.

In fact, it was because of her images that the well-known duo of James Watson and Francis Crick were able to definitively prove their answer to the DNA mystery. They had theorized that DNA was a double helix, but were missing the piece of the puzzle that would confirm their theory. Wilkins, who knew Watson and Crick, leaked Franklin’s images to the duo. In addition to the images, Watson and Crick also benefitted from some of Franklin’s unpublished research. With those pieces of the puzzle in place, they finally had the evidence they needed. Their published announcement of their discovery gave no direct mention of Franklin or her images.

 

Precision and Patience

It is believed that Franklin probably understood the implications of her photos and that she had her own theories about the double helical shape of DNA. From her research, she photographed two forms of DNA, wet and dry.

Franklin was careful and precise as a scientist. Though she had evidence of a helical structure from her images of wet DNA, She didn’t want to publish her theory until she had worked out the math for dry DNA. She wasn’t going to rush things and risk missing a vital piece of information. She wanted to be absolutely sure. She was diligent and cautious by nature. By 1953, she was finally able to conclude that both forms were double helices. However, that’s exactly when Watson and Crick’s announcement was published.

After her work in DNA, Franklin made substantial discoveries as she shifted her studies to viruses. She published 19 papers on viruses and helped lay the foundation of structural virology. Franklin would have likely made more strides in science, but she died from ovarian cancer only a few years later at the age of 37.

Franklin’s contribution to the mysteries of DNA was only made public in later years. However, that wasn’t until after Watson, Crick and Wilkins has been awarded the Nobel Prize for their work in DNA in 1962—with no mention of Franklin’s contribution.

Though Rosalind Franklin had her share of snubs and controversy, she loved what she did. Her belief was that by doing her best, she “would come nearer to success, and that [her] definition of success (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining.” So she always did her best, even after she was denied the recognition she deserved.

And so should we.

 

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I have two great weaknesses: gas stations and bookstores.

You know that feeling you get when you turn in your final assignment for the semester and you walk outside and suddenly all the plans you made for summer vacation are unobstructed from the roadblocks of stress and you feel like you have the whole world at your disposal? That’s how I feel when I walk into a gas station or a bookstore. While I won’t discuss it in this post, just know that I have a special place in my heart for taquitos and sugary beverages, both of which are plentiful in the American gas station. That place in my heart my be an actual hole caused by the crap I’ve consumed from said gas stations, but it’s still there, and it’s still special.

But bookstores? Those places are magical. Literally anything you want to know is within arm’s reach. There are thousands of things you have no idea you want to know about within arm’s reach, and I think that’s what gets me. There’s so much potential knowledge, so many stories I’ve never heard.

I remember when the book fair would come to my school as a kid. They would give you that colorful paper brochure so you could order your books. I’ll tell you what, I could have negotiated my way out of North Korea with a pair of Kim Jong Il’s sneakers the way I convinced my mom to add JUST ONE MORE book to my order. Even today I have to give myself a pep talk when I walk into a Barnes & Noble, otherwise I leave with a stack of books and an empty bank account. Books are great, but not sans food and shelter.

I’m not sure I could quantify the knowledge I have gained from reading. It’s like trying to quantify infinity: there is no way to know where it begins or where it ends. So instead of doing that, I’d just like to talk a little bit about how much there is to gain from reading. I submit the following as evidence that we all can and should read more.

 

The Cool Kids Are Doing It

A few years back I read Tony Hsieh’s (pronounced shay) book, Delivering Happiness. Hsieh is the brilliant mind behind the culture-driven Internet store, Zappos. In the book, he goes into detail about why Zappos is so unique and successful. Hint, it’s all about the culture. If you don’t know what that means, just Google “Zappos offices” and scroll through the images. Zappos people are pretty cool. And Hsieh’s book was interesting from beginning to end.

Like many companies, Zappos has developed core values that guide how the company runs. One of the coolest (in my opinion) is Core Value #5: Pursue Growth and Learning. Hsieh is a major proponent of reading as a means of growing as a human. His belief is that if a person is not learning and growing on her own, she won’t be as productive as she can be as an employee. So to foster this idea and help his employees along, Hseih has a dedicated Zappos library.

