Self-Learning: make your own path

My career path has been more winding road than straight highway — a fairly common story these days. For me, this meant starting out with a psychology degree and a trajectory towards medical school only to end up at art school studying fiber design. After two amazing and frenetic years at Savannah College of Art and Design, I realized that I still hadn’t found quite the right career for me. This time, I chose to do some exploring on my own rather than shelling out more money to go back to school.

My relationship with self-learning has not been without its pitfalls. In fact, I completely failed at it in the beginning. I’m happy to say that somewhere along the way I got it right and I’m now an entirely self-taught UX designer working at a great company with some of the most talented people in the industry. Looking back over my autodidactic successes and failures (and studying those of my mentees), I’m starting to formulate a list of the processes and mental frameworks that can help lead to success. I’m sharing them here in the hopes that they empower you to try new things and explore new career options without feeling like you have to go back to school.

1. Find your “why”

So you’ve set a goal to learn something new, great! If you want to make it stick, it’s important to start with your why. Begin by asking yourself these questions:

  1. Why do I want to achieve this goal?
  2. How will I feel after I achieve this goal?
  3. How will achieving this goal change my career or personal life?

Read back over your answers and decide now if this goal is worth pursuing. If you’re serious about accomplishing it, you’re going to have to give up some nights in front of the TV and happy hours with friends. Be real with yourself. Are you willing to do what it takes? If the answer is yes, read on!

Post your why somewhere visible in your home or office and review it daily. Having a vision of where you want to end up will keep you inspired. It can also be helpful to find people in your new field who are kicking ass. Follow them on Twitter and Instagram, read their blog, even put their picture on your computer or vision board — anything to remind yourself that they were once where you are and they pulled through to become great. And don’t be afraid to reach out to your heroes on social media. Many professionals are happy to give advice to people just starting out in their field.

2. Own your priorities

Now that you’re clear on your why, it’s time to get real about making it a priority. Work, family, and other commitments will always threaten to keep you from your goal. Some of these things are obviously more important than your learning goal, but there are also things in your life that are not. TV, social media, and internet browsing are obvious places that you can cut. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find the time. There are 168 hours in a week. Even if you work a 50 hour week and sleep for 8 hours a night, that still leaves you with 62 hours to work with or almost 9 hours a day.

Keep a time journal for 2 weeks. Set a timer to go off every 15–30min. and write down how you’ve been spending your time. This will help you determine what you can cut out to make space for your new goal.

3. Just start somewhere

With the myriad of courses, tutorials, and books available, deciding where to start can be overwhelming. Here’s the trick: Just start somewhere. You don’t know what you don’t know yet, so any introductory resource will do.

As your knowledge grows, you may find it helpful to make a learning plan. Before I had a plan for learning how to code, I used to flit from resource to resource, getting overwhelmed with all that I had left to learn. It made me feel scattered and unproductive. A learning plan can help you cut through the clutter and stay focused on moving forward. Build a plan that feels right to you, but keep in mind that the important part is to just keep moving. There isn’t one right way.

Include dates with your plan and schedule it on your calendar. Having a tangible weekly goal will help make it a priority.

4. Learn iteratively

To iterate is to repeat a process with the intention of moving closer to a final outcome. Each version gets better and more refined. Applying this concept to learning means that you keep moving even when you don’t understand something perfectly the first time. Once you’re done with one resource, choose another on the same topic. This additional perspective will usually lead to a breakthrough and help deepen your understanding.

5. Embrace the awkwardness

Most of us don’t fail to learn new skills because we’re lazy, we fail because learning something new is hard and we’re going to be bad at it for awhile. Rather than owning the discomfort and ugliness, we use procrastination to keep us “safe”. Learning stretches you and gets you out of your comfort zone. If you want to succeed, try to embrace this feeling and know that it’s only temporary. The more consistent and dedicated you are to your training, the faster this awkward phase will pass.

6. Apply what you’ve learned

Tutorials and books are great, but you also have to practice what you’re learning. I’m not just talking about doing the exercises at the end of the tutorial or following along with the examples in the book. Try applying what you’ve learned in a real-world setting. Unless you do this soon after learning, it’s likely that you’ll fail to fully assimilate the concepts.

Another way to solidify your understanding is to teach someone else what you’re learning. When you teach someone, you have to synthesize the concepts in your own terms. If you can’t do this well then you’ve identified an area where you need more work.

