Three easy ways to take interesting online courses

Three easy ways to take interesting online courses

When I was in college, I wanted to take a photography class as an elective.  Unfortunately, I was required to take “Fundamentals of Drawing” as a prerequisite.  I can’t draw to save my life, but I gave it a shot, assuming that the teacher would grade according to the “finance student who wants to take the photography class” curve.

On the first day of class the professor said, “I know many of you are here because you need this class to take the photography class.  I am not an easy grader.  If your drawings are bad, you will fail the class.”  And that’s the story of how I ended up not taking a photography class in college.

Thankfully, we live in a completely different world today.  Most of the rules, roadblocks and gatekeepers are gone and you can learn just about anything you want online, often for free.

Want an example?  Just a few weeks ago I learned how to tile a floor watching a 5-minute YouTube video.  Then I tiled my floor.  It turned out great.  I learned how to adjust my sprinkler heads the same way.  Ditto with how to play new songs on my guitar.

YouTube is great, but sometimes you want a more formal learning process so you can take a deeper dive into a subject.  For that, I’ve been experimenting with three companies that provide thousands of interesting online courses.


What it is.  Coursera is an online education website started by a former Stanford professor.  The company has agreements with more than 120 top universities (e.g. Princeton, Yale and Stanford) to make their most popular and interesting courses available free of charge to anyone who wants to take them.

How it works.  Courses are a combination of videos, assignments and tests and usually take four to six weeks to complete.  You study at your own pace and can go back to review material if needed or pause the lecture if you want to look something up, do further research or cook dinner.

What it costs.  The courses are free for anyone who wants to take them, but you can pay a nominal fee (usually between $50 and $95) if you want to receive a course certificate that you can show a potential employer or list on your resume.

Types of classes.  Imagine a college course catalog and that’s what the list of Coursera courses looks like.  Want to take a nutrition class from Johns Hopkins?  Check.  How about a music class from the Berklee College of Music?  Check.  Computer programming at Stanford?  Law at the University of London?  The history of Beatles music at the University of Rochester?  Check, check and check.


What it is.  CreativeLive was founded by the super talented Chase Jarvis.  If you’ve ever seen an ad or commercial for Nike, Apple, RedBull or Starbucks, chances are you’ve seen Jarvis’ photography and video work.  The idea behind the company is to bring together some of the top creative minds in the world and do live classes in their areas of expertise.

How it works.  Browse the list of upcoming classes and sign up for whatever sounds interesting.  The live classes are often free, but if you miss the class or want to browse the catalog of hundreds of past classes, you can take those for a small fee.

What it costs.  Again, the live classes are often free, but if you sign up for a past class from the catalog, they usually cost anywhere from $29 to $99 (some are more) depending on how in depth the class is.

Types of classes.  There are classes in areas like photography, videography, design, music, money, travel and life.  For example, I recently took a class on travel hacking (taking great trips for less money) taught by a guy who just finished visiting every country in the world.  I’m also signed up to take an upcoming class on travel photography in July.  Those are just a few examples, but there are hundreds of others to choose from.


What it is.  Like the others we’ve discussed so far, Udemy is an online learning platform.  Rather than providing just college courses (like Coursera) or focusing on a narrow range of topics (like CreativeLive), Udemy offers a broad range of skill building classes in a ton of different areas.

How it works: Sign up by creating a user name and log in and then start browsing courses to take.  And if you have a particular area of expertise, Udemy makes it easy for you to create your own course and sell it on their platform.

What it costs:  Some classes are free, but most cost between $29 and $99.

Types of classes:  There are more than 30,000 courses in areas like business and entrepreneurship, academics, the arts, health and fitness, language, music, and technology.

One of our core beliefs here at Intentional Retirement is that curiosity and a willingness to learn will often result in an interesting and rewarding retirement.  The resources discussed above make that easier than ever.

~ Joe

P.S.  A little weekly inspiration from over on our Facebook Page:

Learning Challenge Update: How I did and what’s next.

Learning Challenge Update: How I did and what’s next.

