Implementable Ways to Get Smarter Without Going Back to School

Jordan Gross

You don’t have to pay for knowledge.

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“It’s awesome that you’re going back to school to become a therapist. Man, I wish I could do something like that.”

“Why can’t you?” I asked. Miguel looked back at me, shook his head slowly, gave a half smile, then a full one. I couldn’t see from my side of the Zoom call, but he looked over at something in his house. Maybe someone. Then he spoke.

“I’ve got four kids, man. I’m a single dad. I’d love to go back to school, but I don’t have the time or money to do that.”

I was crushed. Here was a man so eager to learn, but he didn’t have the resources. When I hung up with Miguel, I wanted to help him satisfy his hunger for knowledge without spending a dime. This article is for him and all the life-long learners who don’t have the means to get a formal education.

1. Realize Everyone Can Be Your Teacher

I exited the Uber and thanked the driver for a great trip. In turn, he thanked me for a great conversation. But to me, it wasn’t much of a conversation at all. For 20 minutes, I sat and listened to him talk about Turkish cuisine, Turkish politics, and the Turkish soccer league. He was an enthusiastic man, and all I did was give him a platform to teach me about his interests.

When interacting with others, we must seek to discover what lights them up. What makes them smile? What can they talk about for hours? Once we uncover this, then our mission is to become a student, allowing the other person to teach us about their passions.

I believe every single human being in the world is more knowledgeable than me about something, and my job is to find out what that thing is.

Liz Gilbert, author of multiple New York Times bestselling books urges us to follow our curiosity. By being curious about others and asking questions that makes them teachers, we investigate new themes and ideas that we’d otherwise never know.

2. Participate in Knowledge Exchanges

In 6,000 B.C., Mesopotamian tribes offered one another food, weapons, water, or spices in exchange for something they didn’t have. This process became known as bartering, which was later adopted by Phoenicians and became an instrumental part of many early societies. But bartering doesn’t only have to apply to physical goods. You can barter intangibles like knowledge as well.

Knowledge exchange is defined by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council as “a two-way exchange between research and research users to share ideas, research evidence, experience and skills.” You can implement this system by unleashing what you’re knowledgeable about, and then offering it to others in exchange for knowledge you wish to learn.

If you’ve seen every Oscar winning movie since 1973, share your reviews with other movie lovers. If you can name every country capital and have a strategy for memorizing them, tell people who wish to improve their memory. In return, ask to be taught something they can educate you on.

3. Learn at 85%

Health and Life Coach Mike Trugman urged me to listen to an interview Tim Ferriss did with Hugh Jackman. He told me to pay close attention to the 85% rule, and I’m so glad he highlighted this amazing insight.

The 85% rule for optimal performance says that high achievers will actually perform better if told to go at 85% than they will if told to go at 100%. This is the reason why Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt is able to smile, giggle and throw his arms out while crossing the finish line, even while running faster than anyone else in the world.

The premise is simple and relates to the desire to learn. If you’re not straining, striving and operating at the very limits of your ability, then you have room to think. You have room to adapt, interpret, and smile. You have room to relax whilst learning as opposed to stress over the minutiae. This clarity will behoove you on your lifelong-learning journey.

4. Travel Where You’ve Never Gone, Try What You’ve Never Done, and Speak to People You’ve Never Met

The primary goal of learning is simple. It’s discovering something new. Learning is investigating. Learning is working your way through the maze of life and raising an eyebrow when you finally smell the cheese. By embarking on new adventures, you’ll learn more than you can ever find in a classroom. And this newness doesn’t need to be overly extreme.

I started taking walks by my childhood home during quarantine. For almost 20 years, these streets were ones I only knew by car. But when I traveled them by foot, I saw new signs, new designs, and new people. I participated in new activities and allowed the world to be my teacher. These are opportunities you could never get in school.

5. Research the Basics by Being a Googler

Startup founder and NYU Stern Business graduate Vivek George once told me he’s a master of the basics. He questions every little thing he sees and then does enough research to get the gist of what he’s seeking to understand. If he passes a sewer, he asks himself how drainage works. He dives into YouTube videos. He uses trusted sources. If he sees a building with intricate designs, he’ll float into the world of Gothic architecture.

My friends always make fun of me because whenever we talk about something, I’m the first to Google it and give us a fun fact about the subject. “You’re such a Googler” they say to me, jokingly. But I take that as a compliment. Being a Googler is a good thing. It gives you a chance to question and discover more about the world around you.

6. Make Life Your Exam

Another way to enhance your learning and enjoy doing so is by gamifying your experiences. Set an intention for the day. Aim to get to 100 points. You create the test and then you evaluate your score.

Most people ask themselves questions. That’s a good start. But by making life your exam, you can ask yourself questions, answer those questions, and then assess your level of correctness. Then you can work to improve your score the next time.

Formal Education is Not the Only Path

Sure, formal education is a requirement if you want certain occupations. Doctors need medical school, lawyers need law school, and therapists need formal training. But what kind of learning is at the root of those careers?

Doctors and therapists want to help people. Lawyers want to solve problems. And there are ways to learn about helping people and solving problems without spending a fortune.

Watch talks. Listen to podcasts and music, read books and articles. Make art and interpret art. Explore life in new and enriching ways, and you will become smarter. Because being smart isn’t about getting a certain mark on an exam. Rather, being smart is a way to see how well you’ve experienced and understood what life has thrown at you.

We’re all smart in different ways. We’re all smart at different things. We don’t need school to be smart. Let this big giant sphere replace that rectangular classroom.

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Reimagining Personal Development

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