AnklesI can tell you the exact moment I realized that I was responsible for my learning.  I was sitting in Differential Equations class and I was bored.  I was bored because I had the class down pat.  I had the professor for two previous physics classes, Atomic and Nuclear Physics, and he had taken a week in each class to teach how to solve a differential equation with constant coefficients – critical to solving most physics problems beyond general physics.  I knew his teaching style, how he gave exams, even how he would answer questions.  It was at the point that I asked that he post the homework before the start of class so I could complete it while in class.  The class had no challenge for me, but I had to have the class for my major (physics) and minor (math).

I did have distractions in class.  I sat behind Claudia who had the most perfect ankles I’ve ever seen.  She was beautiful, smart, compassionate – an absolute dream.  And while I wasn’t romantically interested – she had a fiancé – I could and did admire her.

One day I had completed the homework, admired Claudia’s ankles, and still was bored.  So, I did what I usually do in this situation – I played mathematical games in my head.  The particular question started with estimating how far in the textbook the class was going to cover before the end of the term.  Then I figured out how much tuition I had paid for the class and divided that by the number of pages we would be covering.  It came out to $1 per page!

Now this was 1970 and the dollar bought a lot more than it does today.  But I was shocked!  I looked down at the page we were on and realized that I wasn’t getting a dollar’s worth out of that page.  And, all of a sudden, I wanted to get my dollar’s worth – while I got a scholarship, a vast majority of my college was financed by loans and working as much as 60 hours a week.  Here I had been working like crazy and living frugally so I could complete college but I was letting the experience go by while getting the minimum I could get.

Right then and there I decided I wanted to get my dollar’s worth from the experience.  I was no more just doing what I had to get the good grades and the prerequisites for the next term.  I wanted to get everything possible and leave no opportunity behind.

The amazing thing is that it didn’t require any change in my behavior – I still read the assignments, studied all the material, did the homework, asked questions in class – all the things I had done before but now the purpose was different.  Now I wanted to REALLY know the subject – the heart of what mattered, not just the rules but the reasons for the rules.  And the grade wasn’t the objective – the knowledge was.

And a funny thing happened – I began to see ways of applying the knowledge in ways I hadn’t expected or been told about and in areas that didn’t seem related.  Which is why a PhD in physics became a key to unlocking many opportunities for my careers.  Yes, careers – plural – because I’ve been a teacher, an engineer, an administrator, a trouble shooter, a manager, a mentor, a coordinator and worked with myriad organizations from government to non-profits to contractors.

And it’s all worked for me because I learned to be a self-learner.  If there was a course, I took it.  If there was no course, I read a book; watched videos, or ask someone to teach me.  For incidence, when I started working in my first job after retiring from the Navy, I was supporting an Air Force office that used Microsoft Office products.  I had been using WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 in the Navy.  While I didn’t have a problem with Word, Excel was a problem.  But that first weekend after I started, I borrowed a video tape series on Excel and by Monday morning I knew enough to convince people that I was an expert in Excel.  I even ended up running a tutorial series for my company on Excel!

And self-learning is an even more important skill today – companies aren’t training people any more so you are on your own.  You can watch as your skills fade and become obsolete or you can be constantly sharpening the saw as Stephen R. Covey urged.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.