So often people ask me what inspired me to start my own business just one year after graduating college and what coursework was important in giving me the foundation for an entrepreneurial career. Those same people are often taken aback when I tell them that most of the skills and knowledge I put to use in my career were not learned in a classroom.
With that in mind, I want to share the best ways I know of to get a (useful and practical) education without ever going to class. That doesn’t mean you should skip class every day, but it does mean that if you want to have a passionate and purposeful career after graduation, you need to invest in yourself in ways that make you come alive. Here we go.
Get to know your professors
Professors can sometimes seem removed from their students. They don’t always know each of their students, and sometimes they don’t even put in much effort to get to know them. But can you really blame them? I don’t know the stats, but a decent percentage of students will never show up to class and another chunk will never invest in their classwork.
Since we’re not talking about class-related education here, forget office hours and after class time. Here I’m talking about one-on-one time with your professors. Take them to coffee, play a round of golf, or grab lunch. Get to know them. What are they currently researching? What is their background and how did they end up in their current role? What practical advice do they have for students that want to live a live of passion and purpose?
Professors have immense knowledge, and often we don’t even think twice about them as a source for gaining practical knowledge and advice for our post graduate years. Invest in them and be ready to learn.
Start or lead a student organization
Student organizations are like proving grounds for business and organizational leadership down the road. They have budgets, personnel, purpose, values, and goals and objectives. Taking on a leadership role in one of these organizations is the student equivalent of having an executive role in the business world — responsibility and decision-making lies with you.
Yes, it can create pressure, and yes the leadership role is certain to give you less time to study for tests or party with your friends. But the benefits come in the form of leadership experience, self-discovery, and learning valuable life lessons.
When the spotlight is on you because others look to you for guidance and role modeling, it makes you think a lot harder about the decisions you make and the life you live on your own time. That directly translates to the real world.
Find a leadership development program
The best leadership development programs in the world do one thing really really well: they help people develop self-awareness. Leadership comes from within — no two leaders accomplish tasks and lead others in the exact same way. Find a program, whether online or in-person that will allow you to make mistakes and develop self-awareness.
Your sense of self is what will drive your ability to live an authentic life and truly pursue your passions over time. If you want a sense of purpose in your life, you have to start by looking inside. No better place to do that than a leadership development program.
Learn a new skill on your own
Skills are much more valuable than textbook learning. Take the time to learn a skill outside of the classroom. Ask for a Rosetta Stone package for the next holiday so you can learn a language. Go to Codeacademy.com and start learning to code (nearly every industry and occupation relies to some degree on the web). Attend dance class and become the best dancer of your entire friend group.
Do SOMETHING that makes you stand out. Skills are incredible boosts of confidence and fuel your feelings of self-worth. And don’t limit yourself to skills you think are required for your career path. You’re in college, have some fun.
If I could only cover one topic related to getting an education sans classroom time, it would be this: read. Read everything and anything. Read books (novels and non-fiction); read magazines that interest you; read blogs; keep up with current events through your favorite daily newspaper.
For the love of life, please read. Whatever interests you — just become a base of knowledge. That base of knowledge will fuel great conversations, new relationships, competitive advantage when job searching, and a host of other awesome benefits.
Read great books and read great books. I have a reading list for this exact purpose and every book on the list is specifically chosen for my audience on this site. Here’s how to get started in the next five minutes:
- Sign up for Feedly
- Pick five blogs you want to read with consistency — just start with five.
- Go to the reading list and pick out one book you want to read in the next month.
- Repeat as you gain momentum and bask in your newfound knowledge.
Connect with a professional in your desired career field(s) at least once a week
If you haven’t heard this from me before, I’ve got news for you: Monster.com will hardly ever result in you landing a job. The people you know will. If you want a great book on how to make meaningful connections, pick up a copy of Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone (affiliate link).
Otherwise, start making lists — lists of people you want to meet in every one of your areas of interest. Areas of interest can come from career paths, hobbies, skills, values, or anything else that drives your curiosity. Week by week start connecting with these people. One person every week. Don’t delay, start now. Just like planting a tree, the best time to start building a network is five years ago… The second best time is now.
Start a blog
You don’t even have to tell anyone about it if you don’t want to. But start a blog for you. Document your learning process. Write about what you’re learning – your reading, your new skills, your relationships. Use it as a journal if you want. Whatever you write about, make it a regular practice. Decide to blog once a week, every day, or somewhere in between.
I think you’ll find that you improve your writing skills, increase your learning, and hopefully enjoy the process. Eventually, you may even be able to turn your blog into a site that attracts readers that want to learn with you. Teaching a skill you are learning yourself is one of the best ways to accelerate your personal learning. Consider using your blog to do just that by creating a guide for someone who comes behind you and wants to learn a similar skill.
