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.

is an MBA worth it?

As I am finishing my MBA I am constantly asked one question: Is my MBA worth the investment? This is an answer that will change for every individual. Since I have a background in Psychology I have found myself looking at this question in the perspective of others I have encountered that are pursuing an MBA or have attained their MBA.

A Check-Mark vs. Actual Skills

When I started my MBA I was working for an investment firm that was helping pay for an MBA. Most of the people that were pursuing an MBA at my company were doing so to take advantage of “free” money. The downfall is that the guy that was sitting next to me had his MBA for over five years and was still making the same amount of money as myself and wasn’t looking to go anywhere. These employees just went through the motions of higher education and finished their MBA. A lot of my colleagues would check it off their list and act like nothing happened. To me, this is a waste of money and time just so the company will pay me a little extra money that goes directly to a school and not me. I wanted my time and money to be used to better myself and my future.

In my first few classes I started to look at the experience and background of others in my class. One of my professors asked the students to introduce themselves and why they were in the program. The majority stated they wanted an MBA to get a raise or to get a better job. There were only a few of us that wanted to improve our knowledge and skill. Now I am not saying that the first group didn’t want to improve their skills as well, but motivations can determine the quality of the outcome.

Over the past two years I have found myself working with many different individuals in group projects. I am astounded at how little effort some people put into a master’s degree and expect others to carry them to the end. The thought of competing against these people after I got my degree scared me. A potential employer will not see how much work was put into an MBA and frankly they may not even care. We both will have a degree to show we accomplished the program, so what would set me apart? I wanted to be different. I wanted to show that I learned a behavior of learning that will help me find solutions to the business’ problems. The problem is that I couldn’t find a way to show that I have a newfound desire for lifelong learning. This was until I found Degreed. Degreed gave me a way to track all of my learning, not just my Degree. It allows me to show my continual learning to colleagues and will help direct me in valuable content to keep up with relevant changes and learning.

Degreed-Branded-blog-02

The Habit of Learning

Why does it matter to be a lifelong learner and make learning a habit? For my previous colleagues that had their MBA for 5 years and are sitting in the same role they were when they finished, your knowledge is stale. Business has changed over the last 5 years. Do you want outdated information in your business decisions? For those that get an MBA to get a pay raise or a better job, you are not going to have longing success as you missed out on a learning opportunity since you had others carry you to the end. What skills or knowledge did you gain? For those that went to learn and grow, you may not have a better job right away or an immediate pay raise, but you will be an asset to the business as you learned how to learn and how to analyze things differently.

Your Answer

So to answer the question “Is my MBA worth the investment?” I would say YES. I went into the program investing in my future through skills and knowledge. If I went into the degree for a check off my list or for a piece of paper, I would say no. The true value comes from your motivation and attitude in the beginning. Just remember, learning doesn’t end once you have the paper. You will find the most value in the MBA as you continue to learn and use what you learn like an MBA is structured to teach you.

You can tweet Branden @brandengbaldwin and follow him on Degreed here. Branden’s MBA is from Westminster College in Salt Lake City, UT. Branden enjoys spending time with his wife and children and volunteering in his community.

Career Advice From Self Made Billionaires

The first time I truly grasped the magnitude of a billion was while reading Tony Robbins’ book, Money: Master the Game. He explains a billion relative to time. One million seconds is roughly 12 days. And how about one billion seconds? That’s 32 YEARS. The difference between a millionaire and a billionaire is massive. So I think it’s safe to say that becoming a self-made billionaire is quite an impressive feat. The following career advice comes from six individuals who rose up out of less-than-stellar conditions and into incredible wealth.

John Paul DeJoria

First up we have Mr. John Paul DeJoria. This guy didn’t just stop after his first billion-dollar success, he took things a step further and built a second billion-dollar company. As a child DeJoria sold Christmas cards and newspapers to help support his family, but he eventually ended up living in foster care. Later in life he had to live in his car while he went door-to-door selling his shampoo products. Not only did he grow that little business into the billion-dollar Paul Mitchell brand, he also started Patron Tequila—another billion-dollar endeavor.

As a man who began his career doing door-to-door sales, it’s unsurprising that a lot of what DeJoria has to say is about powering through rejection. The following piece of career advice in particular is a solid representation of the determination it took for him to build something great through great adversity.

“You’re going to run across a lot of rejection. Be prepared for the rejection. No matter how bad it is don’t let it overcome you and influence you—keep on going towards what you want to do–no matter what… You need to be as enthusiastic about door number one-hundred as door number one.”

One other piece of advice from DeJoria that I thought was worth sharing has to do with the kind of work that it takes to become successful.

“The difference between successful people and unsuccessful people is that successful people do all the things the unsuccessful people don’t want to do.”

Career Advice Self-Made-Billionaire-John-DeJoria

 

J.K. Rowling

First things first, I have to admit that I’m not much of a Harry Potter fan. Though I do respect the talent of Rowling. For those of you diehard fans, you probably know everything there is to know about her. But for those who don’t know everything, Rowling had some pretty rough patches on her way to fame and fortune. At one point she was living off welfare as a single mother writing all day in a coffee shop with her baby by her side. I can’t imagine that sitting in that coffee shop she ever imagined she’d become the richest author in the world.

So what career advice does Rowling have for us? The following quotes come from a commencement speech she gave at Harvard in 2008. Like DeJoria, she has some enlightening thoughts on failure, and she also believes in the power of imagination.

“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.”

“I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution.”

