I've taken over 12 online courses. Here's how I choose them.

I’ve bought over a dozen online courses, many in the $400-500+ price range. Some are better than others, but so far, I’ve gotten a ton of value from each of them, and haven’t regretted a single purchase. People have asked me how I choose, so this is how.

Here are two example courses I’ll reference:

First, here’s how NOT to buy a course:

DON’T fall for a course with vague promises to CHANGE EVERYTHING IN YOUR LIFE FOREVER. Their material is often as vague as their marketing. Look for specifics which I’ll describe in the next section.

DON’T purchase a course just because it’s a LIMITED TIME OFFER EXPIRING SOON. While I get why creators do this, to polarize people to a decision either way, here’s a tip: make your decision as if the course were always available at this price.

In pretty much every case, the course will open back up some time, often within 3-6 months. There’s just no reason for creators to throw out that much work when it costs them virtually nothing to keep offering it (except if there’s live instruction). They only need you to think they’ll stop.

Ok, so how do I choose?

It comes down to a number of factors.

Do I like their free material?

Course authors’ free material is often indicative of how their courses will be. 

I usually do google searches of their blog or website to find posts related to their course. This works because many creators use their blog to see what ideas stick to decide what to make a course on.

See if you like their free material on similar topics. If you do and want more depth, consider the course. Otherwise, don’t.

Another approach is trying the author’s lower-tier paid material first (e.g. e-books).

Has the author actually done the task they’re saying they can help me do?

If they can’t do it, it’s unlikely they can help me do it. 

In fact, ideally they should’ve done it at least 2-3 times. Otherwise it could’ve been a fluke, or they may only know how to handle some cases.

Another good sign is if they’ve done even harder things, which require them to really have their basics of the task in line.

This all seems to make sense, and yet, constantly you see “100 techniques to form habits for $99” that’s really just “I googled random techniques I’ve never/barely tried and copy-pasted them into a course”.

Even if the content is good (which is unlikely), inevitably, there will be holes in the process that they didn’t cover, because the only way to know there aren’t is to do the task themselves.

Other signals of credibility like endorsement by other course creators you respect, certifications, or awards are worth considering too.

Is the course tested?

The course should have successfully helped multiple others to do it (who wouldn’t otherwise have achieved the goal). Many people are good at something but unable to teach it to others, because they might not understand what they did right.

Ideally, it’s helped people similar to you: with similar life situations, level of experience in the subject, etc. You might have challenges the others don’t have.

This is where reading reviews helps, which, it should go without saying, you should read reviews outside of the author’s website (where they may have cherry-picked the best reviews).

To find reviews, check Google, Yelp, Twitter, etc.

Look for reviews that are well-written, and ideally have writers who are similar to you.

Keep in mind: 50% of the results are on the student. If you see a negative review, ask if that student put in the work. If you see a positive review, ask if that student might’ve succeeded even without the course.

What’s the refund policy?

Like a warranty on a physical product, a course’s refund policy is a show of their level of confidence that you’ll be satisfied with the course. You should want one, because you’re being asked to make a large purchase without seeing what you’re getting. Without a refund policy, that’s a huge risk.

Good courses will offer good refund policies.

For example, Mental Mastery generally allows refunds at any time throughout the duration of the course.

On the other hand, worse courses aren’t confident in their product, or know you’re likely to be dissatisfied (why do these even exist), so they’ll offer no/limited refunds. Worse, they’ll try to blame it on you with guises like “keeping you motivated.”

However, I have less of an expectation here if the course is cheaper, or includes live calls or coaching which will cost the creator much more, vs. like $0.50 for them to show you a webpage.

Does the author have a unique perspective?

There is tons of free information online. The course has to offer you something you can’t get anywhere else, otherwise you should just go there.

This is actually pretty rare. 

Usually as I look through multiple courses, there’ll be one that just stands out above all the rest. I pick that one.

For example, I went with Scott Young’s Make it Happen, because I’ve read a ton of blogs on productivity that all seem to recycle the same content, but he had over a dozen articles that taught me something I hadn’t seen elsewhere. For example, the ideas in https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/2012/02/19/just-finish-it/ were novel to me, despite having read a ton of books on these topics.

Will this course make a major difference in my life?

All courses will market themselves as “awesomely massively life-changing for everyone yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay”

But even if that’s true, it doesn’t matter if you’re considering the BEST PHOTOGRAPHY COURSE EVER if you’re not into photography. And it’s probably not worth $499 to improve your photos just so they look better when you only post them occasionally.

On the other hand, if you’re a professional photographer or an amateur who spends 10 hours a week taking photos, go for it.

It needs to be for something you want, that’ll make a major difference in your life.

Do I have time for this course?

Not just enough to watch the videos, but to actually do the activities. Videos without activities just doesn’t stick or accomplish anything, it’s worth nearly zero.

It’s really easy to fall into an online course shopping spree, get excited, buy some courses, and never use them.

How do you estimate how much time you’ll need? It can be tricky. Hopefully it’s stated on the website, otherwise 2-5 hours/week is a good guess. You can also probably email the course creator or their customer service.

