Self-Education: The Skill That Will Help You Stay Ahead

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I’d always seen my dad use Photoshop, and I was curious to learn. So in 7th grade, I scraped together my allowance and bought a copy of Photoshop for Dummies.

Through hours of practice, along with reading that book and online tutorials, I learned the basics of editing images in Photoshop. While I’m still no image editing wizard, my basic Photoshop skills continue to serve me to this day. And it was all because I chose to pursue that first learning project on my own.

It wouldn’t be the last such project, either. Since then, I’ve taught myself HTML, drawing, painting, and even Spanish.

Plus, I have the confidence to teach myself any new skill that interests me or is useful for advancing my career. My early approach to self-education was rather haphazard, but I’ve since learned a lot more about how to effectively teach yourself new things.

In this post, I’m going to share my favorite lessons for educating yourself on any subject. We’ll start with a look at why self-education is such a valuable skill. Then, we’ll move to a process you can use to start your own self-education adventures.

Why You Must Educate Yourself

If you’re already sold on the value of self-education, feel free to skip to the next section. But if you still need convincing, here’s why self-education is the most critical skill you can learn:

Credentials Are No Longer Enough

There was a time when having a college degree was enough to secure a good job. But with more people graduating from college than ever, you now need other ways to differentiate yourself.

While there are many ways to stand out in a job interview, one of the best is to demonstrate that you’re self-directed and motivated. And I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate these qualities than telling the interviewer about a new skill you taught yourself.

Compared to the other applications with the same degrees, GPAs, and extracurriculars, a self-directed learner is bound to stand out.

Self-Education Is the Ultimate Competitive Edge

Despite fears of automation destroying jobs, history shows us that new technology often ends up creating new jobs and opportunities.

If you want to take advantage of these new jobs, then you’ll need to be able to teach yourself new things. Traditional classroom education is simply too slow to catch up with the changing pace of technology, so it’s up to you.

Here are just a few of the new jobs that tech advances have created in the past ten to twenty years:

  • YouTube video editor
  • Podcast producer
  • Head of blog content (my job)
  • Social media manager
  • Drone operator

Not only can these be interesting, well-paying jobs, but you can also learn to do them without time-consuming, expensive formal education.

But what does that process look like? That’s the subject of the rest of this article.

How to Educate Yourself

Learning is a highly personal process, and the array of subjects to learn is vast. Therefore, it’s difficult to give an exact set of steps for self-education.

But the following process should get you off to a very good start, particularly in areas where new independent learners tend to struggle.

Identify What You Want to Learn

The obvious first step to learning something new is to pick a skill or subject. You probably have a vague idea in mind already, but I encourage you to make it more specific. This way, you can better track your learning progress.

For instance, let’s say you want to learn piano. “Learn piano” isn’t a very helpful goal — it’s much too vague. What exactly do you want to learn? To play a few of your favorite songs? To play in a band with your friends? To become the next Carnegie Hall soloist?

These all fall under “Learn piano,” but they’re very different goals requiring different amounts of effort. You can see, therefore, why setting a specific learning goal is so important.

Besides being specific about what you want to learn, you should also determine why you want to learn it. As with building good habits, you shouldn’t decide to learn something just because your friend or mom or some guy on the internet said so.

Rather, you should choose learning goals that are personally meaningful. This could be to help you advance in your career, but it could also be pure curiosity. Regardless, you’re more likely to stick with a learning goal if you have a clear “why” in mind.

Determine How You Learn Best

Once you’ve picked a learning goal, you can start finding learning resources But before you dive into specific books or courses, you should do some self-reflection about how you learn best.

In essence, you need to determine your learning style. However, it’s not as simple as the outdated idea of three different learning styles. In reality, you probably learn well in multiple ways, and the best approach will also depend on the topic.

In general, here are some of the main ways you can learn something:

None of these techniques is better than the others. All of them are useful for learning different subjects, and you’ll need to experiment to determine what works best.

For instance, video can be great for demonstrating the techniques involved in cooking a dish, but written instructions are better for conveying the fine details of a recipe. So if you’re learning to cook, you’ll probably want to use a mix of videos and written recipes.

The great part is that because you’re directing your learning, you get to mix and match the learning techniques and styles that work best for you. You aren’t bound by the preferences of a single instructor or your classmates.

Start With the Right Learning Resources

If you’re totally new to a subject, I recommend reading some existing curricula or learning resources to get started. You don’t have to stick to these exactly, but they can give you some guidance for putting together a more personalized plan. Just google “how to learn [WHAT YOU WANT TO LEARN]” to start finding these resources.

Focus on resources that make few assumptions and focus on teaching absolute beginners. This way, you don’t miss fundamentals or develop bad habits that could come back to haunt you later. Beyond that, pick whatever learning resources work best for your style.

I’ll also give one caveat for learning physical skills: get a teacher. With physical skills such as sports or music, a teacher can help you avoid bad habits or even injuries that come from improper technique. Even if you’re taking lessons virtually, the live feedback from a teacher is invaluable to starting off the right way.

