What can't be denied (especially today) is the importance of being a self-learner in order to keep ourselves competitive and agile in a world that increasingly demands we be jacks of all trades and masters of some.
I didn’t go to university. Didn’t even finish A-levels. But I have sympathy for those who did.
Sir Terry Prachett
The beauty of being a self-learner
The late Sir Terry Pratchett is a celebrated English author who penned fantasy novels and is best known for his Discworld series comprising 41 books.
Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume is considered ‘the most important philosopher to have written in English’, having made major contributions to our understanding of science, economics, and politics.
Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-American inventor, was the genius behind how we generate and distribute electricity today. Referred to as ‘a child of light’, his first great invention was an alternating current [AC] motor.
Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, made his fortune by introducing the Model T car and revolutionising American industry thanks to his assembly line that enabled mass production of goods.
What do these icons have in common? They were all self-learners, or autodidacts – people who learn with little or no formal education.
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These four examples of autodidacts are joined by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci (painting aside, he was a self-learner across his other interests); Mark Twain; Frida Kahlo (who learned to paint after a bus accident); Melanie Klein, founder of child psychology; and the renowned singer and artist, David Bowie.
All of these greats were distinguished, inspired and motivated by their love of learning. They understood that there was no substitute for experiential learning through exploration, trial and error. While most appreciated the value of formal education (which will continue to have its place), some were playfully scathing towards the education model and others were simply scathing.
On education, Terry Pratchett said: “I didn’t go to university. Didn’t even finish A-levels. But I have sympathy for those who did.”
The philosopher David Hume was feeling less jovial when he remarked to a friend: “There is nothing to be learnt from a professor, which is not to be met with in books.”
While there’s a debate to be had on the state of formal education, what can’t be denied (especially today) is the importance of self-learning in order to keep ourselves competitive and agile in a world that increasingly demands we be jacks of all trades and masters of some.
Inside a classroom, we learn the same content as everyone else and we all share in the same experience. Whether or not a class or lecture is filled with engaging and relevant topics for discussion, everyone is in the same boat. What makes the difference is what we do outside the formal learning environment.
As one self-learner and entrepreneur friend of mine put it: “For the time being, we need a formal education to get us to a certain level. Think of it as learning to drive. When you pass the test, it means you’ve reached the minimum standard required by law to drive. Developing your skills begins when you get out there on your own. That’s when you really learn how to drive.”
“Education’s the same. If you have 100 people in a class and 80 of them pass with decent grades, how do they stand out? What can they do to impress a prospective employer or start up their own business? In most cases, our paper qualifications tell others that we’ve acquired a basic standard of knowledge and skills. The people who truly stand out are the ones who spend a lot of time learning beyond the class in ways that make them highly resourceful, and sometimes great.”
So, how do we go beyond the standard? In 2020, it’s easier than ever to access knowledge and skills that we can develop and stand out from the crowd. You might think if everyone becomes a self-learner, then it means few of us can truly stand out. To this, I’d say two things:
- Not everyone will put in the commitment and effort to learn and grow – even among those who want to. Many people simply rest easy once they reach a certain level; they don’t feel the need to go beyond what they already know.
- How we learn and how we apply that learning according to our unique talents, perceptions and abilities makes a difference. Self-learners who work hard and apply the knowledge they’ve acquired rarely find themselves without opportunities for success.
Here are five ways to fan the flame of self-learning:
Step 1. Write down a few subjects that really interest you
Zoology? Great! Music? Awesome! Psychology, geology, videography, jewellery design? All good. You want to learn about being a pâtissier or museum curator? Go for it! Whatever ignites that curiosity and desire to learn, write it all down.
Note: Being a pâtissier doesn’t mean eating everything you bake
The idea here is to think about what you would like to dive into, rather than what others think you should learn. What are you passionate about? What have you always wanted to learn but didn’t get around to? What has made you curious before, but you didn’t really look into it? What subjects do you enjoy that you or others might have previously overlooked? This is a brainstorming step where anything goes.
Step 2. Read all about it!
Some of you might have three things on your list, while others will have 20. Whatever the case, spend some time reading online articles on the subjects that interest you the most. This will give you an idea of whether a particular area of interest is just an interest or a potential passion.
Pay attention to the subjects that grab your attention. For good measure, you can write down why they captivate you and what, specifically, you would like to learn more about. This stage of exploration allows you to become more informed as you read broadly about what you’re choosing to focus on.
Education comes from the Latin word ‘Educare’, which (along with the word educe) means ‘to nourish’ and ‘to draw out’. Education is all about bringing out the desire for learning within us and aligning that desire to subjects that make us come alive.
Step 3. Get creative
Reading is a great way to get a sense of how something works, or the skills needed within a subject, but no-one learns to play piano, paint, fix a car, or bake pastries by reading alone. The greatest self-learners develop their minds by doing – they’re not born geniuses (Leonardo da Vinci is a prime example).
Take your learning to the next level by combining your reading, watching or listening with doing. Sign up for a class or club; join a meet-up group; or simply take steps to do something on your own. If you want to learn still life sketching, for example, buy a sketch pad and some drawing materials and experiment. Apply some techniques – you can also come up with your own.
Take your leaning to the next level by combining your reading, watching or listening with doing.
In creative learning, the focus is on exploration and expression. Allow yourself the room to get innovative, get comfortable with ‘mistakes’, and embrace it all as part of the process. That’s how we develop.
“But what if my interest is history?” Great! You can still join a club or discussion group, which will help you develop through peer learning and perhaps organised visits to historical sites.
Step 4. Ask questions
Our conventional attitude to learning is that we pay attention and take in whatever’s being presented to us. But that isn’t learning – it’s just receiving information.
Learning is born from curiosity, and the best way to deepen our understanding is by asking questions. Any great self-learner is constantly asking questions. One-plus-one equals two? Who says? How do we know? Is there any time when one-plus-one doesn’t equal two? (Hint: there is!)
Time to rage against the machine
When we don’t ask questions, we resign ourselves to accepting what we’re told, which in turn dulls our ability to think critically and diminishes the capacity to learn. One way to developing the habit of asking, as well as sharpen our minds, is to take a subject that you have a strong opinion on then ask: What would I say if I were arguing from another point of view? Is there anything I might be missing? What are my assumptions?
Step 5. Slow down
If someone tells you that they read 100 books a year, that’s impressive, right? But how much of what’s being read actually sink in deep enough to be useful?
Remember, learning is not the same as gathering information. In psychology, the process of making sense of something is aided through incubation. For example, let’s say you’re reading a book on how to code. If you read the whole book in one or two settings, there’s a good chance that little of what you’ve read will stick, because the mind is constantly on “work” mode.
If someone tells you that they read 100 books a year, that’s impressive, right? But how much of what’s being read actually sinks in deep enough to be useful?
On the other hand, if you read one or two chapters and then go off to do something else (preferably menial) or take a 10-minute rest, the mind gets a chance to incubate and process the information it’s just received. As a result, it connects concepts together like a jigsaw puzzle and solidifies our understanding which then can be applied in a practical way.
These are just a few suggestions to help you get started on your journey as a self-learner. However you prefer to develop your learning, investing time in discovering your passions is what counts. Taking control of what and how you learn can help set you apart and open up opportunities to thrive and flourish in ways that were previously unimaginable.