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The Most Painful Way to Becoming a Proficient Professional in Your Vertical

“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”
— Niels Bohr

“You’ll leave this class with your knowledge, not mine. Your employer will known within two weeks everything you’ve learned.”
— Mike Pierce

Admit it or not, you dislike learning new stuff. After all, you aren’t paid to learn; you’re paid to solve problems. If there are two problems and you know how to fix one, which are you going to tackle?

Becoming a professional is painful. It’s painful to admit that you can’t build a career with your current knowledge base, that you have to learn new stuff.

The most painful way? Books.

I don’t know about you, but taking home a book from the bookstore to learn something — that might be the fastest way to learn something if you were in a real hurry, but it is by far not the most motivating way. — Kevin Yank

Learning from a book is much faster than attending university or other socially-responsive courses. With a book, you are alone in a chair. You open the book. You read. You learn. After an hour, you know an hour’s worth of knowledge. That’s powerful, but that’s not how people prefer to learn.

Instead, they choose the learn visually and orally with others. The social experience. The down time. The wasted moments of chatter. The little inside secrets. The culture. The jazz.

They plan activities and complete the most bizarre assignments. They write papers on the craziest stuff you’ve ever seen. In fact, you see things in this environment that you would never see in a for-profit business. Everyone is disconnected to reality.

It’s easy to look at this situation and conclude that the book is the best way to learn.

Some do, which is why they drop out of University.

Some stay, because they need the formal training to maintain their sanity.

Still others cannot make up their mind, which is why they write articles like this one.

There’s a reason Clay Collins dropped out of college once and graduate school twice. The grass always looks greener on the other side. That’s why Dennis Crowley built the original FourSquare app using nothing but self-taught PHP and MySQL straight from a book.

Everyone is running in opposite directions guessing where the ball will land. Someone’s going to catch it.

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30 Replies

  1. That’s why some of us homeschool. And then we find all kinds of pastures with greener grass and have to decide which ones to pass on–at least for this week. Great post.

    1. Michelle, as a homeschool graduate and homeschooling mom, I was thinking the same thing!

  2. Thing is, I love reading books both fiction and informational. Maybe it’s just me. I prefer reading books than being in a class where we don’t really learn as much as fast.

    1. Martyn Chamberlin

      Josh, I’m convinced that people with your independent mindset are the ones that will get ahead. As long as you can get a well-rounded knowledge base and the appropriate people skills, you’ll be miles ahead of the other runners.

    2. Yes. Some of my college classes were SUCH a waste of time…I was used to learning at home at my own pace, and the college classes were much slower and had a lot of fluff. I could get more learning done in less time on my own.

      1. Martyn Chamberlin

        My problem is that I’m tempted to sub-perform on the classes that are a waste. That’s a good way to get a terrible GPA though. No wonder smart people have a habit of dropping out haha.

        1. When I was in school I consistently did worse in the classes that were the least challenging.

  3. I’m proud to say I read 47 books last year! Reading is super important and a better use of time then watching TV.

    1. Martyn Chamberlin

      47 books? I’m embarrassed. Great job, Kimanzi!

  4. I feel you, Martin. It took me five years of grad school before I realized I didn’t want to be an academic and get a PhD. That level of work is just too narrowly focused for my jack-of-all-trades personality. So I left with only about a year remaining before I finished. To this day I’m glad I did it.

    It might be different for you, though, since you’re an undergrad. College can be a good place to build networks that you can call on when you’re in need. There’s also something to be said for the broad education you’re getting. It can make you better asset in whichever field you choose to go into. And like it or not, more respect does seem to come when you can put “Bachelor of Science” on your resume.

    I know big universities can be somewhat rigid, but if there’s something you feel you’re not getting, try talking to your department head(s) and see if they can help you get what you’re missing. Usually, they’d be happy to help someone who’s not a robot and wants to take control of their education.

    Hang in there.

    1. Martyn Chamberlin

      Wow. One year to go, dropped out, and you don’t regret it to this day. That’s amazing Brian.

