Everyone knows most learning happens beyond classroom walls and outside learning management systems (LMSs). New research is finally showing just how much, and the data is startling.

Our research, conducted via two separate surveys over the last year, shows that workers spend 4x to 5x more time on self-directed learning than on what their L&D departments build and buy. They invest more than 14 hours a month, on average, learning on their own, but just two to three hours on employer-provided training.

That should matter to learning professionals because it’s the starting point for understanding not just why L&D needs to evolve – urgently – but also how. And if you watch and listen carefully, the crowd is giving us three major clues about the future of talent development. Here’s what learners really want:



In this month’s Webinar we’re diving into how to leverage the new learning ecosystem to better serve learners. Sign up here and join us! If you’re interested in what Degreed does to leverage the new learning ecosystem click here.

Sometimes I lie in my hammock and just stare at the sky. In those moments, I often reflect on my hopes and dreams. Where will I be in a year? Five years? Ten years? Will life be better? Worse? The same? Frankly, no matter how good my life is at the time, if I were still the same person in ten years, I would consider those ten years a major failure.

We all have dreams about the future. However, it’s hard to get past the thinking stage. If we do get past the thinking stage, we usually don’t get too far before we find valid excuses to stop.

So the question is, how do we push through challenges without making excuses and giving up? If we can find out the answer to this question, nothing will stop us from going boldly in the direction of our dreams of a better life and creating success.

In 1987, Michael Santos was arrested for trafficking in cocaine and sentenced to 45 years. That’s a pretty big wrench in the gears. What Michael chose to do in his predicament will inspire you to quit making excuses and take control of your future.


Michael wasn’t a violent criminal, but he was thrown into a prison where learning how to be a functioning member of society was almost impossible. In USP Atlanta, a maximum-security penitentiary, dehumanizing prison guards and bloody gang wars surrounded him. He had plenty of valid excuses to adapt into the prison culture, and gamble away his chances of ever reemerging into society as a productive citizen.

With his future on the line, Michael took the road less traveled. He was determined to make the best of his prison sentence and do whatever it took to atone for his crimes.


“I want to acknowledge that I’m responsible for what I did, and for what I am, and for where I am, and I want to begin to make decisions that will improve my character and my life.”

Michael began immersing himself in literature. Finding wisdom in the words of the likes of Mandela, Shakespeare, Solzhenitsyn, Plato, Dante, Dostoyevsky, Homer, Locke, Hobbes, and Nietzsche, he came to realize that education was the key to his future.

By continuing to educate myself, I’m taking proactive steps to overcome my adversity.

As one of his first major educational leaps, he wrote a book. He finished Drugs and Money, a book that he intended to have distributed to schools, jails and other organizations for at-risk adolescents, after only being in prison for two years. With the help of his sister, he secured $20,000 to cover printing costs so the book could be distributed for free.

With an insatiable desire for learning, Michael eventually decided to get some real credentials behind his name. He enrolled in a college program, and in 1992 graduated inside of USP Atlanta. Three years later he received a Master of Arts with an emphasis on the American prison system. One of the professors he worked with even got him accepted into a PhD program through the University of Connecticut. What happened next launched him into some of the most interesting and successful years of his prison term.

Education has been my solace, and exciting and challenging escape from the monotony of confinement.

As Michael progressed through his sentence, he was transferred to many different penitentiaries. He happened to be transferred to a new prison just before he began his PhD work. The warden of the new prison denied his request to receive books from the university. Shortly thereafter, he was transferred to a new prison and was denied yet again. He was told he was a prisoner in a “federal prison, not a college.”

Accepting that his formal education track was likely over, he decided to shift gears and study law. He found a program that allowed him to study with the existing law books in the prison library. Every prison has a law library so he would no longer have to beg for permission to study.

Knowing he would need a good chunk of change to start his life after his prison term, his plan was to eventually make money charging other inmates for his help with their cases. But before Michael could finish the program, Gary, a man with a strong Russian accent, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He asked Michael to read through his case and see if he could find a way to get his sentence shortened. All Michael had to do was name his price. After Michael got a call from his sister saying $2000 had appeared in her account, he knew Gary was serious. The two developed a friendship that would prove quite lucrative.

Michael read the Wall Street Journal daily and followed stock trends on a TV inside the prison. This was right when Internet companies were going public and Michael wanted to try his hand in the market. He phoned his sister and had her make some risky investments for him. The investments paid off. He turned his $2000 into $6000. When Gary found out about all this, he made a deal with Michael. Gary would give him $100,000 to invest, but only if he took the same risks he did with the $2000. If Michael lost all the money, no big deal. But whatever gains they ended up with, they would split evenly. (Side note: If you know anyone willing to make that kind of deal, send them my way!)

At the peak of it all, they got up to $1 million in equity. Eventually, the volatility of trading through his sister from prison caught up with them. They lost $400,000 in only a couple days. Less Uncle Sam’s cut, they still ended up with a six-figure gain, but Michael realized he couldn’t handle trading stocks from prison anymore.

After stocks were off the table, Michael had to continue his education elsewhere. With the Internet taking off, he began writing articles that his family would post for him online. His writing eventually garnered some high-profile attention and he was asked to write a book about his prison experience. Inside: Life Behind Bars in America was published in 2006.

For six more years, Michael pushed the envelope from behind bars. He continued his writing, led a self-help class for inmates, and even excelled physically by running over 1000 days in a row to the tune of over 10,000 total miles. 4,000 of those miles came in a single year and 700 of them in a single month.

Throughout Michael’s sentence, he never let excuses get in the way of his dreams. When all was said and done, his prison sentence was reduced to 26 years. He walked out of prison in August 2012, and has continued to learn and share his knowledge.