“We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

Career Advice Self-Made-Billionaire-JK-Rowling

 

Howard Schultz

If you enjoy pumpkin spice in any kind of hot beverage, you’ve probably been to a Starbucks recently. The multibillion-dollar company has a storefront on seemingly every street corner in America. But for Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, things weren’t always so good. As a child, Schultz didn’t have a lot of money. Because of his predicament, he felt a strong desire to prove he could become successful in spite of his limited resources. Schultz now has a keen understanding of what a business needs in order to grow. Here are a couple thought-provoking snippets of advice from Schultz on authenticity and conviction.

“In this ever-changing society, the most powerful and enduring brands are built from the heart. They are real and sustainable. Their foundations are stronger because they are built with the strength of the human spirit, not an ad campaign. The companies that are lasting are those that are authentic.”

“There are moments in our lives when we summon the courage to make choices that go against reason, against common sense and the wise counsel of people we trust. But we lean forward nonetheless because, despite all risks and rational argument, we believe that the path we are choosing is the right and best thing to do. We refuse to be bystanders, even if we do not know exactly where our actions will lead.”

Self-Made-Billionaire-Career Advice

 

“This is the kind of passionate conviction that sparks romances, wins battles, and drives people to pursue dreams others wouldn’t dare. Belief in ourselves and in what is right catapults us over hurdles, and our lives unfold. ‘Life is a sum of all your choices,’ wrote Albert Camus. Large or small, our actions forge our futures and hopefully inspire others along the way.”

 

Zhou Qunfei

According to a New York Times article Zhou Qunfei is the world’s richest self-made woman. Zhou’s story is quite remarkable. Apparently she isn’t fond of interviews so particular pieces of career advice from her are hard to come by. However, within the details of her rags-to-riches story are beautiful examples from which we can learn about success.

As a young person, Zhou worked long hours in a factory in Shenzhen, China. She made the equivalent of about $1 a day. “I didn’t enjoy it,” she says in the NY Times article. After just three months she had to quit. But Zhou didn’t quit in a way most of us would. She penned her boss a letter of resignation. In the letter she stated her complaints regarding the long hours. But she also wrote about how grateful she was to have had the job, and that she wanted the opportunity to learn more.

When her boss read the letter, he was so impressed that he gave her a promotion and the opportunity to do other work in the factory. That experience gave her the step up she needed to start the leading glass screen production company, Lens Technology. Chances are pretty good that the glass screen you are reading this blog post on was made by Zhou’s company.

When it comes to Zhou’s demeanor, her cousin has this to say about her: “In the Hunan language, we call women like her ‘ba de man,’ which means a person who dares to do what others are afraid to do.”

In addition to being daring, Zhou is meticulous and exact in her work. She often walks the factory floor to make sure everything is in order. She’ll step in and work the most menial jobs just to make sure the process is seamless and optimally effective. This level of detail stems from her childhood. “My father had lost his eyesight, so if we placed something somewhere, it had to be in the right spot, exactly, or something could go wrong. That’s the attention to detail I demand at the workplace.”

 

Lloyd Blankfein

Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, came out of the projects in east Brooklyn. His father was a postal worker and his mother a receptionist. Blankfein sold sodas at Yankees games. It took a ton of work, but Blankfein eventually rose out of poverty to the top of Wall Street.

In a video for the Goldman Sachs summer interns in 2013, Blankfein gave some solid career advice on how to rise to the top no matter what cards you’re dealt.

“By the way…there are advantages to growing up in a place with a lot of access to a lot of privileges and there are burdens to that also. And the burdens of that are the insecurity that comes from having had things more easily….Whoever you are, wherever you are stationed, these are the cards you got dealt. You can’t spend your time wringing your hands about it. You play the cards you have. You accept the burdens in the context of which you came from and enjoy the privileges and don’t be guilty and either one of them.”

Here are two more powerful pieces of advice from Blankfein that have to do with accepting failure and building relationships.

“If you’re on a beach and a tsunami hits, you’ll drown whether you’re a small child or an Olympic swimmer. Some things will go bad no matter how good you are.”

“You have to, in your own life, get people to want to work with you and want to help you. The organizational chart, in my opinion, means very little. I need my bosses’ goodwill, but I need the goodwill of my subordinates even more.”

Career Advice-From-Self-Made-Billionaires

 

Oprah Winfrey

When I was first researching people for this article, I had no idea that Oprah came out of poverty. All I really knew about her up to this point was that my mom used to fold laundry while watching her show when I was a kid, and in December the audience got all of her favorite things.

What I didn’t know was that she grew up in rural Mississippi wearing clothes her grandmother made out of potato sacks. On top of that, she had to deal with unimaginable emotional trauma from sexual abuse. Now a billionaire media mogul, Oprah’s work has influenced the lives of millions of people.

The following are just a few of the many pieces of advice she has for success and happiness. From courage to personal responsibility, she touches on some powerful stuff.

“I’ve come to believe that each of us has a personal calling that’s as unique as a fingerprint – and that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service, working hard, and also allowing the energy of the universe to lead you.

Career Advice from Billionaires

“You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.”

“The reason I’ve been able to be so financially successful is my focus has never, ever for one minute been money.”

“I don’t think of myself as a poor deprived ghetto girl who made good. I think of myself as somebody who, from an early age, knew I was responsible for myself, and I had to make good.”

 

I hope you found at least one piece of advice that you can take to heart and apply in your life. I know I have. Let me know what you liked the most. Tweet me at @bradensthompson, and follow me on Degreed here. Click the button below to get credit for reading this article.

