Self-education can be wonderful and frustrating at the same time. If you go about it correctly, you can teach yourself anything in just a few months. Poorly applied, however, self-education can be a stressful nightmare. I’d like to share my tips to achieve the former and avoid the latter.
My self-education has been fairly extensive. I taught myself how to program computers, create graphics (3-D and 2-D), how to design web pages and blog. I learned the basics of chemistry on my own in the fifth grade and read through several books on physics and evolutionary biology before any formal training. And, although I have no memory of this, my parents also inform me that I had taught myself to read before going to school.
Self-education is good for just about any branch of knowledge or skills you want to acquire. Here are just a few starter points of abilities you might want to pick up:
- Learn a new language.
- Teach yourself a branch of mathematics or science.
- Learn to cook.
- Master a new sport.
- Be able to run a business and manage effectively.
- Speak in public.
- Train your communication and persuasion skills.
Learning something in only three months takes a bit more than casual trial-and-error. Here’s what I’ve found to be crucial in making self-education work:
- Know the end. What should you be able to do, achieve or know after learning? My best efforts at self-education have always had specific applications. The more precise the requirements of my knowledge, the faster I could learn. Do you just want to speak Spanish, or be 95% fluent in a basic conversation?
- Buy a How-To. Internet articles and scattered resources can help, but a solid foundation is far superior. There are hundreds of how-to books on every skill and branch of knowledge. Books can give you a foundation that trial-and-error cannot.
- Identify prerequisites. Programming requires basic math. Blogging requires basic computer, writing and marketing skills. Basketball requires ball handling and movement skills. Know what background skills you need before you start, so you can pick them up before or while you try to master your skill.
- Deadlines determine time investment. If you want to learn something in three months, that can mean an hour a week or several hours a day depending on the discipline. Your deadlines determine how much time you need to invest.
- Patience is a Virtue. Self-education isn’t more difficult than classroom learning. But it can be harder when you reach a dead-end and don’t have a guide. Your ability to educate yourself will match closely with your ability to keep trying when you want to give up.
- Back to basics. Any skill is based on a few core understandings or abilities. Huge algorithms are based on simple programming concepts such as loops and variables. Cooking is based on simple techniques like grilling or broiling. Any dance is based on a core pattern of steps. Master the basics and learning advanced skills becomes easy.
- Aim to fail. Experiment enough so your failure rate is high. It is easy to stumble into handling the same challenges repeatedly, but these don’t teach you anything new. Add new elements to each practice so your learning curve doesn’t flatten out.
- The 15 Minute Rule. If you get stuck on something promise to give yourself another fifteen minutes of complete focus. If you can’t solve your problem by that point, take a short break. Giving yourself less than fifteen minutes means you lack the persistence necessary to learn. But creating space between yourself and a problem can renew your creative energies towards solving it.
- What’s the point? Necessity is the best teacher out there. If you don’t need to learn something, it is going to be tricky to push through frustration points. By making self-education a built-in part of your goals, you’re driven to learn out of more than random curiosity. I taught myself HTML, PHP and graphic design programs out of a need to complete other projects.
- Forums are your friend. Just as there is a how-to book on everything, there is a forum about any skill you want to learn. If your searches turn up nothing, write a friendly request for ideas to solve your problem. I’ve found online forums to be a lifesaver if I get stuck.
- Flex your networking muscles. Immerse yourself in groups of people who have the skills you want. Although you can’t learn through osmosis, being in the presence of smart people will direct you towards the information you need. Forums are also a good place to start, but joining clubs and groups in person is even better.
- Leave Mt. Everest to the climbers. Don’t try to tackle the biggest challenge possible your first time. Pick tasks that are difficult, but possible given your current understanding. Trying to program 100,000 lines of code as your third program is too ambitious to be useful.
- Avoid burnout. Self-education requires a lot of energy and emotional will. It is easy to burn yourself out on a problem and be unable to complete it. Avoid this by giving yourself space when you’re stuck. Don’t give up, but don’t burnout trying to solve a difficult problem.
- Project oriented learning. Projects can be a big driving force for learning. Most of my current skills I obtained through projects. Setting a three-month project such as writing a novel or designing a small computer program can give you the structure needed to learn.