Self-Education: 6 Pivotal Skills to Become an Expert Self-Teacher

In my 20 years of formal education, I had a learning experience that I suspect was quite common. On paper, I always did fine, even pretty well from time to time. But I rarely enjoyed any of it. It wasn’t until I graduated and started to fall in love with self-education that I started to unlock my enthusiasm for growth and the learning process.

Beyond trying to perform well in school to “do well in life” (whatever that means), I rarely had any passion for classrooms or learning when I was younger. Or so I felt.

But once I finally finished all my “school learning,” I found myself with way more free time and mental energy than I’d ever had before. With no assignments to stay on top of, group projects to work on, or tests to study for, I started using some of that extra energy to learn the way I wanted to.

I could study anything I wanted — things that got me excited and impacted my life. Not just whatever some archaic curriculum handed down to me. Most importantly, I could learn and practice in a way that made sense for my brain. I could learn in my own style. And all that is the joy of self-education.

What is Self-Education?

As you can already tell (from the name and all), self-education is the practice of teaching yourself new things through a variety of means. But there’s more to it than that. It isn’t just an occasional action that you do; it’s a lifelong discipline of going above and beyond your formal education.

Self-education is a commitment not just to your continuous learning but to building up your self-directed learning skills as well.

Education vs. Schooling

There’s a common assumption when it comes to teaching and learning. While no one says it out loud, many of us quietly assume that “education,” as a concept, is something we only go through until we turn 18, or 22, or whatever age we finish our official higher education.

But there’s a problem with this assumption. Napoleon Hill put it best:

 “A lot of people think that because they go through the grade schools and high schools, college, get some degrees, that they are educated. Perish the idea. That’s not what makes people educated.”

– Napoleon Hill, Success Habits

There is good reason Hill still stands as one of the most celebrated self-help authors of all time, even after nearly a century. He was telling us, even back then, how important self-education can be.

Picking up Where Graduation Left Off

Don’t get me wrong. While it may have its shortcomings, traditional pedagogy is still an invaluable resource, both to the individual learner and society as a whole. Our teachers and educators out there deserve all the love we can send them. 

The problem is when we treat the classroom as the end of our education rather than the beginning. To believe it’s all over as soon as we turn in our textbooks and get that last diploma would be ridiculous! The educators and mentors that got us that far gave us a tremendous gift. We owe it to them, to say nothing of ourselves, to pick up where they left off and start pursuing our own learning goals.

We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to take self-education seriously.

Imagine being just 18 years old and knowing all you will ever know in life. Not just thinking you knew everything (I know I did at that age), but actually being done learning new things. That wouldn’t have been too pretty in my case; I can tell you that much.

Many of the most valuable lessons in my life have come after that age, not before. A great deal of that is thanks to informal learning and self-educating.

Why Is Self-Education So Important?

It’s difficult to fully encapsulate all the ways that lifelong learning and self-study can positively impact your life. But for a quick introduction to why we should all work on becoming better self-educated, here are just a few enormous benefits.

Personal Development

Right up there with a positive attitude and unyielding persistence, a commitment to your self-education is one of the biggest drivers of progress and personal success. Building your mastery of the topics and skills that matter most to you is a powerful gateway.

Whatever next step you aim to reach in your life, the ability to teach yourself is essential to getting there.

  • Looking to advance your career/business? Watch some instructional videos about your industry or critical business skills in general.
  • Want to feel healthier? Learn more about what your body needs and how to make lasting healthy changes.
  • Stuck struggling and feeling behind with money? Then, look for books to change your relationship with money.

The same applies to relationships, happiness, cooking, or any other area where you want to move your life forward. There are countless learning strategies available to cover every subject imaginable, and you can choose what works best for you.

Learning How to Learn

Our early childhood education teaches us many things, but arguably one thing above all. It teaches us how to learn. 

Whatever you find yourself learning, you are always doing two things. First, you are learning the topic or skill itself. But on top of that, you are also honing your ability to learn new things. Think of it as exercising your brain. And self-education is another great way to get that exercise.

Self-taught people are more likely to have a diverse array of knowledge and practical ability. They also tend to have greater competence in approaching new topics.

Whether we like it or not, we constantly face new things that we need to learn or adapt to. A scholarly mindset will always lead to better learning outcomes in cases like that. 

Diversity of Thought and Skill

There is much more to self-education than studying new subjects and memorizing new facts. School conditioned many of us to view learning this way, but it’s not the entirety of what we were doing back then, nor should it be now.

The more time you spend soaking in new things and curiously exploring your world, the more you hone your critical thinking, expand your understanding of new perspectives, and achieve a more nuanced worldview.

The more you learn, the more unique your overall experience and body of knowledge becomes— leading to valuable diversity of thought and opinion. No one else has the exact combination of expertise and experience that inform your views, opinions, and convictions.

Continuous learners who commit to their self-education have much more to offer to themselves and the world around them.

6 Essential Self-Education Skills

There is no one right way to self-educate. Freedom from that sort of rigid thinking is one of the tremendous benefits of self-education. There are no rules, deadlines, homework, or tests — unless you want there to be. 

It’s entirely self-paced. You are the facilitator of your own learning environment.