 

Why you should volunteer at conferences

After volunteering for two years at different events, many doors have opened for a broke young entrepreneur like me. Mostly through serendipity.

  • Another volunteer recruited me to run events with her at Influencer Series, an intimate gathering of highly influential leaders. We host the events at different VC firms every month and our guests included Jim McKelvey (Square), Marissa Mayer (Yahoo), and Leah Busque (Task Rabbit). It’s pretty rad.
  • One of the conferences that I volunteered for last year recruited me to work this year’s conference. Because I had built trust during the first event, it was an honor to be apart of the Lean Startup Conference 2015. Being friends with the rest of the staff is also a blessing.
  • I became close with the founder of another conference that I volunteered for last year. I stayed in touch and Sam Parr hired me to intern for him at The Hustle. A media company that he started to compliment the annual flagship conference, HustleCon.
  • On top of career opportunities, I’ve met so many other awesome volunteers along the way. The conference organizers even invite me to get lunch or cool events, which makes me feel pretty special.
  • Last but not least, I also get to attend parts of the actual conference! Connecting with speakers, learning from the talks, and eating all the free food.

By the way, all these events were free (for volunteers) to attend, saving an estimated $15,000+ dollars. In some cases, they actually paid me.

I started volunteering as a broke 18-year old with no knowledge or network in the entrepreneurship space. When I interviewed for my first startup, they asked me “What dream startup would I work for if I could?” I told them I’d do digital media for the Golden State Warriors.

In case you don’t watch basketball, GSW has been around longer than our parents have been alive. They’re definitely not a startup.

So here I was, a total newbie to entrepreneurship looking to meet new people and learn more.

When I asked my professors and other adults for career advice, they kept telling me to “go network.” And that “it’s who you know, not what you know.”

Okay, that’s nice to know. How do I even get started?

I was listening to something on YouTube and I came across Tim Ferriss’ name. I discovered that volunteering for conferences was actually how Tim Ferriss got his start when he moved to the Silicon Valley. I literally followed his footsteps and received similar results two years later.

Before we get deep into volunteering, let’s start with why we go to conferences. If you think it’s for the talks, save yourself some money. The talks are usually available after the event.

The number one reason we go is to meet people.

Potential business partners, co-founders, investors, friends, soulmate? Who knows!?

When you’re a young with no experience and no money to buy a conference ticket, the best thing you can do is volunteer.

Even though you might be doing “dirty” work like taking out the trash, handling registration, or giving directions, it’s an experience. One that’s shared with other volunteers whom you’ll get to also meet!

I remember the day before HustleCon, I drove up to SF to organize name badges with the rest of the HustleCon volunteers. In two hours, we were in a small room together doing this mindless task but we were having fun! Talking about anything and everything.

When I met Felicia Chanco, the person that hired me to run the Influencer Series events, we were both doing registration together for the Lean Startup Conference 2014. We got along instantly and started talking about the most random topics, from traveling to girls to music.

Felicia also got a chance to see how “professional” I was as a volunteer. I was well mannered (thanks Mom!), organized, and genuinely cared about the success of the conference.

That one person changed the course of my career and life. Since that day, my goal at any event is to make one solid connection rather than ten weak ones.

I think you should volunteer if:

  • You’re broke but still want to be in the conference environment
  • You want to connect with other volunteers & conference organizers
  • You’re okay with doing “dirty work”
  • You’re comfortable with not getting any ROI with your time. Opportunities come with serendipity, and not every event experience is going to be a grand slam.
  • You believe in the conference itself and the values it has
  • Your main focus is to help the success of the event. Everything else is secondary.

How do you volunteer?

Most conferences are dying to have high quality volunteers. The only problem is that most volunteers suck and are always asking themselves, “What’s in it for me?”

Also, the volunteer turnover rate is high at conferences which frustrates conference organizers. Not showing up when you promise them that you’ll be there will always leave a bad impression in their mind.

If you’re convinced after reading this post that you want to volunteer for a conference, there are three simple steps to get there.

  1. Find events that you want to volunteer at
  2. Find the conference organizers’ email and ask
  3. Show up at the conference and do an awesome job

Finding Events

I’m fortunate to receive Startup Digest emails, a curated list of upcoming events in the Bay Area. It is my go-to place to look for conferences that I resonate with.

For you, find out where all the people you want to meet are hanging out and explore how you can attend those events. Are they into conferences? Small meetups? Medium sized events?

There are the obvious answers like Meetup or Eventbrite, but I would challenge you to find those curated lists in your space. If there isn’t one, this is the perfect opportunity for you to step up and be a community leader.

Email Them

There are so many tools to find someone’s email.

Shoot them a quick message that you want to volunteer. Convey that you’re trustworthy & reliable.

Keep it simple, stupid (KISS).

Here’s the exact email I sent to Sam Parr, the co-founder of HustleCon.

Notice how I wrote my email copy to mirror how HustleCon wrote their website copy. It establishes a connection and shows that I did my homework, before Sam ever met me.

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 10.35.11 AM

If they don’t answer in a week, follow up to float the email to the top of their busy inbox.

After you volunteer for a few conferences, you can use that in your email copy as “social proof.” It’s all about leverage.

Showing Up

You found an event, the organizer agreed for you to volunteer. Now what? Here are a few last volunteering tips to making a memorable impression as a volunteer:

  • Take on as much responsibility as you can.