Here’s how to get started in the next five minutes:
- Sign up for a free blog at WordPress.com.
- Write your first post.
Be the organizer of regular get-togethers for those you admire or care about
Organize get-togethers for your friends, peers, or people you want to learn from. If you’re really ambitious, consider organizing events that allow professionals, professors, and students to connect all in one place. This takes a page right out of Keith Ferrazzi’s book, “Never Eat Alone”. Before you know it you’ll be known as a super connector.
If I could only choose one more tip besides ‘Read’, travel would be the unequivocal second. Travel is one of the best teachers on the face of the planet.
College is such a ripe time to travel because you still have a summer break as a student, which gives you plenty of time. Study abroad and service trips are thriving, and you can almost certainly find one that interests you.
Alternatively, you can always just plan a trip of exploration and fun. Whatever you do, get away from home for a period of time and explore. We’re made to experience new things, and traveling allows us to fulfill our inner curiosity while learning a tone about history, culture, and ourselves.
Get started now by checking out Global Lead — they’re a great organization led by a good friend of mine and they take students on trips to Greece, Ecuador, and South Africa as of this writing.
Speaking of travel… one of the easiest ways to learn without ever going to class is by exploring other cultures and interacting with people from very different backgrounds. The resulting world knowledge will allow you to communicate effectively in any number of situations.
This global sense will serve you well in large organizations and business trips in the future. Plus, you never know when a potential employer, future client, or new friend group will be intrigued by your worldly nature.
This is one I really missed out on when I was in school. There are so many conferences that are put on all over the country. They range from scrap-booking to mergers and acquisitions, and many of them have special pricing for students. Take advantage of it.
Imagine sitting next to someone at a conference with whom you share an interest (by nature of the conference topic), and who is looking for a summer intern. That would be akin to a full day interview, but instead you just get to share an experience and create awesome conversation throughout the day.
Is this always going to be the outcome? No, its one of many possibilities. But the underlying point is that conferences are great places to connect with people and organizations based on shared interests. You can even learn a thing or two from the speakers.
Get a job
Yes, we hear all the time how important internships are. But I’m not talking about an internship. I’m talking about a job where you really learn something and contribute in a big way. Maybe you’re a head waiter at a local restaurant; perhaps a crew manager at a lawn-care business; or maybe as a result of one of your weekly connections you create a role for yourself where you lead a project of high importance.
Whatever you do, work at something at some point in your college career. You’ll learn a ton about what it takes to show up day in and day out, and you’ll pick up some valuable skills and learning along the way.
I had the following jobs when I was in school: lawn care business owner; waiter at a Mexican restaurant; student worker in the MBA office at my university’s business school; student orientation leader; student worker in the Oxford study abroad program office.
Every one of those jobs was menial at times, and even occasionally a huge pain in the butt. But having a constant job gave me great connections, helped me develop a strong work ethic, and gave me great experiences on which I could continue to build a leadership perspective.
Get out of your comfort zone
One way or another, force yourself to get out of your comfort zone on a regular basis. I can’t define this one other than to say you know what makes you a bit nervous. Do that.
Speak in front of a crowd. Eat dinner at a crowded restaurant by yourself. Take a trip on your own. Go to networking events where you know no one. Whatever you do, push yourself.
There will be times at work and beyond when you have to do things that make you uncomfortable — why not get some practice when there’s nothing on the line?
Put it all together and start a business
If you take all of the above — the learning, the skills, the experience, etc. — and start a business, then you will be leagues above almost every other person coming out of school. Sound like a big task? It’s not as complicated as you think.
Buy a lawn mower, fold the handle down, put it in your trunk, and start knocking on doors. The first person who needs their lawn mowed is your first customer. Take care of them like your life depended on it, and before you know it you’ll have a thriving business.
No tour company in your university town? Be the first. Learn some fun facts about every part of your campus, set up a simple website, and start showing visitors around.
The great thing about every one of these ideas? You could do them for free or nearly free – they just require your time.
Fore more ideas, check out Chris Guillebeau’s $100 Startup (affiliate link). It is an incredible resource for creating your own business from nothing.
These are a few of many many ways to get an education without ever going to class. Your college experience offers a million different ways to light your fire and begin a leadership journey that will allow you to change the world in your own small way.
Don’t let the class time, exams, and pointless assignments discourage you from gaining the knowledge that will lead you to a life of passion and purpose when you finish with school.
Photo: ISC Orientation 1st Meeting Fall 2011 by Jirka Matousek on Flickr