Updated on 09.08.15

Investing in Yourself: Education and Cultural Literacy

Trent Hamm

investRecently, I discussed the value of investing in yourself – putting time and money into improving you, not building assets. Today, we’ll look at one area of investing in yourself as part of an ongoing series on the topic, spread out once per weekday over two weeks.

When I graduated from high school, I was blessed with the opportunity to be the first person in my family to attend college. I had earned a mountain of scholarships, enough to cover four years of tuition, room, and board at a state college, and the total value of this education was an amount that far exceeded my family’s annual income. I went to college without any real concept of what the experience would be. My preconception of the experience was based on popular culture – thus, my perception is that it would basically be a continuation of the high school experience but with substantially less supervision.

What I found out – much later than I should have, actually – is that education isn’t just what you pick up in a classroom. Sure, the classroom education is useful and valuable, but the real opportunity to grow and learn more takes place outside of the classroom. Even more importantly, the person that steps up and takes advantage of all of the educational opportunities to improve puts themselves in a better lifelong position to succeed.

Obviously, this takes some investment. You have to invest time, money, and your own mental energy to make education and cultural literacy work for you. Here are some ways you can invest in your own education, from the obvious to the subtle.

Get a college degree
This is the most obvious method for investing in your own education – but it’s obvious because it works. A college degree opens countless opportunities for you, whether it’s an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, or a Ph. D. The major drawback is that a college degree requires a huge investment in time, money, and mental effort. You can’t just walk down to the corner shop and pick one up – it requires years of continuous effort to acquire it.

Thus, the best way to maximize the value of a degree is to figure out the area you’re passionate about as early as you can – and perhaps you might even find that your passion can’t be followed in a college environment at all. Pay a lot of attention to what you do in your spare time – activities that you find enjoyable that you’re drawn to time and time again. Looking back at my high school years, I see a lot of patterns there that could have pointed me down the road to writing, but I chose to ignore them and go for areas where I believed the “money” was. I wish I hadn’t.

Also, don’t just assume that a degree at an expensive college is the best investment opportunity for you. No one will deny that a degree at Harvard is more valuable than a degree at East Overshoe Tech, but for most schools, the important part is that you achieved the degree at an accredited school. Do your own research and find the best educational value for you – it might be at your local state university or even at your local community college, especially if you don’t have significant resources to invest up front.

Engage in activities that can teach you new things
Most people go through the same routine, day in and day out. They do the same activities each day and rarely put forth the effort to stretch their wings and try new things. However, time and time again, trying something new teaches us quite a bit about the world around us from people (what others believe, how they act, and the realities they face in everyday life, etc.) to ideas and skills (how small businesses handle computer networking, how a soup kitchen prepares food for six hundred people, etc.). Here are a few ways to dabble in potentially educational activities in your community.

Engage in activities outside of your comfort zone. This isn’t a call to go do something illegal or unethical, it’s just a suggestion to find things that you’d never think of doing and give them a try. Go to a community dinner. Go to a speech at your local university. Attend a religious service of a faith you don’t subscribe to. Spend your vacation in a third world country helping impoverished people. You’ll learn a lot of things from all of these – and also learn things about yourself.

Join a community or student organization. There are all kinds of organizations out there that you can join and use to learn new things. Visit city hall – or your institution’s activities board – and see what kind of organizations are available in your community. Attend their meetings and see what sort of knowledge they have to offer, in an environment with others that are passionate about the topic. Try new activities with the group.

Travel to new places. Spend your vacations going to places you’ve never been before. Go to a part of the world you’re unfamiliar with and observe how people live there. Get off the interstate and visit areas you’ve never been before. I’ve stumbled across unexpected museums, festivals, and countless other opportunities for cultural learning just because I bothered to go somewhere new.

Find a mentor
I’ve had a small handful of mentors in my life and they’ve taught me more than I can ever possibly relate. They’ve offered intelligent advice when I’ve needed it, provided a sounding board for my own ideas, constantly encouraged me to push myself and grow, and provided valuable intellectual company. No matter what area you’re trying to grow in, a mentor can be a valuable thing to find. Don’t know where to start? Here are a few basic steps to get started.

Look for people who have attained a level of respect in the area of interest to you. It might be someone who works for the company you work for that others look up to. It might merely be someone in your industry, or possibly even someone in the community that’s earned the respect of others. Just look for a person that you respect who has experience and likely has ideas in their head that can help you grow.