The more stuff they give you, the better. Go above and beyond your call of duty to build trust.

My friend Shawn, who volunteered with me at the Lean Startup Conference, told our volunteer captain ahead of time that he has stage production experience. So in case anything went wrong he would be able to step in and help out.

It turns out, the stage production guy had food poisoning and couldn’t run the show. Ragen, our volunteer captain, ran to find Shawn and found him in an all black outfit with a dress shirt and tie (the perfect outfit to run backstage). Like a badass, Shawn was already prepared.

He hurried backstage, put on a headset, and completely saved the conference from having more technical issues. The staff and I have a running joke that he was the hero of the conference.

Yes, he was even invited to have dinner with the whole Lean Startup staff to show their appreciation! And yes, he got hired to work this year’s conference where I had a chance to reunite with him.

Good things happen when you go above and beyond your call of duty.

  • Represent the brand with respect.

As a volunteer for a conference, you are indirectly part of their extended staff. What you do reflects what people think of the event. I always pretend as if it was my conference, how would I want my own volunteers to act? And then do that.

Look, this method might sounds too good to be true. “Volunteer for free, network your way with the staff, speakers, and other attendees, and get a bunch of opportunities.”

Those are the unguaranteed benefits that might come with volunteering. But actually take pride in  what you’re there to do. You’re there to help the brand. Help the conference run smoothly. Help the attendees have the best experience they can possibly have.

Don’t forget why you’re there and don’t forget your responsibilities. Like I mentioned earlier,

“Your main focus is to help the success of the conference. Everything else is secondary.”

That’s it! If you see me volunteering at a conference in the Bay Area, make sure you come up to me and say hi, or tweet me here. Good luck on your future events!

After experiencing an array of job titles within the past four years, I have come to a sudden halt as I was recently let go from a job for the first time in my professional career. At first, I felt like a complete failure. I had absolutely no clue as to what my next move would be and in fact, I’m still figuring it out. But in this past month, I have truly gained insight towards the importance of staying productive and making sure that I don’t fall too far from where I was or lose track of where I want to be. So, here are 7 ways to learn and stay productive when you’re in-between jobs.

Ways to Learn in Between Jobs

1. Stay on top of the latest news.

Read books. Read trending articles. Watch TedTalks. Get updates via social media. Whatever you do, make sure that you don’t fall behind on what is going on within your field. Today’s news is extremely fast-paced and constantly evolving due to the convenient access of information online. It’s important to stay in the know so that you can be ready for whatever opportunity comes your way.

2. Go to industry events.

A great way to get in the live action of what is going on within your field is by physically attending industry events. It’s one thing to just stay active online, but showing up in person is a whole other experience. Not only is it a great way to meet new people, but it’s also inspiring and motivating to directly learn from professionals within your industry.

3. Consult with others.

Just because you no longer work at your past companies doesn’t mean you should lose touch with your former colleagues. Check in with them and catch up with the people in your network every once in a while. Your network is one of your strongest resources for potential jobs or making new connections to other opportunities.

4. Online learning.

The beauty of technology is that we are able to access knowledge in a way that we never have been able to in the past. Online learning opens doors to information on whichever concentrated skill you desire to learn. If you’re in between jobs or just considering a career change, online learning gives you the ability to pursue further education, like learning a new skill, from the comfort of your own computer.

5. Write your ideas down.

Try to keep a journal in order to log any ideas that may pop into your head. Writing is an excellent form of expression and can help you organize your thoughts when you are feeling lost and confused. Creating lists of your strengths and weakness or likes and dislikes in a job can help you get a better sense of direction before making your next move.

6. Freelance.

One thing that I have personally learned from freelancing is that it offers a variety of great opportunities including a source of additional income, flexible work hours, and exposure amongst potential employers or other work opportunities. Once you have mastered your craft, whether it be UX design, coding, or writing, freelancing is a great way to practice and refine your skill set which will ultimately benefit you in the long run as a professional.

7. Get back into the hobbies you love.

Time off doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. When I was let go, I was initially in a state of panic, but it eventually turned into relief. I learned that a break is like a rest period after completing a marathon. It takes time to decompress and recover. I also learned that during this time, it’s important to stay on top of your game both within the playing field as well as off of the playing field. Take the time to rediscover your hobbies and interests because you never know what it could lead to. The things you are passionate about can turn into a fulfilling career, leading you in a direction that you never expected. Embrace the journey and tweet me to tell me your great ideas for ways to learn and staying productive in-between jobs.

7 ways to learn in between jobs

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Whether by choice or by circumstance, millions of people call the endless concrete jungle of New York City home. For some, the streets of New York are brutal and unforgiving, for others, they’re a place where you feel brand new—according to a Mr. Jay-Z. But it wasn’t until the summer of 2010 that the world slowly began to see how deeply inspiring the people who walk those streets really are.

NewYorkCity-HumansofNewYork

Brandon Stanton started Humans of New York because he wanted to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers. After only a few months he realized that he was just scratching the surface of a more meaningful project. He began interviewing the people he photographed and transcribing the stories they told. The stories he would gather got deeper and deeper as people shared their greatest fears, struggles and successes. What is fascinating about his project is how relevant and powerful a single first-hand story can become.

Two years prior to the launch of HONY, on the 5th floor of the BBC building in London, Aamer Ahmed Khan and his crew were working on a way to tell a relevant and powerful story- the story of the Taliban’s malicious presence in Pakistan. They wanted to find out exactly what it was like for schoolgirls in the Swat Valley. Khan and his team eventually landed on the risky idea of finding a young girl in the area and publishing her personal experiences. Like Stanton, Khan and company wanted to illustrate the situation in Swat in the most powerful way they knew how–using a firsthand account.

