Psychology of Fascism – 1941 and Now, and How to Fight It

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“Freedom is not less endangered if attacked in the name of anti-fascism than in that of outright Fascism.”

In his book, Escape From Freedom, written in 1941 at the height of Nazism and World War II, Erich Fromm, an American psychologist and philosopher, discusses the collective psyche of a country conducive to a Fascist leader taking control. Important stuff for us to know in this day and age!

In a nutshell, he concludes that feelings of powerlessness and insignificancecreate unbearable anxiety and a desire for people to find comfort in a power bigger than themselves, ultimately creating fertile ground for an authoritarian regime and a ruthless leader to take control. Fromm shows that a leader like Hitler doesn’t “force” control over a population: rather, these leaders are opportunists, taking advantage of an anxious population yearning to escape from their own selves.

For Fromm, this collective psyche revolves around freedom. In his words:

“Freedom, though it has brought [man] independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of his freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man.”

Fromm discusses two types of freedom: positive freedom, defined as “active solidarity with all men and his spontaneous activity, love and work, which unite him again with the world….as a free and independent individual,” and negative freedom, where the anxiety and feelings of individual insignificance cause him to seek submission or shelter in a greater power. To further emphasize the idea of negative freedom, Fromm says, “Unless his life had some meaning and direction, he would feel like a particle of dust and be overcome by his individual insignificance. He would not be able to relate himself to any system which would give meaning and direction to his life, he would be filled with doubt, and this doubt eventually would paralyze his ability to act — that is, to live. “

In the case of Nazism and Fascism gaining strength during WW2, more people in Europe felt engulfed bythis type of negative freedom. The economic and political situation in Germany, in particular, created the perfect storm for this collective sense of negative freedom for the population. Interestingly, Fromm points to capitalism as the biggest driver of positive freedom while also the biggest driving force of the sense of isolation and helplessness found in negative freedom.

Speaking to the history of capitalism, Fromm says, “In one word, capitalism not only freed man from traditional bonds, but it also contributed tremendously to the increasing of positive freedom, to the growth of an active, critical, responsible self. However, while this was one effect capitalism had on the process of growing freedom, at the same time it made the individual more alone and isolated and imbued him with a feeling of insignificance and powerlessness.”

Okay, negative freedom is bad, whatever, so why should we care?

Well, Fromm’s words and ideas back at the height of WW2 and authoritarianism control around the globe ring as a cautionary tale for today. Despite the freedoms we have in the West, more people than ever feel a sense of isolation, powerlessness, anxiety, and uncertainty in an age of pervasive income inequality, job automation, and an increasingly globalized and changing economy. In fact, some point to this sense of powerlessness among a majority of the US population to help explain Trump’s rise to the presidency, as Eurasia group founder Ian Bremmer discusses here.

As an antidote, many on the opposite side call for more government intervention: more welfare, free college, guaranteed jobs. In reality, increased government involvement in the lives of individuals might actually exacerbate the feelings of negative freedom, and through attacks on anti-Fascism, might actually create the perfect psychological environment for Fascism to thrive in. Let’s not forget that Fascism sits under Socialism; according to Fromm, “To be a socialist….is to submit the I to the thou; socialism is sacrificing the individual to the whole.” In essence: these calls for more government intervention in people’s lives would make them feel less like an an individual, and even more confused about their place in the world.

So what’s the answer here? In Fromm’s view, there’s only one path forward:

“Only if man masters society and subordinates the economic machine to the purposes of human happiness and only if he actively participates in the social process, can he overcome what now drives him into despair — his aloneness and his feeling of powerlessness. Man does not suffer so much from poverty today as he suffers from the fact that he has become a cog in a large machine, an automaton, that his life has become empty and lost its meaning.”

Here, he calls for a different type of capitalism. One where people feel engaged in their society, can earn their own keep, and make decisions about their life on their own terms. In order to create a thriving society and avoid the perils of Fascism rampant in the mid part of the 20th Century, we need to drastically change our social psyche and economic fabric.

2020 Presidential candidate Andrew Yang has some interesting ideas on driving these changes. He calls for “Human Capitalism”, where we use existing competitive markets to maximize human welfare rather than economic efficiency. In this scenario, he calls for different ways to measure the economy, focusing on maximizing metrics like mental health, economic and social mobility, and childhood success rates, rather than pure GDP growth.

