Use Projects to Educate Yourself for Free


Last week I wrote about how working on projects is a great way to keep yourself motivated. The idea is that if you focus on results, it’s easy to get frustrated when you hit a patch of bad luck. If your emphasis is on completing projects, any feedback you get will come directly from your effort, so it’s easier to stay motivated.

Now I’d like to discuss another reason I’m a follower of living life through projects: self-education. Working through projects is a great way to learn faster. Educating yourself with a project also teaches you things you can’t learn from books or classes. In many ways, project-based learning cuts the fat from typical approaches, teaching you only what you need to know.

Two Approaches to Learning: Theorizing Versus Apprenticeship

If you go back in time, you will see that most people once learned through apprenticeship. This was the idea that you were paired up with a master, and he would put you to work. You would do all the boring and basic tasks until you mastered them. Then, after you demonstrated some skill, you would start working on more difficult assignments. Finally, after years of labor, the master would share with you his secret theories for how your field worked.

This idea of practice before theories was turned on its head in our education system. Now, before you’ve even touched the tools needed to perform your craft, students are asked to memorize formulas and concepts. The premise was if you learned the arcane theories first, you’d make less mistakes when you actually started working.

There are some benefits to a theories-first education system. I wouldn’t want my doctor “practicing” with open heart surgery if he didn’t have a good theoretical understanding of my circulatory system.

But a theories-first education isn’t without weaknesses. A big weakness is that the theories are disconnected from reality. A professor I had in a computer science class complained about how many other professors were horrible at programming. They were brilliant with theories, but didn’t have the field experience with actually creating software programs.

Education Through Projects

Teaching yourself with projects is a great way to learn because it overcomes some of the weaknesses when learning strictly through theories. Here are a few advantages of project-based learning:

  1. You learn what is important to you. Instead of what a professor says is important, you learn only the things you need to do what you want to do.
  2. You are motivated to learn. Even interesting classes have boring assignments. When you work through projects, you might be challenged or frustrated, but it is almost never boring.
  3. You build skills instead of just concepts. I have had professors that knew the details of every business concept and theory of entrepreneurship. I’ve had informal teachers that read fewer books, but actually started their own companies. One person has concepts, the other has skills. I’d rather learn from the person with skills than the person with concepts.
  4. You are doing something productive while learning. Most of the “learning” done in an educational system is worthless, by itself. Until you get into graduate research, all your paper writing and lab reports aren’t adding value back to society. With projects, not only are you learning new things, but the methods used to learn also produce something valuable in the end.

I started project-based learning several years ago when I became interested in creating computer games. The idea fascinated me, and starting with short ideas, I worked into larger projects. Because of those projects, I was forced to learn programming, computer graphics, interface design and even advanced mathematical topics.

Working on projects for this website has taught me web-design skills, writing, marketing and the details for running a small business. Although I’ve enjoyed taking university-level entrepreneurship courses, most of my knowledge about how to run a business has come from working on projects, not classes.

Setting Learning Goals for Projects

Today, whenever I start a new project, my first step is to see what my learning goals are for the project. Sure, it would be nice if I could make a lot of money, be recognized or receive positive feedback from people who have enjoyed something I made. But even if I can’t do that, I can still learn a lot from running a project.

There are two areas I look at when starting a new project:

  1. Hypotheses I want to test.
  2. Skills I want to build.

Testing Hypotheses

I consider every project to be an experiment. If I’m not trying or testing something new, it probably isn’t a worthwhile project. Hypothesis testing means simply that I have an intuition about the way the world works. I can then use the project as a means of testing that intuition.

When I wrote my first, free ebook for this website, I wanted to test the hypothesis that ebooks like this could be a marketing platform. I wanted to see whether people would share or link to the ebook and drive traffic back to the website.

After releasing that project and several others, I realized I was wrong. Ebooks, in my experience, don’t draw nearly as much traffic as writing a popular blog entry or collaborating with another blogger. What I did find out was that those ebooks are a great way to connect with the people who are truly interested in the website. Ebooks were a great way to add value to the blog, even if they didn’t directly bring in traffic.

That kind of first-hand experience is something that would be impossible to teach in a class. Even if I did learn from a famous blogger or ebook seller, the information wouldn’t necessarily work for me. For running experiments, projects trump theories.

Building Skills

The second type of goal I look for is when building new skills. I try to pick projects that are within my reach, but would force me to learn a few new things in order to finish them. When working on a software project, I was forced to learn an entirely new programming language and 2D graphics. When working on my last book, I learned how to set up an affiliate system.

I’m not promoting project-based learning as a strict alternative to formal education. Classes can teach you concepts that are easy to miss if you just focus on projects. However, I am recommending that everyone get involved in some form of project based learning. Whether it is just for a hobby or for your career, you can build skills while creating something meaningful.

What are some of the things you’ve learned by taking on interesting projects? What are some things you might like to learn by taking on a new project? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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