The Swat Valley is located on the northwestern end of Pakistan. The natural landscape of that area would make any wanderlusting, authentic-living, #optoutsiding adventurer swoon.

Swat Valley, Image via I Am Malala

Swat Valley, Image via I Am Malala

Though relatively peaceful now, Swat was once a place where decapitated bodies were left in the streets as a macabre message meant to incite fear. Beginning in 2007, the Taliban took control of the valley. During their control, the Taliban bombed hundreds of schools, and girls were not allowed to pursue any kind of education. One Swat Valley local who was particularly devastated by the education restriction was a young girl named Malala Yousafzai.


Education is Human

Named after Malalai, a Pashtun heroine, Malala seemed destined for greatness from day one. Her father ran a school in Swat and was a notable advocate for education. He would raise his daughter with a strong love of learning that would eventually become her life.

In 2009, the Taliban’s ban on girls going to school was enforced on Malala’s school. In her book, I Am Malala, she explains why the Taliban was against education.

“The Taliban is against education because they think that when a child reads a book or learns English or studies science he or she will become Westernized.” Malala’s rebuttal to that reasoning is quite profound. “Education is education. We should learn everything and then choose which path to follow. Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human.”

L&D-Malala

 

If you haven’t already, stop and think about what Malala is saying. If education is human, then to learn is to be alive. If our freedom to learn is taken away, then we are no better off than if we were dead. With that logic, the right to education is worth losing your life over because the alternative is no better than death.


I Am Afraid

At about this same time, Khan and his team from the BBC were in contact with their local correspondent, Abdul Hai Kakar. Kakar knew Malala’s father and enlisted his help in the search for a schoolgirl to share her experiences. Eventually Malala caught wind of Kakar’s search and expressed her interest in helping to her father.

Though it was risky, Malala’s father agreed to let her write about her experiences. For safety reasons, she penned her entries under the pseudonym, Gul Makai, which is the name of another Pashtun heroine. On January 3, 2009, at the age of 11, Gul Makai published her first entry titled, I AM AFRAID. It wasn’t long before her posts started drawing a lot of attention.

Malala only blogged for the BBC for a little over a month, but the popularity of her posts led her to drop her anonymity and speak out in opposition of the Taliban’s rules on local TV and radio shows. Despite death threats, she continued speaking out and was even featured in a New York Times documentary.

After three years of verbal attacks on the Taliban, Malala found herself face to face with her enemy. On October 9, 2012, as Malala was on her way home from school, a masked gunman got on her bus and shot her in the head. Incredibly, after months of recovery, Malala survived the attack. Since then, her voice has only become louder. She won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 and continues to advocate for girls’ rights to education in all parts of the world.

The cover of Malala's book, "I Am Malala"

The cover of Malala’s book, “I Am Malala”


Never Stop Learning

Most of us will never have to stand up for our own education to the extent Malala did. And on some level, I think that’s a tragedy. Hear me out.

I don’t think we’d all be better off if we were threatened with our lives every time we went to school or looked up a how-to video on YouTube. But I do think that it’s easy to take something for granted if we never have to evaluate just how important it is in comparison to our life. Malala mentions something to this effect in her book:

“When someone takes away your pens you realize quite how important education is.”

As humans, we understand the idea of this principle—that we appreciate things more when they are gone—but experience is the only way to truly grasp the whole of it. So without anyone threatening to take away our freedom to learn, it’s almost too easy to become lackadaisical and take our access to education for granted.

So how do we train ourselves to seek knowledge like our lives depend on it? I’m not sure. I think that’s something we each have to learn on our own. Like Malala so boldly showed us, we have to be diligent in taking responsibility for our own learning. We have to constantly remind ourselves how important education is even when no one is taking away our pens. Because without education, life is wasted.

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“The first and best victory is to conquer self.” – Plato

As a kid, I always dreamt of what it would be like to be free from the rule of my parents. Even though my parents were super chill, it was their job to provide a supervised environment in which I could learn and grow, and that meant establishing boundaries. As I got older and more knowledgeable, my parents would slowly trust me with more freedoms. But in the back of my mind, I was always incredibly curious about what things would be like when I could leave that supervised environment and enjoy a freedom not previously known.

I remember vividly that day I moved out to go to college. My parents dropped me off, and I realized I probably needed to go shopping. I had never shopped entirely for myself. So with this new freedom I bought six boxes of name-brand cereal, a gallon of milk and a 12-pack of Mountain Dew. I was out of my parent’s house, and I no longer had to subject my advanced palate to the garbage off-brand cereal they bought. And bonus, there was no one around to tell me I couldn’t enjoy a cold Mountain Dew with a bowl of cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was as free as an AOL Online disk at Walmart in 1997. Things were great.

I believe testing the limits of our freedoms is natural. It’s why we stay out till 3am even when we know we have work at 8. Or why we convince ourselves that we deserve a nap after work even though we haven’t been to the gym in a week, or two, or ten…. They say you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but how do you REALLY know unless you try?

 

The Importance of Self-Discipline

While it’s fine to test the limits of our freedom, we need to realize that we can never get everything we want if we don’t become our own parents. I guess you could call that having self discipline. There is real power in using our freedom to put constraints on ourselves.

