There’s a story told in Plutarch’s Lives about the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes that nicely parallels the lives of many students today.
In the story, Demosthenes, desiring to become a master orator, shaves his head so that he is too embarrassed to go out in public. The thought was that he’d be able to focus all of his time on practicing and improving his speech abilities.
Despite this program of self-improvement, his first speeches before the Athenian Assembly were disastrous. It would take years of public speaking for him to become one of the most famed orators of all time.
Take a look at your education path and ask yourself whether you’ve ever been in Demosthenes’ shoes (or sandals).
Maybe you studied German for three years but found when you went to Germany you couldn’t communicate with the natives there very well.
Perhaps you studied marketing in college, but when you graduated you couldn’t get a company to hire you and when you finally did, you couldn’t get people to buy their products.
Perhaps you got an A on all of your essays in school, but nobody would publish your work once you were ready to write something in the real world.
Whatever it is, you realize that for all the good your cloistered years of study did you, your real education begins when you enter the world and try to apply it.
Welcome to the Desert of the Real
Because of my conversations with employers who partner with Praxis, I know this discrepancy exists. A business today might hire someone, and the person will need to go through six months of what amounts to an on-the-job apprenticeship just to get up to speed.
Recently I had a conversation with a friend I hadn’t seen since high school.
When I asked him what he was up to he said he had graduated six months ago and was still trying to find footing. Employers want him to do internships first, and he’s moving from one low-paid position to another to get the “necessary experience.”
Mind you, he’s studied business and marketing the last four years. Now he’s starting the learning process again. At least this time he’s learning the skills that matter.
Conversely, I know college dropouts with no formal marketing education who have worked at startups in marketing roles since they were 18.
Two Ways to Learn: A Comparison
So what’s the difference? Why is it that the process of cloistered learning that Demosthenes and my friend embarked on don’t work as well as we’ve been led to believe?
It’s a matter of stakes.
In closed learning, when you’re studying marketing, you don’t have skin in the game. Whether you read a particular book or not won’t have an immediate effect on results. Like Demosthenes practicing public speaking without an audience, you can fail largely without consequence.
Open learning is different. When you’re doing marketing at a company, you’ve got customers, coworkers, and the entire success of the business riding on your success.
You learn because you’ve got a strong accountability mechanism in place. This is why something like Toastmasters is far more efficient at teaching speech than practicing in front of a mirror. And more effective than that is getting in front of a real audience.
Along with this accountability mechanism comes real-world feedback. The market judges your work, and you get feedback in real time about your skill level.
It’s the difference between studying bike riding and thinking you know the fundamentals of bike theory and sitting on the bike, pedaling, falling, and trying again until you get it.
I know in my life this has always been the case. My writing improved when I started writing because it was an essential part of my job.
What you need then, is not more cloistered study. You need some skin in the game.
How to Get Your Skin in the Game: 10 Ideas
Once you recognize that this kind of learning is better, the question becomes, why wait?
Let’s say you’re a student right now in school. You want to build out a better accountability mechanism for yourself, so you don’t end up like Demosthenes and the thousands of other students who graduate every year and are in situations like my high school friend.
Here are ten ways you can do it:
1) Apprentice at a startup. This is why Praxis exists. We recognize that on the job, skin in the game learning is the best kind of learning.
2) Launch a blog or submit articles to third party sites. Turn your learning into some published asset. If you can get a role as a writer for a startup blog, a student news site, or something else, all the better. Writing for a source with an established reputation raises the stakes and makes you accountable to others.
3) Create a product or service and try to sell it. I remember the business school students did mock business projects where they’d put together an excellent plan and pitch their classmates who were “investors.” The problem? Nobody had any skin in the game. They were never asked to sell it. Instead of doing mock activities like this, create a minimal viable version of your product and put it on eBay, Etsy, Amazon, or a Shopify store.
4) Create a YouTube channel or a podcast around the topic you’re interested in or learning about. Or get yourself interviewed on the subject by another YouTuber or podcaster (it’s usually quite easy)
5) Launch an online course and market and sell it.
6) Write a book. I think Ryan Holiday is an excellent example of this. See Ego is the Enemy and The Obstacle is the Way. What better way is there to master Stoicism than to publish a book on it and turn it into a bestseller?
7) Set aside some of your money to begin trading stocks. I remember in elementary school we did a mock stock market. I made millions. When I hit 18 I promptly started day trading and lost around $4,000 before I started making money (partly by realizing day trading isn’t smart).
8) As I mentioned above, learn to speak by speaking in front of an audience. Small conferences are desperate for speakers, and often all they need is a short subject pitch.
9) Use a platform like Clarity.fm to speak with influential people and pay per minute you’re on the phone.
10) Attend paid conferences rather than free classes.
There are others. There are many others, and I can’t possibly list them all. Part of having skin in the game is in not following the plans you read in articles.
Determine a valuable skin in the game based learning strategy for your situation and accept the results.
Whether they’re good or bad, you’ll find yourself in a much better position than before.