The Importance of Self-Learning and 5 Key Steps to Put Into Practice

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Genius is the ability to independently arrive at and understand concepts that would normally have to be taught by another person.

― Immanuel Kant

We’re born as self-learners. As children, we rely heavily on our ability to learn from our surroundings and the actions of others. As adults, however, it’s easier to pass the buck onto others and ask for help rather than to spend the frustrating hours, days, or weeks learning ourselves. Our innate ability to learn and adapt becomes dull.

When I posted my “Day in the Life of a Happiness Engineer” post, I had quite a few friends reach out asking how they could score the same type of job. Many of these individuals came from a completely non-technical background so landing a job in the tech industry seemed like a long shot. They didn’t have experience in tech, and it didn’t seem like something you could just “pick up.”

That, of course, isn’t true.

Regardless of your background, it’s completely possible to learn a new career field. Hell, it’s possible to learn anything. Perhaps more importantly, it’s possible without going back to school. Heading back to formal education is a knee-jerk reaction and isn’t necessary unless your intended career field has some sort of required credentials.

If formal education isn’t necessary, what exactly is the secret sauce to self-learning? Here are five keys I’ve put into practice myself.

1. Pick something based either on curiosity or necessity.

The best learning is driven by either curiosity or necessity.

Children are constant experimenters always picking up new items and seeing what they can do with them. This same curiosity that leads them to experiment also helps them to overcome frustration. If you sit down to learn something you’re innately curious about, you’ll persist far longer than someone working with ulterior motives.

If you’ve ever panicked the night before a big project is due only to find yourself showcasing a big A+ the next day, you’ve truly experienced the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention.” While necessity isn’t always the most desirable of motives, it does get the job done.

When identifying a new skill that I want to pick up, I have to either be curious about that skill or forced into learning it. With WordPress, I was curious. When I initially started writing, largely to supplement my income, it was out of necessity.

2. Find the lowest cost avenue for entry.

The worst thing you could do when trying to learn something is go out and immediately invest hundreds of dollars into a fancy new setup. Often times, the items you purchase will end up sitting in the corner unused after a handful of days.

Instead of rushing out to buy all the necessary gear, start looking for the lowest cost for entry. What’s the quickest and cheapest avenue that lets you get your hands dirty without risking the farm on the investment?

In this step, you aren’t looking for mastery or even much improvement at all. You’re testing the waters to see if this thing makes you want to come back for more.

I’ll use WordPress as another example here. I started up a website a long time ago just to see what this blogging thing was all about. Four hours later, I was still customizing and tinkering with the site. After I was forced off the computer to interact with other human beings, I set my alarm for early the next morning to get back at it.

That’s what we’re looking for. The hooked feeling where you can spend endless amounts of hours working at something without it feeling like work at all.

3. Find something to break, repeatedly.

The best way to learn something is to tinker and explore, ideally with little repercussion for mistakes (you’re going to make them).

When I was first starting to learn how to use WordPress, I was just dangerous enough to think I knew how to make changes to PHP files (although I had no idea how to read PHP). I would login, make a mistake in a line of code, and bring my entire site down. I would then send an email to a developer that I knew. He would login and fix the issue for me, and I would pay him $30 for his time.

It didn’t take long at all before I got tired of paying someone $30 every weekend. So, I learned how to fix it myself.

It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to learn; the best experience comes from doing the thing you’re trying to master. If you’re trying to learn a new instrument, board yourself up in a soundproof room and bang, strum, and pluck away.

Similar to step two, this step isn’t really meant to refine technique. It’s meant to get you into the “doing” phase.

Remember back in PE class when you were getting ready to play a new game? The teacher would spend 10 minutes explaining the rules, dividing the teams, and making sure everything was set-up. Meanwhile, all you and your friends wanted to do was run around and kick the damn ball. Same concept.

Identify the fastest route that gets you kicking the damn ball.

4. Practice deliberately and close feedback loops.

Deliberate practice and tight feedback loops have been shown time and time again to be crucial for performance. They play a critical role in how quickly you can pick up and improve on a new skill.

Deliberate practice.

Amateur musicians … tend to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros tend to work through tedious exercises or focus on difficult parts of pieces.

– Joshua Foer in Moonwalking With Einstein (source)

When I was in high school, I spent a brief stint of time focused on learning how to play the guitar. For a moment, I thought I had a shot at going to college as a musician.

Every weekend, I would go to a one-hour practice session with my instructor. During those sessions, we rarely played songs all the way through. Instead, he would tailor each session to one of my many areas of weakness. We would go over drills to improve that area; he would critique my form; and finally, after many groans from my part, we would play a song that incorporated the specific skill.

In order to move from being not-so-great to mediocre or even good at a skill, you have to focus on your areas of weakness. As another example, I’m terrible at CSS positioning. It just doesn’t really make sense to me no matter how much I try.

Not great: Try to build an entire theme from scratch, which would include some CSS positioning elements.

Great: Setup a scenario and repeatedly try to move a specific element around the page with CSS positioning.

One method incorporates the specific element within the whole orchestra. The other hones in specifically. We need the latter.

Tight feedback loops.

Remember my example of breaking my site above? I had immediate feedback to know whether I made the right move or not.

You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.

– Joshua Foer in Moonwalking With Einstein (source)

Your practice sessions should allow you to immediately know whether you’ve made the right move or not.

When you’re trying to learn the guitar, it can be hard to evaluate your music while you’re playing it. So, you could record each song as you go through it and listen to it back immediately once you’re done before having another go. The same technique can be applied to learning a new language.

5. Redefine expertise.

When you’re exploring a new field, it’s easy to look up at the top dogs and think, “No way I’ll ever be at that level.”

You’re right but not for the reason you think.

Our traditional view of expertise is flawed. The know-it-all-can’t-do-anything-wrong type of expert doesn’t exist.

A few months ago, I took a Javascript class from a senior developer at Automattic. While we were working on building our project, I was surprised to find out that he still uses Google to find answers. Even the experts resort to looking things up online.

What we think experts are like
  • They know everything
  • They never ask for help
  • They never make mistakes
Characteristics of actual experts
  • They know where to find the answers
  • They know who and where to find the best help
  • They take advantage of mistakes and learn as much as possible







The traditional view of experts as these all-knowing, mistake-free beings makes our own improvements seem meaningless and futile. It’s important to note that experts aren’t who we think they are. They do make mistakes. They suffer from the same difficulties that we do.

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