Zappos Lobby Library

Zappos Lobby Library

Team members can rent books for free and are encouraged to read often. You can see the books in their library here.

 

Readers Are Winners

Abraham Lincoln successfully led the country through its darkest days during the Civil War. So it’s safe to say that he needed to be pretty knowledgable to accomplish that. In his early years, Lincoln was entirely self educated. He had only been to school for what only amounted to less than a year total by the time he was 21. However, because of his desire to learn, he was able to stay highly educated. Lincoln learned a lot from reading on his own. He loved books. In fact, his best friend once said, “I never saw Abe after he was 12, that he didn’t have a book in his hand or in his pocket.”

Image via Britannica

Image via Britannica

That love of reading followed him all through his life. In an article published in the New York Times in 1887, a man told a story about his friend who experienced Lincoln’s love of reading firsthand. The friend had the opportunity to meet Lincoln in the lobby of his hotel one morning. As he approached Lincoln, the man noticed that he was reading Homer’s Illiad. After the two got to talking, Lincoln said, “You know a man might as well be out of the world as not read Homer’s Illiad.”

For context, this was during the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The man was quite impressed that Lincoln, in the middle of a very crucial time of his life, still found the time to read for personal enjoyment and growth. Lincoln won the presidency two years later.

 

Reading With Your Ears

I’ve shared a few examples about “why” you should read, but now I’d like to address the “how.” Finding spare time is a major issue for most of us. It’s hard to find the time to eat breakfast before work, let alone the time to read a few chapters of a book. A few years back I thought I was doomed to live my life without books because I could never find the time to sit down and read. But that’s when my father taught me the ancient art of reading with your ears.

All of a sudden, the time that I usually wasted listening to sub-par morning radio stations could be used to expand my knowledge base. My very first audiobook was Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell got my brain making all kinds of connections, going a million miles a minute. I was reading a book a week just by listening every time I got in the car.

What I learned from that experience is that we can make time for things we value. After I got a few audiobooks under my belt, my desire to read only grew. I began making time to read physical books in between the time I spent reading audiobooks. My priorities had shifted, and I grew immensely as a result.

Podcasts 4

And the thing is, reading doesn’t even have to be done with an audiobook. You can listen to TED talks or podcasts and still get the same brain-powering results. It all just depends on how dedicated you are to learning. With summer just around the corner, I’m beyond excited to get back outside with my hammock and a cold beverage and dive into some good books. Plus, you know what that means: more visits to gas stations and bookstores.

What books are on your summer reading list? What books should I put on mine? You can leave a comment or hit me with a tweet. And don’t forget, you can track all your reading on Degreed! Podcasts and all!

“Five years from now, you’re the same person except for the people you’ve met and the books you’ve read.” – John Wooden

Steph-Curry-Patt-Riley-Gradual-Change

 

The most intriguing part of the quote above is not that excellence comes from wanting to do better—that’s pretty obvious—but that excellence comes from consistently making gradual changes.

Merriam-Webster defines the word gradual \ˈgra-jə-wəl\ (adj) as moving, changing, or developing by fine or often imperceptible degrees.

Steph-Curry-Gradual Change

I know that’s the recipe for the opening line of every high school graduation speech ever, but it works here. And I’m a sucker for words.

What Mr. Riley is saying here is pretty remarkable when you ponder it. How is it that something gradual—seemingly undetectable—can create anything substantial?

This is an idea that I could dwell on forever and still not completely wrap my head around. You could take a grain of sand out of the desert, and no one would be the wiser. You could do the same with a drop of water from the ocean. As humans, we are only one in a sea of billions. We’re literally just fibers in the fabric of the world. All but imperceptible.

Yet, thinking that each little piece of the greater whole has no meaning is flawed. Each little piece matters. It builds on the other little pieces around it and eventually becomes something great. Try to watch a movie on a TV with a missing pixel and tell me every tiny piece doesn’t matter.

The Compound Effect

I recently read a book by Darren Hardy titled The Compound Effect. In the book, Hardy essentially tries to break down and explain exactly how small pieces add up over time and lead to monumental results.

One of the most common explanations of this is the example of the compounding penny.