“Self-discipline is a form of freedom. Freedom from laziness and lethargy, freedom from the expectations and demands of others, freedom from weakness and fear—and doubt.”

– Harvey Dorfman

Sure, you can stay out till 3am every night—there’s no one telling you not to—but if you’re trying to land a promotion at work, is that really the best use of your freedom? Give yourself a bedtime, and give an early morning routine a try.

Self-discipline is so hard to establish because it goes against the very nature of our society today. Everywhere you go the cries of the lazy and ignorant are cheering for you to be lazy and ignorant with them. It makes them feel better about their own laziness if everyone else is ignoring their own personal potential too. Every day we are thrown on the front lines of a battle to give in to the natural temptations of instant gratification. Sleeping in feels MUCH better than dragging ourselves out of bed and into the gym… or that’s what our body will tell us as we lie in bed. So how do we fix that?

Becoming More Disciplined

Sure, we can talk about becoming more self-disciplined until we’re blue in the face, but how do we actually do it? Here are three tips to help you as you strive to become more self-disciplined.

1. Establish A Goal

A goal will give you an idea of what kind of constraints you need to put on your life. It will make it easier to set those constraints because you understand what the outcome will be from your efforts. If you don’t have a clearly defined goal, you will find it extremely hard to break out of your bad habits.

2. Commit to Action

I am a firm believer in the things that can be accomplished when we commit to something. It’s like all the rules change when you decide for yourself that you are going to commit. No one can do this for you. This is something you have to come to by yourself. If you’re having trouble committing, reevaluate your goals and make sure they really reflect what you want in life. If they don’t, you’ll have a lot of trouble committing to them.

3. Practice Positive Self-Talk

The mind controls what the body does. When you’re feeling low and ready to call it quits, give yourself a quick pep talk. Positive affirmations are basically one-line pep talks. Thousands of successful people have daily affirmations that get them pumped and ready to take on the world. If it helps, write down a few of your own affirmations and memorize them so you can remind yourself what you are working for when things get tough.

If you start with these three things, you’ll be well on your way to living a better, more accomplished life. For example, I set a goal to be healthier, so I no longer use my freedom to eat cereal with a cold Mountain Dew three times a day. Even though it was fun and exciting to begin with, my health is more important than a temporary pleasure. And though I still struggle to be a good parent to myself in other areas, no one is perfect. There’s no shame in taking it one thing at a time.

 

What are your tricks for being more self-disciplined? Tweet them to me at @bradensthompson, and follow me on Degreed here. Click the button below to get credit for reading this article.

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“Choose to struggle with something – we live in a culture of the quick and easy and it has made us impatient and lazy.” – Jake Weidmann, One of only 12 Master Penmen in the world

Becoming an expert at anything takes just a tad more effort than typing those six letters into your Twitter profile—though a lot of people try to get away with it.

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Expertise is elusive. Too often people get stuck in the doldrums of partial expert somewhere between “holy crap this is too difficult” and “just one more episode…”. Becoming an expert at anything takes patience and focus, but those traits are continually thrown under the bus in search of instant gratification. There is a silver lining to the increasing acceptance of half-assed effort: there is plenty of room at the top for those who are willing to put in the work.

Experts in Practice

I live for the knowledge I can find between the covers of a book. I could go on for days about how books can pave your path to expertise, but I’ll save that for another time. A few years ago I cracked open my first Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers. In the book, Gladwell dives into all kinds of research and elaborates on a myriad of stories to show why some people become extraordinary. Arguably one of the most popular ideas from his book is the concept of how much time someone needs to spend devoted to their work to become an expert.

In 1973, Herbert A. Simon and William G. Chase analyzed the intensely strategic game of chess in a paper titled, Skill in Chess. The purpose of their research was to try and understand exactly what it took to become an expert (an actual level of expertise in the field of chess), a master and a grandmaster—grandmaster being the highest possible ranking.

What they found was actually pretty cool.

“There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person has reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade’s intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions.”

These findings led to the creation of an entire field of study within psychology. One of the spin-off studies came from psychologist John Hayes. He found that in a study of 76 classical composers, 73 of them didn’t write their greatest work until they had been composing for at least ten years.

Gladwell drew from both of these studies and brought to light some other examples that fit in with this 10,000 hour rule (estimating 1,000 hours a year.) For example, if you didn’t grow up under a rock, you’ve probably heard of The Beatles. Though they established themselves as one of the greatest rock bands of all time, they were a pretty subpar band when they started. What eventually set them apart from other bands was a gig they landed as a house band in a strip club. Not exactly what you would imagine as the most ideal environment for becoming great. In just over a year and a half during their residency, they played together 270 nights. In 1964 when The Beatles really started to gain some traction with their music, they had performed live roughly 1200 times. Just try to fathom that number for a second. Most bands never perform 1200 times in a lifetime. By the time they put out their best work, they had easily surpassed their 10,000 hours. 

The Language of Expertise

Gladwell also talks about experts in computer programming, one of those being Bill Joy. If you don’t know, Joy’s contributions to the world of computers is right up there with Bill Gates. In the 70’s, Joy wrote vi, one of the first screen-based text editors, which is astonishingly still used today. His company, Sun Microsystems, also wrote the programming language, Java. I don’t know much about computers, but I know enough to know that that’s pretty remarkable.

But reading through Joy’s story, one particular instance really caught my interest. When Joy was taking his oral exams for his PhD, he confounded his examiners with an elaborate algorithm that he just made up on the spot. How could he have done that? Complex algorithms shouldn’t just appear out of thin air.