Also, look for people who won’t have a conflict of interest when helping you. The best mentor is a person who isn’t tied down by a conflict of interest in helping you. If you’re both shooting for the same position in a company, that person is probably not going to be a good mentor. Similarly, don’t look for a politician to be your mentor if you see yourself running for office against that person in the near future.

Pick up the phone and actually make the contact. This is the hardest step for most people. The best way to get started is to simply be complimentary and polite and then ask for a lunch where you’ll pick up the tab. I got the attention of one person by telling him I would buy his lunch at a very nice place in town and that I just had some questions about how the radio industry works – I didn’t want to sell him a thing and I didn’t want any money, just conversation and learning. He loved it.

Attend a trade school
One of my closest friends in the world scored a 29 on his ACT in the late 1990s, yet he didn’t even bother to apply for college. Instead, he immediately became an electrician after high school, working as an apprentice and eventually becoming a journeyman. He’s now making almost as much money as I am and wasn’t saddled with the college debt, either. Better yet, he’s happy as a clam – he figured out early on that he really enjoyed assembling complex wirings and such.

The biggest thing to remember here is that college isn’t necessarily for everyone. If you’re passionate about a skill-oriented trade, like electrical work, carpentry, or plumbing, you’re probably better off not going to college and instead attending a trade school or getting involved in an apprenticeship program.

Also, remember that a trained person in a useful trade can earn very good money. Many people believe that you have to go to college to make a good living – it simply isn’t true. If you find that you’re passionate about carpentry or woodworking or electrical wiring, you can earn a very nice living and you don’t really need to go to college.

Trade school is a very solid investment for some people, particularly considering that the costs to get started in a trade like this is much lower than the costs of a four year degree. If your passion is in an area that overlaps with a trade, consider the investment of going to trade school instead of going to college.

Get additional certifications
Many careers revolve around continuing education and a big part of it comes in the form of professional certifications. Certifications generally indicate that a person has received and (to some degree) studied a significant body of information and has performed a certain set of tasks that usually indicate that the person has a certain skill. In other words, when you see a certification on a resume (and it can be validated), you can be sure that that person has learned and applied the skills described.

Certifications do two things: they add a nice line to your resume and they often boost the skills you can list on your resume. In combination, a number of certifications can significantly raise the level of income that you can potentially earn in your career. Here are a couple of things you can do to get the train going.

Identify certifications that you could potentially be earning. What sort of certifications can you earn in your career? These might not initially be obvious to you. The best place to start looking is within any trade groups or guilds that service your area of employment. For example, if you’re an electrical engineer, it’s useful to see what things the IEEE is offering.

See what certifications are currently in demand. Do some Google searching for any certifications that you don’t know about. If you’re not finding much about it, it’s probably not worth that much. Focus on the certifications that give you the most bang for the buck.

Find out if your employer will pay for some certifications. In a previous job, the employers were very happy to pay for almost any certification an employee wanted up to a certain dollar amount each year – you were even allowed to work on it during 20% of the work week. If you work in an environment like that, take advantage of it!

Educate yourself
Another potential avenue for acquiring new knowledge is to educate yourself. This goes beyond just reading books and absorbing material on your topic area. It’s about expanding your ability to think and understand the world around you. Putting effort into absorbing challenging materials on any topic will do nothing but improve your ability to think, your ability to communicate meaningfully and intelligently with others, and your ability to understand the world around you. The best part? The cost of self-education is mostly just time. Here are some ways to get started.

Identify areas that you’d like to learn more about. Are you trying to learn more about economics in order to gain a greater understanding of how people spend money? Perhaps you’re into history, because many of the people you associate with are big history buffs? Maybe you’ve always admired the life, actions, and ethics of someone and you’d like to build a much greater understanding of that person (much like my personal near-obsession with Theodore Roosevelt). Perhaps you’d just like to absorb some challenging modern literature in order to gain insight into the modern human condition. Figure out an area or two that you’d like to know more about.

Identify challenging and informative materials to absorb in one of those areas of interest. Again, the internet is very useful for this. Look for reading lists on specific topics. One good place to start is to look for the reading lists for courses on these topics at schools with open notes, like MIT’s OpenCourseware. Better yet, use those materials to actually work through a course on the subject in your own time.

Set aside some time each day to make progress. I usually devote about an hour each day to self-directed learning – right now, in fact, I’m reading a lot of material on economics as well as collections of great essays (and books on how to write them). I do this in two half-hour pieces, spreading out my thoughts.

