Secrets of the Self-Taught

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” — Benjamin Franklin

In the age of information, you can out-study, out-practice, and out-perform college students in almost any subject — especially the subjects you love most. Traditional education is designed to get you a job; self-education is designed, by you, to achieve mastery and lead a more fulfilling life. It’s in your hands to decide that you want to become the best possible version of yourself.

Your First Assignment

Autodidacticism: The process or practice of learning a subject without a teacher or formal education; self-education.

It’s no secret that some of history’s greatest successes never attended college, or dropped out to follow their own course. Bill Gates, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Carnegie are just a few examples. Benjamin Franklin decided at a very young age that the responsibility of obtaining knowledge, instilling sound principles, and taking control of destiny was one that fell squarely on his own shoulders. If you’ve never before read a historical text for pleasure, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin right away. In fact, let’s consider this your first assignment.

Let’s take a quick moment to talk about what I just did. I gave you a reading suggestion which, in my own opinion, will be of great benefit to you. If you aren’t accustomed to reading “boring” literature by choice, I’m confident that this little assignment is going to cause a major paradigm shift for you. Somewhere amidst the pages, you are going to stop and think: “Wow, I’m reading the life story of some guy who died over 200 years ago, learning a lot about myself, and actually enjoying it.” People will start to think about you a little differently seeing you carry that book around. You’ll start to think about yourself a little differently, too. You’ll think about education differently. You’ll recall all those boring assignments from high school, and think about those differently as well. Everything seems boring until the subject matter becomes meaningful to you, and you’d never know it was meaningful until you’ve had a taste.

How To Choose A Major

It’s not about what you want to learn, it’s about what you want to know.

You, as a student, must choose an area of study. The duration of the program is completely up to you. You can major in one thing this month, and something else next month. Discard your old thoughts about four-year degrees, semesters, finals, and other inventions of the school system. You are responsible for the curriculum now. Personally, I have 3 majors, and always a variety of minors mixed in. The process of choosing your majors throughout the rest of your life will be very organic. You will stumble across things along your journey that will draw your curiosity, and before you know it, you have a new obsession. However, when the well of inspiration is dry, especially when you are just starting out, you need to brainstorm and make some deliberate decisions. There’s probably something you’ve always wanted to be good at, or something you greatly admire about others. Maybe you’d like to be more charismatic, or start your own blog, or make your own video game. If you’re having trouble deciding, just pick something. Unlike traditional school systems, you can switch whenever you want, and credits always transfer.

How To Find Your Classroom

Finding the right place to start is just a matter of starting in the wrong place and adjusting your course.

When I decided to teach myself the C++ programming language in high school, I had no idea where to start. I didn’t even understand the concept of syntax, or how programming languages actually worked. I just knew that if I ever wanted to make video games, I had to learn to program. Today, I know 3 programming languages. Your classroom is not really something you find, it’s something you’ll create — a collection of websites, forums, YouTube channels, books, and podcasts. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this, but there are guidelines that you can follow which will get you to your starting point sooner than if you waste time thinking about it. This is probably the biggest advantage of a traditional school program: it offers a clear starting point, with an established sequence of coursework, and a definite conclusion. Once you’re enrolled, you don’t have to worry about figuring out the next step. Just show up to class, and do what you’re told. The steps I took to get started in programming are the same I’ve used ever since when approaching any new subject. The first step is always Google, and the others are listed as follows in no particular order:

  • Find an online community and become an active member
  • Watch video tutorials
  • Find the most popular book and read it
  • Find a podcast and listen constantly
  • Talk about it often, and try teaching somebody while you learn

You will likely wander off in the wrong direction many times as you figure everything out, but accept that this is all part of the process. The act of fumbling around the internet and looking at a bunch of things you don’t understand is actually laying the foundation for your future learning. Each new subject always begins as a great big jumbled jigsaw puzzle, and every piece that doesn’t seem to fit at first will suddenly click later on.

How To Not Drop Out

There’s only 2 steps to success. Step one, get started. Step two, figure out step two.

99% of people give up on learning a new skill before even reaching amateur level. Okay, so I completely made up that statistic, but hear me out. It’s not hard to look around yourself (or within yourself) and see evidence of this. Sally takes up a new hobby, and a week later she quits. Jimmy decides to get in shape, and gives up before making any progress. You might even have examples from your own history which illustrate this point.

