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How to Live Up to Your Potential

Making the most of self-study, tutoring, classes, and on-the-job training.

Key points

  • People have more power to individualize how they use a tutor, course, or internship than they may think.
  • The key to making the most of learning time is being a ruthless curator.
  • The self-selected article is the most efficient and perhaps underrated tool for learning.
No author listed, no attribution required, PxHere, Public Domain
Source: No author listed, no attribution required, PxHere, Public Domain

Two identical twins could use the same self-improvement tools—self-study, tutoring, classes, or on-the-job training—yet one of the identical twins could improve more and more relevantly.

This post describes how to make the most of each of those.

Using Self-Study

The key here is to be a ruthless curator—there’s so much content available.

Articles. Get good at Google-searching—you might use Google’s tutorial. Then read just the brief descriptions of the first few search results. Only if one or more promise to be of real value, should you click on it. Otherwise, revise your search term.

When you click on a link, don’t necessarily read the entire article. Read the first few lines and if those continue to intrigue, skim the rest, carefully reading only what you deem important. Copy and paste important things that you don’t already know or insights you don’t already have into a Word file you’ll call Nuggets. Regularly reread your nugget file until it’s locked into your permanent memory for you to retrieve on command.

Videos are less efficient but still worth considering. If the search result’s brief description promises value, watch the first few seconds. Often, that can help you decide whether it’s worth continuing to watch. As always, jot down important learnings into your nugget file.

Books are even less efficient unless you’re particularly ruthless in curating: both which book to buy, what parts to skim, read, and put into your nugget file.

It’s fashionable to bash the big these days, but Amazon is a dream come true for the self-studier. Use its search function and then screen-in books whose description appeals and have a 4+ star rating based on more than a few ratings. Then read the first few reviews. The order in which the reviews are listed is based on how many people clicked “useful” on that review and the number of people who clicked “useful” on the reviewer’s other reviews. Next, decide whether it’s more time-effective to just copy nuggets from those reviews into your nugget file or to buy the book.

Let’s say you decide to buy the book, Consider opting for an eReader: it’s usually less expensive, portable, delivered instantly, and even environmentally benevolent. The second best option is to buy the printed book used, often available at a big discount.

More important than format is to efficiently curate within the book. First, pick the chapter that most intrigues you from its table of contents. When in doubt, read the introductory or concluding chapter. Those often include the book’s essence. Read the beginning of that chapter and then scan the chapter’s headings. Under each intriguing heading, read in search of nuggets to copy into your nugget file. Only slow down to carefully read a section when it’s rich with information or insight you want to obtain.

Using Tutoring

It’s easy to kowtow to a tutor’s agenda. That’s usually a mistake. Usually, the most efficient approach is using the tutor to answer questions you’ve derived from self-study. Write those questions in your nugget file.

Having worked both in-person and remotely with thousands of career and personal coaching clients. I’m confident that you needn’t limit your choice of tutor to locals. Consider trying to find a well-suited, highly rated tutor at websites that aggregate tutors. As usual, consider both the tutor’s average rating as well as the narrative reviews. Ironically, you might want to consider tutors who struggled to learn the material. They may be better able to explain things to non-naturals.

Be open to the possibility that your tutor might become an ongoing mentor, someone to reach out to whenever you have a question, small or big-picture.

Using Classes

The number of online classes has skyrocketed, so you can be picky. LinkedIn Learning, Udemy, and Coursera aggregate thousands of courses, easily searchable. First, screen by star ratings, then by narrative reviews, and the syllabus. Also, many courses allow you to attend the first session for free and then drop it at no charge. Speaking of charge, the cost of online classes tends to be bargain-basement.

Write any important new information and insights into your nugget file.

Don’t be afraid to ask a “dumb” question. That’s the individualized instruction you’re paying for, not just with your money but your time. Similarly, if you think you’d benefit, visit the instructors’ office hours when you want the professor's thoughts or to share your idea that you’d rather describe verbally. Even after the course is over, consider calling on an instructor for advice and counsel.

Degree and Certificate Programs

Many people pursue an degree to help levitate their resume levitate to the top of the job-applicant pile. Alas, we are in an era of degree proliferation in which even an advanced degree, unless it’s from a designer-label institution, may yield levitation insufficient to compensate for the time and money.

Of course, there are ways to make the most of a certificate or degree program:

Choose an advisor whose expertise and, ideally, career connections, dovetail with your goals. Set up a meeting early on. If the two of you click, perhaps offer to be a research or teaching assistant, if not then, after you get to know each other better. Certainly, map out a tentative course schedule, including electives, for your years there. Your advisor is the person most likely to become your mentor during the program and perhaps after. So if you’re not pleased with your advisor, do ask the program’s administrative assistant for a change.

Of course, choose electives that align with your goals but also give weight to the instructor. A transformative instructor of medieval Indo-European linguistics may help you more overall—perhaps in thinking, writing, even approach to life—than would a weak instructor of a topic of interest.

When given a major assignment including, of course, your thesis or capstone project, don’t necessarily do what’s assigned or recommended. Make your case if you can think of a topic that you’re more motivated to do or is more beneficial to you. More often than you may think, you’ll get a yes.

Internship, Fieldwork, and On-the-Job Training

Don’t necessarily accept the internship or fieldwork placement assigned to you. Perhaps you can search out your own and ask to be placed there. Or, if after your first visit to your placement, you sense it's not a great fit, you might discuss a way to improve things, or request a switch. That’s important: Many graduates say that their internship or fieldwork was the most useful part of their degree or certificate program, except perhaps for the diploma and connections.

During the job interview process, if you get the sense that you won’t learn significantly on that job, ideally with a boss who enjoys and is good at mentoring, you may want to search elsewhere.

As always, keep adding to your nugget file.

The Takeaway

Whether for career enhancement or personal growth, making the most of learning tools is key to living up to your potential.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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