Take lots of notes, expressing the ideas you’re picking up on in your own words. If you come across a great idea – or even a moderately interesting one – write it down in your own words. That’s the single most effective way I’ve found to absorb a new idea.

Stay aware of changes in your field
Many people work in fields where there are constant changes. New ideas crop up all the time and are slowly absorbed by the people in the field. Of course, the people who are most successful are the ones who learn the new ideas first and figure out how they connect with what they already know and what they’re already doing. Keeping up to date on these big changes will do nothing but help you out in your career.

Read trade publications. Find publications dedicated to the work you’re doing and keep up to date on your reading. Many employers will pay for subscriptions to such journals. If not, utilize the nearest large library to stay up to date.

Read message boards and blogs. You should also keep tabs on any message boards and blogs you can find that focus on your area (or similar areas). Some topics, like computer programming, are very well covered by these – others are not. You might be surprised, though, at what’s out there in your area. I know friends who are active participants on journalism and nursing message boards and blogs.

Attend meetings. If there are meetings and conferences available in your field, try to take the time to attend them on occasion. Not only is a meeting a great time to learn new things, it’s also an invaluable time to meet new people.

Become culturally literate
One final way to invest in yourself is to regularly take the time to remain culturally literate. By this, I mean be aware and informed about current events and have an idea about the cultural topics of the moment. Not only will you inform yourself about what’s going on in the world, cultural literacy improves your comprehension of many additional things in subtle ways. Here are some things that can help you get started.

Listen to the news on your way to work. No, “Bill and Timmy’s Funny Mornin’ Show” doesn’t count. Use your commute to stay aware of what’s going on in the world. I usually listen to NPR, but in large media markets there are a lot of good choices on the radio dial.

Pay attention to what others around you are talking about. If you hear a lot of conversation in the workplace about politics, put some effort into learning at least a bit about politics. If there’s a lot of talk about college basketball, at least raise your basic awareness of the topic. Not only will you learn something, you’ll also be able to relate to people better because you’ll share common knowledge.

If someone makes a reference you don’t understand, keep quiet, remember it, and look it up later. If someone in your circle is making reference to something, it’s likely important enough that you should be aware of it. Google the terms you remember and see what you can find out – it can educate you quite a bit on the topical culture of the people you interact with.

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  1. Brett McKay says:

    One of the things I’m doing to make myself more culturally literate is reading the Great Books series. While I’ve read many of the books in the series, it’s good to revisit them. A knowledge of the great written works of Western thought is important if you want to understand what’s going on today.

    I’m halfway through The Illiad. I’ve got a lot more books to read.

  2. Frugal Dad says:

    Great advice, Trent. Realizing the value of a college degree sent me back to the classroom after a five year break to begin a career and start a family. After the birth of my daughter in 2000 I practically had to start over, changing majors and working my way through college for five years at night while working full time during the day. It was the most grueling experience of my life, and in the end one of the most satisfying. Up to that point it had been the only achievement that I actually started and finished. I was a great starter, but a lousy finisher.

  3. !wanda says:

    I’ve always thought that the high school experience would be better for everyone if most people in the last three years of HS were apprenticed to a trade (one of the traditional trades or something like programming or nursing) half-time. Students could toggle between a trade-oriented and academic-oriented track between semesters if they changed their minds. Then, students could see the practical relevance of what they’re learning in school right away, making them more motivated to learn. Also, HS would be less of a popularity contest because students could derive their worth from their talents and real-world achievements instead of their ability to manipulate other teenagers. Really, who thinks that shutting up teenagers with other teenagers all day long aids their social and intellectual maturity?
    Of course, I’d have to improve instruction in the early grades to make sure that each student learned the really important stuff before HS. That means hiring very strong teachers, which is expensive. Oh, and I’d have to form alliances with employers willing to take on the liability of having teenagers on their worksites, and I’d have to convince parents to buy in.
    Well, if only I had a billion dollars and a school district…

  4. Eric says:

    In terms of finding a mentor, I think the best mentor I had was someone who taught at the college I attended. As a matter of fact, this man is a big part of the reason I went to graduate school, and as a result, the reason I am teaching college today.

    Not all professors are good at this (hence the need for sites like ratemyprofessor), but it can’t hurt to seek out a professor. Most professors go in to teaching to TEACH, and sometimes an email or a conversation in the hall is a huge chance for the prof to teach and the student to learn.

