Autodidactism is a worthy pursuit, and I’ve become well-acquainted with it over the years. However, I do feel that its romanticism has overshadowed its utilitarian roots. To hell with Renaissance, this is the 21st century. Here are my thoughts on what goes on through the process of educating oneself, starting with the first steps towards proficiency.
My freelance work gives me flexibility with my daily schedule, which I worked on to optimize through simplification. In turn, I found free time without sacrificing productivity, which I then use to learn other skills to supplement my writing. As I follow this path, I’ve dug up a few things about the learning process.
This is the first of a four-part series on my thoughts and discoveries about the dynamics of self-learning. Take note that this is based on personal experience and is no way an ultimate guide to anything, so it must be taken as supplementary. I’m not presenting myself as a guru of sorts, but merely sharing my findings to those who care enough to read about my thoughts and feelings on the subject.
The often-quoted adage “Jack of all trades, master of none” is mostly incomplete and should be followed by “although often better than a master of one”.
Specialization is not a bad thing since it’s conducive for survival to be a master of a craft that you can be well-compensated for, but overspecialization breeds weakness and limits scope of living. Plenty have suffered through periods of limbo after losing hold of their field — child actors when they hit puberty, athletes when they’re forced to retire, soldiers when they get discharged, etc. A bit of branching out is healthy, so long as you can still focus on what you do best.
The Art of Learning by former chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin is a fascinating book about the learning process and the difficulties along the way, told from his perspective as one of the best junior chess players in America. It is recommended reading for understanding how learning should be approached.
Autodidactism is an undertaking that is more than just about learning skills, but also one’s true character and will to push boundaries in order to improve as both a practitioner and a human being. A new do-it-yourself culture flourished with the advent of the Internet, giving way to various websites and communities that are about learning how to do or make things, as well as new outlets to foster these learning processes and realize one’s true potential. It’s not just about the goal of mastery, but also the journey of learning.
Focus and Purpose
There is much merit in the pursuit of knowledge, especially in this era of freeflowing information. Excluding whatever hoax and conspiracy that one tends to encounter every now and then, soil that has been sown with a lot of seeds usually bear much fruit. However, while it’s good to have fun, lack of seriousness wastes enthusiasm on things that don’t matter and have no use. It’s a cynical take, but the process of trial-and-error doesn’t mean you should bullshit yourself.
You won’t learn anything substantial in whatever degree of practicality without having focus. It’s alright to frolic in the garden of knowledge and pick whatever flower you fancy at the moment, but having no long-term focus only wastes time, energy, and even money. While aspiring to that romantic image of a Renaissance man seems good, a solid skill set requires focus in order to enrich life and produce results.
I apologize to Apple haters and Dennis Ritchie fans, but I really have to add this quote by Steve Jobs because it really hits the nail on the head.
With that in mind, it must be noted that any worthwhile learning endeavor is supposed to feel tedious after an initial period of obsession. If you believe yourself to be no longer a child who makes promises to yourself only to break them later, then you better stick to it diligently, even if it hurts and bores. What you’ve started must always be finished, even if results are not up to expectations. Ending up with something tangible is way better than quitting and coming up with nothing to show for it.
Effort is only good if there’s result, even if negative. Mistakes teach through experience, and you should then do your best to not repeat them. The objective is increasing chance of survival and/or improving current state of existence. I believe in keeping the mindset pure and simple as much as possible so that the process becomes so as well. There are a lot of things to consider in making the most of learning something new, but perhaps thinking about it too much is part of the complication.
The Internet provides a nigh limitless amount of resources one can consult for learning just about any skill. Of course, you must choose what you wish to learn wisely so as to not waste too much of your time. For instance, you can learn something “underground” like lockpicking, which I did at a casual capacity. I have a basic knowledge of picking door knobs, if provided the right tools. It’s a nice skill to have, but it’s not something that I get to use all the time and it’s being wasted on me. I could find a way to do it more, but that would take away from other important things. I then end up being half-baked in that skill.
This is perhaps the main drawback to being too spread out, and it gives detractors more ammunition to talk against the concept of being a “jack of all trades”. It’s not a detail that you should obsess over, but it’s still something worth keeping in the back of your head.
Different Types of Learners
It’s always mentioned everywhere that people learn in different ways, and that’s mostly true.
Becoming an effective learner is about knowing which mode of learning is best for you. Some watch and recall what they’ve seen as they apply what they’ve just learned. Some may need good teachers to apprentice under. Others may use mnemonics and cues to remember what goes into where and how to do whatever at certain times.
There are some, like myself, who can’t really comprehend something until they go through trial-and-error in order to get it through their thick skulls.
Whichever method you do best at, remember that what really matters is that you learn it and there’s no reason to worry about what pace you do so, as long as you get it in the end. Take note of not just the goal, but how you get there. In the end, the chase is better than the catch.
Learning as Problem Solving
Whatever your learning process may be, you will still have to confirm your attainment of proficiency through direct application. Whether it stresses or relaxes you, using those skills to do something for yourself is what separates theory from practice. The first few tries is never about outright success, but more about getting used to it and learning to trust yourself and the process.
