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


I’d always seen my father use Photoshop and 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, reading that book, and online tutorials, I learned the basic principles of editing images in Photoshop. While I’m still no image editing wizard, my basic Photoshop skills continue steadily to serve me to this day. And it was all because I thought we would pursue that first learning project on my own.

It wouldn’t be the final such project, either. Since that time, 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 helps advance my career. My early method of self-education was rather haphazard, but I’ve since learned much more about how to effectively teach yourself new things.

Why You Must Educate Yourself

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

Credentials Are No Longer Enough

There was a period when having a college degree was enough to secure a great job. But with more people graduating from college than ever, you now need alternative methods to differentiate yourself.

While there are many approaches to be noticeable in a job interview, one of the best is to show 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.

A self-directed learner is likely to stand out alongside the other applications with the same degrees, GPAs, and extracurriculars.

Self-Education Is the Ultimate Competitive Edge

Despite fears of automation destroying jobs, history shows us that new technology often ultimately creates new jobs and opportunities.

Here are only some of the new jobs that tech advances have created in the past ten to 20 years:

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

Not only will 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 appear to be? That’s the subject of the remainder of this article.

How to Educate Yourself

Learning is a very personal process, and the array of subjects to understand is vast. Therefore, giving an exact pair of steps for self-education is difficult.

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

Identify What You Desire to Learn

The obvious first step to learning something new is to choose a skill or subject. You likely have a vague idea in mind already, but I encourage you to make it more specific. In this manner, you can better track your learning progress.

For example, let’s say you wish to learn piano. “Learn piano” isn’t a very good goal — it’s way too vague. Just what do you wish to learn?

All of these come under “Learn piano,” but they’re very different goals requiring different amounts of effort. You can see, therefore, why setting a certain learning goal is so important.

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

Rather, you ought to choose personally meaningful learning goals. This might assist you in advancing your career, but it could also be pure curiosity. Regardless, you’re more likely to stick to an understanding goal when you have a clear “why.”

Determine How You Learn Best

Once you’ve picked an understanding goal, you can begin finding learning resources, But before diving into specific books or courses, you ought to do some self-reflection about how you learn best.

Generally speaking, listed here are some of the main ways you can learn something:

  • Reading
  • Watching videos (such as Skillshare courses)
  • Making flashcards
  • Imitating an instructor
  • Learning projects
  • With other students in a normal classroom

None of these techniques is better than the others. This help learns different subjects, and you will need to experiment to determine what works best.

The great part is that because you’re directing your learning, you can mix and match the training 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 completely new to a subject, I recommend reading some existing curricula or learning resources to start. You do not have to stay glued to these exactly, but they can offer you some guidance for assembling a more personalized plan.

I’ll also give one caveat for learning physical skills: get a teacher. With physical skills such for instance sports or music, a teacher can assist you in avoiding bad habits as well as injuries that come from improper technique. Even when you’re taking lessons virtually, the live feedback from the teacher is invaluable to start the proper way.

Learn in Sprints

You may observe that I haven’t mentioned making a detailed learning plan. While this can be ideal for certain projects, I generally find it ineffective for learning new skills. Planning everything out at the start is too inflexible, as your learning goals will shift over time.

Instead, I favor understanding things in two-week sprints. Every couple of weeks, I pick a particular part of the skill to focus on in my practice sessions. This keeps me from getting distracted or bored. Plus, it allows me to regularly evaluate my progress and refocus my efforts.

To give you a real-world example, I recently saw that I couldn’t change between chords smoothly on the banjo. So I devoted the past couple of weeks of practice to playing chord changes slowly with a metronome. Now that this practice cycle has ended, I could move ahead to improve another specific part of my playing.

Practice Deliberately

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

Popular ideas such as the 10,000-hour rule supply the impression that “setting up the hours” is all you want to boost something.

But setting up the hours isn’t enough. I possibly could strum your guitar for 10,000 hours and still be no nearer to playing like Pat Metheney. The recipe for improving a skill is setting up enough hours of deliberate, focused practice.

Use Spaced Repetition to Make Information Stick

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

Spaced repetition is comparable to traditional flashcards, with one important twist. As opposed to spending equal time studying every flashcard, spaced repetition systems focus your studies on the data you struggle with the most.

Meanwhile, spaced repetition even offers you review information before you plan to forget it. This ensures you retain all the necessary data without wasting time reviewing things you already know.

Assess Your Ability Regularly

All of us hate tests, but they could be super helpful for honestly assessing your ability.

You do not have to draft a proper test like those you did in school. You merely need a way to measure your progress to ensure that you may make sure your learning is on track. You can adjust your practice routine accordingly if things aren’t going well.

But how in case you assess your ability?

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

If you may get someone more capable of critiquing your performance, that’s great. But you can also take an online assessment or record a video.

To provide you with some ideas, here’s how I’d assess my progress on a couple of different skills:

  • Music – Record me with my phone (or create a video).
  • Drawing: Do a certain quantity of subject sketches and then get a more skilled artist friend to provide feedback.
  • Language Learning – Set up a conversation with a teacher on iTalki and inquire further to critique my grammar, pronunciation, etc.

You can regularly track your progress using a habit-tracking app or notebook. Having an aesthetic record of one’s progress will motivate you to carry on, showing how far your ability had come when you began.

Brian Santiago

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