Most of the links in this post are to the people I have learned the most from over the past three years. Please click on their links and check them out. They offer a great deal to this space, and I am forever indebted to them, for they have taught me so much and made such a huge contribution to my success. There are others too, of course – far too many to mention here. You all mean a great deal to me. From the bottom of my heart, friends….thank you.

The weekend of February 19th marks my 3rd anniversary being involved in social media.

Three years since I wandered in off the street to Podcamp Toronto, was warmly greeted by Two Guys Named Chris, and the first thing I asked them was “What the heck are all you people doing here, anyway?”

The rest is, as they say, history.

Three years later, and I am sitting here, like I do most mornings, connecting, laughing, sharing, and learning. I have achieved much – amazing friendships, a rapidly growing business, and a much more global perspective on helping other people and truly making a difference.

Several times a week I am asked how I know what I know about all this new media stuff. Do I ever step away from the computer? (Yes.) Do I have a life? (Of course.) How do I find the time to stay on top of everything? (I make time.) Do I ever get any real work done? (This is real work.)

There are no quick fixes in social media (or in anything considered real work, for that matter). No $300 “Learn to Twitter in a Weekend” workshop is going to teach you everything you need to know about social media. Books are great, read them all…especially these ones. But books are like the measuring tape and laser level in your tool box. They just give you information.
So, are we ready to begin?

Be curious. I didn’t end up at that first Podcamp because I had researched it for weeks, tried to figure out who was going to be there, what their credentials were, if they had criminal background checks done, if they were in the country legally. In fact, I didn’t know a single person there. I saw “Free” and “Unconference”. And I was planning on being in Toronto that weekend anyway. What did I have to lose? I was curious.

Being curious is probably the most important thing you can do to get on the road to understanding this new medium. Don’t know where to start? How about Google? Do some searches on Twitter. Find some friends on Facebook. Pretend you’re 8 years old again and you are exploring the woods at the back of your house. Look in all the little crevasses and nooks. Peek under rocks. Climb a tree and survey the scene from above. Fall out of the tree once in a while too. Before you know it, you’ll start to find the adventure you came for.

Read and listen and watch voraciously. Once I started to realize how many smart people there were out here in this world, I started to consume everything I could. I subscribed to blog after blog in Google Reader. I watched videos. I listened to wonderful podcasts.

All of these people are out there, every day, working hard, giving you FREE content and advice that, if you listen and do the things they say, will get you up and running in social media in no time. Trust what these people say. They learned the same way you are….by consuming the information that is available to anyone. Don’t tell me you don’t have time. Don’t watch that rerun of Friends every night, and there you go…you’ve found 30 minutes a day that you can be filling your brain with smart stuff.

Experiment. All of these smart social media types got to where they are because they are not afraid to experiment. If you’re looking for best practices drawn from years of experience and comprehensive research, you’re not going to find them. The medium is not old enough to have tried, tested and true. There’s a certain level of experimentation going on all the time. Some of us experiment on our blogs (I know I do). Others are the super early adopters (I’m here too), trying out things like Google Wave and buying the latest gadget and then proceeding to play around with it, figure out how it fits (or if it fits).

But I’m afraid I’m doing it wrong! Here’s a news flash. You’re not going to break the Internet, no matter how hard you try. So if you see a link to something that looks interesting, click it. Sign up for an account (you can always cancel it later). Try a new plugin, or a new method of communicating. Find friends to try along with you. Play. You’ll see pretty soon that the rewards you reap are far more significant than the failed attempts.

Curiosity, consumption and experimentation. Those are the three steps I used to get where I am. (And no, it didn’t happen overnight.) Yep, I learned most of this stuff for free, from reading blogs, watching talks, and participating in free webinars. I paid a little money to buy books by smart people (see above), and I paid a little more to travel to Montreal and Toronto to see people speak live (at free conferences) and connect with others.

What I didn’t do was bombard the smart people with questions. I Googled, I absorbed, I understood, and then I contributed to the space. Feedback came in from the smart folks in my communities (blog comments, @replies, and emails) and I learned some more. Then I contributed more. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But, aren’t you a teacher? Now, a word on education. I’m a college teacher, for Pete’s sake, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least spend a paragraph or two talking about the merits of formal education. If you are seeking to be immersed in a subject, to be able to really focus all your time and energy studying so you can apply, then yes, formal training is very valuable. I am not talking about the snake-oil, Twitter in a Weekend “workshops” here. I’m talking about training given by qualified instructors in reputable environments that cover techniques over tools. I’m talking about courses that can not only teach you important technical skills, but can allow you to connect and learn with and from your peers.

There is great value in formal education, however it’s not always financially feasible or easy to manage going to school full time with work and family. That’s why doing things on your own can be a great supplement, or even a replacement sometimes (depending on your goals and personal situation.)

The final word. A smart friend told me once, at the beginning of all this, when I was struggling to find answers… “you have a whole network available to you now. Use it.” Those words have stuck with me. We really do have all the information and knowledge we could ever want at our fingertips. But most importantly, we also have the ability to share what we know. The most important thing about social media is not learning what tools to use. Just dive in. Write a blog, record and post a video. Talk to people. Make a contribution. Start today.