Speed Reading Update

The most recent skill I’ve been working to add to my “Lifestyle Résumé” is speed reading.  Last month I tested my reading and comprehension and then studied ways to improve both.  Over the last several weeks, I took what I learned and put it into practice as I worked through my reading list.

In addition to things like newspapers and magazines, I read five books this past month.  They are:

  • The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau
  • Boomerang by Michael Lewis
  • Wool by Hugh Howey
  • Do the Work by Steven Pressfield
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I timed myself using Toggl so I could see if my speed per page was gradually improving and then re-tested my speed and comprehension at Reading Soft.  When I started the challenge, my speed was 213 words per minute with 82 percent comprehension.  When I re-tested, my speed had improved to 378 words per minute and my comprehension held steady at 80 percent.  I didn’t quite hit my goal of doubling my speed, but all in all I was pleased with the outcome.  It was a fairly easy skill to acquire and it will make a big impact in my daily life going forward.

What’s next?

As most of you know, my wife and I are trying to get our daughter to all 50 states before she graduates from high school (only 33 to go!).  States like Montana and Wyoming are known for their National Parks and beautiful outdoors and it seems that the best way to see them is by hiking, exploring and camping under the big night sky.

There’s only one problem.  I have no camping skills.  Rather than see our vacation turn into a scene straight out of Lord of the Flies, I signed up for a six week backpacking and camping basics class at the Outdoor Venture Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  The course covers things like how to pack and dress, how to cook in the backcountry, using a map and compass, backcountry first aid, trip planning and leave no trace camping.

I’ll update you once I finish the class.  In the meantime, is there anything that you’ve been wanting to learn how to do?  Why wait?  There are tons of benefits to being a lifelong learner and teaching yourself a new skill is easier than ever in our modern world of videos, apps, books and online courses.  Feel free to follow along with one of my challenges or do something totally on your own.  Either way, by being intentional about learning you’ll end up with more things to do and more people to do them with.

Have a great week!


30 day learning challenge: Speed reading edition

30 day learning challenge: Speed reading edition

“The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”  ~ Mark Twain

I spend a good part of every day reading.  Some of that is for pleasure, some for education, some for work.  I read books, magazines, newspapers, blogs, social media, trade journals, research reports, financial statements and regulatory filings.

Here’s the problem.  I’m a painfully slow reader.  Painfully.  Slow.  Reader.  As a result, I always have a pile of books on my nightstand and stacks of newspapers and magazines on my desk waiting to be read.  I eventually get to most of it, but I’m definitely more tortoise than hare.

With so much room to improve, I thought it was an area that was ripe for a learning challenge.  I’ve spent the last week or so reading everything I could find on speed reading.  My goal is to double my speed (without sacrificing comprehension) in 30 days.  If I can do that, I’ll cut my typical daily reading time in half (from about 3 hours to 1.5) and free up time to either read more or do something else.

Step 1: Test my current speed

To get a baseline, I took a timed reading test at, followed by a reading comprehension test.  I read at about 213 words per minute with a comprehension of 82 percent.  According to the site, that’s about average:

  • Insufficient reader: 110 wpm, 50% comprehension
  • Average reader: 240 wpm, 60% comprehension
  • Good reader: 400 wpm, 80% comprehension
  • Excellent reader: 1000 wpm, 85% comprehension

Step 2: Where can I most improve

There are a number of techniques to help you read faster and with better comprehension.  After learning about those and thinking about how I read, I feel like I can easily double my speed if I work on three key things:

  • Stop subvocalizing:  If you’re like most people, when you read to yourself you pronounce the words in your mind.  I know I do.  In fact, prior to reading about subvocalizing, I didn’t even consider the fact that it was possible to read something without saying the words in your head.  It is, however, and if you can figure out how, it will make a huge difference in your reading speed.
  • Get rid of distractions:  I will often read with music on in the background, my cell phone by my side and/or while sitting in a room with other people.  I’ll often end up getting distracted if my phone beeps or someone asks me a question.  To improve my speed I’m going to start getting rid of the distractions.
  • Improve perceptual expansion:  If you focus on a particular word while reading, you can see several words before and after that word thanks to your peripheral vision.  If you can train your eye to see and comprehend those words without having to read each line of text from beginning to end, you can greatly increase your speed.  Take the following sentence for example: “If you want to have a meaningful retirement, you need to be intentional.”  An untrained reader will read each word in that sentence from beginning to end.  A trained reader will start with “want” and end with “need,” using his peripheral vision to comprehend the rest.  This reduces the total amount of words that need to be read and greatly increases speed.  For more on perceptual expansion, read this post by Tim Ferriss.

