When it comes to thought leadership, confidence is of utmost importance. You need the confidence to have a strong voice and counteract imposter syndrome. If you are convinced that you know your stuff, then that competence will come through. Over time, you want to gain the ability to step on stage and command the audience’s attention.

This best way to grow your confidence is through education. If you don’t feel like you are fully educated in the area on which you’re focusing as a thought leader, a great way to gain expertise quickly and at a low cost is to “hack” your education.

We’re in an era where technology is disrupting and democratizing education, in which access to top information is no longer reserved for the rich or the few top brains.

While a doctor or a lawyer needs to pursue a traditional path in education today, a thought leader doesn’t necessarily need the impressive letters from top schools after their names to succeed. In fact, except for a few professions, many educational paths leading to careers can now be hacked. While some corporations are slow to adopt the “no traditional MBA needed to advance mentality,” in Silicon Valley, many companies don’t think an MBA is an advantage, because it can teach in-the-box thinking.

In 2017, IBM’s vice president of talent, Joanna Daley, told CNBC that about 15 percent of her company’s US hires don’t have a four-year degree.

Google, Apple, Starbucks, Nordstrom, Costco, Hilton, Whole Foods, and even Bank of America are no longer requiring college degrees to work there.

My Educational Journey

Because my undergrad college days were spent in and out of the hospital, not knowing if I would survive long enough to even earn an undergrad degree, getting letters after my name wasn’t even on my radar. Fortunately, because of a strong education background from New England boarding schools for high school, I was independent and had incredible study and learning habits by the time I got to college.

Being ill, I knew I would have to get creative, and I did. I was able to complete my undergrad degree in management from my hospital bed, even without the internet at the time. I couldn’t email my teachers, so I had to come up with creative ways to communicate with them about my assignments and to, many times, teach myself. Usually, that meant reading the textbook and checking out library books to supplement.

After earning my undergrad degree, I hacked the rest of my education. Did you know you can take classes at most of the top universities, without applying or paying those astronomical fees matriculated students need to pay in order to get a degree?

I’ve attended classes at Harvard, Stanford, Wellesley, Dartmouth, Golden Gate, Boston University, and Berkeley at night, auditing during the day, or in Executive Education.

I took all the graduate-level classes required for a Certified Financial Planner degree but didn’t bother to get the certification, knowing I was never going to work in the finance industry. Still, those graduate finance classes were foundational to my current and future success. Since I didn’t care about the degree itself, I took the classes at night at a small local university that caters to professionals, versus full-time students. I paid a few thousand dollars total to take all those finance classes. I also had no pressure to get a perfect A grade. I was learning for my benefit, not to fulfill a rigid degree path.

Living so close to Stanford, that became my go-to spot for night classes. It was a $350 Stanford course that taught me to write for mainstream magazines, which includes the skill of simplifying wording to the sixth-grade level. Those skills now allow me to simplify and explain difficult or technical subjects to nonexperts. In fact, what I learned in that class became a core part of my skillset that I still use today.

For another subject, I got together with three other classmates and hired a Stanford professor as a personal teacher to go deeper into the subject with us for a year. We each paid a couple of thousand dollars for this personalized experience.

Focus on the Knowledge, Not the Degree

Hacking your education is easy if you put your mind to it and you care more about the knowledge than those letters after your name, or the embossed piece of paper. With so many online classes available, it’s possible to hack your education solely with those. That said, in-person classes or educational conferences have the added benefit of networking. Always aim to get the most ROI out of each educational opportunity.

With the internet at your fingertips, you have no excuse to not learn. In fact, you can search for thought leaders in your space and learn directly from them.

You can also get extremely specific in your research. If you want to learn everything about AI for gaming, you could set up Google alerts for AI in gaming, subscribe to newsletters from other thought leaders and institutions, and dedicate two hours a day to reading news in that vertical. I spend two hours a day reading the latest news and advancements in my space, to stay up to date on the cutting edge.

Your challenge now is to broaden your definition of education. It’s not all about the letters after your name. It’s not all about specific degrees, or the best schools, or the highest educational credentials. With the immediate access, you have to top speakers in your field on platforms like YouTube, you can continue learning and developing without spending a ton of money. If you can dream of something you’d like to learn, you can find a way to learn it today without spending thousands of dollars or any money at all.

A Lifelong Journey

Education is ongoing and learning is a lifelong pursuit. Just because you put in some work into your education in your twenties doesn’t mean you will be able to hop on a stage to speak to your audience, whether it be today or in ten years.

Once you begin your thought leader journey, your education doesn’t end. You must continuously educate yourself, stay current, and find new, interesting angles. Make it a point to read every day, and research the companies or products you read about.

If you look at studying and learning as vital processes in your business, you will make time for them. If you do a little every day, learning can become a lifelong habit that you enjoy daily. My time for reading is one of my favorite times of the day. I love waking up, drinking tea, and reading medical and biotech news for an hour before my workout.

For more advice on hacking your education as a thought leader, you can find The Thought Leader Formula on Amazon.
Robin Farmanfarmaian is a professional speaker, entrepreneur, and angel investor, driving high-level business development for cutting-edge medical and biotech companies poised to impact 100M patients. With over 100 speaking engagements in twelve countries, she educates audiences on technology, the future of healthcare, patient empowerment, building thought leadership, and more. Keeping within the empowerment theme, Robin also works with entrepreneurs and executives who want to become thought leaders in order to accelerate their career and business goals. Her first book, “The Patient as CEO: How Technology Empowers the Healthcare Consumer,” is a #1 Best Seller on Amazon.