The book Radical Markets by Eric Glen Weyl and Eric Posner also propose new ways of structuring our society to revolve around increased power to the individual without eliminating capitalism. For instance, they discuss a “Quadratic Voting” system; under this system, citizens receive credits with which to vote on issues they care deeply about, like the environment or health care. The more you care about an issue, the more credits you can use to vote on that issue.

From the authors: “This system enables people to cast votes that reflect the strength of their preferences. The key defect of the current system — that one can effectively register only three preferences: yes, no, indifferent — is eliminated. This makes two important things possible. First, a passionate minority can outvote an indifferent majority, solving the problem of the tyranny of the majority. Second, the outcome of the vote should maximize the well-being of the entire group, not the well-being of one subset at the expense of that of another.”

It’s a proposed solution to increase civil and political engagement and tangibly strengthen the power individuals have over their own society.

But (in my mind) Fromm’s most powerful idea towards a world of maximized positive freedom remains:

“…active solidarity with all men.”

Solidarity: unity of agreement of feeling or action. In this case, not agreement on policy, politics, or religion. Rather, a unity of mutual respect and open mindedness. Taking the time to recognize (if you’re a Liberal) that not all Republicans want to see the world burn and grab every dollar for themselves, or if you’re a Republican, understanding that not every Liberal wants to limit your freedoms and intrude on your life. Exerting the effort to find other people or ideas NOT LIKE YOU, escaping your filter bubble, and discovering that, damn, people different than me are still good people and definitely NOTevil, they’re people who want to see others flourish and succeed too. I personally used to only read about ideas or interact with people that confirmed my existing beliefs, creating an inner tribe mentality. I felt my group had it right and everyone else had destructive motives and dangerous values and morals. However, once I started seeking out people, ideas, and articles that presented compelling evidence contradictory to my worldview, I felt more connected and empathetic to those individuals around me. Our means might have differed greatly, but our ultimate ends remained the same: creating and living in a world where everyone has the opportunity to live a dignified, successful life with an abundance of positive freedom.

While not easy to build (and incredibly painful to do so!), this mindset can provide hope and understanding: the antithesis to a world of hopelessness and insignificance. And with that hope comes an optimistic outlook, along with a feeling of power and control within your own life. Finally, as icing on the cake, you develop a deep respect for the uniqueness of other people, and thus, a deeper respect for your own self.

These proposed solutions or ideas might seem, well, radical, but any changes to push our society towards more positive freedom should be examined and discussed. As Fromm poignantly concludes,

“..although foreign and internal threats of Fascism must be taken seriously, there is no greater mistake and no graver danger than not to see that in our own society we are faced with the same phenomenon that is fertile soil for the rise of Fascism anywhere: the insignificance and powerlessness of the individual.”

The Dark Side of a Universal Basic Income

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UBI, or Universal Basic Income, has been touted by economists, technologists in Silicon Valley (like Y Combinator), and 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang, as a solution to our growing inequality gap and a strategy to hedge against the coming AI takeover that will render millions of Americans unemployable.  I’d like to make abundantly clear: I believe UBI can help mitigate these problems and improve the lives of millions of Americans, especially in the short term.  Having a guaranteed income that’s meant to supplement wages from a job allows people to stay in consistent housing, put food on the table, afford other basic needs, and have the opportunity to work in jobs they prefer, without fear of losing their safety net on any given day.   


However, I’d like to discuss the potential psychological tradeoff that comes with a guaranteed check from the government each month: a sense of complacency among the population, and a way for the government to subtly and indirectly manipulate the American psyche, enabling them to hopscotch from pleasure to pleasure without thinking deeply about the world and their society around them.


Now, you might think this to be somewhat conspiratorial, but bear with me.  I’m not arguing that the government will intentionally brainwash us with a UBI; rather, that this expected “free cash” can force people into a complacency where they mindlessly seek shallow pleasures like a mechanical robot, devoid of all pieces of the identity and emotions that create our sense of liberty and independence as humans.  