Michael’s story shows us that anyone can improve his or her predicament through education. Most of us will never have the opportunity to use the excuses Michael consistently refused to use. So if we don’t become the person we hope to become, it’s our own fault. And when life does throw us curveballs and we’re tempted to make excuses—no matter how valid—just remember, there are no excuses great enough to make up for lost dreams.


Michael tells our readers more about his transformation and gives you the techniques he used during his prison sentence to push through setbacks and challenges to reach their goals. Read our exclusive interview in Part II: Lessons from Prison: How to Create Success From Setbacks

Facts and quotes sourced from Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term by Michael G. Santos. You can see what Michael is up to now at michaelsantos.com.

The future belongs to those who can generate the best ideas. Plain and simple.

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In a highly competitive world where employment is unstable and currencies are declining, unexpected events can quickly derail our dreams and drain our bank accounts.

Because money can always run out. Ideas, on the other hand, are limitless. If we ever find that our backs are up against the wall, those of us who are able to come up with new ideas will be the ones who bounce back strong.

But there’s no reason to wait for a crisis. The ability to generate ideas will always create opportunities to build wealth and find success, by freeing us from our total reliance on others’ (often bad) ideas, and by allowing us to also help others break free. If we want to be the kind of innovators who consistently produce great ideas, we need to start today by embracing a new mindset and approach that weaves the process of idea creation into our everyday lives. The good news is that this process is often a fun and exhilarating experience.

The days of waiting around for some mythical “Aha!” moment are over. Now’s the time to reach out and switch on your own lightbulb. Here are some habits and techniques to get you started.



● Read deeply and widely. Branch out and study subjects you’re not familiar with. Engage with all the different forms of media and always take time to reflect on the information you’re absorbing. You’ll need a lot of raw data to work with if you’re trying to generate exceptional ideas.

● Look for patterns and trends. Learn to connect the dots. Hone your ability to see the relationships between elements. Steve Jobs put it best in an interview with Wired Magazine when he said that “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something…they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

Ask more questions. Challenge more assumptions. Be the person who asks “what if” over and over. Sometimes we’re so focused on getting answers that we forget to ask the most worthwhile questions. Best-selling author Warren Berger explains the power of innovative questioning in his book A More Beautiful Question, and lays out a system to help us develop more productive inquiries. Check out this podcast interview for a brief overview of Berger’s ideas.

● Embed yourself in an environment (or create one) that’s conducive to creative thinking. Work and spend time with others that allow you to test out your thoughts, to think out loud without judgment. Constant worry about how others will receive your ideas stifles creativity. Build a network of friends and colleagues who understand that the incubation process for birthing great ideas requires patience, encouragement, and critical feedback. Science writer Steven Johnson brilliantly describes what an idea-inducing environment looks like in this famous hand-drawn animated video: Where Do Ideas Come From?

● Write down all of your ideas! Don’t let a single one slip through the cracks. Carry a notepad everywhere you go, or use an app on your phone to record ideas whenever they arise (I’m hooked on Simplenote and Mindly). Be sure to document all of the persistent problems or needs that you encounter, because many of your best ideas will come from trying to resolve your own concerns. Also keep an idea journal, paper or digital, where you can track your ideas and practice the techniques below.



● Study unexpected successes. Analyze businesses that achieved against all odds; trends that popped up out of nowhere and took the world by storm; high-demand products no one predicted would sell; sports teams that proved all the critics wrong. Identify the fundamental ideas and conditions that led to these successes, and then see how they can be applied to your own ideas and environment. Here’s a list of unexpected success stories you can start analyzing right away.

● Master metaphorical thinking. Learn how to use comparisons to express ideas and solve problems. Metaphors directly link unrelated things by evoking vivid images that help us see from a different perspective. Think about some metaphors we’re all familiar with: Time is money, Domino Effect, Lame Duck. These are well-known because they do such a great job of framing something unfamiliar in a way that expands conceptual understanding and inspires creative problem-solving.

Use singular brainstorming sessions to generate more original ideas. This means formulating ideas on your own before bringing them to a group, which will help you avoid the pitfalls that often come with group brainstorming, such as idea plagiarism and fixation, personality conflicts, and anchoring biases, among others. For more effective group sessions, try Brainwriting instead.

● Use the right brainstorming tool. With literally hundreds to choose from, finding the tool that best suits your goal is important. For instance, if your objective is to find peripheral ideas surrounding a central idea, you might consider using mind maps. If you need to come up with a lot of “outside the box” ideas as rapidly as possible, you should try a few lateral thinking techniques. If you want a basic, tried and true method that can be applied to anything, you can go old-school and implement James Webb Young’s 5-Step Technique (developed in 1939 but still remarkably effective).

Whenever I am trying to formulate ideas to improve an existing service or product, I like to use the SCAMPER tool to make sure I leave no stone unturned. When I’m looking for solutions to a hard-to-solve problem and feel stuck in narrow way of viewing the issue, I employ the Reverse Brainstorming technique.


My advice is to start off experimenting with as many methods as you can. Eventually you’ll develop a knack for choosing the most fruitful approach.

For more brainstorming techniques, tools and tips, here are more lists and guides:

14 Brainstorming and Idea-Generating Techniques That Work (this list comes with a useful set of worksheets you can use).
James Altucher’s Ultimate Guide for Becoming an Idea Machine
18 Best Idea Generation Techniques
13 Unusual Brainstorming Methods that Work
38 Tools for Getting More Ideas
How the most creative business people generate ideas
Where the World’s Most Innovative Companies Get Their Ideas
Idea Generation Techniques among Creative Professionals (list begins on pg. 5)
Ultimate Brainstorming (comes with a free workbook)
Mindtools Brainstorming Toolkits
Idea Generation Techniques booklet


You can catch Jedd McFatter on Twitter and on LinkedIn.