It sounds super-smart and dropping it casually into conversations makes you sound like a brainbox, but really it’s not all that fancy. It simply means ‘self-learning’. More accurately, it’s learning about subjects with little or no formal education. With Wikipedia at our fingertips and YouTube tutorials just a tap away, there has never been a better time to teach yourself a new skill or find a new passion. And there’s nothing more satisfying. You might pick up a tiny little nugget of information that lets you totally own the next pub quiz, or it could be a whole new field that changes your entire life.
It’s quite easy to think, and feel, that you’re already on a set course. That you learn certain things early on in life and then spend the rest of your time fine-tuning it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You might find yourself watching a documentary on the history of salsa, when you suddenly realise you have a secret burning desire to become a salsa teacher. Or you discover you’ve actually got a real good rap flow and a lifetime as a grime MC awaits you.
You’ve seen it a hundred times too. The outsider who comes to a new town or into a new job in an unorthodox way and, despite the odds being stacked against them, works hard to prove their worth and eventually wins the respect of their peers. Oh, and gets the girl.
Fade to black. Credits roll.
See, it’s a recurring motif of Hollywood films. Everyone loves an underdog story. The point is, don’t deny these urges to learn and discover.
The more you open yourself up to new things, the more you’ll crave. They don’t all have to be new careers, they can be new hobbies or even new friendships. The things you do define who you are, and bringing those new interests into your work can take you into new directions, spark a conversation with someone new, lead to a new side-project, or a new role or promotion.
That doesn’t mean to say it’s easy and that with all this expert-led information at our fingertips everyone can become skilled in anything they choose without much thought. These are just tools that allow us to access the information quicker. We still have to bring our own curiosity, patience and drive. If anything, we have to work harder to filter out that external noise, the myriad ‘things’ vying for our attention. Just as we have a mass of tools that allow us to do anything, we need to find other tools and methods to help us stay focused and keep us on track!
As I write this now, I’ve got my preferred text editor in full-screen with no other interface, and I’ve got my noise-cancelling headphones on. You’ve got to exercise a bit of self-discipline, especially when you’re being both the student, researcher and, to some degree, teacher too.
All that said, we need a little bit of that guidance and even fear now and again to help keep us moving forwards. As much as we do not miss that teacher who would yell at us if we weren’t paying attention, they did get us to focus on the task in hand! (Note to self: Develop app featuring unstable teachers screaming terrifying words of encouragement/disdain at random intervals.) Don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re finding it difficult to stay focused. It’s a tricky thing to keep your mind zoned into learning something new, especially when real life is happening around you, eager to pull you back to reality without hesitation. So first of all, shake off any frustrations that you aren’t learning as quickly — or staying as motivated — as you’d like. It’s tough, it takes time and everyone finds it hard. Don’t let those niggles of self-doubt stop you before you can even begin, just start moving and you’ll build momentum before you know it!
The other thing is to set yourself small achievable goals and then reward yourself. Write three paragraphs before bed. Read an article before breakfast. Memorise one inspiring quote per week. It can be anything, progress is progress. Reward yourself with that cake I saw you eyeing up, or let yourself watch that TV programme you’ve been looking forward to. Pretty soon you’ll be setting bigger goals and pushing yourself to learn more. Exercising your own discipline will be your own motivation.
Self-learning doesn’t ever have to stop. Most of us finish education very early on in life, but we never ever stop being a student, and the best part of it? We can teach ourselves anything we like.
Gavin Strange is a Senior Designer at Aardman Animations, the four-times Academy Award-winning studio behind Shaun the Sheep and Wallace & Gromit. He is a believer in creative side-projects and develops his own under the JamFactory moniker.