In the Skill in Chess paper, Simon and Chase found that proficiency in Chess is strangely similar to proficiency in language.

As the two began to try and understand the possibilities of moves in a single game, they came to the conclusion that a master knows roughly 50,000 different patterns. From that number, they drew another fascinating conclusion: the time a master needs to spend perfecting his or her chess game is comparable to the time a highly literate person (someone knowing 50,000+ words) must spend reading.

For the most elite chess players, the moves of the game become like words and sentences of an entirely new language. Eventually a player can become so expert at the game that they begin to recognize a good strategic move in mere seconds.

When someone asks you a question in a conversation, you can quickly pull words and phrases together to form a sentence without even really thinking about the complex process of identifying words, processing their meaning, coming up with a response, and then voicing that response.

You have spent thousands of hours storing thousands of combinations and rules in your brain to be used for communication. Eventually, you reached a level where those processes run automatically. When Bill Joy was presented with a question in a language he knew as second nature, his years of practice and study took over and he came up with an algorithm that, as one of the examiners stated, was like “Jesus confounding his elders.” 

The Problem with “Magic Numbers”

Since so many things seem to match up with this 10,000 hour rule, it’s easy for people to shoot for that number like it’s a magic number for obtaining expertise. As with every one-size-fits-all theory, the 10,000 hour rule has been the subject of some intense criticism.

Though Gladwell didn’t actually come up with the idea, he took it and popularized it. If you search Ask Jeeves (or whatever search engine you prefer) for “Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule,” you’ll find pages of articles refuting the idea.

And you know what? A lot of the differing opinions are right. However, most of them appear relevant on the outside but are actually comparing apples to oranges. And Gladwell has made many of his own counter arguments to that point.

Gladwell clarifies in a New Yorker article that not anyone can practice anything for 10,000 hours and become a world-class expert. There has to be some level of innate talent present. For example, Gladwell refers to a South African researcher who tested over ten thousand boys and never saw a slow boy became fast. 
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“Achievement is talent plus preparation.” – Gladwell

If you don’t have it, you don’t have it. But on the flip side, Gladwell acknowledges the story of a high jumper, Donald Thomas, who became world class after only a few months. So there are definitely instances where the 10,000 hour rule doesn’t apply.

To further that point, David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, found that some sports like skeleton, darts or wrestling don’t follow the 10,000 hour rule. The argument in these cases is that these activities are simple (compared to chess or computer programming) and don’t require the same depth of complex knowledge to perfect.

“Cognitively complex activities take many years to master because they require that a very long list of situations and possibilities and scenarios be experienced and processed.” – Gladwell

Your Mom Was Wrong

So what’s the take away from all this? Contrary to what your mom tells you, you probably can’t be an expert at anything you want—even if you give it your all. At the very least, you need to have some level of innate talent in the skill you wish to master.

But what this does mean is that you can be an expert at something! (That is, if you’re willing to put in a ridiculous amount of work) No one is talentless. You may just have to work harder at finding what you are talented at, but I promise it’s in there. Don’t give up no matter how many times you find yourself thinking, “Holy crap this is too difficult!”- push through the challenge.

Struggle for something worthwhile. Become an expert. Change the world.

 

 

Student-Loans-Is-It-Worth-It

Here’s a statement I can nearly guarantee you’ve seen again and again: Americans have a lot of student loans. Here are the facts:

Tuition has been rising at nearly 3x the rate of inflation in recent years, and the total amount of outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. has grown to over $1.2 trillion.

About 40 million americans are carrying some student loans, and almost 70% of the class of 2015 graduates with a bachelor’s degree have student loan debt, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Market Watch reports the current student debt amount is rising at a rate of $3055.19 per second.

You can often find personal blogs from people like James Altucher and Mark Cuban penning their thoughts on the costs of college and the problem of student loan debt. If you Google “is college worth it?” you’ll find articles from every major news site you can think of filling the first 3 pages of search results.

That leads us to ask the golden question that the people behind these statistics, the Americans who carry student loan debt, have been asking themselves for years: Was it worth it?

The new 2015 Gallup-Purdue Index study on Education aimed to answer just that. The results are in.

Survey Says

Here’s what Gallup found

“Recent graduates who received their degrees between 2006 and 2015 are significantly less likely than all graduates overall to think their education was worth the cost.”

Let’s break that down with the numbers. For recent grads (those who have graduated from 2006-2015) merely 38% strongly agree their education was worth the cost, and among those who had student loans (of any amount) only 33% strongly agree it was worth it.

The Effects

And it’s not just our bank accounts that are affected as a result of student loan debt. Our life choices and the economy take a hit too. As grads adjust to life after school, and (hopefully) dive into the workforce, those payment deadlines creep closer until monthly minimums become due. As for the effects of student loans on those individuals life decisions? Gallup examined that too.

48% of recent grads have delayed post grad education because of student loans. 36% delay buying homes, 33% postponed buying a car, and 19% delayed starting businesses.

It seems that we should just create a new life stage category that states: “currently delaying life goals and purchases until I pay off my student loan debt”.

I’m still wondering, what will the cost of college look like in 10, 20, 50 years?

We want to know: What do you think? Was your education worth the cost? Tweet us at @degreed to tell us, and check out the full Gallup-Purdue Index Report here.

You just learned about student debt and higher education. Get credit for this article on Degreed.