Those are the tips that were most helpful to me, but there are many others such as:

  • Read early in the day
  • Use a flexible reading speed depending on the material
  • Train yourself not to reread
  • Follow text with your finger (to improve eye efficiency)

Step 3: Practice and Measure

For the next 30 days I’ll practice the techniques outlined above.  I downloaded an app called Toggl (get it for free in the App Store) that I will use to time myself and track how long it takes me to read each of the books that I’ll be using for practice this month.

Step 4: Retest

At the end of the 30 days I’ll retake the speed/comprehension test so I can see how much I was able to improve.

As with all of our learning challenges, I’d encourage you to follow along.  If reading isn’t your thing, feel free to look back on our other learning challenges for ideas and read this for a good refresher on why it’s important to be a lifelong learner.

I hope you’re all doing well.  Touch base if I can ever help.

~ Joe

Discipline vs Motivation

Discipline vs Motivation

Before talking about discipline and motivation, I want to give you a quick update on the most recent 30 Day Challenge.  As many of you know I do periodic learning challenges in life and then write about them here at the site.  So far I’ve learned all the countries of the world, gotten SCUBA certified (followed by some amazing diving in Anguilla) and learned to make croissants with my wife.

My next challenge was to learn how to use a new presentation software called Prezi.  I’ve spent some time teaching myself to use it, with mixed results.  I have the basics down, but the presentations I have created so far are less than mind blowing.  Not only that, but my typical 30 day window has grown to about 90.  In today’s post, I go into a few of the reasons why this challenge has been less than successful so far and what key lesson we can learn from my struggles that will apply to any big goals we set in life.

Discipline vs. Motivation

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”   ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

As I thought about my struggles with the most recent challenge, I realized that there was a significant difference between it and the first three:  I actually wanted to do the first three!  For example, I had a desire to learn to SCUBA dive.  I practically skipped to the classes each week.  The same is true for the countries and croissants.  They were fun, interesting and things I wanted to do.  On the other hand, Prezi was something that I felt like I should learn so that I could communicate my ideas more effectively when presenting, but it wasn’t really something that I had a burning desire to do.  At the core it came down to a difference between discipline and motivation.

In my mind, discipline is consistently doing what you don’t really want to do, but know that you should.  Motivation is being impelled to do something that you actually want to do.  One is forced and the other is natural.

Not surprisingly, I feel like we will all have more success in life if we actually focus on the things that we’re motivated to do rather than trying to find the discipline needed to overcome our lack of interest or desire.  Sure, there will always be a place for discipline.  It will help us eat right and get to the gym.  It will help us set aside for the future.  But we will be much more effective if we can actually focus our time and efforts on things that we’re already motivated to do.

The more motivation you have, the less discipline you need.  The less discipline you need, the more likely it is that you’ll actually stick with it and accomplish what you’re trying to do.  So as you think about your own life, don’t litter your day with things that you’re not already motivated to do.  Focus on those things that you’re excited about.  And if you come across something that you need to do, but you’re not excited about, try to come up with ways to inject motivation instead of just discipline.  Find some friends to do it with you.  Make it into a contest.  Promise yourself some sort of reward.  Do that, and you’ll achieve more than if you just rely on willpower alone.

I’ll cue up the next challenge soon, but for now I want to finish up with Prezi.  My wife actually just learned to use it for a presentation that she needed to give.  I told her that if she teaches me everything she knows I’ll finally get around to that guest bedroom remodeling project I’ve been promising.  Hopefully, that will be all the motivation she needs.

How about you?  Are you running into roadblocks with your to-do list?  That could be a sign that you’re spending too much time focusing on things that you don’t actually want to do.  Life is too short for that.