If you don’t know what that is, here’s the synopsis: say someone offered you the choice between a million dollars right now or the final sum of a penny doubled every day for 30 days (.01, .02, .04 etc.), which would you take?

The knee-jerk reaction is to take the million dollars. It seems like a no brainer. However, if you double a penny every day for 30 days, you end up with 5.3 million dollars. More than five times the amount you would have had if you took the million up front.

At first, you don’t really see any change. On day five you only have $0.16. Big whoop. You’ve waited five days and you still don’t even have enough to get a gum ball. Even at day 15, the halfway mark, you only have $163.84. Compared to $5.3 million, that’s miniscule. If you stole $163.84 out of someone’s bank account who has $5.3 million, it would be almost imperceptible. But through the power of the compound effect, the final 15 days are astronomically more lucrative than the first 15.

This idea works because gradual change is powerful when paired with consistency . At day five, you’re probably pretty discouraged. But if you stop doubling, you lose out on a big payout. The penny example is a little misleading because we can do the math and find the exact final outcome. But if you don’t know what the end looks like (as is that case with most things in life) it’s hard to feel like you’re making any progress.

Have you ever started a new diet or exercise routine and got frustrated after a week when you stepped on the scale and saw little to no change? It’s hard to stay motivated when you don’t see effort right away. That’s the poisonous nature of the human desire for instant gratification. But you have to keep at it. Every effort matters if you are consistent..

Going back to Hardy’s book, he says, “Your only path to success is through a continuum of mundane, unsexy, unexciting, and sometimes difficult daily disciplines compounded over time.”

gradual-change-darren-hardy

 

There is no quick fix for success. The only way to the top is through gradual and consistent effort. There are no shortcuts. And you may not see the results you’re looking for until you’ve kept at it for years.

 

The Success of Steph Curry

As outsiders looking in, successful people may appear to have fallen into their results overnight. That’s because there’s nothing newsworthy about a small change. The only way gradual effort becomes newsworthy is when it is maintained consistently over time. And that’s when everyone takes notice.

Let’s take one of the best athletes in the world right now as an example. Even if you know nothing about basketball, you’ve probably heard of Steph Curry. You have surely seen his amazing athletic feats on videos in your Facebook and Twitter feeds. But it wasn’t like that even two or three years ago.

Hardy talks about this as well.

“Don’t try to fool yourself into believing that a mega-successful athlete didn’t live through regular bone-crushing drills and thousands of hours of practice. He got up early to practice—and kept practicing long after all others had stopped.”

Out of high school, Steph Curry was overlooked by schools in big conferences. All the critics said he was too small. But he kept pushing. By the time he decided to go pro, scouts had all but declared him worthless in the NBA. Those draft reports are laughable now. Especially while read by Curry in a video touting his 2015 MVP and championship honors (something CoachUP did recently).

Stephen_Curry_shooting

Image by Keith Allison, Hanover, MD, USA

But Curry kept at it. He kept perfecting his craft.

“He practiced like a demon, hyper-focused on his weaknesses.” – Washington Post

Curry worked tirelessly on fundamentals—and he still does—making sure he has mastered every monotonous movement that happens in a game. That consistent effort on the simple components of the game has paid off.

“…staying on top of that simple fundamental makes you a little bit faster, a little bit more creative, a little bit more efficient on the floor.” – Steph Curry via Sports Illustrated

It’s hard not to watch in awe as Curry has dominated the game this year. Next time you watch him play, try not to see him only as he is now, but, like Under Armour puts it, as the sum of all his training. And don’t discount the power of gradual change made consistently over time, instead, try putting them to work towards your own goals.

A few years ago I flipped my whole world around when I decided to run a marathon. Up until that point in my life, I had never run more than three miles at any given time. In fact, I hated running. But this was a goal that I set for myself to prove that I could do something difficult. So to make sure I followed through and actually completed the marathon, I made videos and blogged about the entire process.

I wanted to learn what it took to go from essentially zero to completing a marathon. And when I was successful, I would have a solid paper trail established for anyone who wanted to do the same.

However, as I made my every move publicly known, I experienced motivation atrophy. Essentially, as the likes, favorites and comments piled up on my social media posts, I began to feel the gratification that should only have come from finishing the goal. I was absorbing compliments from friends and family based on the idea of accomplishing the goal, not the actual accomplishment itself. If not kept in check, all that hollow gratification could easily collapse.