 

There is something different about Djokovic. This was the main thought running through my mind after my first night of attending the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York. Many of the top players looked and played like the freakish athletes I expected to see, but not Djokovic. For all intents and purposes, Novak Djokovic looks like a normal guy. His tennis game is deceptively normal looking, too. This isn’t someone who charges his opponents and overwhelms them like Roger Federer or grits and grinds them into dust like Rafael Nadal. In fact, there is only one thing that really separates Djokovic from everyone else: The simplicity of his game.

Image: NewsYac

Image: NewsYac

There are no frills to Djokovic’s game. No flourishes or waste. Just stroke after stroke of carefully measured footwork and surgically straight cuts at the ball. At first I thought the simplicity of his game was incidental to the fact that he was the best tennis player in the world. But over the course of two weeks it became apparent that this simplicity helps him in important ways: He doesn’t tire, he’s unbelievably consistent, and he can channel a higher portion of his energy into his shots. As I watched this player who is not the fastest, tallest, or strongest dismantle everyone in his path on his way to the title, something became apparent: I was witnessing the superiority of simplicity.

 

Simplicity in Business

There are obvious business parallels to be drawn from Djokovic, and the most obvious is probably sitting in your pocket: The iPhone. One of the iPhone’s Android competitors, the Galaxy S6, has a larger and higher resolution screen, faster processer, better camera, thinner build, and lower price point. And yet I didn’t see a massive line of rabid fanboys lining up for the launch of the Galaxy S6. The smaller, less powerful iPhone has one thing that counteracts all of these disadvantages: Its user interface is simpler and easier to use. The iPhone’s advantage boils down to simplicity.

If you look at the major business successes of the last twenty years, almost all of them can attribute their success to simplicity. Walmart took every purchase you make on a regular (or even semi-regular) basis and put it all under one roof. Amazon took all of your online shopping and centralized it in one easy-to-use location. Uber took all the complexity and uncertainty out of getting a cab. The list goes on and on.

One recent startup called Casper brings simplicity to a notoriously complicated industry: mattresses. They sell just one type of mattress, its only modification being the size you buy it in. The mattress can be folded up and shipped so it comes directly to your door. That’s it. No more wandering through endless rows of mattresses on a showroom floor. No more picking your sleep number. No more tying a mattress to the roof of your car. With this simple business model, Casper did more than $20 million in sales in their first 12 months and have raised more than $55 million.

 

Simplicity and Your Professional Success

So the question: How do you use simplicity to your own advantage? There are some obvious lessons for the more entrepreneurial minded but it can be advantageous in other settings as well. The uses for simplicity fall into two areas: Removing decisions for others, and removing decisions for yourself.

1) Removing decisions for others

I saw an ad for a trash company the other day with the slogan “We’ll handle it from here.” I thought it was genius. When I put out my trash, I just want it gone. If I have to put out extra trash, I still just want it gone. If it’s a snowy day, I (yep, you guessed it) still just want it gone. I want everything taken care of properly and I don’t want to be involved in the process. Like it or not, most people feel about your job the way I feel about trash: They want you to take care of it properly and they don’t want to be involved.

I saw an example of the wrong way to do this at work when I needed a new laptop. I went to the IT staff and they asked me what kind of laptop I wanted. When I said I didn’t know they said to look it up, find something I like, and then come talk to them about it. It made me wonder why we pay them. IT staff are, by definition, technology experts and they should know what kind of laptop will best suit my needs better than I do.

The antidote to this is solutions first thinking. I’ve worked out an arrangement with my barber where I come in and he offers a solution first. It usually sounds something like “Hey Ben. So, I think it would look slick if we went with a four on the sides and took a half inch off the top, does that sound alright?” My haircuts are better and I am happier because the process is now simpler.

The reason my IT department doesn’t want to make life simple for me is it takes extra work. Steve Jobs, a master of creating simplicity, said “Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.” Anyone who has tried writing knows this. You spend about as much time deleting as typing. Being simple, succinct, and to the point takes work. It’s why Mark Twain once said “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” If you want to be successful, you have to take the time to remove decisions for others.

2) Remove decisions for yourself

In my closet at home, you will find the following things: Five dress shirts, five pairs of slacks, two suits, two sweaters, and two jackets. The rest of my piles and piles of clothes are sitting in boxes in a back room. I decided to remove the decision of what to wear from my daily routine. Doing this has made the start to my days significantly better. I haven’t suddenly become a billionaire or found the love of my life, but I am able to get out the door quicker and concentrate better at work for the first hour of my day.

Removing decisions from your life is hard because it means you won’t always make the very best decision. There could very well be a shirt in my storage that would look better, but I wouldn’t know because I refuse to reevaluate. Here’s the thing: I’m okay with that. Like the Galaxy S6’s slightly superior hardware, picking the very best shirt does not matter that much. Living simply allows me to focus on the things that do matter , like work and maintaining social ties.

If creating simplicity within your decision making sounds difficult or daunting, you can begin with a simple experiment: Next time you go to a restaurant, read the menu until you find the first thing you think you would enjoy. Then shut the menu. Don’t open it back up. You know what you’re going to order. Now you can focus on conversation with the other people at the table and being present in the moment. Congratulations, you have just simplified your life and allowed yourself to focus on the things that really matter. And I guarantee you, you’ll enjoy the food just as much as if you had spent fifteen minutes picking out the perfect dish.

By removing decisions for yourself and for others, by taking out the flourish and making things simple, you can add value where you are an expert. Like Djokovic on the tennis court, you can learn to devote exact, precise energy to the things that matter in your life.

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