life lessonspersonal development

Autodidact

Someone or something opted me into a daily email called Word Genius, which sends a new vocab word daily.

I like new fancy words, but like any other nonconsensual opt-in, I was initially annoyed (enraged?). Before I could unsub and shake my fist at the internet, however, I found myself opening the emails and reading the new words.. Nerd me cannot resist.

Last week they sent me the word “autodidact”, which means “a self-taught person”. I’d heard it before but was happy to have it reloaded into my working vernacular. It stuck with me over the next few days.

I, like nearly all of us, have been learning non-stop my whole life, sometimes formally from other people and school(s) and most of the time informally via everything else. When we’re young, the learning construct is forced upon us. After formal education wraps, we decide how much of the construct we want to continue on our own accord.

It’s also worth noting that I have noticed my most effective learning style is informally, by way of other people. I believe the personal and shared relevant experiences allow me to absorb and retain new concepts better than anything else. There is something about a story being shared 1-to-1 that staples the nuance and detail to my brain most effectively. Not a shocker, as I’m an extrovert who (usually) enjoys people.

Reflecting on my life as a learner, what’s even more interesting, however, is how pivotal and more broadly beneficial have been the things I’ve learned on my own, though it’s a smaller list. Some of the most sustainable joy and confidence-enhancing boosts have come from taking the more self-reliant (autodidactic) and introverted path.

A few examples:

In 1995, when I was 15, I broke my leg a month before high school started. I was laid up in a huge cast for nearly the entire fall. So with a dial-up modem and a Prodigy account, I devoured the early internet in solitude. I also bought Visual Basic 3.0 and taught myself how to write code. For a dorky teenager, this was a massive confidence boost and identity redefiner. I now had a path ahead and a domain in which to shine, by my own hand. This was also the first time in my life when I felt the satisfaction of self-mastery. It was foundational. If I could chart my own path here, what else could I explore?

For the next 2 decades, I’ve continued the path of self-study to many new and sometimes difficult pursuits. There has always been joy in improving incrementally with a side order of prove to myself I can do it on my own.

I started weight training as a 145-lb senior in high school and within a couple of years I’d added 20-25 lbs of muscle that I remain disciplined enough to still carry today. (Side note: I aspire to be Jack LaLanne when I’m 80)

I’ve always loved music and have wanted to learn to play guitar my whole life. At 19, I used some high school graduation money to buy an acoustic guitar, having never played a lick. I have had 3 lessons in 20 years, but if you throw on some Stevie Ray Vaughn, I’ll happily improvise my way up and down the fretboard. (Ask my wife about the daily concert at my house that she’s never wanted a ticket to.)

At 29, I wanted to learn how to ride a skateboard on a halfpipe (mini ramp). So I bought a cheap ramp and some pads and 10 years later I have a rad dad bag of tricks and a much bigger ramp in my back yard (sorry again, wife).

The list of personal pursuits, challenges and “hobbies” can go on and on. I think that critical broken leg as a teen and its resulting silver lining rewired me for a future of self-imposed challenges.

The last item I’d put on this list is the obvious nod to my journey at RevZilla. More specifically, my personal leadership journey and evolution from maker to manager to executive within the company lifecycle.

In a fast-growing company, everyone has to scale themself ahead of the company’s growth curve if they want to remain effective at their role. This is the most true for the founder(s) and early leadership. There are no entitlements if you expect the company to maximize its performance and continue to attract and retain the best talent. You must grow ahead of the role. You must outswim the “shark” or you get eaten (i.e., scale out).

There was a ton I learned from my team, day-to-day ops and from my biz friends and mentors. Early on, however, I decided that those would not be enough to keep me swimming fast enough.

So I stood atop the foundation of the confidence I had from figuring out other things on my own and attacked my perceived knowledge and experience gap. From about 2009 on, I read and watched everything I could get my hands on relating to leadership, management, ops, and strategy in non-stop fashion.

It was a dogged effort to expand my executive tool kit in light of the fact that I was sans MBA and really hadn’t managed anyone pre-RevZilla. It was probably the key reason I don’t think I was ever “off the clock”. The autodidact, driven by a fear of failure, had taken the wheel.

Some would say that the way I worked (obsessed?) bordered on diminishing returns, but I believe the additional inwardly focused effort contributed greatly to RevZilla’s ultimate success and my improved efficacy as a leader. The shark never got me.

Even now, as I reflect on where I have spent some my most fulfilling time in the last few years post-operations, I am somewhat surprised. Some of that time has been with new teams or companies, but many of the most satisfying moments have been solo pursuits of new skills or knowledge on my own. I didn’t think deep dives in my fortress of solitude (home office) would be as fulfilling as they continue to be. As an adultish age and lifestyle have crept closer, more unadulterated and introverted time to learn has been a surprisingly enjoyable addition.

The deep dives provide the satisfaction of figuring it out today along with a continual reassurance that I can still climb potential future mountains on my own.

I ask my children all the time, “Why do you go to school?” and when they respond with the partially correct “To learn”, I help them understand the better answer is “to learn how to learn”.

I hope they find their autodidact moments early and I hope my continuing pursuit of constructive friction makes a lasting impression on them.

To even the most extroverted extrovert I might ask a different question.

“When was the last time you climbed the mountain on your own? When was the last time you found introverted joy with the tangential benefit of elevated skill?”

It’s worth it. It always has been.

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