One completed course is worth 10x more than 10 non-started courses.

You don’t have to have time right now (due to some courses with exploding offers or enrollment periods), but you should have time blocked off at some specific date in the future.

Is this course a good fit for me skill-wise?

It should be neither too basic nor too advanced for you. Too basic and you won’t learn anything. Too advanced and you also won’t learn anything (advanced techniques tend to only work on a solid base of basics).

Unfortunately, many short-term oriented course authors are incentivized to maximize profit by advertising the course as for everybody, so you may need to scrutinize the course yourself.

Final Comments

Hope this has been useful. Keep in mind, this isn’t a list of requirements, rather a list of things which make the course more valuable. It’s ok to tick less boxes, as long as the price is lower. If the value exceeds the cost, more than whatever else you’d spend that money on, it makes sense to buy. Also remember that your time and energy is part of the cost too.

Agree, disagree, or other thoughts? Feel free to contact me or share in the comments.

What is coaching and why do people pay for it?

When I tell people I pay for a coach or that I coach people on the side, and it’s not the sports kind, they usually ask me these two questions: What is coaching and why do people pay for it?

Most people have heard of a football coach. Coaching is a more general term for someone who guides you on how to improve, motivates you when you’re down, and holds you accountable. There are many types: life, career, executive, leadership, dating, productivity, etc. I’ve worked with life and career coaches, and coached others in those areas.

What does life coaching cover?

It’s understandable that a lot of people are confused over what life coaching covers. The term “life coach” is really broad, and it doesn’t help that many coaches describe their work as “transforming your life” or “bringing you light and joy”. These might resonate with some people, or make sense on some abstract level, but never seemed very clear to me. In actuality, life coaching covers quite a few things: your work, your career path, your relationships, your decisions, and your psychology. Basically, the most important and challenging parts of life.

A good life coach should be able to help you with any problem that comes up. Stuck deciding between two career paths? Having a conflict with a friend, family member, or partner and not sure what to do? Keep getting distracted and not finishing things? They should be able to help you find and implement a solution.

How do coaches do this?

First, a good coach should be an expert in the domains above. For example, in the domain of careers, they should deeply understand general career principles, networking, negotiation, and such. Ideally, they’ve actually done what you want to do and successfully guided multiple other people through it. Their level of expertise should be one of their selling points. The idea of hiring an expert isn’t new: we already hire doctors and other professionals to help us, and companies will hire consultants in everything from marketing to design.

You might ask: “But surely they can’t be an expert at everything? They certainly haven’t done exactly what I’m doing”, and you’d be right. But they may not need to have done everything.

First, people’s problems are more similar than you’d think. Although every field is different, they all involve humans, with human bodies, human psychology, and 99.9% similar DNA. This is why Jocko Willink was able to go from commanding Navy SEALs to training corporate leaders. Leadership, negotiation, networking, hard conversations, overcoming procrastination, etc. are pretty similar across different fields.

Second, the problem is usually mental, not domain-specific. People usually already have the information they need, but they’re stuck on some mental obstacles. Maybe they think they can’t leave a job because it’d be bad for their career, but really they’re just afraid of taking risks. Maybe they think they’re lazy, when really they just dislike what they’re doing. The list goes on and on. A good coach will help you dig past the surface-level reason to find the mental barrier, and overcome it.

Why do people pay for coaching?

Let me answer a slightly different question: how do I measure the value of coaching?

Let’s start with what it’s not. It’s not how pumped up you feel after your coaching session, how much material you get, or how many hours you spend with your coach (although these can help).

Ultimately, it’s about the results. What is the delta (or difference) between your life before and after their coaching? 

For a simplistic example, suppose they coach you to implement productivity techniques that let you accomplish 1% more every day, that you think you never would’ve learned otherwise. Also suppose you get paid by the volume of work you produce. If you were expecting to make $100K for the next 30 years, that’s a $100K * 30 years * 1% = $30K delta. Putting aside the fact you wouldn’t get that money now for simplicity’s sake, it would make sense to pay anything below $30K for the coaching. Even if the coach charges you $2K which seems like a lot, you’re still far ahead. If I can trade $2 for $30, I’ll take that trade as many times as I can. Even if there’s only a 50% chance it’ll work, that’s still $15K on average. Obviously there’s a lot more to this, but you get the idea.

Conversely, if you have 20 hours of sessions with a coach, get really pumped up and learn a ton of new things, but nothing ever happens after that, the coaching was worth exactly $0. 

I’ve worked with multiple coaches now. Before signing on with a new coach or renewing with an existing one, I ask myself: What delta might I get from this? How likely and how valuable is that delta? Does that significantly exceed their fee? Could I get the same benefits somewhere else for less? This can be a high bar and there’s no shame in not meeting it, but coaching is expensive and must overcome it.

The answer to the original question should be clear now: people pay for a coach because they expect to get more out of it than they put into it. Obviously a lot of this is oversimplified, but that’s the basic idea.