Beware the man with 20 years experience, for that can be 1 year repeated 20 times.
A strong affinity and aptitude for self-directed learning is one of the primary attributes I’ve found in high-performing people. Some people can be motivated to learn, but without competence in directing their own learning, they gas out at the edge of their own ineffectiveness. Others can be competent in directing their own learning, but without motivation to continue evolving, they remain stuck at the location of their own inaction.
This morning, it dawned on me that I haven’t had a direct manager for 15 years. I felt proud of this longevity. What this longevity carries is a consistent ownership of my own self-directed learning. In my 20s, I craved a mentor who would show me how to build and run businesses. But in growing my own businesses, I ended up being my own student and teacher. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve changed. And I grew.
Self-directed learning is an area I feel successful in. Here are the principles that have worked for me:
- Take on 1-2 major projects for the year. One of my primary values is cultivating robustness and these major projects serve this compass. Inevitably, these projects shape the direction of relationships and skills (my system). I bracket a year for these projects with no specific goal. In 2016, it was “learning how to learn” and “masculine and feminine archetypes”.
- Immersion > Goals. I don’t know enough about new topics to set goals. I believe in immersion. I throw myself in.
- Touch the topic every day. When I learned hand-balancing as a physical discipline, it took hundreds of repetitions every day. It takes every day to pattern not only the physical patterns, but the thought patterns of an elite hand-balancer, the emotional state of an elite hand-balancer. This is the good stuff. This goes the same for language learning or other physical activities. I understand the distinction between focused and diffused learning but taking time away doesn’t work for me. There are no days off in learning.
- Invest in quality curriculum. I place 5% of my income in learning. I never went to higher education so this was my own self-directed graduate school tuition.
You pay a lot for a great teacher. You pay even more for a bad one.
- Maintain the skills and relationships. After a year of focused learning in a new skill, I find that the patterns/skills/relationships stick with very little maintenance. But maintenance is required. Dropping the topic as a whole for new ones serves acquisition at the sake of retention; growth comes from both acquisition and retention. This may mean retaining the top 1-2 relationships I cultivated in that year. Minimal. But maintenance nonetheless.
- Stay in the work. It does not always have to feel good. Spoiler alert: most of the time, it doesn’t. The feeling of novelty is a feeling the modern human is trained to seek. It’s fleeting and good. But discipline to stay in the work is a long-term reward. It builds robustness of character and an ever deeper understanding of the topic than just subject matter. Again, this is the good stuff.
- Trust, don’t jump. Many people jump from expert to expert, and get lost in who to trust. This is the top self-sabotaging behavior of those who run into walls in self-directed learning. I use these topics to sharpen my own compass. I follow quality experts in how they teach, even when I don’t know why they are leading me down that path. Spoiler alert: most of the time, I don’t. Lessons reveal itself sometimes years down the road. Humility in the process is my greatest ally.