Learn in Sprints

You may notice that I haven’t talked about creating a detailed learning plan. While this can be helpful for certain projects, I generally find it ineffective for learning new skills. Planning everything out at the beginning is too inflexible, as your learning goals will shift over time.

Instead, I prefer to learn things in two-week sprints. Every two weeks, I choose a particular aspect of the skill to focus on in my practice sessions. This keeps me from getting distracted or bored. Plus, it provides a chance to regularly evaluate my progress and refocus my efforts.

To give you a real-world example, I recently realized that I couldn’t change between chords smoothly on banjo. So I devoted the past two weeks of practice to playing chord changes slowly with a metronome. Now that this cycle of practice is over, I can move on to improving another specific aspect of my playing.

Practice Deliberately

If you learn nothing else about self-education from this guide, let it be the concept of deliberate practice.

When you practice deliberately, you set a specific intention for your practice session and ruthlessly focus on only that. You’re also honest about your current performance, constantly asking how you can improve.

Popular ideas such as the 10,000-hour rule give the impression that “putting in the hours” is all you need to improve at something.

But putting in the hours isn’t enough. I could strum the guitar for 10,000 hours and still be no closer to playing like Pat Metheney. The recipe for getting better at a skill is putting in enough hours of deliberate, focused practice.

For more on how to practice deliberately, check out this video:

Use Spaced Repetition to Make Information Stick

When learning any new skill, you’ll have to memorize something sooner or later. And if quick, accurate memorization is what you desire, then spaced repetition should be your weapon of choice.

Spaced repetition is similar to traditional flashcards, with one important twist. Instead of spending equal time studying every flashcard, spaced repetition systems focus your studies on the information you struggle with the most.

Meanwhile, spaced repetition also has you review information right before you’re about to forget it. This ensures you retain all the information you need without wasting time reviewing things you already know.

To learn how to use spaced repetition in your self-education, read this guide.

Assess Your Ability Regularly

We all hate tests, but they can be super useful for honestly assessing your ability.

You don’t have to draw up a formal test like the ones you took in school. You just need a way to measure your progress so that you can make sure your learning is on track. If things aren’t going well, then you can adjust your practice routine accordingly.

But how should you assess your ability?

My main tip is to pick an objective, third-party measure. That is, don’t assess your ability based only on your own (limited and biased) judgment.

If you can get someone more experienced to critique your performance, that’s great. But you can also take an online assessment or record a video.

To give you some ideas, here’s how I’d assess my progress on a few different skills:

  • Music – Record myself with my phone (or make a video).
  • Drawing – Do a certain number of sketches of a subject and then get a more skilled artist friend to provide feedback.
  • Language Learning – Set up a conversation with a teacher on iTalki and ask them to critique my grammar, pronunciation, etc.

On a daily basis, you can also track your progress using a habit-tracking app or notebook. Having a visual record of your progress will motivate you to continue, showing you how far your ability has come since you began.

Self-Education FAQ

To round out this article, here are answers to some common questions about self-education:

How long does it take to learn a new skill?

There isn’t a straightforward answer. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in a discipline, but the reality is more complex.

To start, is your goal actually to become an expert? In many cases, you can benefit immensely from learning a subject even to a basic or intermediate level.

For instance, I can’t cook as well as a professional chef, but I have learned to cook better than average. I have no aspirations to be an expert; only to cook nutritious, tasty food for myself and the occasional dinner party.

In other words, how long it takes to learn a subject depends on the level you’re looking to reach.

Furthermore, it also depends on how much time you can devote to learning. For example, part of the reason software development bootcamps help people upskill so quickly is that their students spend 8 hours per day studying the subject.

If you can put full-time effort into learning something, then you can progress very quickly. But if you only have an hour or two per day, expect your progress to be slower.

What’s just-in-time learning, and should I do it?

Most of this article has discussed a goal-oriented approach to self-education. With this technique, you identify what you want to learn and then schedule time to work on it. While this can be a great way to learn brand new subjects, it has its downsides.

Mainly, goal-oriented learning can be quite time-consuming. You may end up wasting time on irrelevant info and have to backtrack. Plus, not everyone has the time it requires.

For this reason, you should also consider just-in-time learning. With this approach, you don’t set specific learning goals. Rather, you learn new information or skills as they become relevant. That is, you learn them “just in time” instead of months or years before you need to.

I use just-in-time learning quite regularly in my work. If I need to clarify a grammar point, for instance, I’ll look it up. This is far more efficient than trying to memorize every grammar rule in existence “just in case”.

What should I learn?

What you should learn is highly personal, and I don’t know enough about your situation to provide a complete answer. However, this list of useful skills to learn is a great place to start.

What are the best learning resources?

As with the previous question, it depends. But the following resources are some of the best we’ve found across a broad range of subjects:

Learning Is a Joy

You should now have a better understanding of how to self-educate, as well as why it’s a crucial skill for the digital age.

But beyond the “practical” reasons for learning new things, I’ll present one additional reason: the pure joy of learning. Learning a new skill can be more exciting than any TV show, more immersive than any video game, and more rewarding than both.

By all means, learn new things to increase your income or even to change careers. But don’t forget to have fun.

Want to learn something new right now? Check out our free courses on habits and productivity.

Image Credits: woman reading

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