Why Self-Educated Learners Often Come Up Short


I have a pet peeve about certain people who attack formal education systems and claim to pursue self-education. Not because universities are spectacular learning environments (they usually aren’t). Or even because self-education isn’t a worthwhile goal (it’s probably one of the best).

It’s because I’ve noticed many of the university-hating self-taught are the kind of people who read a couple self-help books per year and believe that’s basically the same as getting a degree. Then they get angry at the bureaucratic system that won’t let them get their ideal career. Sigh.

Why Self-Education Often Does Worse than Schooling

In my experience, self-education tends to be very good at high-level ideas.

If you wanted to spend a few months understanding evolutionary biology, you could probably read about a dozen books on the topic. These books would give you the broad strokes of what’s going on in the field, the challenges being faced and what science currently understands.

But I’ve noticed that the typical approach to self-education tends to be lousy at the deep, detailed knowledge of a field. Reading those evolutionary biology books won’t give you the statistical methods for analyzing gene selection, or the functions for how a population evolves over time.

For the most part, this omission isn’t a bad thing. I have no desire to do research in evolutionary biology. So if I had only read The Selfish Gene, The Origin of the Species and a few other books on evolution, I’d be satisfied with my knowledge. The broad strokes are enough.

The problem is when one tries to replace self-education for more formal training. Such as trying to give yourself the equivalent to an undergraduate degree in computer science, nutrition or accounting.

Here, the benchmark for success isn’t whether you can keep up a conversation about the ideas at a cocktail party. You also need deeper knowledge of the technical details of the field.

Why is Deeper Self-Education Important?

I really enjoy Ben Casnocha’s “T” model for learning new things. The idea is that, ideally, there should be a wide range of subjects you have a basic understanding of (the broad top of the T). But, in addition, there should also be a select few skills you are an expert in (the narrow stem of the T).

For the top of the T, deeper self-education isn’t terribly important. I’ve read books on linguistics, evolutionary biology, cosmology, gestalt therapy and world history. But I’m not an expert on any of those things, nor do I plan to be.

However, for the bottom of the T, I believe it is critical to know how to develop a deeper approach to self-education. Let’s say, for example, you want the major focus of your learning efforts to be computer programming.

You could take a degree, or even post-graduate education, in the subject. But for a field as rapidly evolving as computer programming, what you learn in school will quickly be replaced. So, even if you pursue formal education fully, you’ll rely a lot of educating yourself.

Alternatively, you could be completely self-taught. If this is your approach, then the necessity to deeply educate yourself is even greater. Quick overviews of topics without understanding mathematics, operating systems or computer architecture won’t make you an expert.

In either case, whether you pursue university doggedly or abhor it, you’ll need to spend a lot of time teaching yourself if you want to become really good at something.

How to Become Deeply Self-Taught

I’m still experimenting with the best approach to this. My major focuses are writing and entrepreneurship, both of which tend to have far less technical knowledge. However, other areas I’d like to expand to a decent level of depth include statistics, web programming and psychology.

These other fields are adjacent to my really important work, so I believe having the equivalent of a year or two of formal education in statistics, programming or psychology would support my major focuses of writing and running businesses.

So, while I can’t offer the magic bullet that will allow you to obtain the same knowledge without the tuition costs, I can share what I’ve found so far.

The Importance of a Curriculum

The reason acquiring deeper knowledge is difficult, is that the further you stare down the microscope, the less relevant it appears to the big picture. This is often why so many students lose motivation at school. Just how is understanding integrals, polymorphism or the ATP-cycle important for my life?

The one strength of formal education is that it forces you to adhere to a curriculum. When you know that you need to learn Statistics 1000 before taking on Statistics 2000, it is easier to focus on learning about p-values and bell curves, even if they seem irrelevant at the time.

Therefore I believe any self-education attempt needs to find a curriculum early on. Think of it like having a map when you’re in an unfamiliar country. No, you don’t need to follow it dogmatically, getting lost can be part of the fun. But having a map with you ensures you don’t stay lost permanently.

Discipline Matters–It’s Why Most Self-Education Attempts Fail

Deeper self-education requires more discipline than university, not less. Formal education has grades, assignments, attendance requirements and all sorts of external incentives to keep you focused.

Those external incentives probably remove some of the intrinsic joy of learning and create new stress, but they also make learning harder to ignore.

A deeper self-education attempt requires some discipline to see it through. Unlike, broad-stroke learning which can be done from curiosity alone, understanding the gritty details often requires a more conscientious effort.

For example, at the moment I’m working on my French. I love learning French and enjoy it more than most of my formal education. However, that doesn’t mean I work on it only when I feel like it. Being my biggest goal during my stay in France, I’ve dedicated a few 30 Day Trials and many hours of deliberate practice.

Many of my peers stopped learning French once their French classes finished. Without some deliberate effort, it’s easy to forget about your self-education goals and give up.

Application Can’t Be an Afterthought

In formal schooling, actually applying the ideas is a far goal. When you first learn statistics, most professors don’t expect you to start doing your own sampling or analysis. The actual use of the knowledge is put in a backseat to passing tests.

