Why unstructured learning is the only way to build a lucrative career quickly

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

Data science as a term was coined back in 2008 by DJ Patil and Leff Hammerbacher. In 2012, D.J. Patil and Thomas Davenport called “data scientist” the sexiest job of the 21st century in an article they wrote for HBR

This new dream job, combined the coding skills of a programmer with a statistician’s ability to build mathematical models in order to create massive value for companies. The case of LinkedIn’s “People you may know” provides a striking example of the power of data science.

The speed of innovation far outpaces college curriculum’s ability to keep up with it

There were no college courses on data science or machine learning when that article came out, there were not even any online courses. You could of course take programming courses in college, and you could take statistics courses, but there was no curriculum for a degree combining the two and nothing that was designed to teach data science specifically.

It was a new emerging field and if you wanted to get into it you had to study obscure books on data mining, and knowledge discovery (which is what data science used to be called) You had to be willing to deal with a lot of ambiguity, uncertainty, lack of feedback and you had to figure a lot of things out by yourself. This was around the time that I got into data science. I wrote about my experience here

Although I didn’t want to become a data scientist, I prefer to be a more of a generalist, the knowledge I learned through my project still allows me to talk intelligently to data scientists as well as explain things to non-data scientists in a way they can understand.

Companies care more about your experience than your degrees

My company was hiring for a senior business data analyst position recently. This career has become increasingly more lucrative as businesses continue to accumulate data and the need for analysts to extract insights out of that data is skyrocketing. As such, many colleges have begun offering masters degrees in business data analytics as a way to fill the skill gap. The success of these degrees however is still lacking.

The hiring managers reviewed hundreds of applicants for the position, many of them recent graduates with one of these new masters degrees in the field of analytics. But, they didn’t hire any of them. Instead they hired a junior analyst (who by the way had an unrelated degree) because he had experience doing data analytics in a business setting and solving real world problems.

This may be a single data point but I bet If a company had a choice between a fresh graduate with a masters degree but no experience in the field and a person without a related degree but with a few years experience, they will hire the person with experience 9 times out of 10. Experience is a more direct (and thus better) way to demonstrate that you can create value.

You can only get that experience through unstructured learning and solving real world problems in a the appropriate context. That’s why whenever people ask me for advice on how to advance their careers in a new, unfamiliar area, I always suggest they take on a project in that area as part of their job, or even on their own time.

Many lucrative careers require skills you cannot learn in college

YouTube millionaires is a regular feature of many business magazines and websites (see here, here, here or here)

These people managed to leverage a new platform to build a following and a steady stream of income. Talk about a lucrative career!

How did they manage to build careers without a college education? They figured it out on their own, through trial and error. There’s no college curriculum on how to become a millionaire YouTuber, how to become an Instagram Influencer or a Social Media marketer.

Maybe becoming a top Instagram Influencer is not what you want in your life, maybe you don’t want to be a YouTube millionaire, but if you think about how these people learned the skills that garnered them all this attention (and all the money), you can’t help but realize the power of unstructured learning.

Not only did the YouTubers and Instagramers build a following, made a lot of money, but they also learned incredibly valuable evergreen skills; skills that will serve them for life. Because if tomorrow one of these platforms disappears, the skills will still be valuable and can easily be transferred onto new and as of yet undiscovered platforms.

They learned skills in building a following, making full use of a the tools that platforms afforded them, skills in creating valuable content, ancillary skills such as video and audio editing, presenting information in interesting ways, speaking in front of a camera or microphone, connecting with others, etc.

More importantly they learned how to learn in unstructured ways, the most powerful, evergreen skill of all.

If there’s a college curriculum, someone younger, hungrier and cheaper than you can be trained to do your job

I love this tweet by Naval Ravikant:

“Specific knowledge is knowledge that you cannot be trained for. If society can train you, it can train someone else, and replace you.”

This quote provides the most compelling reason for unstructured learning.

Because this “specific knowledge” that Naval is referring to cannot be trained for, you have to learn it yourself, by solving real world problems through projects. College simply cannot cover everything, despite what the term “university” seems to imply. Some knowledge has to be acquired through self learning.

And of course, if there’s a curriculum, then the knowledge has already been commoditized, which means that your job can be shipped “offshore” or be given to younger, hungrier and cheaper workers. In order to prevent that, your best bet is to build a rare and valuable skill stack which cannot easily be replaced, and the only way to do that is through unstructured learning.

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