This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
I type my bank details in and wait for the confirmation email. As the initial wave of excitement hits, I start thinking about how different my life is going to be thanks to this purchase. I’ve just bought another online course and have spent almost £4,000 on this type of learning in the last three years.
So why do I still feel like a fraud?
I've taken courses in everything from creative writing to salary negotiation. The most expensive purchase was a $1,000 course that promised to teach me how to make and sell my own courses. That was more than two years ago. I still haven’t become a course creator. No matter how many books I read, podcasts I listen to, or online courses I take, I don’t feel smart enough to monetise my knowledge.
The cheapest course – and the one least likely to progress my career – was the one that made me realise I had a problem. When I paid £29 for access to OMGyes, a platform devoted to the science of female pleasure, I knew things had gotten out of hand. I can usually get myself off in the time it takes to microwave a bag of rice, so why was I paying to get better at it?
I’m not alone in my obsession with becoming a better version of myself. According to one survey, 94 percent of millennials reported making personal improvement commitments and are willing to spend over $300 a month on self-improvement.
Millennials are better educated than previous generations, so why are we so willing to invest in learning when many would argue we’re already pretty smart? Competition has a lot to do with it. The days of standing out in a crowd due to having a degree are long gone. Instead, you’re just as likely to be judged by employers on your productivity (read: ‘side hustle’) outside of work than you are for your contribution to the nine to five. (Tellingly, I recently saw a job advert that listed ‘moonlighting’ as an admirable candidate quality.)
Emma Shearwood, 29, has spent around £2,500 on online learning this year, focusing primarily on business and social media courses.
“I always feel like I should be improving something – which is like saying I’m not enough already,” she says. “I think society often tells women we’re not enough and so we spend money to become better than we already are. I see it in a similar way to how I see the beauty industry.”
With the social media highlight reel telling us our peers are getting promotions, writing novels and becoming CrossFit champions, it’s easy to feel under pressure to better yourself. But with so many free resources available, from YouTube videos to library books, it may come as a surprise that people are so willing to spend money on online courses.
New Yorker journalist Jia Tolentino writes in her book Trick Mirror: “We pay too much for things we think are precious but we also start to believe things are precious if someone makes us pay too much.” In programmes designed to teach people to become course creators, there’s often pressure to set high prices so that potential students consider the course valuable. And it works! If I see a free course, I assume it’s not going to be very good. If, however, I see a course for £499, I start to wonder what’s inside and begin to fantasise about how it could change my life.
Lauren Hutchinson, 34, has spent £5,000 on online courses over the last few years and is in the early stages of running her own business. The courses included digital marketing, photography, and crystal healing. She believes that course creators have a knack for tapping into our insecurities and offering us costly solutions to fix them.
“Often when we’re on social media it’s a time when you can feel at your most fragile as you’ve seen everyone else’s highlight reel,” she says. “It drags you further and further into the ‘you’re not as good as these people’ spiral. Then you see an ad for something which can help you catch up.”
The reality is rarely anything like the dream. Investing in online learning hasn't given me confidence, it hasn't drastically increased my income, and it hasn't notably progressed my career. I spend all this time trying to expand my knowledge and yet all this learning is stopping me from creating anything. Often, one course just leads to another, unlocking further insecurities I didn’t have before.
Sian Melonie, 35, is currently job hunting in London after spending five months travelling around India, Bali and Vietnam. She’s spent around £2,000 on online courses.
“For me it's definitely a confidence thing and a pressure to always upskill,” she says. “I take the courses when I’m low in confidence and to feel like I'm continuing to learn. One course gave me the confidence to go for a new job role but I still signed up for more. It’s a vicious cycle.”
I got in touch with business psychologist and women’s leadership coach, Jess Baker, to ask her the big question: why are we like this?
Baker believes that an obsession with online courses can be rooted in imposter syndrome, the often-used term that can see those affected doubting their accomplishments and worrying they’ll somehow be exposed as a fraud.
“Imposter syndrome is very much driven by fear,” she says. “It also gives you unrealistic standards which often can never be met because those with imposter syndrome are usually perfectionists.”
Baker explains that online courses can be incredibly valuable and helpful, but only if you act on the lessons you learn. She added: “We constantly have this unconscious battle between how we are now and how we see ourselves in the future. Buying a course is a sign of wanting to better ourselves but we have to be realistic about how able we are to commit to that. Knowledge doesn’t equal action.”
Lauren often finds it difficult to complete the courses she signs up for and believes her ADHD, which she was diagnosed with in April this year, may play a factor. She often signs up to the courses impulsively and loses interest before getting to the end.
In 2018, Lauren purchased a £3,000 coaching programme that she was unable to start due to the loss of her dad. She said: “Not once has anyone checked in to say ‘hey, we notice you’ve not done anything with this course. Are you having issues?’”
“The main issue with these online courses is the lack of accountability to finish them. With a degree, you’ll have assignments and a tutor to nag you. Course creators should make sure that the courses are completed and if they’re not for whatever reason, they should try to understand why.”
For those who sign up for online courses and struggle to finish them thanks to motivation issues or a lack of confidence, it’s worth questioning whether you’re seeking an external solution to an internal problem.
Professor Binna Kandola has done extensive research into how imposter syndrome can affect your career. Although online courses can feel productive, those with imposter syndrome may still end up holding themselves back in their jobs and failing to make necessary changes.
He said: “I know of someone who has a collection of all the positive feedback he’s received over the years and when he’s feeling like a bit of a fraud, and that he’s not capable of a particular project, he pulls this folder out and reads through it all.
“Many of the people I talk to recognise that imposter syndrome is a part of them and that it might never go. You might never get rid of it but you can minimise the impact it has on your life, treating it like a critical friend.”
I asked Lauren if she regrets signing up for so many courses. She said: “I don’t regret signing up for them, I regret not completing all of them. I’ve definitely still learned a lot throughout my various courses but if I’d have implemented even half of what I’d learned, I wouldn’t be struggling to pay my bills after starting up a brand new business.”