7. Start a learning blog

A learning blog is a great way to keep track of what you’re learning, synthesize your thoughts on it, and practice explaining it to others. It also gives others a glimpse into your thought process — something that can be invaluable when applying for a job or creating your personal brand.

When you talk publicly about what you’re learning and why you’re passionate about it, helpful people and opportunities will start to appear. When I did #the100dayproject to learn code, my entire Instagram community knew about my new endeavor. It led to lots of great conversations with people offering help, telling me about potential job opportunities, and asking if I was available for freelance. Even though I was clear about being a total n00b, it made other people start to think of me as an expert in that area… just by posting about it daily.

8. Practice everyday

Practicing everyday is the best way to fast-track your learning. Refreshing the concepts in your mind daily will help ensure that the neural connections you’re making are permanent. Doing it everyday also means that your learning sessions can be shorter which keeps your brain happier.

When I was learning to code, I tried several times unsuccessfully. My M.O. was to sit down, burn through a lot of content, and then be so exhausted and overwhelmed that I would procrastinate for weeks before sitting down again to repeat the process. At that point, I would have forgotten most of what I’d learned and would have to start over. This would lead me back into the cycle of cramming, frustration, and procrastination. It wasn’t until I committed to practicing every day that I saw a real breakthrough in my understanding.

Joining a daily challenge is a great way to build in motivation to practice every day. The 100 Day Project and Daily UI are examples of online communities that encourage regular participation. Make sure you commit to something small so that you’ll actually do it.

9. Seek out mentors

A mentor can be an invaluable part of your learning. They can offer guidance, accountability, and help in finding work once you’ve gained competency in your field. Mentors are generally extremely busy, respected people. To get the most out of your mentorship, do the following:

  1. Listen. You’ve chosen your mentor because they have succeeded in your desired field. Listen to them. Don’t argue or be stubborn. That said, if you don’t understand something, ask. And always take notes. Every nugget is valuable wisdom.
  2. Take action. If your mentor gives you any homework, make sure to do it. Get less sleep, skip the TV, or work over the weekend. Do what you have to to get it done. This let’s your mentor know you are taking their time seriously. It also shows them your work ethic, which will set you up for future job recommendations.

Even if you don’t have a formal mentor, joining a professional group in your new field can offer a lot of benefits. Being around other people who do what you want to do is a great way to stay motivated, get answers to your questions, find mentors, and source jobs. Online communities like Twitter and Dribbble can also be great ways to learn, make connections and get inspired.

Get in the habit of asking for feedback. Getting several perspectives can help you think critically and identify patterns. Stay open, keep at it, and you’ll soon see big improvements.

Not sure how to get a mentor? Ram Castillo has some great tips in his book How to Get a Mentor as a Designer, Guaranteed.

As you’re meeting people in your new field, take every opportunity to absorb as much as possible. Pay attention to how people talk about the industry. Listen for clues as to how they’ve become successful. What industry books and blogs are they reading? Where do they find their inspiration? Who do they look up to in the field? These are all tips that can help you on your journey.

10. Show enthusiasm

When I was first learning UX, I tried to be enthusiastic about whatever was asked of me. If my mentor suggested a project, I’d readily agree to it even if I was nervous about my capability. This made my mentor want to give me more work and guidance, essentially giving me more out of the mentorship. It showed him that I was serious about my new profession and respectful of his time.

I also used this advice when learning to play tennis. Whenever my coach would start a new exercise, I’d quickly run to the position he’d directed and hop into place. My body language was saying “I’m happy to be here and I want to learn.” This almost always resulted in me getting more active coaching and longer lessons. In contrast, I’d watch others as they’d tiredly follow a directive and move into place. Their body language was saying “I’m over this and I’m not having fun.” The coach would respond by not pushing them as hard and cutting the lesson off right when the time was up.

Be excited about your new craft and take on challenges with gusto. People pick up on subtle cues; use body language and tone to your advantage.

I hope you find these tips helpful on your learning endeavor. Do you have any ideas you’d like to share? I’d love to hear what’s worked for you.

Cheers to wherever your learning takes you next!

Head of design at Tuft & Needle, AIGA Jacksonville past president. Design should make people's lives easier and more beautiful. Go.