With that in mind, let’s look at a few of the most pivotal self-education skills that can help anyone pursue a more vibrant life through the joy of learning.

1. Finding the Right Resources

I won’t take up too much of your time on modes and media for self-education. Odds are you’ve got a pretty good sense of the options already. 

We live in an information utopia. If you were able to reach this article, then you have internet access. That means you have virtually limitless access to the sum of human knowledge in whatever flavor tastes best to your hungry mind-brain:

  • Books in any format (physical, audio, “e”)
  • Podcasts, videos, and audio content 
  • Free online communities and forums
  • Educational seminars and workshops
  • Sweet-awesome blogs about work, life, and money
  • Open online courses and learning programs such as Coursera, Skillshare, or Udemy

As I said, you’ve been to the internet before; you get it. But it bears repeating. Access to effective educational materials is the foundation of a robust learning process. Therefore, knowing which resources work best for you and where to find them is an indispensable self-education skill.

2. Knowing Your Style

Next up is the skill of knowing not just what you will learn from but how you learn best.

Not everybody learns the same way, and that’s totally groovy beans. Pay attention to what works for you and what makes learning more challenging so that you can better plan your approach to self-education:

  • Are you more of an auditory or a visual learner?
  • How helpful is the repetition of new information for you?
  • Do you usually need to try something yourself to absorb it better?
  • Is making mistakes a valuable teacher for you?
  • What is the best way for you to approach a large, complex problem?

There are no “best” learning styles, nor is anyone’s style bad or broken. We are all unique, and understanding your individual style is key to finding the best self-education approach for you.

3. The “See One, Do One, Teach One” Method

See One, Do One Teach One is one of my favorite techniques for learning new skills with a practical or “action”-based component. It follows three simple steps:

  1. Watch someone else perform the task (or explain it to you)
  2. Try it out for yourself
  3. Show (or teach) someone else how to do the task

Each step takes you through a different part of the learning process. The first step introduces you to new information. The second step pushes you to deepen your understanding by putting it into practice. And finally, repackaging your knowledge of something to pass it on refines your familiarity with it and can also highlight any gaps you still have.

4. Questions

I have long been a proponent that questions are a crazy-important tool for personal growth. Self-education is one of the biggest reasons for that. Only you can identify what you don’t know or what you want to know, so lean into that. 

Never be afraid to engage your curiosity and ask lots of questions to expand and diversify your understanding of new things. Click that next link, ask that person to explain further, go deeper with your questions!

Asking questions often makes people feel insecure, like it will reveal to others that you’re some kind of big dumb dummy what don’t know nothin’. But I assure you the opposite is true. Insightful questions are a sure sign to others that you are not only deeply processing new information and making new mental connections but that you’re self-confident enough to do so out loud.

5. Questions (Part 2)

Look, I said questions are a big deal to self-education, didn’t I? Questioning, in this case, doesn’t only mean to be enthusiastically curious. It also means to challenge new information as you encounter it.

School taught you to trust that most of what you hear and read in school is accurate, trustworthy, and based on fact. But unfortunately, the same is not always the case out here in the wild online arena, in this peculiar information utopia/dystopia in which we all live.

Be critical when consuming new information. Just because something sounds confident or looks authoritative doesn’t mean it is. Pay attention to the sources you consume and aim to understand their message as well as their intent. Practice evaluating conflicting pieces of info and determining which seems the most valid and trustworthy.

And by the way, when something new comes along and challenges what you thought you knew, that’s okay! Question the old stuff, question the new stuff, and make up your mind. Updating your opinions based on new perspectives is something intelligent people do all the time. It’s also a super healthy interpersonal technique.

6. Grokking

One of my favorite keepsakes that I’ve carried with me from my days in the game design world is the concept of grokking. Once you have learned and internalized something to the point that you can recall it with minimal effort, you have “grokked” it.

The first time a player tries to learn something new in a video game, like jumping onto a platform, picking up some berries, or thwacking an enemy, they have started to understand that action. But they haven’t fully internalized it yet. 

This is why designers give players plenty of chances to practice that action right away. Then, with enough repetition, the player should be able to do that action at the right time without actively “thinking” about it. In other words, they have grokked that action. Now they’re ready to use that action in more complex or challenging ways later.

The same is true for how we learn lots of things — brushing our teeth, driving a car, or posting an Instagram Story. The first time you “learn” something, you probably haven’t finished learning it yet. You still need time to think about each step. Take time to practice, explore things from multiple angles, and bolster your learning through experience!

Getting up and Running With Self-Education

So, where to start? Anywhere! You have everything you need to start becoming a master self-teacher. You’ve seen why it is so valuable to be able to self-teach, as well as some crucial skills that you can use on your self-education journey.

Remember, it’s a lifelong practice, not a one-time thing. All you need is to pick something that fascinates you or a skill that would be valuable to you, and go start learning something new!

Avatar for Sam

Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

4 thoughts on “Self-Education: 6 Pivotal Skills to Become an Expert Self-Teacher”

  1. I think the distinction between schooling and education is so we’ll explained. I like to think of education as a lifelong journey. Also, I love the idea of challenging something as a form of questioning. I never thought about how questioning the validity of the information I take in can allow me to gain a different perspective and insight into what I do and don’t already know.


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