This type of society where people stay in their place and live on the surface of life can be seen in Aldous Huxley’s famous dystopian novel, “Brave New World.”  He describes a “World State” heavily regulated by the government, but even more worrisome, never challenged by any of its citizens.  The fictional government provides everyone with “happy pills” known as soma, which create an artificial sense of happiness. The members of the society never had any qualms about their socioeconomic or class status since everyone is “happy”…all the time.  Huxley notes that the people in this society never questioned their government or emotions since there was “not a moment to sit down and think.”  And here lies the crux of the potential dark side of UBI.

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A possibility exists that when the government provides no-strings attached money to everyone, people will stop questioning the government.  If they act in ways that take away liberty, people will turn a blind eye. Give them the $1000 to buy their Netflix and hamburgers and iPhones, but don’t bother them with Supreme Court decisions or important international treaties (this idea borrowed from Huxley).  In the age of Trump, people have become more attentive to politics.  But at what level? Deep below the surface? If the Trump government provided everyone with $1000 each month to supplement their income, would liberals still call out for impeachment?  Who complains about injustices when the government fattens their wallets with cold hard cash?


Another argument pro-UBI revolves around providing economic stability and less “degrading” or “tedious” jobs, increasing net happiness for us citizens.  As Huxley again points out though, “Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”  Again, UBI has the potential to lift up millions of Americans into financial stability, which undoubtedly relieves an enormous burden and provides tremendous opportunity in every sense of the word.


But what can we do with it?  Will it truly make us happier, or will the steady check lull us into a sense of complacency and actually extinguish the drives and desires that provide so many a sense of purpose?  Don’t get me wrong; this is NOT an argument calling people lazy and using the weak and unthoughtful notion that people need to do SOMETHING (like a basic jobs argument), whether or not it has value to anyone or anything, to get money.  The argument, or more so the question, asks: does this increase in stability create psychological instabilities, produce only surface level thinking, and enable us to settle for jumping from pleasure to pleasure without thinking deeply about what we want?


The idea that UBI can provide people the breathing room to actually think about how they want to utilize their talents and time most satisfying to them appears ironclad.  But in an age where outrage spreads quickly without any thought on the topic whatsoever, and more and more people are unhappy with their careers, will we actually manage to use this newly created wiggle room to think for ourselves?  


Or will we continue our “automaton” status, as German philosopher Erich Fromm labeled us back in the 1940’s: as no better than robots taking our cues around what we should want or desire from external forces, rather than taking the time to think for ourselves?  While a UBI certainly could help in this regard by bringing time and economic security to the table, it won’t necessarily change our behavior in the positive sense, and has the potential to exacerbate our reliance on external forces to shape us, and the complacency to not care.  This Medium article describes well the “massive mindset shift” that would need to occur for a UBI to become successful


A final caution from “Brave New World”, stated by a bureaucrat of the society-dominating government: “Till at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too—all his life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides—made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions!”




The Art of Being a Small Venture Capitalist

You can imagine a venture capital investment as a dance between the entrepreneur and the investors.  Much has been written on this end from the entrepreneurs’ perspective: how they can best perfect their pitches and fine-tune their approaches to win investment from venture capitalists.   But from the venture capitalist point of view, especially as a small fund that invests in pre-seed to seed stage rounds (like we do at 301 Ventures), unique challenges abound that make this “dance” hard to finish.  Since I have noticed a growing trend in small, early-stage venture capital funds, I’d like to detail some of these challenges and how we’ve learned to approach them in order to serve both our and the entrepreneur’s end goals.  


As a small venture fund investing less than $50k per deal, you find yourself in the peculiar position where you notice mostly Angels participating in the round alongside you, but your responsibilities lie with your own investors (LP’s) who have put their trust in you to make the best decisions possible with their money.  From our experience, many Angel investors (and of course, not all) approach deal diligence with a different mindset than traditional funds.  Since most of the deals are so early, they like to invest dollars into the best idea or a story an entrepreneur has started to lift off of the ground.  Of course, as a fund, we look for these brilliant ideas too – however, we need to dig deeper into the financials and projections of a company, their marketing & sales plans, and develop an understanding of why a particular founder has the skills necessary to fend off competitors.