  5. Gary Lougher

    Hey Martin,

    I went back for my MBA at 39 and am finishing up this semester. It has been an extrememly valuable experience but I had to make the program work for me. If you decide to go, engage your professors, create great relationships with fellow students and bend the program so it works for you. It’s harder that way, but much more valuable, The only way you’ll know if it’s for you is to go. There’s plenty of literature and examples that support not going to college, but you’ll never really know unless you try it. And you don’t have to make this decision right away. So if you’re putting pressure on yourself, don’t. What are you thinking of studying?

    By the way, just downloaded Tribe. My site is under construction and I love it so far. Thank you for that! You obviosuly have a gift, so whatever you decide to do, keep on giving it.

    1. Gary Lougher

      Oops…just re-read the post and it looks like you’re already in. Sorry ’bout that. What are you studying?

      1. Martyn Chamberlin

        Hi Gary,

        Thanks for getting Tribe! I’ll be happy to help you with anything tech-related there.

        I’m studying information technology. Thinking about getting into hardcore programming after I get my associates.

  6. Good post, Martyn, but I’d suggest to do some more proofreading. Regarding the topic, there’s a third way: books and knowledge base for reference, and a small circle of professionals as mentors/peers. Personally, I used this approach for most of my career, with good results. Now I have a small circle of reliable connections and I’m a mentor for the youngest ones, but always on a “just in time” basis.

    At the end of the day, it’s a matter of trying, you have to “feel” what works best for you.

    PS: reading your blog brings me back in time! You remind me of the first young developer I mentored. :)

    1. Martyn Chamberlin

      So Diego,

      Are the students you mentor local or virtual? I’m interested in how this works.

      1. I often mentor young IT people (mostly developers) both locally and remotely. Of course, meeting has its advantages, as you can spend a whole day chatting and discussing ideas and solutions. What I do most often is helping young developers in developing a logical approach to solve problems. Many of them come out of college with tons of theories and tricks up their sleeves, but they often fail to approach challenges from a broader point of view, as they lack the experience needed to “see” why their initial idea might not be the right one.

        I used to do it much more often when I was in charge of the Development Department of companies, now I do it in my spare time when someone asks for it.

        Mentoring (which is a completely different beast from teaching) is something everybody should do in their career. In fact, when I was younger I was eager to learn from the “elders” in the company; then I grew up, and I shared my knowledge to the ones younger than me. Yet, I’ve been working in companies where the “elders” weren’t willing to spend a second to guide me, and the “youngsters” were too arrogant to listen to an “old guy” (mind, I’m just 36). Nothing to get, nothing to give; no matter the salary, I quit after a few months.

  7. It seems as though your working your way through the rationalizations for and against attending college.

    In the past you’ve blog here about online rudeness, internet bullies, and the general disconnection created by our increasingly “cyberspace” oriented culture. Opposing the spirit fueling this growing societal disconnection is reason alone to attend college.

    Of course there are platinum success stories of business moguls (in a variety of industries) who dropped out of college to launched their multimillion dollar empires.

    But quite often those individuals are not properly socialized and are lacking a lot of the tools necessary to function in “the real world.” Think Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg – yes both are immensely successful, but both have significant PR problems – in large part because they encountered situation they didn’t know how to handle and didn’t have the experience or socialization skill necessary to make good decisions.

    College is not about getting a job. If you’re reasonably intelligent and willing to work (that’s an important caveat), there are plenty of thing you could to earn good money and live a very comfortable living.

    I play in a band with a individual who, after barely graduating high school joined the Navy, where they taught him to be a welder, and is now a Certified Welding Inspector making well over six-figures (significantly more than me, working far less hours) doing the most ridiculously easy job you could imagine.

    In college you learn life lessons. You learn to live on your own, without the specter of your parental units and family obligations, and become an independent person solely responsible for yourself – your successes and failures.

    You meet people with similar interests, and more importantly you meet people with dissimilar interests who broaden you mind and expand you outlook. You form incredible friendships with people who are on the same cusp of “real life” as yourself, at a time when your passion for life and the future is greater than ever. And these friendships often play a significant role in shaping your future.

    You’re correct, none of this kind of experience comes from books, but don’t underestimate the process – I never worked harder or was more focused than during my undergraduate tenure – if you’re approaching college with the right perspective, it will be one of the most challenging experiences of your life. That is until you get married and have children!