I found that all I had to do was post a picture on the trail and everyone would just assume I was out running and being amazing.

Mot

While I did complete my training and eventually the marathon, there were days when I definitely spent more time talking than I did actually doing. Yet, I still felt the same gratification.

 

Motivation Atrophy

I read a post on the Storyline blog a few weeks ago that talks about this idea. Donald Miller recounts a time he ran into someone who met the famous novelist, Norman Mailer, at an airport. The man asked him what he was working on. Mailer did not answer his question. His reasoning was simple: he did not like to talk about a book too much because it stole his motivation to write it.

Motivation at work

 

Credit Where Credit Isn’t Due

Derek Sivers also backs up this idea in a TED talk given in 2010. Conventional wisdom says you should talk about your goals to your friends because then they can hold you accountable. That’s one of the reasons I was so vocal about my marathon plans. However, Sivers gave an example of a study that showed why that may not work.

In the study, people wrote down a personal goal. Half of the people announced to the whole group the goals they had committed to. The other half kept their mouths shut. Then everyone was given 45 minutes to work on something that would help them accomplish that goal. They were told they could stop anytime.

The people who did not announce their goals worked the entire 45 minutes on average, and when asked about it, said they still felt like they had a long way to go. On the other hand, those who had announced their goals worked only 33 minutes on average. And their response to the same question afterward was that they felt much closer to achieving their goal.

“Repeated psychology tests have proven that telling someone your goal makes it less likely to happen.”-Derek Sivers

You can effectively trick your mind into thinking you have done something, and that’s a dangerous road to go down.

 

Be About That Action

One of my favorite athletes is Marshawn Lynch, the recently-retired running back for the Seattle Seahawks. You might know him from his press conferences—or lack thereof—during the Seahawks Super Bowl run in 2013-14. When the media tried to question Lynch about his games, he dodged their questions and sat in silence on the media stand. He was eventually fined for not talking. Then his answer to every question was “I’m just here so I don’t get fined.”

Whether you agree with the way Lynch handled things or not, his motives were essentially in line with the premise of this post. The football legend, Deion Sanders, was able to get Lynch to talk about why he chose to sit in silence.
Sanders: You kinda shy?

Lynch: Nah.

Sanders: You just don’t wanna talk really?

Lynch: I’m just ‘bout that action, boss.

Sanders: You ‘bout to go get it. You just like to do it.

Lynch: I ain’t never seen no talkin’ win me nothin’. You want something, you go get it. Ain’t no need to talk about it.

 

We can all take a page out of Lynch’s book. If you want something to happen, go get it. Simple as that. Don’t worry about broadcasting your intentions to everyone. You’ll just end up making it harder on yourself. People will pay just as much attention when you’ve actually accomplished the goal. And that gratification won’t be hollow.

Try it out for a week, and see how much more productive you are. This is usually the part where I ask you to tweet me about your progress, but I don’t want you tweeting to me until you’ve finished something this time. Deal?

You can also follow me on Degreed here, and add this article to your Degreed profile by clicking the button below.

Establishing a habit of learning

Let’s talk about habits.

I was recently inspired by an article on the Babbel blog that had some quality suggestions on habit formation. It got me thinking about my own learning habits.

After reading the article, I sat myself down and while gently touching the tips of my fingers together, I asked myself, “Am I really doing everything I can to learn something new every day?”

I had to answer honestly. I would know if I was lying.

Medium story short, the answer was no. I can do more.

Now I know that habits are the center of many debates. Everyone has their own thoughts and opinions on how to break and create habits. With that in mind, I know that the process in this post will not work for everyone. As with everything on the Internet, take it with a grain of salt. However, it is my hope that this at least gets you to think more seriously about your daily learning habits and how to become better at adding to your knowledge base daily.

 

Identify an Action

Habits underlie almost everything we do on a daily basis. Yet we go throughout our daily routines all but unaware of how deep some of our habits are ingrained. The good news is that all of these habits, no matter how good or bad, can be used as tools to jump start new habits.