~ Joe

30 day learning challenge: Croissant edition

30 day learning challenge: Croissant edition

“Patience!”  That was the advice that a French pastry chef gave me when I asked him for pointers on making croissants.  I should back up.  What set of circumstances brought me to the point where I was getting cooking advice from the former personal chef to the king of Saudi Arabia?

As many of you know, I believe that one of the keys to a full, rewarding life (both before and during retirement) is to constantly be learning new things.  To stay disciplined in this area and intentional about learning new things, I do periodic “30-Day Challenges” where I will learn about something that interests me and then write about it here at the blog.  Hopefully some of you will be inspired to follow along at home each month and we’ll be able to add something fun and interesting to our “life skills resume.”

For those keeping track at home, here’s our list so far:

  • Learn all the countries of the world
  • Learn to SCUBA dive
  • Learn to make croissants with my wife

…and now, the rest of the story

Right about the time that my wife and I were buying a pastry board and watching Julia Child make croissants on YouTube, it was time to head out of town on vacation.  Each year we take a trip with three other couples and spend a week or so hanging out, laughing and having fun.  This year we went to the island of Anguilla in the British West Indies, where we could put our recent SCUBA certification to good use.

Each morning on the island started by either cooking a big breakfast at the house or visiting one of the excellent local bakeries.  It was on one of those pastry runs that my friend Kelly and I found ourselves in Geraud’s Patisserie.  Geraud is a friendly and unassuming guy.  Just talking with him you wouldn’t know that his resumé contained training at Le Cordon Bleu and a stint as the personal chef to the king of Saudi Arabia, but those things come as no surprise after sampling a croissant or pain au chocoloat.

Since my wife and I were learning to make croissants, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask Geraud for some pointers.  As I said earlier, his primary advice was to be patient, which made sense, given that the time between mixing the dough and putting it in the oven is usually around twenty hours (with several interludes of flattening and folding to achieve those flaky layers present in a good croissant).  He was also gracious enough to give me his croissant recipe and told me to email him if I had any questions.

Armed with his advice, the aforementioned Julie Child videos and lots of trial and error, my wife and I are trying to master the art of making a good croissant.  Here are some things I’ve learned along the way with this challenge:

Do stuff with your spouse

Chances are good that, without a job or kids competing for your time, you’ll be spending a lot more time with your spouse during retirement than you did during your working years.  With that in mind, it’s a good idea to have some things in common.  My wife loves to cook.  I’m terrible at it, but if I spend some time learning, we’ll have something new to talk about and do together.  As you think about things you might like to learn, include your spouse in the process.

Expand your horizons

As I said earlier, I’m not a chef.  I didn’t grow up cooking and I don’t really have any culinary knowledge beyond toast and omelets.  Trying something totally new can sometimes be frustrating because you’re starting from scratch, but it can also open an entirely new area to you that you didn’t know you liked.  Don’t be afraid to expand your horizons.

The more you learn and do, the more opportunity knocks

Had I not been learning to make croissants, I wouldn’t have given Geraud’s a second thought.  I would have run in, grabbed breakfast and then gone about my day.  Sometimes we miss great opportunities—a potential friendship, a solution to a problem, a fun experience—because we’re on autopilot and not really being intentional about life.  Learning new things tends to remove the blinders.

“Sometimes serendipity is just intention unmasked.”  ~Elizabeth Berg

What’s next?

When I speak to a group or do a seminar or workshop for clients, I usually use PowerPoint.  It can be a great tool to reinforce what you’re talking about, but more often than not it can get in the way of what you’re trying to communicate because the slides can be boring, overcrowded and distracting.

I recently learned about new presentation software called Prezi that is really cool.  It can help bring a presentation to life and present information in a way that people are likely to understand and remember.  Go to Prezi’s website to watch a short video and see what I’m talking about.

Since my job is all about presenting ideas, I’m going to spend the next 30 days learning how to use Prezi.  Once I have it down, I’ll put together a presentation on a retirement related topic and send it out with the next Learning Challenge update.  Follow along if you’re interested or feel free to come up with a challenge of your own.  Regardless, be intentional about learning and your life will be richer for it.

