The most important skill for a young person today is learning quickly and effectively. Since the Great Recession, nobody buys the false impression that you can get a credential after studying for four years, land a job, and then have a career with the same core set of skills over your entire life. Even professional career tracks like medicine and law are under outside economic and technological pressure to change and adapt at a faster pace than ever before.
The idea of school and college teaching you the skills you need to succeed, is so laughable today that it is considered a joke among employers. This holds true even in an entry level job. People expect high-performers to constantly learn and improve outside of their formal education. Economic, information, and technological forces have come together to form an economy where agility commands more value than entrenchment.
Those who master this skill become captains of their fate. Those who ignore it are at the mercy of economic and technological forces around them.
These are three effective strategies for self-directed learning, taken from my upcoming book, The Little Guide to Learning Anything and learned from some of the most successful self-directed learners I’ve met and studied.
1. Know Your Outcome and Have Good Reasons to Learn
It’s not unusual to run into people who understand all of the arguments about why you need to be always learning and the importance of learning new skills for career and personal fulfillment. It’s even not that unusual to meet people who understand these arguments and actually start learning a skill. They sign up for a class, buy a book, or start studying how to do something entirely new. What is unusual is finding people who know exactly what they want and why they want it.
Think about it. If you don’t know where you are going with something you are learning, how do you know when you’ve gotten there? How many people have you met who start picking up a skill and tell you that they are learning something popular and marketable like coding and then never finish it?
They never finish because they don’t know where they’re going. Their goal is this big, abstract behemoth of “learning a skill,” or maybe the slightly-more-concrete “learning a skill to get a job.” That’s overwhelming and not very easy to imagine.
This makes it that anytime something more challenging, interesting, lucrative, or engaging comes along, the person is likely to give up the current thing and move to the next. People empathize with situations they can actually imagine. People cannot easily imagine abstracts. It’s hard to imagine yourself getting to an abstract and feeling good about that. People empathize with situations they can actually imagine. People cannot easily imagine abstracts. It’s hard to imagine yourself getting to an abstract and feeling good about that.
You want to set up the game to win, so choose things that you will stick with. Know exactly what you want to achieve and why. Make this something concrete — like building a website, performing a recital, or publishing a post on a specific site — and something that inspires you.
2. Model Those Who Have Already Done It
Once you know what it is you want to learn and why you want to learn it, you need to develop a plan of action to learn it. Unfortunately, many people get this and immediately assume this means they have to go sign up for a class or enter into a formalized educational environment in order to learn something. While this may be the best way to learn for a few. It leaves many people in a path of trial-and-error learning until they figure out how they’ll pick up the skills they’re trying to gain.
Instead, find somebody who has gotten to where you are trying to go and find out how they got there. In my interviews with successful doers, this is a common theme for those on multi-year paths to success. This is called reverse-induction. Look at the conclusion and piece together the track to get to that conclusion. Now you have a road map for action that allows you to do something that is proven to work.
“Sure, that sounds easy enough, but how do I actually find somebody who has done what I want to do?”
Today, in a world where you can get in touch with almost anybody on the planet through a few introductions, you have no excuse for not finding somebody who has done what you want and getting close to them. You may have to work, but using tools like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google, you can track somebody down that you can at least meet once and ask a few questions to about their path to success.
And even if you can’t, you don’t necessarily need to have this person be a mentor who gives you all of their secrets. Biographies, autobiographies, blog posts, video documentaries, and just documentation of what they have done is often enough to help give you the road map you need to success.
3. Start Small and Work to Failure
A common theme among self-educators is their ability to test their new knowledge by creating small projects and deliverables along the way. They don’t wait until the very end and try giving their all with everything they’ve learned. They don’t jump all-in on a ridiculously difficult project that they are likely to fail on as a new learner.
Instead self-educators focus on finding places and areas where they can stop, test their skills, and develop deliverables that prove their abilities. This helps them internalize what they have learned, iron out areas where their knowledge isn’t as strong as they would prefer, and adjust the next step of the plan of learning appropriately.
There’s also an ego-regulating element in starting with small projects and then working to failure. Bodybuilders rarely start on their heaviest weights and try working up over a long period of time from there. Starting at or near failure can hurt the ego and make them second-guess their ability to push themselves and grow. Instead, they start lighter than their heaviest recent load and work up to the point where they are pushing themselves. This gives them the feeling of progress and of growth at the beginning. Making it less likely they’ll second-guess their abilities to grow.
The self-educator must act the same way. Second-guessing can lead to self-sabotage and prevent the learner from falling into a state of true learning.