Learning Independently – A Required Life Skill

This past Saturday, I wrote a blog post about my desire to eschew energy-consumptive activities with little meaning to my life in the long run. I proclaimed that instead, I want to focus my energies into building up a valuable base of personal skills – an endeavour applauded by Cal Newport in his book and referred to as the ‘craftsman’ mindset (see the background blog post here).

I also learned from Cal Newport that it’s impossible to know what you’ll be passionate about and engaged in just from sitting around and thinking about it. To actually develop a craftsman attitude, and the subsequent passions that follow being competent at a particular task, one has to engage in the activity regularly and develop rare and valuable skills (Newport, 2012).

This is an intimidating goal for the novice. I’ve spent so long focused on school that picking up a coloured pencil to draw an image gives me the sweats, and the thought of learning how to cook an elaborate meal makes me impatient and frustrated. I feel like I’m a novice at everything and am further worried that these unregulated activities, which can’t be added to a resume or plausible career path, will be a waste of time better spent job searching.

Maria Popova‘s article entitled Don’t Go Back to School: How to Fuel the Internal Engine of Learning provides validation for self-initiated efforts to learn new things outside of an established system. Maria reviews the similarly-titled book by Kio Stark, Don’t Go Back to School, but adds a lot more to the argument. She details how “success doesn’t lie at the end of a single highway but is sprinkled along a thousand alternative paths” which can happen “outside of the factory model of formal education” (Popova, 2013). Maria suggests that self-discovery and designing your own personal processes and methods for learning can fuel the internally-driven desire to learn independently (Popova, 2013).

There are countless examples of fearless people who have become impressive or important personages outside the established system of education and business. For example, Caroline Dowling is currently spearheading wearable computing devices in Silicon Valley, but started her career by getting pregnant at 15, dropping out of high school, and bartending for years (Fingleton, December 2013). I question whether these underdog success stories can still occur in the post-2000 era where we seem to have hit a saturation point of consumer consumption and individually-driven innovation; but many believe that top down innovation is dead and that dispersed, crowd-inspired innovation is thriving (see Caldbeck, December 2013).

Suppose that I focus on developing these new skills, regardless of whether or not they will be my ticket to fame and fortune – how might I go about establishing these competencies? Maria highlights the four key features of independently-driven learning: “learning is collaborative rather than done alone; the importance of academic credentials in many professions is declining; the most fulfilling learning tends to take place outside of school; and those happiest about learning are those who learn out of intrinsic motivation rather than in pursuit of extrinsic rewards” (Popova, 2013).

These points emphasize the critical importance of sharing personal, internally-rewarding learning with other people. Although I’d like to (for example) pick up a book on rock climbing and say that I know everything there is to know about that particular activity, it would be better if I collaborated and shared my learning experience with others. I would add that failure (or trial and error) is important in the learning process, but is hard to accept when you’re doing everything independently.

To summarize, here are a few things to keep in mind when you have the urge to learn a new skill on your own:

  • Don’t just think about it – do it! Trying new things out is the best way to know if you enjoy the activity.
  • New skills can be valuable elements of self-discovery and personal development (even if they don’t go on a resume).
  • Don’t expect to be perfect at the activity right away. Competency takes time, help from other people, and experience with failure to develop.
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