  5. Keith says:

    What a great article. Since I teach at a small technical college I strongly agree with the sections about not only getting an education, but doing it in something that interests you. If you enjoy your work then going there isn’t such a chore. I also like that you were willing to say that not everyone is cut out for traditional college…I wasn’t! I earned a very good living by being a diesel technician for a construction equipment dealership. I attended the same college that I now teach at to earn the original Associate Degree that got me the job. Then several years later I was able to take my job experiences along with that degree and teach. I love doing what I do!

  6. Anne says:

    @Eric — I find that most ratemyprofessor-type sites tend to be outlets for angry students to vent about classes which they either rarely attended or to complain about their grades. One of my best college mentors has very low ratings on these sites…

    I’m also not certain about the advice you give about “keeping quiet” and looking things up later. That might be appropriate for some — even many — situations, but you also have to consider that by keeping silent you are missing out on an opportunity to discuss the information with someone… Sometimes knowing when to ask questions is better than trying to know it all on your own.

  7. Eric says:

    Anne – forgive my flippant comment – I’ll tell you this honestly – the professor I mentioned also has bad ratings on that site – and part of the reason is that he wasn’t all that great of an in class teacher. However, my friends and I would gather around during his office hours and just discuss topics in computers, sociology, psychology, physics, beer, and just life with him.

  8. Mary says:

    I think I would add another bit about self-education: the importance of applying your knowledge in a way that is easily describable and quantifiable. This is something I have been looking to do more of, since I have acquired a lot of skills over the years, but I haven’t really applied them in a way that I can write about them on a job application or resume. For instance, I have pretty decent handiwork skills (like woodcraft, metalcraft, textile arts) without any truly formal education on the subject (thus, no certification), but I could quantify or apply that skill by teaching a small class on the subject, selling items at a craft fair, or using these skills for charity work. Then, I have accomplishments that are meaningful, but also signal to my varied abilities.

  9. Cindy says:

    These are great tips. So many people think that once they get out of college, they’re done with education. However, those that continue their education are the ones that become leaders in their industry.

    Also, it’s very true that college isn’t necessary for success. In fact, it can become quite a leash if you want to become an entrepreneur because you have more at stake.

  10. Looby says:

    Like Anne I have to query the “keep quiet” advice, it’s often better to ask, if you just keep nodding along at the conversation for 5 minutes and then someone asks your opinion it could be more embarrassing than admitting you don’t know what they are referring to up front. Also it shows you are taking an interest and keen to learn.

  11. David says:

    Trent, I appreciate how your site focuses on the person as a whole. Too many blogs get caught up in “ROI” and “penny pinching to the extreme” but I can always count on you to have a wide ranging perspective on how to better yourself

  12. I just wrote a post on my blog regarding this. One of the things that i think is most important in this area is educating the mindset and then getting the right education in whatever strategy that you choose.

    But i think that investing in yourself is a fundamental rule that people should apply to their daily lives. Its so important in being able to create a better financial future.


    Young Investor


  13. I was also puzzled by the “keep quiet” thing. Generally people talk about what they’re interested in, and if you have a question about something they brought up, they are excited to explain it to you – and often their response will be more informative than anything you could find on the internet (adding local color, etc.). If it is something “obvious” that I should know for whatever reason, they can tell me to look it up. I’m not ashamed to not know everything – or even to be completely ignorant of things everybody else knows. Actually, the only time when I don’t speak up for an unknown reference is when I just DON’T CARE what somebody is talking about and hope they just go away ASAP. Sorry to say but someone looking up something up they overheard but otherwise have no interest in for the sole purpose of jumping into a future conversation about it is pretending to be someone they’re not IMHO.

  14. Kate says:

    Great post! In particular I love the advice about finding something that you are passionate about and pursuing it. After 10 years in marketing, I decided to get my master’s degree … in fine art – specifically, sculpture. In pursuing something that I am passionate about, I have found not only new avenues of inspiration, but also new challenges and new ways of thinking about the world.

  15. I definitely believe that the best investment you can ever make in life is to invest in your own education! One might say that gaining real-life experience is more relevant and better in-lieu of paper qualifications, but the fact is that the degree is a pre-requisite and passport for many career opportunities in life. Without gaining the appropriate paper qualifications, you’ll find many doors get shut in your face!

  16. Penny Squeaker says:

    Great Post!!! I’m sure enjoying the series investing in yourself.

    It caught my eye at first mention, as few days ago.

  17. jblee says:

    Trent, I may have to disagree on “keeping quiet if someone makes a reference you don’t understand”. Why not just simply ask the person about it? Asking questions is also a good way of building new relationships or improving one. Of course there are some people who will laugh at you if you don’t know something that’s considered “public knowledge”, but there are people who like being asked and are nice enough to tell you what they’re talking about.