The cure is immersion. No matter what the obstacle, immersion is the answer. Here’s the 3 most common reasons people give up when learning something new, and how immersion is the solution in each case:

Stagnation

The feeling of being stuck is incredibly discouraging. You have the energy and the desire to keeping moving forward, but you just don’t know the next step. You are frozen in time. You set this endeavor aside and decide you’ll come back later, but you don’t do anything to cultivate progress. You distract yourself, allow the days to go by, and convert all of your former excitement into embarrassment and shame. By immersing, you can correct all of this almost immediately. Ideas will land in front of you, new paths will open up, and you will have an array of next steps to choose from. You’ll be back up and moving in no time.

Apathy

The lack of motivation often comes after other obstacles such as stagnation and difficulty, but lack of regular immersion can allow motivation to slowly trickle away without your knowledge. You might know what to do next and how to do it, you just don’t want to. You don’t have the energy to do the coursework anymore, and you’ve lost your sense of purpose. Through proper immersion, you’ll be reminded of your purpose. You’ll find new ways of looking at the road ahead that will make it more appealing than ever. The influx of inspiration will have you wondering why you ever stopped in the first place.

Difficulty

You know what to do next, you have the desire to do it, but it’s just too hard. You struggle over and over, with nothing but failure and disappointment to show for it. You start to think you must really suck. You decide you probably aren’t cut out for this, or that you’re “in over your head”. What comes next is apathy. Your confidence in other areas will suffer, and you will begin to question your ability in everything. Immersing will set you right. You’ll discover that maybe you missed a step or two along the way, or that you were wandering way too far off in the wrong direction and need to adjust. You’ll make significant progress in other areas, and eventually that challenge will pose no threat to you. You might figure out you were one attempt away from a breakthrough after all.

What Is Immersion?

With immersion as your primary line of defense against these adversaries, you will be unstoppable. But what exactly does immersion look like? Immersion is cracking open that textbook and reading it. It’s putting that YouTube channel on auto-play while you cook dinner. It’s listening to that podcast during your commute. It’s interacting with people in that online community. Immersion is completely surrounding yourself with multiple constant streams of new knowledge relating to a particular subject. The best way to get wet is to jump in the pool. Use this strategy daily for the greatest results.

How To Graduate

Through schooling you can become as good as necessary. Through self-education you can become as good as possible.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell claims that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are needed to gain mastery in anything. This claim is not backed by science and has since been debunked, but it has origins in truth. At some point, you will achieve mastery of a skill, and deliberate practice combined with persistent study is a mandatory part of that. Robert Greene’s book Mastery is a fantastic piece of literature on this subject. The amount of time it will take varies from person to person, as does the definition of “mastery”, but you will eventually get there. However, you don’t have to master something if you don’t want to. You might just want to get “pretty good” at something, and improve your life one piece at a time. In fact, I strongly recommend not pursuing mastery in everything, as this will lead to failure and insanity. Strengthen your weakest links when you can. Always strive to be good at a lot of things, and great at a few. That is what will carry you to success.

Ultimately, you decide how proficient you will be in your area of expertise. You decide what you want to get out of your major, and how far you need to take it to reach your goals. Even achieving mastery in a skill does not mean there is nothing left to learn. Graduating with your major does not mean you are done studying that subject for good — just that you are as good as you want or need to be at this point in time. I encourage you to frequently re-enroll in old majors to refine your skills and advance a few levels in proficiency.


Fall In Love With Knowledge

Knowledge is like romance — pursuit will bring it to you, but only love will make it stay.

After accepting the responsibility of education as your own, you will possess the power to do it faster and more efficiently than any college course, by directly targeting the areas of study that matter most to you and your personal mission. The resources available today are more abundant than they’ve ever been in the history of mankind. The problem is that so few actually want to learn. I’ve worn many hats throughout my relatively short life, and entered many environments, each with its own unique set of temptations and vices. The core value that will always allow you to prevail over these threats is constant thirst for self-improvement and an unconditional and unwavering love for knowledge.

No school can give you this gift. You must find it within yourself. Once you have it, the world becomes yours to tread freely. Perhaps the most incredible power of the human brain is its ability to transform itself. Harness this power, and you will truly become unstoppable.

I’ll leave you with a passage from Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, which you’ll read soon if you complete your first assignment. Let his words inspire you to always pursue greatness.

“But, on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”

Call To Action:

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