This leads to some of our largest challenges during our diligence process: as a relatively small investor in rounds, we need to develop a clear picture of a company and its founding team extremely quickly, balancing the need to do right by our investors with ensuring that an entrepreneur raising a $500k seed round doesn’t spend an unnecessary amount of time working through diligence with a small piece of their investor pie.  This constraint forces us as a small fund to quickly develop an understanding of the business in order to ask precise questions around the industry, the product, or the end user. Obviously all venture funds need to ask the right questions, but as a (relatively) extremely small fund, we do not have unlimited opportunities to land our questions.  We have to get it right the first time in order to move quickly and remain mindful of the time of the hustling entrepreneur.  As mentioned before, usually, checks in these pre-seed/seed rounds come from Angel investors who do not have the same diligence duties that a fund will have.  

We’ve made these mistakes before: spending too much time asking subpar questions with an experienced founding team, ultimately creating a bit of friction and losing out on the deal opportunity.  Over time, developing an ability to ask tough, thoughtful questions immediately has allowed us to rapidly develop an understanding of a company and their unique space, enabling our fund to either pass or give the stamp of approval on a given deal.  Some of the questions we like to ask during the initial stages:

Tell us about why you decided to start this company, and how you chose your co-founders.

This gives us insight into the founder’s goals, passions, and their ability or willingness to surround themselves with the right people.

What’s your competitive moat, and why will you win even in the face of competition?

Asking this helps us to understand what the infamous “secret sauce” of the company is and why they’re going to win in their space.

How will our money advance your company?

Of course, you need to understand where your dollars are going.  Ideally, our money helps establish a strong base that a company can quickly build upon.

Besides your product / service now, how are you planning to develop additional revenue streams?

Not every revenue source works as intended, or a major customer might not bite.  So we need to know how a company can diversify their product/service offerings to both mitigate risk and create new opportunities in potentially new categories.

Who are the key people or decision makers you need to sell your product/service to?

This helps me see if a founder understands who their target market actually is and who they need to win over in order for their offering to be adopted.  This is especially important for B2B companies


While it may seem obvious that it is important to ask the RIGHT questions, these can make all the difference between participating in an exciting company, or missing out completely, especially for a small fund.  Venture capitalists operate in an unusual world where they need to make big decisions with limited information; however, developing the ability to quickly understand the few crucial components of a deal can lead to you a decision that works for all interested parties: the entrepreneur, your LP’s, and you.   


How To Improve Your Thinking: Charlie Munger vs. Ray Dalio


Two modern-day business titans – Ray Dalio and Charlie Munger – have a lot in common. They run massive billion dollar businesses.  They’ve constantly adapted and evolved to achieve their own definitions of success.  But what I admire most about Ray and Charlie? They thoughtfully share the keys to their success in the form of helping others to think objectively, make decisions, and acquire knowledge.  


Even more impressive, you’ll notice that their methods of thinking yield different perspectives that arrive at the same conclusions.  If these well-respected businessmen operate on similar principles and can derive their success from these principles, it’s worth paying attention.  Here are two major areas of operating that Charlie and Ray both agree on, yet provide different perspectives on.  


Open mindedness


From his book “Principles”, Ray Dalio states that one of his ways to live and work is with radical open mindedness.  Radical open-mindedness means genuinely trying to understand other perspectives other than your own, and trying to be sure that your thinking is logical and correct.  Ray states that being radically open minded doesn’t mean you automatically agree with an opinion contrary to yours – rather, it means understanding the steps that someone else took to arrive at their conclusion.  As he says, in an argument or debate, one person is always wrong – don’t you want to make sure that this isn’t you?


Charlie Munger also has his own model of radical open-mindedness.  A key piece of this: knowing when you’re wrong or when you do not have sound logic, and finding others who might be able to assist you in uncovering the answer.  In terms of open mindedness, Charlie discusses starting with discovering your own Circle Of Competence.  This Circle of Competence refers to where you know you have expertise in something and can have an opinion – outside of this circle is where you need to be open minded and understand other perspectives from those whom you might disagree with, but who might be operating in their own Circle of Competence.  He says that you need to be willing to say – “I don’t know.”  For example, if you weren’t a physicist, you wouldn’t tell one that his theory on quantum mechanics was wrong – you’d be operating outside of your Circle of Competence and encroaching on someone else’s.  Munger views this as dangerous thinking, and the absolute antithesis of open-mindedness.