But if you’re going to sustain the motivation to complete a deep self-education curriculum, application must be put first. Otherwise, it is too easy to lose sight of the big picture and stop learning.

Effort needs to be made not just to learn the ideas, but to start applying them immediately. When I was previously teaching myself computer programming, I would always have a project I wanted to use the new-found skills on.

I was able to stay focused on learning French while I was still in Canada, as I had a French girlfriend at the time. How’s that for motivation? :)

What If You Don’t Have the Time?

I have a theory that the most successful people in life aren’t the busiest people or the most relaxed people. They are the ones who have the greatest ability to commit to something nobody else forces them to do.

Many people find time for school. Even if they are taking night classes and have a full-time job, they still manage to show up. It can be stressful, but they do it.

However, far fewer people would stick to a deliberate self-education program. They haven’t paid tuition and nobody is going to fail them if they don’t show up. So often they don’t.

I can’t think of another explanation for why someone who is serious enough to take night classes to learn a foreign language or build a new technical skill, can’t apply the same effort to educate himself.

The Goal of Teaching Yourself Everything

I wrote awhile ago about my personal goal of learning everything. I believe self-education (and especially the deeper self-education I mentioned here) is critical to that goal. And, if we really are living in an information-based world, it’s probably critical to almost every goal you have.

What are your thoughts on deeper self-education? Have you been able to teach yourself a subject to the same standards (or higher) than a university degree? Please share in the comments!

  • Biller Willtrip

    I agree with you somewhat that discipline is a big problem that people have when educating themselves, but I think that there is a bigger problem: the person’s mindset. If you don’t have the right mindset than nothing will ever work out. As Messala said in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”: “Oh hateful error, melancholy’s child, why dost thou show to the apt thoughts men the things that are not?” As we can clearly see here, by melancholy’s child he means a mindset that doesn’t serve us, and by error we can see that he means the consequence of an action. What we can learn from this is that having the wrong mindset about something leads to consequences that may not have been what we wanted.

  • Nicholas Neo

    Thank you for this post. It will go a long way bringing light and a higher level of self consciousness to anyone whether semi or fully self educating themselves, or contemplating to do so.

    One question to ask though, with the extensive analysis given, are there actually advantages to self educating, as compared to a heftyly priced college education?

    There are many, but many variables play a part in determining the outcome of this method of pursuing knowledge.

    For one, formal educational institutions are designed to make becoming a doctor, a lawyer, an aerospace engineers a possibility for most people within the average IQ band. And without said institutions, the majority will be left to wilt, as seen from countries struck with educational crisises.

    It takes a brilliant brain and truly nothing short of that for one to self study to greatness. Such an individual would fair stupendously in a formal/structured education system. Hence, what would push this individual to abandon the academic routers norm, and establish his quest for greatness on his own?

    I remember my days in law school when the lecturers will spend 3 hours reiterating “important points for scoring” in a human-PowerPoint manner. A full sleep depriving 3 hours from till 10pm when work starts at 9am the next day, achieving nothing but listening to about 5% of was already learnt by self reading, at a price of 12 grands a year too.

    Also, I will not fancy studying accountancy by myself because it is overly artificial and structured and moreover, a tool for profit making and without certification, serves close to no purpose. The sciences and literature, for example, are much more suitable for self learning.

    In short, self education is for a specific group of people, with specific reasons to avoid the current educational system, and also for specific areas only.

  • http://QueenaTahi.com Queena

    Hi Scott!

    Great article! I agree with your points on deep self education. It really isn’t for everyone. I like your motivation on getting a French girlfriend. I’ll have to try that one.

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  • Celestio

    Self education is best than university education, university education is ideal for people who can not set educational goals for themselves, so they need an institute that can regulate their progress & guide them of what to do inline with set general standards educationaly.
    After all who cares someone needs to be paid for guiding you to meet those standards.

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  • Venus

    Uh, of COURSE discipline and beyond-the-surface research would be needed-if one is passionate about their field. In fact, that’s supposed to be the idea of choosing a field of study in formal education, having a strong interest. Then it should automatically lead them to researching nonstop, questioning claims and resources, pulling up supporting/countering sources, pulling up sources outside that field to provide tools of analysis (such as learning statistical software, statistical theory, computer programming, languages, historical contexts, etc. for understanding another field). So it boils down to the individual’s drive, as the first comment sort of alluded to.

    The bigger problem with self-education is that we have become sheep that are SOOOO dismissive of any challenging claims (or supporting claims) made from someone simply because they don’t hold an official degree instead of simply proving why any of those claims/counterclaims are false, if one disagrees. Second, the way the educational institutions are setup, some corporations, organizations, agencies, etc. specifically look for applicants of whatever trade (accounting, engineers, etc.) from those schools.

    Third, registering with local or national organizations regarding your field are encouraged, but if you are seeking an internship (or seeking to join period), you often have to be an enrolled student or have graduated from an accredited institution. (Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics and National Society of Professional Engineers are two that came to mind.) Even if you really know your stuff and have experience in that field (such as something self-engineered or tutoring Spanish or linguistics, etc.), this is mostly case.

