How to continue learning when school’s out…
I recently graduated after 6.5 (almost 7) eye-watering years in a bachelor’s degree. I was lucky enough to go to law school at a great university and do an LLB, but looking back I really took the learning for granted.
Now that I’m officially out in the big bad world, the most obvious thing that I took for granted was the learning structure. A colleague once told me that signing up to a uni degree was, for most people, an expensive way to defer thinking about their future. In a way that’s true.
For most of us, a undergraduate degree is a mental safety blanket — semester after semester you have a clear roadmap of what you’ll learn, when you’ll progress, how your success will be measured, and you’ll have lots of peers to keep you on track. You don’t always get a choice in what you learn, just follow the tried and trodden path.
But when you’re working full-time there’s none of that.
Sure if you’re an accountant or a lawyer there’s a clear path up to partner or director, but who wants a “no frills” career?! There’s so much to learn in this world, I’d rather not spend it all in “forensic accounting”.
So what do I do?
When you’re an adult you only learn what you want, but you have to figure out what you learn, how much you learn, when you learn, and how proficient you are. So how do you keep learning when there’s little to no curriculum, or when the path upwards in your career isn’t clear?
A bit about me…
Last year (whilst studying) I started a full-time role as a product manager at a startup in Australia (Sonder)— it’s a new-age role in a barebones industry, so expecting there to be L&D is just naive.
Fortunately, with a lot of help, I’ve been able to put together a curriculum for both this role and life in general. Here are some of my tips to help you assemble your own curriculum and continue a life of learning!
Step 1: Figure Out What You Don’t Know
Not that I respect the guy, but ol’ Donald Rumsfeld is famous for talking about “known unknowns” (stuff you know you don’t know), and “unknown unknowns” (stuff you don’t know you don’t know).
When starting off trying to create a plan of learning it’s important to survey the field and keep a list of gaps in your knowledge, habits you should form, and challenges to take on. Truthfully you’ll never know all there is to know, especially if your field or career path are evolving. But hey that’s ok! Learning something is better than nothing.
1. Follow the Best
One of the easiest ways to start-off is to learn from the best people, the masters. This is great to start with.
These can be your senior colleagues, your mentors, or people just a few years older than you in different companies but similar roles. It won’t always be obvious who is strong in their field but normally the ambitious people have it together.
Speak to these people about what skills or areas of knowledge they prioritised early in their career. If possible even go so far as to ask these people to recommend books, courses, or other resources for your “level”. Over time you’ll start to hear similar concepts and areas of learning — the more you hear them the more you should note them down on your learning list.
Tip: At work I asked one of the senior product managers to look at my work and then help me find articles and mock curriculums online with skills that he thought I should master. We then went through these topics together to understand WHY I could improve and what “good” looked like.
2. Seek the Watering Hole of Knowledge
Depending on your industry there’ll likely be a service, content library, or accreditation school that contains a wealth of information, find it, and create lessons of your own. This is great for technical learning.
Depending on whether your industry is well-regulated it might be obvious what school or certification to follow: financiers have the CFA and product managers could gravitate towards a Certified Scrum Product Owner. Even if you don’t take these types of courses finding one and following that curriculum will keep you grounded and give you a good launchpad.
If your industry isn’t well-regulated you can always find out the content source that most ambitious people in your field go to learn core skills. This could be a Medium publication, a Udemy course (or similar MOOC), or just a great website with clearly defined subjects to learn.
3. Flock to Like-Minded People
Whilst social media echo chambers aren’t great because they spawn anti-vaxxers, they are great for learning from a group of people in your industry, either directly or indirectly related to your role. They don’t always have to be “masters” they can be people at the same level too.
This might sound obvious but it’s REALLY important not just to get ideas about WHAT to learn, or how to learn, but to learn from their experiences — they’ll tell you what not to learn, or the most efficient way to master something.
Go to the meetups, after-work drinks, or heck start your own friend group by reaching out to people over LinkedIn and bringing them together. What’s more as time passes, these people are likely to progress and they can continue to give you guidance on how to progress to as they stay a few steps ahead of you.
4. Consume Good Books, Podcasts, Toilet Rolls, Whatever!
I have recently started a Goodreads and it’s life changing! There’s nothing like a good book or podcast. A lot of these you will discover from following and being around like-minded people or masters who’ll want to share these resources with you.
Jot these down and listen to them at the gym, on the train, or when doing chores!
Step 2: All Together Now!
So now that you know some what you don’t know and where to learn it, put that list into a “curriculum” of sorts. Maybe don’t call it this cos it’s not sexy, but design a schedule that works for YOU.
Document it in a format you like — I have friends who like to use Notion, I like to use GSlides (god I’m exciting), and some friends like to doodle in a notebook.
The more important thing is to REALISTICALLY size each topic. Be conservative about how often you can commit to learning (weekly or monthly), how much time you have, and then break your topic down into different sub-topics.
For myself, I usually do core learning across two 3 hour blocks each week (6 hours in total), so I’ll set myself a learning sub-topic that I can absorb in 4 hours as I’ll often need more time to process the knowledge too.
Here’s an example of a curriculum I put together to boost my commercial acumen, it’s based around simple economic principles. I set myself a goal of learning, at a high-level, the first year topics in an MBA within 12 months as I wanted to build my commercial knowledge. I then:
- Put together a list of the first-year subjects from Stanford and HBS MBA curriculums.
- I then take a subject like “Fundamental Economics” and broke it down into sub-topics.
- I took a quick squiz of how much each sub-topic contained, time-estimated it, and then roughly divided the topics until each sub-topic was one week’s worth of learning.
- Then I chose a regular timeframe to learn: Wednesday and Sunday afternoons, and made sure that each week I committed to the sub-topic allocated.
- After breaking each subject down and measuring how long it takes, I had myself a 12 month curriculum. If all the content broken into weeks was more than 12 months, I moved it to the next year.
This takes time by the way, it’s not something you can always do in a weekend. I took about a 1.5 months to build this one!
Part 3: Check Yo Self
The last part is important but quite hard to do. It’s to test that you have learnt what you set out to learn.
- If you’re learning to apply something at work this isn’t too hard, you can ask a more senior team member to test your understand of a topic, by setting you a small task and asking you to walk through your thinking.
Otherwise, it’s a good idea to take a certification if there is one, give yourself a “task” from an online course, or to ask somebody who is knowledgable in that field to give you a test (this can be a task they do commonly at work).
It’s hard self-motivating after university and you may not finish the learning tasks you set, or be super confused and frustrated.
The most important thing is to give yourself a rhythm of learning. Set similar times each week to learn similar topics, and remember to:
- Figure Out What You Don’t Know: From masters, peers, online content
- Put it Together: In a curriculum or learning schedule
- Check Yo SELF: Test yourself at the end of it all
This article is part of the “The Product Padawan” series in “Kevin’s Dead”
“Kevin’s Dead” is a blog about improvement, ambition, and doing away with passivity. In this blog you’ll find the musings of an Australian-Chinese millennial who is tired of being faceless and being another “Kevin”.