Understanding Reality and Truth


Both Dalio and Munger emphasize the absolute importance of understanding reality and acting accordingly.  One of my favorite ideas from Dalio is that you should look at reality how it truly is, not how you think it “should” be. Most of us (myself included) distort reality through our own subjective lenses.  We see what we want to see, with objectivity and truth clouded out by emotion or closed-mindedness.   Once you can get past this mental hump of trying to mold your reality to how YOU see fit, you’ll be able to make better decisions and think more clearly with accurate information. He also has interesting ideas on reality through the lens of evolution.  If you can recognize that reality optimizes for the whole of nature, and not just for you within your own subjective bubble, you’ll have more success learning from nature and how it actually operates.  Dalio views this ability to understand truth and think objectively as “the essential foundation for any good outcome.”


Munger also places the utmost importance on recognizing reality for making effective decisions and problem solving, but provides different methods on understanding this idea.  One of the best stories / ideas from Munger revolves around the Chauffeur Test.  Essentially, there are two types of knowledge: in-depth knowledge where one truly understands the subject (the expert), and surface level knowledge where one can talk on a subject but lack a deep understanding (the chauffeur).  Munger discusses the importance of not only having deep knowledge, but of also understanding when you’re receiving your information from a chauffeur vs. an expert on a topic.  Recognizing the difference can help you filter out useless noise when making a decision or solving a problem.  


In addition to training himself to recognize fake vs. real knowledge, Munger picked up all of the “big ideas from all the big disciplines and [made] them a standard part of my mental routines.”  He calls this approach the multidisciplinary approach.  Learning the major ideas from multiple disciplines such as investing, economics, and history, can help you recognize objective answers that other experts might miss.  In Charlie’s words, “You’ll see the correct answer when he’s missed it.”  




Of course, Munger and Dalio both have many other excellent mental models that they use to make effective decisions and solve difficult problems.  I’d recommend starting here to learn about Munger’s most used models, and read Dalio’s new book Principles to dive into his thought processes.  


However, their shared emphasis on the ideas of open-mindedness and deciphering reality provide the foundation for the rest of their mental models, thought processes, and decision making frameworks to sit upon.  Without the mastery of these two essential skills, they wouldn’t have the monumental success that they enjoy today.  


How You Can Learn Analytics and Data Skills


How can you go from zero programming skills to a job in technology or analytics?  


If you’re interested in learning these skills, whether for fun or for a career change, what’s the best way to go about it?  


Countless lists of the best online courses exist, but how can you forge your own learning path with all of the noise?


I personally never thought I’d learn any practical skills around programming, data analysis, machine learning, or technology in general.  As a finance major, I always assumed I’d be the “business guy.”  Yet somehow, I taught myself Python and SQL, and found myself working in analytics at, using one of these languages everyday.  


Why Python and SQL, you might ask?


Python is the fastest growing programming language out there, and for good reason.  It has an insane number of libraries that you can use for machine learning applications, data analysis, visualization, web apps, API integrations, and much more.  Plus, it’s one of the easier languages to pick up and learn.  As for SQL, databases power technology companies, and SQL allows you to better understand, explore, and make use of the troves of collected data.

Below, I outline the path I took in learning these languages that brought me into analytics.  To be clear, this path was incredibly challenging; I spent countless evenings feeling frustrated and confused.  Many nights I wanted to just throw in the towel and settle for being the business guy.


But your motivation remains the key to pushing forward through the obstacles you’ll inevitably face.   Whether you want to move into a data analysis or data science type role, or just want to have a better grasp on programming and technology for the fun of it (which it does become fun!), you have to figure out how to stay motivated and disciplined if you want to actually learn these skills.  For me, setting aside specific amounts of time almost every day (about 90 minutes to 2 hours) to learn or practice immediately after I got home from work allowed me to develop consistent habits and hammer home concepts I found confusing.  


Here’s the path that I took; hopefully it can help you get started on your own.