As you learn more and do another project, you can take it through the Bruce Lee approach and copy what you see is fit, remove what’s unfit, then add what’s essentially your own. But first, you really must get your feet wet.
Adam Savage of the Discovery Channel show Mythbusters, one of my favorite people to listen to, talked about his experiences in self-learning through this podcast for Tested.com. His main point hits home what is perhaps the best way to learn a skill — through a project.
I can say that I’m quite pleased with it so far (although at times, I still find myself messing with the template, which frustrates me to no end).
If you wish to learn something, do so through a project. As mentioned in the video, a novice musician can get more out of learning how to play a song as opposed to going through exercises. Those drills are definitely good tools for helping you become proficient, but learning from application is where you both gain that inherent understanding of the process and actually make something out of it. In the end, being able to play Stairway to Heaven on guitar is more impressive than just being able to pluck the arpeggio.
Analysis Paralysis and Demotivation
It is common for people who set out to learn something by themselves to first look for a starting point, then not start at all due to apprehension and lack of impetus. If ever they do start, they then stop at one point, promising themselves to continue later on, only to never do so due to some reason like lack of adequate skill, time, and energy at that moment. This is mostly known as Analysis Paralysis, and it’s one of the leading causes of procrastination in learning a skill.
In layman’s terms, analysis paralysis is basically overthinking about an undertaking. For example, if you want to learn how to dance, the last thing you want to do is to watch something like Dancing with the Stars since you may just give up from seeing just how long the road is towards being that good. I do feel that what makes analysis paralysis persist is constant comparisons with other people. When most people see someone who is better than them in something, they tend to become demotivated and even give up on it as a result.
Speaking of dancing, there’s a former Microsoft executive (who posted a song on YouTube as her resignation letter) who set out to learn how to dance in a year, starting from scratch. She just set a goal for herself, focused on it, and did it within a set time frame. Setting a deadline is a useful technique to break from the rusty chains of demotivation, so long as there’s something that will push you hard to meet or beat that deadline.
Some tend to react in the extreme opposite of being demotivated, perhaps even being too confrontational about the need to become better. Some may go on to achieve success with this methodology, while others tire of chasing that goal and concede to themselves that they may not have adequate talent or motivation to go further after a certain period of time. In any case, the latter would still have learned more than those who just give up from the start and would have gotten marginally better as a result, even if it was somehow misguided.
Just Do It
Continuing from the topic of analysis paralysis, it’s a common occurrence to be hung up on details. A lot of beginners tend to be too worried about doing it wrong, so they would then overthink and dive too deep into details that they don’t really understand anyway. Ignorance of these details are quite alright as a beginner, they’ll be understood later on. The only thing that must be thought of at the moment is in picking up what is being learned. All the student must do is to trust the process.
Sean “Day” Plott is a former StarCraft: Brood War competitive player and now a professional StarCraft II commentator (like his brother Nicolas “Tasteless” Plott) with his own eSports-focused media company, DayTV. You can find out more about his story by watching this video.
He is one of the most well-known figures, along with the likes of HuskyStarcraft, when it comes to introducing StarCraft II to newbies. One of his most famous quotes is on what to do when the player doesn’t know what the opponent is up to, which is a usual source of confusion in the game. He emphasizes on the virtues of not overthinking and taking action when the uncertainty is insurmountable, especially in a real-time strategy game.
If that’s the best course of action to overcome analysis paralysis in something as deep and cerebral as StarCraft II, then it’s more so with most things in life.
Another top reason for procrastination is just blatant laziness. This one doesn’t really have a quick solution since the only way to overcome it is through willpower and discipline. People who have those things tend to become some of the most amazing people you would ever meet since they’re always up to something.
The rest of us who may not be as driven have no other option but to dig REALLY DEEP within to get that extra push. You may also look for outside help like a hard teacher, a trusted accountability buddy, or even an outrageous proposition bet in order to force you to do it.
My own solution, as mentioned above, is to do a personal project and finish it, no matter how badly it turns out. In the end, I learn more about that chosen skill and I’m wholly responsible for my own faults, which is something I’m comfortable with anyway. Most other people don’t think like this though, so I understand if it isn’t necessarily a viable solution for them.
What prevails in the end is one’s lingering motivation to learn, and that’s the ultimate cure for analysis paralysis and demotivation.
Perhaps there are a lot more things that go into the start of the learning process, but keeping things as simple and unblemished as possible is crucial in maintaining the objective of proficiency in perspective. Before you start really learning something, you must first get yourself started. Once you have taken those first few steps, then it may be time to learn more about the principles of learning effectively.
In the next part, we shall look into the more “boring” parts of the learning process, the art of practice, and what really does make perfect.
Was this a good starting point?
Do you think the information presented here showed you more about the first few steps of the learning process or did it just confuse the hell out of you?
Do you think that I did well or I’m just being a self-gratifying pseudo-intellectual clot by posting this?
Please tell me about it on the comments section below. Share this post as well, if you like. Feedback is greatly appreciated.