Self-Education: 10 Tips to Improve your Skills

By 
Eric Linhares

The whys and hows of self-learning.


Independent-minded individuals to whom freelancing has a strong appeal might not be the most willing to fulfill the requirements of college education. The stigma associated with autodidactism in the recent past had some merit when social support and organized in-depth knowledge were hard to come by outside an academic setting, prior to the internet. This is no longer the case, albeit some challenges remain.

Focus on your interests

Colleges introduce students to a gamut of disciplines as a way to prepare them for whatever they decide to specialize in, once they’re ready to make the choice. Unfortunately, the cost of grooming potential is having the student slog at drudgery you don’t have the slightest interest in. Understandable in context, maybe even more sensible to most people fresh out of high school, this process saps precious time and energy of those who prefer to learn from experience or have already made their minds up.

As the rector of your computerized university, you get to study the information that’ll lead you to your desired career right away, without the meanders of formal education. This option gives you a headstart relative to your academic peers.

Study at your own pace

Videos can be sped up or delayed, books can be read as fast or slow as you want, you pick what to skip, emphasize and review, different materials can be used for specific topics, whereas professors, at best, try to come up with a pace most of the class can follow, if that factors in their decision at all.

Studying at your efficient pace consolidates knowledge more effectively than letting another person set it for you.

Develop self-determination skills

As I said in the intro, the same desire for autonomy that drives people to become freelancers is behind the preference for autodidactism. You can consider the solitary learning process analogous to the challenges you’ll face as a professional, if you’re intent on extending this lifestyle to work.

Self-determination is hard because we’re surrounded by temptations to distract ourselves with, easy pleasures to escape from the discomfort and self-doubt we experience as learners and workers. This is why so many would rather receive orders from superiors than trust their ability to make good decisions on their own.

Autodidacts can tolerate enterpreneurial risk because they trust themselves, from experience, to set goals and accomplish them. They’re cut out for exceptional achievement.

Save money

Nothing beats free, but even paid online courses are typically much cheaper than private colleges. If you research the discipline beforehand, you may take information from several sources in order to prepare for particularly difficult topics.

Search for top books and online courses recommended in message boards where people from your field congregate. If you can’t find an existing thread, ask for recommendations yourself. It’s a fine way to cut your teeth socializing with fellow students and future colleagues.

Search for quality free and paid resources

You know, reviews of popular products have served me well over the years when I didn’t have the background to pre-screen them properly or the word from someone whose knowledge on the subject I respected. If you want to sign up for a course right now, as opposed to wait until you collect information from an online community, you can check what the reviewers have to say about it and take the plunge. If it’s free, you have little to lose. If it isn’t, it probably won’t be a complete mess.

Here’s a list of resources to get you started. And another.

Pick or design a curriculum and stick to it

When you have little to no knowledge of a field, it’s easier to begin by following a popular course and fill in the gaps as you bump into problems your skill set can’t solve in your personal projects. There might be an entire course devoted to the missing knowledge. If that’s excessive, you can piece one together from minor tutorials.

Later on, when you have a clear vision of the whole field, you’ll be able to come up with your own curriculum. Once you have one, make the best of your studies with note-taking methods and spaced repetition and stick to it till the end. There are a few reasons you may need to redesign your curriculum, but boredom isn’t one of them.

Get involved in online communities

Defining your curriculum yourself won’t spare you the hard work of studying difficult or tedious topics, unless you’re a poser. On the contrary, it’ll be harder as you won’t have the threat of a low grade and its consequences to push through when you feel like sweeping the basement floor for the first time in your life, to the utter shock of your mother.

Online communities can fulfill the role of colleges if you become an active member and contribute to threads related to those topics. You may not risk retaking a discipline you disliked in the first place, but at least you’ll have external pressure to perform well.

The more involved you get with an online community, the more encouraged you’ll feel to gain relevant knowledge. By interacting with people who share your passion for the craft, asking and answering questions, discussing interesting topics, networking and making friends, you’ll develop an identity related to work and demand more from yourself.

Moreover, you’ll have access to their collective wisdom about the best books, courses and practices while still a neophyte, lacking experience to make your own judgments. This will save you time and money otherwise spent on second-rate materials you wouldn’t be able to immediately recognize as such.

Until you find something specific to your industry, give websites like Reddit a shot.

Tell your story

What better way to showcase your communication skills than to start a YouTube channel (or a blog) and narrate your struggles and successes as you become the person you’re supposed to be? When prospective clients and employers look at your public journal, you stand out from interviewees they barely had the time to meet.

That’s what Chris Sean did. He started his channel a year ago and has since grown to 35k subscribers. In the process, he vlogged about his career from student to freelancer to employee, and shared his wisdom with beginners interested in becoming coders, as he would put it.

It’s often said that the best way to learn something is to teach it. I don’t know about ‘best’, but it’s certainly helpful, as you have to simplify and organize the information in a way that makes sense to yourself as well as others. In the end, you’ll have an archive of the knowledge you accumulated as a self-learner.

This is marketing at its most human, beneficial and interesting.

Create a portfolio

Instead of the diploma formally educated people offer as proof of background, autodidacts display their skills concretely in portfolios. It’s your opportunity to show your strengths in the variety and relevance of the projects you took on. Personal projects, volunteer and paid freelance work can all be included.

These days, it’s also recommended you make case studies of your work so your future clients and employers can see how you go about solving tricky problems. Although originally meant for designers, some of these tips certainly apply to you.

Find a mentor

Mentors are role models who give you, the mentee, work-related knowledge, orientation and psychosocial support. Unlike communities, they also let you assimilate the everyday mentality of someone who already made it. According to McCarthy Mentoring, citing research from the Centre for Workplace Leadership (2016), “71% of Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programs.”

Jeff Goins wrote an insightful guide on How to Find (and Keep) a Mentor in 10 Not-So-Easy Steps.