“We should remember that good fortune often happens when opportunity meets with preparation.”  ~Thomas Edison

30 day learning challenge: SCUBA edition

30 day learning challenge: SCUBA edition

Greetings from the bottom of a cold, dark lake somewhere in Nebraska.  What ridiculous set of circumstances brought me here, you ask?  As you may remember, this month’s learning challenge was supposed to be learning how to make croissants with my wife.  I had to call an audible, however, and shift to SCUBA diving so that some friends and I could make sure to have the certification process finished for an upcoming trip.  Thankfully, my wife was a good sport and agreed to postpone the croissants as long as I promised not to drown.

For those not familiar with our 30-Day Challenges, here’s a quick review.  In order to stay disciplined and intentional about learning new things, I do periodic “30-Day Challenges” where I will learn about something that interests me and then write about it here at the blog.  Hopefully some of you will be inspired to follow along at home each month and we’ll be able to add something fun and interesting to our “life skills resume.”

For those keeping track at home, here’s our list so far:

  • Learn all the countries of the world
  • Learn to SCUBA dive

Why do this?  One of the central messages here at Intentional Retirement is to pursue knowledge and experiences that enrich your life.  I’m a big believer in the importance of learning and doing new things.  It keeps your mind sharp and engaged.  It helps you figure out what you like.  It gives you new people to interact with and results in a sense of accomplishment and personal satisfaction.  With that said, here’s the skinny on SCUBA.

SCUBA Certification: The process

Getting SCUBA certified involved a combination of classroom work, pool work and open water dives.  Somewhat surprisingly (for a landlocked state), Nebraska has one of the nicest dive shops in the country.  The classroom work was really interesting, covering things like equipment, skills, the science of how your body reacts underwater, tides, waves and marine life.  The pool work allowed you to practice what you learned in the classroom each night and the open water dives (four dives over two days) allowed you take everything you learned and practice it on actual dives.  As mentioned earlier, the open water dives weren’t in the most beautiful lake, but it was much less expensive to get the certification dives done here than on an actual dive trip.

What I learned (or was reminded of) as part of this particular challenge

Be willing to spend for experiences.  Sometimes hobbies are cheap.  SCUBA is not one of those hobbies.  The certification is pricey.  The equipment is pricey.  Traveling to worthwhile dive locations can be pricey.  Sometimes the best things in life are free.  Sometimes they cost an arm and a leg.  Don’t be afraid to spend on experiences.  For more of my thoughts in this area, read:

Be willing to take risks.  We all know to avoid the business end of a shark, but there are plenty of less obvious ways to get hurt diving.  For example, did you know that holding your breath while ascending from a dive can cause your lungs to explode?  Or that the deadliest creature in the ocean is a Jellyfish called a Sea Wasp?  Each class was a reminder that diving (and life) is full of risks.  But doing nothing is full of risks as well—the risk that you will lead a boring, unfulfilling life.  So don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and take a chance on things.

Look for complementary hobbies and skills.  When we were learning about different dive locations our instructor Pat mentioned Belize, Bonaire and the Great Barrier Reef.  Thanks to last month’s geography challenge, I knew where all of those places were!  Pat is also a very skilled underwater photographer.  Since photography is one of my other hobbies, we spent time looking at his photos and he gave me information on an underwater photography class that he teaches.  Those skills/hobbies of geography, photography, diving and travel can all cross pollinate to make richer overall experiences.  Look for similar opportunities as you consider the types of things that you want to learn and do.

Look for fresh perspectives.  The world is 70 percent covered by water.  Since I enjoy breathing, the underwater world was largely off limits to me prior to getting SCUBA certified.  Now I can spend time exploring the two-thirds of the planet that was formerly a no-go zone.  I’m looking forward to getting a fresh and interesting new perspective.

What’s next?

The croissants are still on deck, but I have a bit of travel in June, so I may not have a pastry update for you until sometime in July.  In the meantime, be thinking about things that you’ve always wanted to learn.  Hopefully these posts will be inspiration to start a 30-Day Challenge of your own.  Better yet, email me about what you’d like to do and we can work on it together.

Have a great week and remember to keep life interesting.


Photo courtesy of Mark and Andrea Busse.  Used under Creative Commons License.