For the purposes of this post, let’s say you want to learn to be a better artist. First, you’ll need to identify an action that will help you accomplish that goal. Don’t make it too difficult. In fact, the simpler the better.

To be a better artist, you will need to have something to draw on, right? So let’s set our action as opening a sketchpad. That simple. You haven’t committed to drawing anything, just to open your pad.

 

Find an Anchor

Now this is where you are going to have to become a little more self aware. You’re going to have to identify all the ingrained habits that fill up your day. Once you start thinking, you’ll realize how many there are to choose from. It could be brushing your teeth, hanging your coat up when you get home, turning on the coffee pot, sitting on the couch after work, checking your pockets to make sure you have your keys and phone, kissing your kids goodbye, etc. This is just a quick list. You should be able to come up with many more than this.

Once you have identified these habits, you’ll need to do a little refining. Find a habit that occurs at a similar frequency to the new habit you want to form. For the art example let’s say you want to work on your art every day. So you would identify a habit that you do daily. That will be what we call your anchor.

 

Create a Process

Once you have found your anchor—a habit that you can piggyback off of—you will need to create a process to turn that habit into a cue for your new habit. For example, if you plop down on the couch every day after work, place your sketchpad on the coffee table. This is where your simple action you identified earlier will come into play. Once you plop down (anchor), open your sketch pad (action).

At this point, you don’t even have to draw anything. Just open the sketch pad. That might seem way too easy and pointless. However, it’s this simple action that will help you determine if you have identified a solid anchor. If you find that you just don’t have any motivation when you open your sketch pad after you sit down on the couch, because you’re tired and you want to just sit and relax, that’s probably not a great anchor to tie your new habit to. If completing the action with the anchor doesn’t make sense or doesn’t feel comfortable, try experimenting with other anchors. Maybe instead of the couch anchor, you open your sketch pad after you plug your phone in at night. There are myriad options to choose from.

Once you have perfected the simple process of anchor and action, you’re ready for the last step.

 

Ramp up the Tension

This is where your habit begins to take shape. It is extremely difficult to establish a habit if you go all in from day one. You might make it a week, but you really haven’t established the habit. You’ve just proven that you can do something new for a few days. This process is about establishing a real habit, and that happens slowly over time. There isn’t much instant gratification in habit formation.

Maybe ramping up the tension means starting with a simple doodle a day and perfecting some fundamentals of art. From there, maybe you start adding a YouTube tutorial or a few pages from an instructional book to the routine. Eventually, you will no longer need the anchor to cue your learning. That’s when you will know you have established a new habit of learning!

Here’s a quick recap of what we learned.

 

infographic a habit of learning

Again, thanks to the language-learning people at Babbel for informing me on this process. Like I said, it may not work for everyone. But why not give it a try? The worst thing that could happen is you cross off one more thing that doesn’t work for you. If it does work, I want to hear about it. I too will be working on my daily learning habits. Shoot me a question and hold me accountable or tell me what habits you are working on! You can comment here or tweet me at @bradensthompson.

Expertise takes imbalance

 

The year was 1938. America was still suffering in the Great Depression. Hitler was gearing up for war. Amidst all that, on November 1, Franklin D. Roosevelt took a break from the stresses of running a nation and tuned into a radio broadcast with 40 million other listeners. War Admiral, a dominant race horse and the previous year’s Triple Crown winner, was lined up next to a small but determined horse named Seabiscuit. It was a match race. A one-on-one duel. Seabiscuit was far and away the underdog. But everyone loves an underdog story. Winning the race by four lengths, Seabiscuit sealed his fate as an American legend.

In the same ink-smeared newspapers that chronicled the races of Seabiscuit, stories of a man who was poised to become an American legend in his own regard peppered the sports pages. In the late thirties, the four minute mile had not yet been achieved. In fact, that barrier wouldn’t be broken until 1954. Up until World War II, Louis Zamperini, an Italian kid from Torrance, California, was among the favorites to break the four-minute barrier. In fact, he ran a 4:08 in college, which stood as a collegiate record for 15 years. But Zamperini would never get the chance to beat that mark. After enlisting in the Army Air Corps, he was in a plane crash, which became the start of a harrowing story of survival at sea and in Japanese POW camps.