    Now honestly, I do believe that people must be certified in some way to show they are competent workers, competency is of key important. But if you are self-educated, demonstrate it, are very vocal or public about your expertise, couldn’t such individuals simply take some rigorous tests to show they know how to do the work??

    Until that day comes, I think the happy compromise between self-teaching and formal-education is spur the self-teaching as very very very early as possible WHILE working somewhere to support yourself and get life experience and social skills, THEN enter formal-education choosing your particular interest that you’ve already researched.

  • amanda

    Ive been self educating my self since i was a young child. plus my aunt took me under her wing she was a vet. i succesfully saved multiple animals. i have found mangled dogs and stitched them up provided vaccinations myself and rehomed them… i have also rescued birds that had been shot… i successfully saved a crow that had been shot in the wing. i amputated the wing cleaned and dressed it he lived for 3 years afterwards.

  • http://onai.io Dave J Dages

    I shed my laziness problem at age 24, and developed my own curriculum to better meet my unique goals, for flexibility, and because my learning mind would be too atrophied to keep up in formal education. I definitely wish I had the benefits of a more timely formal education; More time away from work and Classmates and staff to study with and receive feedback from. My biggest problem is often not knowing how to effectively research a fringe topic or the solution to a study road block. Hopefully the query “self education”, and perhaps your study course will be a significant help! Dave

  • https://sites.google.com/site/brucepcollard/ Bruce Collard

    Speaking for myself, self-education is not shunning universities at all. Obviously there are some fields where in order to compete you will have to seek deeper knowledge that can only be obtained through higher education. However for those of us who while in our youth were not always in possession of resources like finances, family, or competent decisions, making the habit of gaining knowledge and teaching yourself well enough to take your life where you want it to go is more than just a viable option. Much of the time it’s a priority of life.

  • Bill P

    I understand the point of your article but I disagree that a self learner does not learn deep enough. I don’t think that a college education is any deeper learning than what you can teach yourself with discipline and hard work. I have taught myself most of what they teach in the core classes for a computer science degree, except for the programing which I don’t seem to have the the mind set for. Not for that lack of trying.

    I have looked at the text books used for computer science at the local colleges and there isn’t any information taught or books used that can’t be Google’d or purchased on Amazon.com. Granted without the degree it makes landing a job in that field harder, but that is only due to the mentality of society and corporate America, believing that a person can’t possibly be educated beyond the basic reading, writing and arithmetic with out college. But the sad state of our educational system in grades K-12 makes me wonder how a high school diploma can carry much credibility now days.

    Take Kevin Mitnick the famed computer hacker, he didn’t attend college to obtain the knowledge and skills needed to penetrate the networks and computers that he did (read “ghost in the wires”). And he needed a great depth of knowledge in computers, networking, hacking, phone phreaking, social engineering, programming…etc, which was all self taught.

    College has it’s place in society and in education, but a degree should not be the only standard for measuring the depth of ones knowledge.

  • Nonamerequired

    It sounds to me as if you are actually upset at pseudo-intellectuals and not necessarily an auto-didactic. It could be said that any individual steeped deep into a capitalist agenda could even make that assessment. To help you solve your problem, leave your hipster friends behind, and stop worrying about being cool. Worthless people like to tack on a sense of importance, which is generally left unscathed from their lack of sharp wit.

  • Self Made

    I self educated myself yes and it did take a bit longer to acquire the job position I craved, but when I did get the job I had the hands on know how to perform the job with little to no training at all from the company or my peers and it has led me to my current job making six figures over the last ten years, thanks for the blog.

  • AM

    Hey, just because you lack the self-discipline to study alone in any kind of depth is no reason to get snotty with everyone who’s attempted it.

  • John

    I am a current college student at 38 years old. I spent 12 years in the military. I believe most proclaimed “self-teachers” are making false proclamations mainly because in order to be self-taught you must have an understanding of ‘who’ you are on a deeper level than most individuals posses. Even if you have this self-understanding and you read (quality) books you must be able to compare your understanding of the concepts within those books with the understandings of people who read the same concepts. In some way there can’t be true learning without discourse. This is what learning institutions provide. My own experience taught me the value of discourse. I have always been an avid reader. And by this statement, I do not mean James Patterson, Stephen King, or any self help book (thought I am guilty of having read the two authors in the list and actually enjoying some King). I read books on electronic theory, chemistry, biographies, autobiographies, philosophy, etc. In the Navy it was rare that I could communicate about these ideas because many people just didn’t read the same thing. It had nothing to do with intelligence, just mere interest. So these concepts may provided me with intuitions that made sense in a ‘natural’ way, but I had not way of explaining them to other people. Because of this past circumstance your point about learning methods as well as concepts rang out with instant clarity for me. Once I learned formal/statement logic and began to grasp the ideas of others better my intuitions began to formalize and this lead me to the books that I should read. This is what college is for. We can rail the system all we want about its quality, but if you are truly ‘self-taught’ college is the only place to go. Learning requires a community. I feel like that was your point. Thanks!