    My advice, don’t fight the pull of higher education. Whatever you want to do will still be an option four years later, and in the meantime, you may uncover something ten times more exciting that awakens your passions in a way you never thought possible.

    In many ways, college is about discovering yourself.

    1. Martyn Chamberlin

      Thanks for weighing in, Ryan. Always appreciate what you have to say — you have insightful perspectives! This thing’s worthy of being its own blog post.

      Interesting what you say about Gates and Zuck. I met a 4-star chef near San Francisco who told me that Zuck, a regular patron of his restaurant, definitely had social issues. It leads you to wonder if a full college education could have fixed the problem or if guys like him are just beyond hope. And yes, learning to go to college and fit inside an infrastructure is a good counter measure to this weird hip anti-social Internet generation.

      1. Some believe that Gates and Zuck have Asperger’s syndrome, which makes it difficult to recognize non-verbal social cues. In that case, just going to college won’t help, but therapy will.

        1. Martyn Chamberlin

          That’s fascinating, Bryan. Makes me wonder: why do two of the world’s most brilliant tech minds have this problem? Does that make Asperger’s syndrome an asset in this vertical? Or maybe I’m trying to correlate two unrelated attributes. Strange.

          1. Tech naturally suits them.

            Those with Asperger’s have OCD tendencies, and tend to become preoccupied with narrowly focused subject matter. Because of this, I think they have the patience and perseverance to tweak things like engineering designs, or code until it’s “just right.”

            They also have difficulty empathizing with their peers, tend to be clumsy (sports are out), and conversations with them tend to be a one-sided stream-of-consciousness monologues. So occupations in which they can work alone tend to suit them better.

          2. Martyn Chamberlin

            Wow. This has definitely been an insightful conversation, Brian. Thanks!

    2. I think that in so many ways it depends on where you are at in your life. For my son who is a freshman this year we wouldn’t consider anything but a small residential college. We already knew he could learn what ever he needed, he needs to figure out how he wants to live his life and that takes interacting with people both the kind you like and don’t like.

      His father, however, wants to move beyond the limits of his health profession. He basically needs the piece of paper that says MBA. He’s doing an online program since he already has the contacts he needs. He is getting a lot out of the material and has actually made some contacts through the program but in his case, it’s not the social aspects that are going to get him his next job. Unless you include the fact that many in our culture expect the degree no matter what the qualifications.

  8. Many people go to university for the wrong reasons. I’m doing my BS in chem engineering, and it’s really sad to see so many people who are brilliant yet are literally socially inept. They don’t build networks, all they do is learn the material and when they graduate & get hired, they’ll likely be placed in a far corner.

    I agree that university isn’t only about getting a job, it should be about finding yourself and expanding your network. But for the unfortunate souls above, they only learn how to cram better and find better shortcuts. I know because I was one of them, until I decided to branch off and do my own thing.

    Also, there are many people (such as myself) who commute to their school and as such never get to experience “real life” until they move out of their parents’ house.

    In the end, college is what you make of it. I have no qualms against the concept of university, just right now I have huge qualms against the costs of higher education (which is mainly the fault of textbook publishing companies). Hopefully Apple changes that with their iBookstore thingy.

  9. I do like learning. Actually, it’s the part of my job that I love the most. Every time I learn something new it makes me feel I don’t depend on anybody else for that particular task.

    And I like learning by my own, reading books (tons of books) but I also enjoyed my years in College and the way you are taught there. Discussing with fellow students, chatting with professors, etc. That’s another way to learn and open your mind.
    Btw, I don’t know your school, but my studies were not disconnected from reality at all.

    Everything has a good and a bad side. If you feel you’re going too slow in school, then read books at home. You can do both.

    But, above all, enjoy what you’re doing to the max. Carpe Diem

    1. Martyn Chamberlin

      Hmm. You know, it’s possible I’m in the wrong major. 😉

  10. I really enjoyed this post…

    I think it stands out because you included a truth everyone relates you. Everyone has been in a classroom (or classroom setting) where the only things being affected were the chairs.

    Enjoyed your post!

    – Trent

    1. Ha! That should have said: “…a truth everyone relates TO.”

    2. Martyn Chamberlin

      Yeah, and I’m not even sure the chairs are affected by some of this stuff. 😀