Self-Education: Teach Yourself Anything with the Sandbox Method

Nat Eliason
Oct 30, 2017 · 13 min read
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How We Learn

In high school, college, and most forms of higher education (in the United States, at least) the model of learning you operate in trains you to stop figuring things out for yourself and expect information to be handed to you.

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The Sandbox Method for Self-Education

The sandbox method is an ongoing process for self-education, based on the latest scientific research on how we learn and how we process information. It recognizes that we don’t need to memorize facts, formulas, or other minutiae anymore. Instead, we need to develop an intuitive understanding of our skills, expose ourselves to a broad swath of information about the skill, and constantly push ourselves to improve.

Step 1: Build Your Sandbox

Before doing any research on how to do, or how to better do, what you want to learn, you need to create an environment to practice it in. You’re going to spend most of your time practicing and experimenting, not studying, so you need a way that you can easily exercise your skill and improvise.

  1. Low-stakes: so you’re not afraid to fail or show your work
  2. Public: so that you have to put your work out there in some manner
  • Writing: A personal blog hosted on WordPress, Medium, or SquareSpace.
  • Photography: Your camera and Instagram account.
  • Design: Sketch, and a Dribbble account to show your work on.
  • Marketing: A blog or information site hosted on WordPress that you can try to grow.

Step 2: Research

To continue expanding the borders of your sandbox, the extent of the skill that you can practice and apply, you’ll need to do a certain amount of research. The resources exist online to teach yourself anything, you just have to figure out what’s worth reading, watching, or listening to.


I love books as a learning resource. I’ve used them to improve my photography, get better at marketing, learn how our minds work, learn how to learn, and many people swear by books as a self-education resource. They’re great for picking up broad techniques and mental models for certain skills and can be invaluable introductions to new parts of the skills that you might not have thought of.

Blogs and Online Resources

Second to books, there’s tons of written content online you can use to self-educate. Some people have written whole blog posts on how to teach yourself marketing, teach yourself design, learn JavaScript, and if you search around a bit you can probably find a well-written guide to teaching yourself anything.

Online Courses and “MOOCs” (Massive Open Online Classrooms)

If you prefer watching and listening to reading, then online courses or “MOOCs” are a perfect solution for self-education. The Internet is full of free and paid online classes that can teach you anything from programming, to marketing, to design, to (I assume) basket weaving.

And Take Notes!

As you’re learning, take notes on everything so you can refer back to them later. I like using Evernote and keeping highly detailed notes, since this makes it easy to find things that I’ve learned in the past and exactly where I’ve found them. It helps you remember everything, too, by building up a “personal wiki” in the words of Andy Hunt.

Step 3: Implement and Practice

Within your sandbox, how you practice what you’re learning will be as important as what you choose to practice. The wrong practice methods can lead to hours, days, even years of wasted repetition, but the right practice methods can accelerate you to the level of competency in a matter of months.

  • Playing songs that you already know how to play.
  • Looking up a recipe, baking a pie, and then keeping making that kind of pie in the future.
  1. Set a goal just beyond your current ability to motivate yourself to stretch beyond your comfort zone.
  2. Practice with intense focus.
  3. Get feedback, in whatever way you can, and incorporate that feedback into your practice.

Step 4: Get Feedback

As you practice deliberately within your sandbox, continuing to do research to fill in the gaps of your knowledge, the last (and necessary) piece of the self-education process is getting feedback.

Continue the Self-Education Loop

Once you’ve gone through the process of designing your sandbox, researching how to improve your skill, applying that knowledge to purposeful practice within your sandbox, and getting feedback on your work as you’re going, you simply repeat the process to continue developing your skill.

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Finally, it’s possible that you’ll eventually get stuck somewhere. When that happens, you have to assess what the problem might be.

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Nat Eliason

Written by

Founder of Growth Machine, writer on all things interesting at, and co-host of the“Made You Think” podcast.

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.

Nat Eliason

Written by

Founder of Growth Machine, writer on all things interesting at, and co-host of the“Made You Think” podcast.

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.

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