I get a lot of questions about learning digital, social, and breaking into the industry. With more universities offering diplomas, certifications, and courses for social and digital media, the question is whether it’s worth your money.

My advice is always to use extreme caution.

The nature of the digital space is such that its in a constant state of change. Social is new; Facebook is nine years old and Twitter six. What’s the next disruptive social platform?

The point is social and digital evolves quicker than any industry. That is why formal education doesn’t mesh with this space.

Professors develop curriculum long before courses take place. It goes against the real-time nature which makes digital and social so unique and exciting. Any course becomes outdated before it is taught.

Cool your jets, Starsky

While formal education isn’t a perfect fit for the industry, there are specific use cases. I’ll rattle off a few examples.

Skill Acquisition: If you’re looking to add specific skills, ie photoshop, illustrator… etc, formal courses make a decent fit. The important thing here is utility. Ensure you are learning tangible skills that transfer and are directly applicable to your goals.

Networking: Professional network development. As much as I hate networking, it is necessary. You have to ‘play the game’ no matter how fake and phony it makes you feel. This is something i’ve personally struggled with before because I find it exhausting.

The beauty of formal education is how it provides a rolodex of connections for the future. This is probably the only reason i would consider an grad school down the line.

Keep in mind building these relationships takes effort and is only worth it if you attend a globally recognized  grad-school program.

If not School then what?

Learn yourself. I personally take pride in self learning… you should too, but how does one do this?

Expose yourself to the social space, experiment on different social networks and research who is influential and innovative on these subjects. These are who you should learn from.

An easy example is by making a Twitter list with digital “thought leaders.” Read not just what they write, but what they read as well.

Everyone knows the spiel about how everything is free on the internets, i’ll save it and instead, point you to some resources i’m using to continually learn. Same knowledge, but without the fancy piece of paper.

Reading: Brunk your mind

Books… shocker right? Call me old-fashioned but when I read, I prefer a hard-copy to kindle or online version (maybe because I spend my days staring at a computer screen). Either way, brunk your mind with some literature.

I’ve typically foregone reading fiction, my stubborn thought process went something like this: if i’m going to read, I better be learning something.

I felt that if i wanted to relax and escape reality with fiction, why waste my time and effort reading? I’d much rather pretend to be Hank Moody for an hour.

I’ve since switched gears, reading the likes of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ and Hemingway’s short stories. I’m surprised at the learnings from reading fiction. Kerouac stream of consciousness ramblings and Hemingways succinct wording help my writing a ton.

Now i dabble in fiction and non-fiction.

A few non-fiction books i’m reading over the holidays: The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty by Dan Ariely, Drive by Daniel H. Pink, and The Reluctant Entrepreneur by Michael Masterson.

Blogs. Set up a google reader to easily read and curate daily. The best way to get smarter is by learning from those smarter than you. In the online space, it means following and reading smart people’s work. I scan my google reader quickly every morning for new articles, then I bookmark them for later.

There is a ton of garbage content out there, so use caution. Be adventurous, be curious, and critically question everything you read.

Reach out to experts

Instead of simply reading and following experts, why not build relationships? Industry experts, scholars, and even professors are happy to answer questions and mentor informally.

Solicit them for info and advice… you would be surprised at how generous people are with sharing knowledge. They write to be read.

Your friend google can usually find an email address, Facebook, or Twitter handle.

I’ve reached out to so called digital influencers, all of them are open to educate younger people like myself. I was surprised, it is refreshing to see.

Provided you show a genuine interest in learning, people are inclined to spread their knowledge and “give back.” Humans feed off positivity and desire… they can sense it.

Email Kung-Fu

Craft a succinct message with a catchy subject, intro, and get right to the point. Bulleted lists in email are your friend. People scour emails looking for the punch line. Take the path of least resistance and make it easy for them to read.

To date, I’ve always gotten a response when asking for advice, help, or general info. Don’t make it seem that they’re wasting time responding and you’re good to go.

Excuse the length, I talk a lot about self-education because its something i’m passionate about.

Do you think formal education is valuable for social and digital? Any programs in particular? How do you keep up with the social space? Holler.