You don’t need permission to learn
You can learn anything you want, starting today. If you want to learn how to do advanced mathematics, TIG weld aluminum, create complicated CAD drawings, do computer programming, 3D print a complex piece of your own design, or anything else you don’t yet know how to do, you can start immediately, no permission necessary, no application process, no letter of acceptance, just decide and begin. Age is no barrier, you can be 16, 46 or 76. You can start today, where you are with what you know and what you have.
A piece of paper doesn’t prove you know anything
Getting a piece of paper to frame and hang on your wall proves nothing. Certificates and credentials prove you followed someone else’s directions and rules, paid them a sum of (often borrowed) money and received the paper in return. Going into debt or depleting your savings just to get a piece of paper is a bad idea and, no, free college isn’t the answer. A free degree will be worth every penny you paid, nothing.
Invest time and effort to pay as you go
Free college cannot cover the real bill, the one the student MUST pay on his own. Sitting in a classroom doesn’t mean you’ll absorb any knowledge or be imbued with a new skill, there’s no Matrix plug in the back of your head, it takes hours and days and years of serious effort. Demands for free college reflect a complete misunderstanding of how learning works. What you can learn in a formal setting can be learned on your own. It’s not money that’s in short supply, it’s motivation and desire.
Deliberate practice to learn hard things
As I write this, there’s a set of books (shown above) sitting next to my computer. These books were specifically called out by Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, as the ones he studied from as a young student trying to learn math and they were specifically written for self-study in the days before computers or the internet. He wasn’t born knowing math any more than you or I, he worked his way through it, doing the problems in the books and inventing some of his own.
Anyone can buy these books, some are available free online, most can be found on eBay from time to time which is where I found mine, (Advanced Calculus by Frederick Woods, too, though less common) and if you master the content, you’ll know more math to a higher degree than 99 percent of college graduates. (The Boy Scientist in the above group, not a math book, is one he recalled as enjoyable at a very early age) In just eight inches of shelf space, you can cover the entire spectrum of math from basic arithmetic through algebra, geometry, trigonometry and differential and integral calculus.
The almost magical mastery Feynman would later demonstrate didn’t appear out of thin air, he worked at it. He engaged in deliberate practice to learn hard things, which may be the best of all techniques to move from novice to professional to absolute mastery, it’s the no shortcut, no tricks, just put in the effort and do it technique that so few seem willing to commit to.
Commit to a project, then learn how and do it
If there is any secret to learning hard things it’s this; identify a project you would really like to be able to do and commit to doing it. Don’t limit yourself to those things you already know how to do, focus on describing your project, a hard project, and then do the real thing, don’t learn about it, actually do it. You’ll learn because you’ll have no choice.
Don’t say you want to learn how to weld, describe the motorcycle you are going to build or a similar project requiring welding and then build it. You’ll know why you’re learning that particular skill and you’ll have an immediate application to see for yourself if you really did learn it and something to show others to prove it.
If you have an idea for a motorcycle design that’s hard to describe, learn the CAD software necessary and show people what you mean. There’s free CAD software available to learn on and low cost CAD available, too and even the big professional CAD packages like Solidworks cost less than a semester of college.
Don’t say you want to learn how to run a CNC router, describe a project you want to build that requires one. You say you don’t have a CNC router? Build one of those first, then build the project. Head over to Instructables for ideas.
Don’t try to convince the skeptics that your idea for a recumbent racer will work, just design it, then head out to your workshop and build it. There’s nothing like racing in a sanctioned event to silence the critics.
Projects beat paper every time
If you want to learn how to do something, just do it. If you want to prove you can do something, just do it. While some employers or customers may want to see your credentials, nothing beats pointing to a completed project and saying, “I did that.”
I recently encouraged someone who does a lot of small construction projects to document everything with a photo portfolio. That way, when talking to a customer, he could pull out his phone and show them the work he’s already done. It’s the best proof there is.
So, what will your “I did that!” be?
It’s a wide open field, you can choose anything at all as a project and start today. If it’s going to be worthwhile, it’s not going to be easy. If it’s easy, it means you already know how to do it, so think big, not impossibly big, but make it a real step up from where you feel comfortable. If the complete project you choose is a major undertaking, just break it down into a lot of smaller projects, each one is a win, each one means you learned something, then put them all together and you’ll have an accomplishment far beyond what you ever thought you could do.
One year from now you’ll be one year older, no matter what you do, or don’t do, but wouldn’t it be great at that time to have a solid grasp of some difficult new skill and a project in your portfolio to prove it? I think so and I bet you do, too.
So, what are you waiting for? Pick a project you don’t know how to do, yet and get started, today! This time next year, what will you point to and proudly say, “I did that!”