  18. I learned more in my ‘additional certificates’/workshops than I did from my entire college degree. I’m also personally glad I waited to get married. I think it’s great if you meet your mate and get married right out of college, but for me personally, I used my 20’s as a time to explore and get settled financially and got married when I was nearly 30.

    I also really didn’t understand what it meant to be culturally literate until I got to New York and couldn’t seem to keep up with what was going on. Now I love having media, art, museums, music, etc. at my fingertips and use it to further my ‘education’.


  19. Matt says:

    Sometimes right after high school kids aren’t ready for college, I know I wasn’t, and by going when you’re not going to take full advantage of it is a waste of time and effort even if you manage to stick it out. Knowing yourself is probably just as important as any of the formal education you can collect. Unfortunately this type of education comes with experience and trying new things even if its something as simple as living in the real world for a bit.

  20. Sandy says:

    Keeping your ears open to opportunities is a lifetime activity for me! And for me, because of my active involvement with one group (Girl Scouts),
    I’ve been made aware of loads of opportunities for growth. Currently, in my state (Ohio) they are actively offering free tuition to those who want to become foreign language teachers in a variety of languages. Well, those students need someone to practice teaching to, and my family (and many others) are happily taking 13 weeks of free Chinese lessons, 2 hours per week. That’s something that I probably wouldn’t have previously thought about studying, but my daughter wanted to try it out. We’ve had nearly private lessons the past couple of weeks, and the children are in a children class, and my husband and I in an adult class. It’s fun!
    Also, if you have children, one of the best ways to learn things is to look into getting an annual pass at a local science museum, or look around and see the cheapest one in your area, if the big museums look too expensive. For example, my family purchased a pass through the Presidential library and museum for McKinley, in Canton Ohio. But, these museums are connected with hundreds of other museums around the world, and the small investment $50, has already paid for itself 3 times over from visits to Chicago and many museums in Cleveland. And guess what…the adults in our family learn as much or more than the kids!
    It’s like the science degree I never got!
    I find learning to be the reason we all exist, so keep on learning!

  21. DNA says:

    There’s a lot of good guidance in this post, though the most important for me was to make a choice early and stick with it–didn’t have much choice since I was funding my own college education and trying to steer clear of loans.

    I would say that you don’t have to sink years and years into school if you are focused. From start to finish I spent 6 years in college and earned a B.S. and 2 doctorates. To emphasize Trent’s point about mentors, I would add that I chose my school based on research a faculty member was conducting in which I had an interest.

  22. Great article!

    I especially like the point you make about pursuing what you’re passionate about – whether that involves a degree or a skill.

    My father (like myself) went to college because he felt that he had to. After 4 years and mountains of student loans, he found himself with a degree that was 100% worthless. Instead of doing his homework before choosing a degree, he chose something he knew his mother would be happy with – which happened to be an experimental degree that totally bombed.

    He now works in sales, a job that he is EXTREMELY good at, and didn’t need any student loans to become so good.

    My husband got a 2 year degree in communications, but never used it. He decided to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a plumber. Now, he makes lots more money than all of his degree’d friends. Unfortunately, he still had those student loans to deal with.

    I went to college for one semester before deciding that my true passion was in floral design – not speech-language pathology. I went home and did that full-time and made more than 75% what a speech pathologist makes. But still, as the result of not being decisive in the beginning, I’m still paying for student loans.

  23. Brent says:

    @Brett, I agree with you, reading the Great Books series will do more for you than learning about some sports team or peoples favorite t.v. series.
    I question the value of becoming culturally literate, as for the most part, our culture (or what people precieve as our ‘culture’) is rather pointless.

  24. Dana says:

    @Brent: No lie, huh? “Culture” used to mean something like, “What a group of people eats, what the group wears, the language the group speaks, how the group perceives the world, and the stories the group tells itself at night around the fire.” Now it’s “What a group of people watches on TV.” If TV or a sports team or some other thing external to the group is the only thing the group has in common, what happens when that thing goes away?

    I’m not sure that even the Great Books do much of a job of teaching us about “culture,” although they are useful for other reasons. I think shared-interest groups come closer to the definition if you don’t have a close-knit family or church to turn to. Even a White Wolf gaming group would be more like culture than what’s on TV because it’s a bunch of people actively participating in something instead of staring at a square eye.

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