Learning to Learn – Adventures in Autodidacticism

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.

Grant Allen

Before starting this post, I questioned whether I should let my readers know the definition of “Autodidacticism” or leave it to them discover. For the reason that in this post I am trying to promote self-directed learning and encourage my readers to pursue it, I wanted to leave the searching of the meaning to them. However, this post would have ended before it began. Therefore I am going to have to put the definition below.

Autodidacticism (also autodidactism) or self-education (also self-learning and self-teaching) is education without the guidance of masters (such as teachers and professors) or institutions (such as schools). Generally, an autodidact is an individual who chooses the subject they will study, their studying material, and the studying rhythm and time. An autodidact may or may not have formal education, and their study may be either a complement or an alternative to it.

Wikipedia: Autodidactism

In this post, I am going to argue that anyone reading this post should become a life-long autodidact. The purpose of this article is not to diminish the value of a formal education but to emphasize that schooling is just one tool in the arsenal of an autodidact and an autodidact takes control of and responsibility for his/her own education. If you learn well from school then great, please do go to school. But if you find formal schooling to be tiresome and boring, don’t let that get in the way of your education. Remember that some of the greatest minds ever were autodidacts. You must take responsibility for your own learning and follow the path to self-directed learning; the rewards are well worth the effort.

Why I Am An Autodidact

I went to school for a major that will likely surprise you. I graduated from Rutgers University with a B.A. in Agribusiness Management with a certificate in food policy and by Agribusiness I mean agricultural businesses such as farms. So, how did I go on to become a business analyst, technical writer, an instructor, a developer, a software architect, a server administrator, a full-stack developer, a cloud practitioner and now machine learning and data visualization instructor? The simple answer is that my education did not end with college. I kept on learning well after school had ended and I can confidently say that my most rewarding education has not come from formal schooling but from self-pursued learning.

When I entered the job market, I knew that the job prospects for someone with my degree were slim to none so I dedicated myself to learning Microsoft Office and getting certified in Office 2003 as a master instructor. Once I earned my certification, I got my first job and based on that the next and then pursued my next certification and so on and the rest is history. I am currently pursuing my AWS Certified Architect Associate certification and am not planning on stopping there. What is the point of all this self-aggrandization you might ask? It is to let you know that all of my income over my professional career has resulted not from my degree but from learning what I pursued myself. Some of it did in-fact involve formal schooling and education but not most of it.

How I Learned to Learn

In my journey, I have learned many things but perhaps most important of all, I have learned how to learn. I learned my own personal learning rhythm. I came to know that I learn best piecemeal. I learned that I don’t do well learning from 3 day long intensive courses. In-fact I usually felt more confused after them than I was before. Therefore, having learned this about myself, I started taking courses and reading books at a pace that works for me. Most of the courses I took (read my MOOC article here) had suggested deadlines but I did not follow most of them (yes I am a bad student) for the reason that if I did not understand a concept, I kept trying to learn said concept even after the deadline passed until I was sure that I had grasped the concept. I was not interested in meeting some arbitrary deadline and receiving a grade, I was interested in learning and making sure I understood the concept. This attitude of taking ownership of my learning has served me well over my career.

How You Can Become and Autodidact

So I ask you dear reader to start on the journey to self-directed learning and you can and will become the architect of your own destiny. You won’t feel like a leaf in a tornado being pushed around by industry trends, government regulation, corporate cultures and economic shifts. You will direct your own destiny and you will rest easy in the firm knowledge that should things go sideways, you always have yourself to rely on and isn’t that who cares about you the most?

Let me start by saying that the concept you want to learn, the certification want to pursuer or even the degree that you want to graduate with is actually rather insignificant. You must first take ownership of the fact that making sure you learn in not up to your professor, your teachers, your boss or anyone else but to you.

The first thing I always do and I recommend you do as well is to keep breaking down any new concept that you wish to learn until it is so small and easy to understand that you can even explain it to a child if you wanted to. There might be prerequisite knowledge that you don’t have and if that is the case, don’t ever be too shy to admit that you don’t know something. I still some times forget key concepts I learned a while back. I always go back and look things up. Don’t put up a shield trying to protect your ego as your ego is your greatest enemy to your learning.

Taking charge also means you hold yourself accountable for your learning, if you don’t understand a concept, you break it down further. Still don’t get it? Break it down further until you reach a small enough subset of the concept that you can understand. I recently started learning Math again from Trigonometry and then moved on the some pre-calculus and then calculus because I wanted to learn machine learning. If that is what it takes, I am not shy about going back to the basic and neither should you be or else, you risk your career and perhaps life long fulfillment due to a desire to protect your ego.

I also encourage you to become a student of you own mind and a student of the learning methods that appeal to you the most. If you find that you learn better from audio books, then throw all paper books away, start using audio books and stop listening to the conventional wisdom that you must read. If you learn better by listening, do that instead. If you find that you learn better from online courses vs in-person or vice versa, then do that. Learn what methods of teaching give you the most value and pursue those methods. This also means that if you find that you learn better in school, then don’t be shy about going back to school. Just because I don’t learn well in a classroom setting, does not mean that others don’t and it also does not mean that I am not a good teacher (I am a certified technical trainer. Who knew that someone that does not like attending class can actually be a good teacher. Life is funny I guess). Take control of your education and by extension your career and by extension your destiny.

That’s it for today dear reader. So what is your favorite learning method? Do you learn better in school or outside of it? What learning tools do you use? Let me know in the comments below.

One comment

  1. The way I’ve come to see learning is perhaps different from many, but closer to many others. To me, I see learning from the point of view of understanding and interest. Over time, working in a number of jobs, eventually becoming a teacher, I realized something in college that changed how I saw learning. It was so simple that many hear my view, then simply go on to the next thought or activity. It is so simple, for all too many, it’s hard. Let me share it this way. I look at something, perhaps a fan or engine. There’s some distance between me and what I’m looking at. Soon, things make sense. Now, admittedly, I may have to study, read diagrams, and consider, but with each step, things make more sense. Over time, this works with everything, provided I’m interested and willing to take the time. I once was asked to train someone’s 3-year-old horse. I’d ridden horses, but outside learning at a college, I’d no other experience. He asked if I could train his horse. I said yes. I didn’t say I’d ever train one before, just that I could. 2 weeks later, we could walk, trot, and canter on the horse, walk it backwards, even open gates while atop. Time and experience showed me the value of watching, understanding, and confidence. I understood the horse. I knew I could. How? I discovered during those two weeks. Learning is not intellectual. It’s real.

    Liked by 2 people

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