“Education is what people do to you and learning is what you do for yourself,” said Joi Ito in his TED2014 talk. “You’re not going to be on top of mountain all by yourself with a #2 pencil … What we need to learn is how to learn.”
Indeed, traditional education may not be for everyone, but learning is. Learning is about enriching our minds, honing our skills, and changing the way we see ourselves and the world. It improves our behavior and the way we think by expanding and challenging our understanding. All too often I met students who were waiting for learning to happen, waiting for the right teacher to teach in the right way. But waiting can easily be disguised as productive—it isn’t. There are practices you can engage in right now that puts you on the path of self-education.
As a student who was once lost and desperately eager to adapt to the mediocrity of traditional education, I’ve developed strategies that have helped me deeply learn subjects that are practical to my goals and career. It wasn’t easy starting new habits that should have been built throughout my life. The tools and platforms are growing by the day, but the desire to learn, to start connecting the dots, is ultimately missing. Here’s how you can start:
You have to tell yourself a story on how learning will benefit you as a human being. It’s easy to believe that a desire to learn is commonplace, but I disagree. You have to be eager to want to explore your curiosities. Eager to discover solutions to your problems. Eager to improve, to stretch your understanding, to discover new insights.
This requires initiative, a desire to start on your own without a syllabus or a professor. Most of all, a desire to learn is a mindset. When you wake up, tell yourself that it’s your responsibility to deeply engage in a subject that interests and challenges you. You have to want to learn as if your life depended on it. If you’re unstimulated by traditional education, that’s a sign that you need to take it a step further. Stop waiting for the right teacher or the right class. The materials, tools, and platforms are all readily available. This desire will serve as one of the greatest assets throughout your life. Don’t let it extinguish.
Reading books is my favorite way to dive into a subject. The thinking goes: Someone who has a comprehensive understanding of the subject at hand is compelled to share their knowledge. It helps us collect dots, but more importantly, to start connecting them in ways that is meaningful and enriching.
I view reading almost like a meditation, a conversation with the author. So here is a book on, say, business or psychology. I am now being exposed to information that I was previously unaware of, a new perspective. Now I’m collecting dots, churning the information in my head and figuring out how it applies to my life. Does it make sense? How is it useful? What am I having a hard time understanding and why? Over time, we can start making connections, discovering new insights, and surprisingly, being more curious which is always helpful.
The Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus once said, “Books are the training weights of the mind.” Reading exercises thinking. The more we read, the better we become at thinking about the information we come across throughout our lives.
Skillshare, Khan Academy, edX, Udemy, 99u, TED, CreativeLive, Lynda—these are all online platforms that provide educational content, videos, learning communities, and more. Some of the content is free, and others require a very small fee.
It’s foolish to assume that you’ll learn everything you need to know in school to prepare you for your life and career. The quality of our lives is determined by our efforts to reshape and improve our minds. School is helpful, definitely, but it’s also our responsibility to explore our own interests, to study subjects that are beyond our comfort zone.
If you felt that a specific course at your university was lackluster, go read books on the subject and take an online course. Deepen your understanding on your own or with a colleague. This is a habit that will help you throughout your life. Instead of complaining and waiting, you can actively pursue knowledge that will help you live better and do better work.
This boils down to having a desire to learn and taking the initiative of setting a schedule, showing up, and engaging with the material.
What I love about listening to interviews and podcasts is that they’re sort of a private mentorship.
So here is a host interviewing, say, a best-selling author or a successful individual in their field. The host is asking a series of questions that many of us would love to ask such as, How did you get started in your career? What were some roadblocks that you faced and how did you overcome them? Why was this project successful or why did this one fail?
This exercises our ability to truly listen, to pay attention to what’s being said, and to extract useful in the information. We can learn that each person had to face a series of difficult decisions, failures, and life altering realizations. This should resonate with us on every level. It should motivate us to put in more effort, to realize our own shortcomings, and to find useful bits of insight that are immediately practical to our endeavors. It’s always good to remind ourselves that the people we look up to are in fact human beings.
Here’s some resources that I use: Design Matters, The Great Discontent, Unmistakable Creative, Beyond The To-Do List, and The Good Life Project.
There’s a fantastic article on The Atlantic called, Why I Teach Plato To Plumbers. The author, Scott Samuelson, explains why it’s important to study subjects that are seemingly irrelevant to our craft: “Why shouldn’t educational institutions predominately offer classes like Business Calculus and Algebra for Nurses? Why should anyone but hobbyists and the occasional specialist take courses in astronomy, human evolution, or economic history? So, what good, if any, is the study of the liberal arts, particularly subjects like philosophy? Why, in short, should plumbers study Plato? My answer is that we should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees.”
By studying subjects outside of our comfort zone, we can inadvertently discover useful information and insight to not only help us thinker better, but to also change the way we do our work. Why shouldn’t a graphic designer study architecture or fashion? Why shouldn’t a business student study psychology and read scientific journals?
What makes greatness possible is the ability to think—not just being an expert at one thing. By cross-pollinating ideas, we can unearth insight that is helpful to how we lead our lives. When you are able to extract something useful in a subject that you originally found uninteresting, it just goes to show how you’re exercising your mind.
Experimenting with information is at the heart of learning. How does this subject help me live better or work smarter? How does this perspective change the way I do business or engage with people? How does this idea relate to what I do?
You can set weekly meetings with friends and colleagues and discuss what you have learned, how it applies to each other’s craft, and how you can dig deeper to discover something new. When you study a subject over time you create a perspective. Of course, your perspective may differ from your friends, and that’s exactly the point. You want to see how other people view the subject, how they’re connecting the dots in their mind. It may help you reveal something that you missed, something that may profoundly change the way you understand it.
You can also write about it. You don’t have to publicly post what you have learned. The idea is that by writing about the subject you’re becoming aware of your level of comprehension. You can briefly write about the subject as if you were teaching it to someone else. As you reread or edit the work you may realize that some parts are unclear, and that may be reflective of your understanding. So now use this realization as a cue to explore further. Read more books on it. Ask questions to your professors or peers. Take an online course. But above all, when you realize that you have a firm grasp on a subject, when you unravel some really practical and useful knowledge, be sure to share it with someone who may benefit from it.
Self-education is valuable habit to start building. It will carry you throughout higher education and well beyond it. Even throughout your career it’s important to stay fluid and open-minded, to relentlessly connect the dots and deepen your understanding of what you do and how you can do it better. This all starts with an intense desire to learn; an eagerness that keeps us hungry for knowledge. Second, it’s about initiative—the promise of showing up and learning something as if our lives depended on it. Education is not a place or a deadline. It’s a practice, a habit, a part of your daily diet.