Finding Hidden Education Subsidies

March 22, 2013

I never got a PhD or anything but from what I understand, the transaction goes like this: The school covers tuition of promising students and pays their living expenses in exchange for the student doing all the work the professors don’t want to do–research, grading papers, hosting study sessions.

But the real value for the student–which some fully take advantage of and some don’t–is in the fact that the professor gives them their own set of keys to the laboratory. Oh, and they’re allowed to trade on the prestigious name of the university and the professor’s reputation.

This transaction is not all that dissimilar to the one I made with Tucker at 19 years old, or the one I made with Robert Greene a little later. In some ways with American Apparel, too. They not only covered my education costs, but let me into their laboratory. And I got to explore all sorts of amazing opportunities merely by association with them. (Before this even, I met Tucker because I was writing for my college newspaper. The paper was paying me to go out and meet people who’d have never talked to me otherwise)

I’m realizing that identifying opportunities like this has been the secret to whatever success I’ve had so far. That is: identifying hidden subsidies. Finding someone or something that will cover the costs you otherwise would have (or perhaps, could not have) had to cover to yourself.

For instance, I’ve been doing some speaking lately. This is not something I had any experience or expertise in. In fact, I found it quite terrifying. I knew that getting good at it would require a fairly large investment on my part, both in time and in possibly hiring a coach.

Then, Creative Live (through my friend Chase Jarvis) asked if I would try out a marketing class to see if it worked on their platform. Doing 10 hours live on camera was not exactly my idea of a good time–but I noticed that subsidy again. Here, someone was offering to pay me to break myself of stage fright, to craft my message, to develop my materials and best of all, put me in front of a large audience. Of course, I said yes.

I think the same thing when journalism schools or universities ask me to come in for Q&As. These don’t usually pay, but the institution is offering me the opportunity to introduce my book to young audience and lending me their credibility as well. And I also get to test my material in a relatively safe and low key environment.

And now, as a result, an hour keynote (which does pay) is easy and painless for me. I had my education and development not only covered–in fact, at a profit–and now I’m booked with a bunch of cool talks this year.

It’s not always something you’re “asked” though. More often than not you need to seek it. Let’s say you see some client or would be client suffering from a problem. It might be something outside your current specialties or capabilities, but try offering to take a crack at it for way less than what someone else would charge (or for free if you must) Why? They’re paying you to learn how to do something you can then charge other people for.

Your education is covered. You’re learning in someone else’s laboratory–in a safe way. If and when you succeed, you can add that service to offering. I try to think about this when people approach me with products they want to market. Will this open up a new avenue for me?

Another example: No one asked me to put my Reading Newsletter together. But it works on the same logic. I realized I was already reading all these books, I figured there had to be a way to get it subsidized. Now, the email more than covers the books I buy each year (thousands of dollars worth a year). In fact, I actually have the Amazon Affiliate revenue just roll over into Amazon gift cards each month. It worked out quite nicely–oh, and it was also the single biggest driver of sales for Trust Me I’m Lying as well (In fact, two of my foreign rights deals came from editors who subscribe).

The way to think about it is like this: You’re already going to try to do things. That’s who you are. You’re not the type who sits idle. You’re curious, motivated and resourceful. Guess who else is interested in those traits? Basically every successful business, entrepreneur or institution. So find them and ask them to subside the cost. Let them think they are harnessing that energy exclusively for their advantage. Let them think they’re getting a deal. (This is the essence of Charlie Hoehn’s strategy)

Really though, you’re the one leaving on top. You’re getting an education. You’re developing a business on their time and on their dime. And you’re benefiting from their direction, connections and access the entire time.

For young people increasingly turning away from school, this is the path you’ve got to take. No one is going to take you by the hand and lead you. Subsides don’t fall in your lap. Find them, take full advantage of them, move on to the next. And then never ever forget to repay the people who helped you along the way.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

21 responses to Finding Hidden Education Subsidies

  1. Alexandria Cooper March 22, 2013 at 10:34 am

    You know, I’ve always been worried about offering people help because I think they won’t take me seriously. I really have no “real life experience” but this post is great.
    It makes me want to go out and learn and take advantage of opportunities that arise, even if I’m terrified of it.

  2. Ryan,

    You handled yourself like a pro on CreativeLIVE, so we would never have guessed you had stage freight!