The Core Foundation

  1.  Learn Python the Hard Way

This is one of the best courses I’ve ever taken, period.  It’s self-directed and challenging, but Zed provides you with enough detail and guidance to start to actually begin programming in Python.  He makes programming feel accessible, and the material gives you the confidence week after week to actually feel as if you can effectively learn Python.  

  1. Mode Analytics: Pandas

Mode Analytics provides an awesome introduction to Python and includes tutorials on one of its most powerful data structures: the Pandas DataFrame. This is perfect for learning the basics of data analysis once you have the fundamentals of Python down.

  1. Mode Analytics:  SQL

The other Mode Analytics tutorial on SQL is fantastic too. You can learn all of the key concepts and create a strong SQL foundation here.  They even have their own SQL editor and data you can play around with.  

In conjunction with Mode Analytics, W3 Schools can help answer any SQL question you ever have as you go make your way through the tutorials.  


Diving Right Into Machine Learning

Before I fully had a strong grasp of Python, I took a shot and applied for Udacity’s self-driving car nanodegree.  I knew it was completely over my head, but I thought, why not try?  

It’s easier to motivate yourself to learn Python and machine learning when you’re fascinated by the practical applications.  

I had about a month before the class began, so I took as many classes around data science and machine learning as possible.  

Here were the best free introductory courses I found that were incredibly helpful:


Udacity Machine Learning Intro

Udacity Intro to Statistics

Udacity Intro to Data Science


Yes, you can see I think quite highly of Udacity.


While not free, I’d also highly recommend checking out the Grokking Deep Learning book.  It provides extremely clear and relatable examples on the fundamentals of machine learning.


TensorFlow, developed by Google, is an open source library for machine learning that can be written in Python.  It’s incredibly powerful, and absolutely worth becoming familiar with.  Check out the MNIST exercise for a fantastic introduction to the framework.  


I found the Stanford CS231 class to be a useful resource too; it covers convolutional neural networks (what we use for image or facial recognition software) extensively, which I read would be incredibly helpful for the self-driving car nanodegree.  If you’re interested at all in using machine learning with images or video, you won’t find much better than this course.  


Finally, after using these resources to build a solid foundation, I began the Udacity Self Driving Car Nanodegree.  

I’m not going to talk about it too much since there are already great write ups of the course here and here.  What I will say is that, to my own shock, despite being the most challenging course I’ve ever taken, I was able to understand most of the content.  Armed with the right base knowledge, you’d be surprised at how deep your understanding of a complex topic can be.  


Continued Analytics and Data Science Learning


After diving intensely into machine learning for a few months, it was helpful to take a step back and reinforce my understanding of practical analytics and data science principles.  


I started with Data Science, Deep Learning, & Machine Learning with Python, a fantastic course on Udemy.  While touching upon machine learning, it completely covers principles in analytics, data science, and statistics, particularly around different data mining techniques and practical scenarios to deploy them.   


The book Data Science For Business, also explains incredibly well the HOW and WHY certain models work when solving problems in a specific context; it hammers into you an analytical framework and mindset that can be applied to any situation revolving around data problems.  It’s the best resource I found that connects different analytical approaches to specific business situations and problems.


Of course, if you’re interested in pursuing a career in analytics or data science, you should always be honing old skills or adding new skills into your toolkit.  FreeCodeCamp and Hackernoon publish informative articles and tutorials on all things data science and software engineering.  My favorite article recently was a well-written tutorial on writing your own blockchain.


You want to know the best way to continue learning though?  Build something.  Anything.  Explore a dataset.  Find a practical problem that you or your company faces, and try to solve it.  


Even if you don’t have access to high-quality data at your company, there are plenty of open source datasets that you can play around and practice with.  I bet you’ll learn just as much, if not more, working on your own data projects than taking any course or reading any book.  


Finally, meeting and learning from people who have the skills you want to acquire is hugely beneficial.  I highly recommend using Meetup to find groups of analytics or software professionals in your area.  Many of these groups have free tutorial or study sessions, and you’ll meet plenty of insanely smart people who can provide tips and tricks to accelerate your learnings.  


In New York City, some of the groups that have helped me tremendously are:


Have fun learning, and let me know how your own journey goes!