Many of us know these amazing stories because of the writing of Laura Hillenbrand in both novels Seabiscuit and Unbroken. However, as the story of Seabiscuit filled us with awe and the story of Zamperini took us on an unfathomable journey, the remarkable story of the woman behind the pen has gone mostly unnoticed.

An Unfortunate Disease

CFS or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, as explained by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, is characterized by debilitating fatigue that can be triggered by minimal activity. People with severe CFS find it all but impossible to do even the most basic of everyday tasks. Hillenbrand seemed to have the odds stacked against her. At one time while in the process of writing Unbroken, she suffered a particularly bad spell of the disease. Things digressed to the point that she was unable to leave her home for two years. Some months she never left her bedroom.

Hillenbrand didn’t always suffer from CFS. She was basically blindsided by it at the age of 19. Too weak to continue attending her college classes, she moved in with her mother in Maryland. So little was known about the disease at the time, doctors didn’t believe her when she would explain her symptoms. They tried to convince her it was all in her mind or that it was an eating disorder. Even her own mother was skeptical. Eventually she was well enough to move to Chicago with her then boyfriend, but on a trip back to Maryland to visit her mother, she collapsed. Unable to regain enough physical strength to fly back home, she was forced to make her permanent home in nearby Washington D.C. 

Unparalleled Success

Just how good is Laura Hillenbrand? Well when you stop and think about it, how does anyone write in so much detail about places they have never been? Journalists get their stories by going on location to survey the surroundings and talk to the people involved. Hillenbrand never had that opportunity. Everything she did was via phone or email. She never even met Zamperini in person until after Unbroken was published, which took her almost ten years. Zamperini didn’t even know she was sick for the first seven years she interviewed him. Her focus was on the story.

Hillenbrand is also exceptionally adept at research. When she first reached out to Zamperini about writing Unbroken, he shrugged her off. He was just about finished writing his own memoir. He didn’t think there was anything left to cover. On top of that, there were already three other books written that told Zamperini’s remarkable story. But Hillenbrand was relentless, and Zamperini eventually relented. For the next decade, Hillenbrand dug up a trove of new information. So much so that Zamperini admitted it got to the point where he would call her and ask what happened to him in certain prison camps.

Both Seabiscuit and Unbroken have become enormous successes. Combined the two books have sold more than 10 million copies. Unbroken, her most recent success, was on the New York Time’s best-seller list for 185 weeks straight. To put it in perspective, only three other books have outdone that. In a New York Times article, Sallye Leventhal, who is one of the book buyers for Barnes & Noble, had this to say about Hillenbrand’s success, “There are other phenomenal best sellers, but not this phenomenal. Not with this velocity, year after year after year.”

Focus and Balance

Laura Hillenbrand is a fascinating example of focus. In the depths of painful and incapacitating illness, she somehow mustered the physical strength (some days it was all she could do to pick up a pen) and the mental perseverance to complete two incredible works of art.

As I ponder on Hillenbrand’s story, I can’t help but think about the focus it must have taken to do what she did. CFS was literally keeping her bedridden, yet her focus was on something bigger than herself, something she excelled at that helped her escape the pains of her disease.

In talking about focus, I think I also need to bring up balance. I’m not entirely sold on the notion of having balance in life. At least not all the time. When things are balanced, you’re not giving your all to anything. Everything gets an equal amount of attention, but nothing gets your full attention. In many circumstances, I think there is nothing wrong with that. However, there are instances where balance could be synonymous with complacent. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If you want to become an expert at something, you’re going to have to throw your life off balance. You’re going to have to focus on the thing that you want to be great at. You can’t give less than your full attention to something and expect to excel.

For instance, I would very much love to become a master woodworker or gain expertise in wilderness survival. But at this point in my life, I’m focused on excelling in writing. That means that the shelves and desk that I want to build sit undone as I spend my nights writing and researching.

I’ll be the first to admit that focusing on one thing when you enjoy many things—whether you choose to, or like Laura Hillenbrand are forced to—is not easy. But no one ever said becoming an expert would be easy.

 

Tweet me at @bradensthompson, and follow me on Degreed here. Click the button below to get credit for reading this article.

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