My free degree 

How I hacked my education and earned money learning a vital new skill

I’ve noticed something strange about myself recently.

Whenever I learn something new I feel compelled to pass it on to other people. Once, when I spent a few months teaching myself how to build websites, I spent hours wandering around my local park mentally rehearsing teaching others about my latest breakthrough.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been a lecturer before. But it’s not necessarily altruistic — I’ve found teaching other people (or at least pretending to) is a great way of solidifying my own learning.

For the last few years, I’ve used this pay-it-forward philosophy to effectively hack my own education, creating a sustainable way to learn and help others at the same time.

The result is an unofficial masters of sorts, complete with 40,000 word dissertation. I’ve become an expert on an important and understudied subject, shared my knowledge with hundreds of others and even made a bit of cash in the process. Here’s how.

The core of the idea is this: teach others as a way to teach yourself.

The idea — essentially a form of experiential learning — isn’t actually new. There’s plenty of literature about it in pedagogical journals, but only about its application in the classroom. Teachers are encouraged to design modules where students are given a challenge and supported in solving it. The thinking goes that this encourages leadership, initiative and independence: three skills that are all but erased from young minds in the modern education system.

What if you’re not in education and there’s something you want to learn?

It’s interesting how often the default — especially in an economic crisis — is to re-enter formal education: delay the real world by taking a masters in something, add another qualification to the list, invest in yourself.

For me, this was not an option. For financial reasons partly, and also because no-one teaches what I wanted to learn. The only option was to go alone, and teach myself.

Hacking my education in story design

It starts with a big question… For several years I had been making non-fiction films for the web, but felt like I was really guessing when it came to storytelling. In my training as a journalist, there was no advice on how narrative works, beyond the Inverted Pyramid. Storytelling is a buzzword online, yet no-one really explains how it works. I knew that if I could understand the craft of story better, I could produce stories which made a bigger impact.

…Which leads to more questions. My education actually started informally. I picked up some popular storytelling guides (aimed at screenwriters, that’s all there is). Reading these books answered some questions, but raised many more. The more I dug, the wider the hole seemed to get. This was crucial in keeping my curiosity piqued. It really felt like this was a mystery to be solved.

The importance of being intentional. After nearly a year of light digging and reading, I realised that if I was going to solve this mystery I needed to take it seriously. A key part of hacking your own education is the intentionality of it. I drew up lists of questions still to be answered, and made it my business to solve them. My reading became intentional: I joined a library and dug up every book on the craft of narrative. I made notes on everything I read. I used the Further Reading and appendices to find even more sources. I re-read books several times over.

A quick pause for thought: how many students paying to do a masters are this thorough in their research? This isn’t an idle question — I have taught postgraduate students for several years.

Making it public. Here’s the real point: hacking your education cannot be done in private. Its potential and energy comes from the fact you share your learning journey in public. This can be in any way you choose: a blog offers the best opportunity for lengthy analysis, but don’t neglect other mediums. Video has huge potential for teaching and the social web offers unrivalled ways to connect.

As a learner you become both a publisher and a teacher — and it gives structure to everything you do.
Publishing four magazines and a book created the structure I needed to study and the platform to share my knowledge.

For me, the study of story design was less meaningful if I didn’t share this knowledge with others. So I started an ambitious publishing project to structure my learning: a book and a series of magazines. The Inside the Story project, two years old at this point, has been the spine of my learning journey. It had several important benefits:

  • publishing a book and magazines gave me an excuse to reach out to experts in the field. I was able to interview award-winning filmmakers, writers and academics, under the guise of a publication.
  • the magazine focused my learning. By making each issue about a different topic within narrative, I committed to several months going deep on one aspect. In the spring it was visual storytelling, in the summer it was interactivity.
  • sharing my research and knowledge in a public way has established me as an expert in this narrow field. It has led to speaking at conferences and even running storytelling workshops for journalists.
  • hundreds of others have improved their storytelling as a result. The people who bought my book and magazines have learned everything I have. How many formal degrees can claim this?
  • I gained other skills as a by-product. Building the magazine pushed my web design skills further, made me a better writer and designer.
  • and I’ve even made money as a result of all this. The magazine has brought in thousands of dollars (read more about that here), and the book before it raised $4300 for charity (more on that here).
Another pause for thought: combined this is the cost of studying a masters (in the UK at least). Rather than spending this money, I earned it.

Which proves you must have a project. This is extremely important. A project gives you a reason to study and focuses your learning. I’ve written about this in more detail here - you can’t hack your education reading books. You have to do something, to solve a problem.

After three years, the result is a masters in all but name, complete with a 40,000 word dissertation in the shape of four magazines. The difference between this dissertation and a normal one is that mine has been read by hundreds of people, not just one or two.

I’ll save your breath here: of course there are some subjects that cannot be hacked. Don’t film dissections of your cat in order to become a vet. But for a huge range of skills in the humanities and sciences the internet can make us better learners.

In our fast-changing world, one thing is certain: our education cannot stop after university. The world demands our generation keep learning, to continuously broaden and deepen our knowledge. It’s the only way we’ll be able to solve the huge problems coming our way.

The world demands you take your learning seriously, but it doesn’t demand you go back to the classroom. Independence, energy, a willingness to share and teach others and above all curiosity are all it takes to create an education on your terms.

If this article inspired you even a little bit, I’d love it if you spread the word — hit recommend and tweet the hell out of it!

Adam Westbrook is a digital producer and publisher, focusing on non-fiction storytelling. He is the editor of Inside the Story Magazine, and through HotPursuit is on a mission to fall in love with learning again.