    Awesome insight in this article. I never thought of things as an education subsidy, but it makes perfect sense when you describe the examples you did.

    Already thinking of ways to apply this to my life!

    Thanks man!

  3. Not so sure only narcissists don’t get stage fright. I have never had stage fright, first time I gave a presentation to a room of 400 people it didn’t even occur to me to be nervous. It wasn’t until somebody asked me about it afterward that I thought “Yeah I guess I’m supposed to be nervous right?” It just doesn’t bother me to talk to a large room of people, provided it’s a subject I have some knowledge and interest.

    However, put me in a party full of people I don’t know and ask me to make small talk, meh not so much. Small talk is tougher for me than a large audience.

    • Because one requires empathy, the other requires confidence (often undeserved).

      It’s not a hard and fast rule, just generally true in my experience. And of course, it’s always funny when you explain a rule and someone’s first response is: “That’s not true because I am one exception.”

  4. This is exactly how Simplifilm is built. We anted up for peanuts in a few key industries, made the videos, and have a business that is leading the world in some areas. I call it anteing up, and I do it on purpose and I will do it as long as I’m alive.

    It also builds a moat around you -you have the connections and the confidence that you can remake them.

  5. This is an application of framing (“Make it work for you”) as you explained in your last post?

    • Eh, a little bit. That’s more of how you deal with bad situations.

      This is how you bootstrap opportunity. Not that they can’t be the same thing.

  6. Don’t be ridiculous Ryan, everyone knows the only way to prepare for adulthood is to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt in your late teens and dick around for four years avoiding the big questions. That way your success in life is guaranteed!

  7. but to what end?

  8. Great post Ryan, this and the last one are two of the best that you’ve written. To me, looking for hidden subsidies is a key part of having a hustler mentality – thinking ‘What can I get out of this situation?’ rather than ‘How will I look if this goes wrong?’.

  9. Ryan,
    This really resonates with me. Being able to learn directly from the people who have the skills or character that you most admire or aspire to have is truly invaluable. Interestingly, I just recently offered to do some film work at an event in Toronto in which you are speaking (The Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise Entrepreneur Event in May). I otherwise would not have been able to attend, and I now have the opportunity to do some awesome work, watch you and others speak and connect with some amazing people. I’ve found that the greatest opportunities and connections in my life have come from offering some sort of value to someone without any expectations. It takes persistance and it is certainly humbling, but it has almost always resulted in a great exchange or new relationship. Thanks for this, I got a lot out of it.

  10. This is exactly what one of the things Mark Cuban has said about how he learned to be successful when he was young. He said his attitude at any crappy job he did was that he was getting payed to learn. It’s a mindset I try to use in my own work life.

  11. Great post. You put in words a lot of different thoughts and things I’ve seen floating around lately.

    I guess my only question is, how did you know when to start taking education subsides and start applying your education? Or has it been a constant process of application in one part and education in others?

  12. This is what I tell people when they’re in jobs (or classes) and they want to be off on their own. Use the resources around you to launch yourself wherever you want to be.

    Find the customer that can fund your dreams.

  13. Great post. The subsidies aren’t always monetary, as you mention.

    For example, I’m a student with non-traditional interests, so I find a prof that lets me do an independent study with them. I get to design a class and get credit for it; deeply interact with someone I respect; and a future recommendation letter.

  14. I really appreciate this point. Not only is success more probable with this method, but she who attempts it will shape their own destiny based on what they are driven towards. This method allows for passion to enter which will be a powerful driving force when you’ve got to spend a few months with nothing.

    Thanks Ryan. I really appreciate what you do here.

  15. Thanks Ryan!
    I read this post first time just when it was first published, but had to return to it today to convince myself of a great opportunity to subsidy my learning of marketing. An acquaintance has offered (after friendly banter about his business, and my ideas how to improve it) to run their email marketing campaign based on commissions only. You eat what you kill kind of thing…I am thinking to take this, even though the terms are not exceptionally great, but I guess I get to put all the theoretical knowledge (books, articles, ideas, blog posts) to test and see how it all works out!?
    Worst case scenario, I will have spend some time doing email marketing for way less than I normally work (in IT), learn things that work and don’t and move on, maybe to another client.

    Thanks again for your posts, always great!

  16. I’m wondering how you could convince Tucker to work for him at the age of 19. How could you give him some value at this young age?

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