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By Megan O. Read | Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Inspiration at any age

Lynda's photo by Chris Orwig. Used with permission. www.chrisorwig.com

I recently ran across an article that listed 11 famous people who were in what they defined as their “wrong” job at the age of 30. The household names listed had simply not found their calling yet, or, had tried to make it, but gave up to do something else before stumbling back into their eventual fields. The celebrities listed (people like Andrea Bocelli, Sylvester Stallone, Martha Stewart, Julia Childs) all ended up in the careers that made them famous after the age of 30.

One of the reasons I love working at lynda.com is Lynda Weinman, who is always encouraging others to try new things, make mistakes, and learn from experiences. Like the 11 celebs I read about, Lynda didn’t find her true calling until she was in her 30s. You can hear more about her personal and business history in The lynda.com Story.

I couldn’t think of a better time to share the commencement speech that Lynda wrote and presented at the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, CA last March. It seems fitting to post this on Ada Lovelace Day, a day that honors women in technology by blogging about them. I hope it inspires and encourages you to try new things, and keep striving to find your calling.

“Today my husband Bruce and I, along with a few hundred collaborators, run a local business called lynda.com that teaches computer skills over the Internet. Our books, videos, conferences and online library subscription have helped millions of people learn digital technology and software. We are the leader in our field, and one of the few companies experiencing growth in this economic downturn.

“And so it might surprise you that I didn’t touch a computer until I was 28 years old, seven years after I graduated college. I say this to reassure you that it’s okay to struggle and search for the right career fit when you get out of college. It’s even possible that the career in which you will find your greatest success won’t be created until years from now. Personal computers capable of doing graphic design weren’t even invented until I was 30 years old.

“Being self-taught, I learned to use my first computer at the beginning of the computer age without the help of videos or books. Which isn’t to say there weren’t manuals. But in those days the technicians who wrote them were clueless as to the fear and anxiety felt by those of us new to computers.There was no hand-holding, no attempt to initiate anyone who wasn’t already fluent in computer-ese. There was no teaching involved, just rote technical instruction. Needless to say, it was beyond painful learn this way. In fact, for most mere mortals it was just about impossible.

“I didn’t realize as I painstaking taught myself how to use computers that I would ever become an expert. It happened very gradually and naturally. I was so excited by what I was learning that I couldn’t help but share it with the people I knew at work and in my personal life. Suddenly, people started coming to me with computer questions, and I found that I loved figuring out the answers. I remember getting my first job as a consultant setting up a database for a client. I felt like I was getting paid to have fun; like I was getting away with charging for something I would do for free. I realized that I was a natural-born teacher, but the idea of teaching had never occurred to me until I discovered computers.

“Ever since then, my teaching philosophy has been to put myself in the shoes of the person who doesn’t know. Every book I’ve written, video I’ve recorded or curriculum I’ve built takes this into account. I remember what it felt like not to know, and I remember the stages of my learning process. I try my best to recreate that process for my students, walking them through a subject using small information chunks that build progressively.

“I am convinced that the biggest key to my success has been the authenticity of my love of sharing and teaching. Unlike the manuals of the past, which intimidated and frightened those who wanted to learn, I created learning materials based on an innate respect for people, that didn’t judge those who ‘don’t know’. After all, if they already knew, why would they need the book, video or class? No one is born computer literate, not yet anyway. When there isn’t any shame in not knowing something, it then becomes an opportunity to learn.

“As a teacher and someone who makes my living as an educator, sharing information, perfecting its delivery, crafting its message and publishing the results, I find gratification in helping others and imparting knowledge. There is nothing more satisfying than meeting someone who has learned something from me or lynda.com that benefited their life or career.

“On lynda.com, in addition to educational videos, we have a documentary series called Creative Inspirations in which we interview successful photographers, illustrators, filmmakers, web designers, matte painters, and motion graphic designers. What has amazed me is that with each of these successful, creative people the same theme keeps coming up over and over.

“Their passion for what they do is irrepressible. They would do what they do for a living with or without pay. They find a way to achieve their goals no matter what obstacles they face. When something pushes them down, they get back up. They learn from their failures. Their commitment to their work is unshakable; no amount of disappointment keeps them from trying.

“I’m going to assume you have some level of anxiety about whether you’ll ‘make it’ in the tough economy ahead, not to mention the competitive art world. I would too. I assume you’ll encounter disappointments, set backs, failures, self-doubt, and insecurity.

“The good news is you’ve got the benefit of a great education, and you’ve had the luxury of devoting a lot of concentrated time to perfecting your craft. Even in the current job market, I strongly believe that wonderful possibilities await you. In today’s technology age there are opportunities in video and photography that never existed before. From the phone in your pocket, to your computer on your desk, to your gaming console at home, there is hardly a gadget around that won’t share images, videos and interactive experiences. Every business and industry feeds on visualization in ways that have never before been possible. Far beyond the standard business card, annual report and brochure, businesses today are leveraging web design, the use of video, and visual identities that are far more complex and rich than what was demanded in the past.

As for the present?  Even the most conservative estimates don’t predict that today’s horrible economic conditions will last more than a few years. Meanwhile, millions of people are being encouraged to reinvent themselves. You will not be among them. You are walking out of here with skills far more viable than those in so many outdated and dying industries.

“You were born into the computer age. It’s very likely that during high school and in some of your college courses you knew more about technology than many of your teachers, most of whom, like myself, had to unlearn old ways in order to embrace the new. Just as it is inevitable that a day will come when you’ll need to unlearn your ways to embrace new ways yet to be defined.

“The point I’m trying to make is that your education doesn’t end when school ends. You’ve paid good money to go to Brooks, you’ve had schedules to keep, assignments to finish and tests to take. The next phase of your education requires far more self-motivation and initiative, as the measure of your success shifts from grades and graduation, to your personal and career goals and achievements.

“The good news is that in the Internet age, finding information and learning skills is far easier than at any other time in history. Between websites, wikis, forums, chats, social networks, podcasts, blogs, search engines, tweets, RSS, and videos, there’s little excuse to not stay current.

“In the past, communication went in one direction. You got information from trusted sources; the newspaper, the TV station, the radio station, the recording labels, and dare I say—even from your teachers and your school. Today, information is two-way. It’s participatory—you can be as much a publisher as a consumer, as much the student as the teacher, and those who succeed will go between these roles with ease.

“There’s a secret to being a teacher. You have to continue learning in order to teach. But the learning doesn’t stop there.  The questions those you teach ask often lead to unexpected insights you might never have otherwise. I recommend to all of you that you teach what you know to others–it’s a great way to learn new things, reinforce what you know, and your knowledge will deepen as you share it.

“So while you’re navigating the job market, practice a little teaching and learning. Start a blog. Publish your portfolio to Flickr. Put your videos to youtube. Ask questions on a forum. Make your own website. Take initiative! Communicate with your ideas and images. You don’t have to be paid to do what you love, but if you love what you do, you are more likely to get paid to do it.

“I didn’t have a business idea. I had a passion. I did what I loved. I followed my gut. I never expected it to pay off the way it did, but even if it hadn’t I would still be happy with my choices. I hope that you all find your passion and calling, and that you’ll be willing to try and fail and get up again. No one is spared that, even in good economic times. I hope my talk has been helpful to you and I wish you all a wonderful day of celebration. Be proud of this milestone, it’s a fantastic accomplishment and what you have invested in yourself by going to college and finishing with a degree shows you have the tenacity and strength to finish what you start, and that will give you an advantage in life that will help you achieve more of your dreams, even the dreams you haven’t yet dreamt.

“Thank you!”

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