5 Critical Self-Education Skills to Practice

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I’ve had a pretty weird relationship with education that I suspect isn’t really that weird at all. In 20 years of formal schooling, I always did fine, even pretty well when it came to tests and grades and all that jazz. But I rarely enjoyed any of it. It wasn’t until I graduated, and started taking charge of my own self-education for the first time, that I started to unlock my enthusiasm for growth and learning.

Beyond trying to perform well in school to “do well in life” (whatever that means), I rarely had any drive or passion for 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. I had no assignments to stay on top of, group projects to work on, or tests to study for. So I started using some of that extra energy to learn the way I wanted to learn.

I could study anything I wanted — things that got me excited, things that made a real impact on my life. Not just whatever was handed down by some archaic curriculum. And most importantly, I was able to 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 action that you do sometimes; it’s a practice that helps you see the world in a whole new way.

Self-education is a commitment to continuous learning, and to building up your skillset as a student of life.

man with laptop yellow sweatshirt thinking on floor

Education vs. Schooling

Problem is, there’s this assumption… While no one really says it out loud, most 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 formal schooling. But as Napoleon Hill, one of the first and greatest of the modern self-help authors, put it:

 “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

If you haven’t read Success Habits, by the way, you should definitely check it out, as well as the all-time classic with which Hill made his name, Think and Grow Rich. There is good reason Hill still stands as one of the most celebrated self-help authors of all time, even after nearly a century.

Education After Graduation

Don’t get me wrong. While it may have its shortcomings, schooling is still an invaluable resource, both to the individual learner and to society as a whole. And I love all my teachers out here (keep doing the good work you’re doing!). But to believe we’re done as soon as we get that last diploma would be ridiculous! Not to mention an affront to the educators and institutions that got us that far.

Imagine being just 18 years of age and knowing all you will ever know in life. Not just thinking you knew everything, as we all did at that age, but actually being done learning. Wouldn’t have been too pretty in my case, I can tell you that much.

Many of my most valuable lessons in my life so far have come after that age, not before.

We are always learning, and we always will be. Self-education means taking charge and responsibility for that learning, especially for those of us who are done with school. Because it’s all on us now, to take responsibility for our education, choosing what we want to learn and building up the skills and thinking that improve our learning.

Diversity of Thought and Skill

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

Continuous learning builds not just your library of existing knowledge, but the depth and diversity of your skills for learning itself. 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.

In school, particularly in the earlier years, you were always given a path. You were told what to learn, and how to go about learning it. With self-education, that’s not the case at all.

You choose the curriculum, the methods, the results you are aiming for. You can learn more about whatever catches your interest, or seems valuable in your eyes. And as a bonus, this enthusiasm makes you more engaged, and helps you retain what you learn far better.

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 knowledge 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 to the world as a whole.

Why Self-Education Is So Important and Awesome

Responsibility to Ourselves

First and foremost, self-education is for you. You reap the greatest benefit. Right up there with a positive attitude and unyielding persistence, a commitment to your own self-education is one of the biggest drivers of progress and personal success.

Whatever next step you aim to reach in your life, learning is essential to getting there.

  • Aspire to advance your career/business? Study your industry, or business skills in general.
  • Want to feel healthier? Learn more about what your body needs and how to make lasting, healthy changes.
  • Sick of always struggling and feeling behind with money? Look for books to change your relationship with money.

The same applies to relationships, happiness, cooking, or literally any other area where you want to move your life forward.

And beyond all this, personal growth and evolution can be a joy for its own sake. Not everything you learn or explore has to be for some specific objective. Learning just to learn, with no agenda, deadlines, homework, or any other kind of baggage, is truly one of the great human joys.

Responsibility to Others

group of people learning together at table

From technology, to cultural advancement, to the more existential threats against our species, our world is always progressing. The problems we collectively face, as well as the tools available to us for addressing those problems, are all part of the steady flow of change.

It is my solemn belief that we have a responsibility to our species, and to our world, to each contribute our unique drop into the Great Bucket of progress. I think I accidentally just started a religion. All hail the Great Bucket, for it knows all!

But seriously. I don’t have sneakers, or central air conditioning, or the keyboard I’m typing on right now as a result of my own ingenuity or persistence. Each of these things is a gift, made available to me by the combined efforts of countless individuals, working together across generations and creating the progress that led to these simple comforts.

It is a unique and powerful human strength to stand on the shoulders of giants. Continuous learning is how we make the climb up onto those magnificent shoulders and stand ever higher.

Self-education is, first and foremost, for our own joy and advancement. But if that’s not enough inspiration for you, then do it for posterity, for literally everyone who will come after you. What you contribute, and what you leave behind is a direct result of what you consume while you are here.

Critical Self-Education Skills to Practice

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 (though some may reasonably call it a little dystopian). If you were able to reach this article, then 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 
  • Online communities and forums
  • Sweet-awesome blogs with sweet-awesome anvil logos and sweet-awesome personal growth content
  • Self-guided courses, online learning apps, etc

Like I said, you’ve been to the internet before, you get it.

What I do want to dive into, in a little more depth, are some of the skills that will be the most vital to your self-education journey. These will help you learn more effectively, in a way that works best for you, and discover (or rediscover) the joy of learning.

woman with notebook and laptop outside

1. Knowing Your Style

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

  • Are you more of an auditory or a visual learner?
  • How important is repetition of new information for you?
  • Do you usually need to try something yourself for it to soak in?
  • Is making mistakes a valuable teacher for you?

There are no “best” learning styles, nor is anyone’s style bad or broken. We are all unique, and understanding our unique style is key to finding the best approach.

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

See One, Do One Teach One is one of my favorite techniques for learning anything with a practical or “action”-based component to it (aka, things you want to learn how to do).

First, you watch someone else do the thing you’re trying to learn. This introduces it to you and gives you an initial understanding. Next you do one yourself. This helps you learn it better through firsthand experience. And then finally, you teach or explain it to someone else. Repackaging your understanding of something in order to pass it on helps to deepen your own understanding, and can also highlight any gaps you still have.

3. Questions (Part 1)

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.

4. Questions (Part 2)

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

You are taught to trust that most of what you hear and read in school is accurate, trustworthy, and based in fact. 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’re consuming, and aim to understand not just their message, but 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 perspective is something intelligent people do all the time. It’s also a super healthy interpersonal technique.

5. 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. Basically, it means learning something to the point that you have really internalized it, or “grokked” it.

The first time a player tries a new action in a video game, like jumping onto a platform, picking up some berries, or thwacking an enemy, they have started to learn that action. But they haven’t internalized it to the point of not even needing to think about it. This is why designers give players plenty of chances to practice it right away, so that they can grok it before you start putting them into seriously challenging uses of that action.

The same is true for how we learn lots of things — swinging a baseball bat, driving a car, or posting an Instagram Story. The first time you “learn” something, you probably haven’t finished learning it yet. It still takes more active thinking to do it. Take time to practice, explore things from multiple angles, and bolster your learning through experience!

How is your self-education journey going? What especially helpful techniques do you use?

2 Comments

  1. Averyl McDaniels said:

    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.

    August 5, 2021
    Reply
    • Sam said:

      thank you! and agreed – it never ends!

      August 13, 2021
      Reply

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