Investing in Yourself: Education and Cultural Literacy

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.