“Our lives are frittered away by detail. Simplify. Simplify.” – Thoreau
In January of 2014 I left my home in Seattle to travel to Peru to volunteer for four months with at risk children. I hopped on a plane with my rusty Spanish skills and expected smooth sailing from there. I was not prepared for what was to come, but that is why it worked out perfectly. Honestly, if I had known I would be speaking fully in Spanish, planning and managing a summer camp for 40 kids, teaching math and science in a foreign language and working ten hour days, I probably would not have gone.Advertising
It was through being challenged everyday, and questioning if I would make it through my volunteer commitment that I was able to grow and take so much away from my time.
I was constantly humbled, frustrated, and exhausted, but full of joy. As I left Seattle, I was nervous about what my volunteering experience would be in Peru. And as I left Peru, I was full of excitement to be going home, but that same nervous feeling came back to me. I was going back to a familiar place, but I felt different. My life had not been changed in any drastic way, but there were small things I had taken away from my time in Peru that I wanted to incorporate into my life at home.Advertising
In the big scheme of things, four months is a blink of an eye. It is nowhere near the over two-year commitment that Peace Corp volunteers make or what some other volunteer programs require. But those four months allowed me to step out of the life I had led for 22 years and gain important perspective.
The main theme that stood out to me was simplicity. We can get by with so little. This does not mean we need to deny ourselves what brings us joy, but it does mean that we are obligated to be conscious of what we consume and how the choices we make affect not only ourselves, but the world we share with other humans and other creatures.Advertising
Before I left Peru, I wrote seven things in my journal that I planned to hold myself accountable to as I jumped back into where I had left off in the USA.
- Do what you want!
- Do not worry about other people because chances are they are too busy thinking about themselves to care
- When you are happy you make others happy- so do what makes you happy!
- Life is too short to do things out of guilt or feelings of obligation. Only do what is genuine and you can give yourself to 100%
- Nothing is easy, nothing is black and white.
- Celebrate the uniqueness of humanity.
- If you make yourself proud then NEVER apologize for who you are.
- A simply life is a happy life.
- This one is important. Remember when you had a backpack full of clothes for four months? You never needed anything more. Remember when you are in Seattle that you do not need anything. Identify and organize your wants- what makes you truly happy?
- Be patient! Everything takes time.
- 3 month rule: almost all big adjustments take 3 months- before that it is unfair to make any adjustment or decisions.
Two years later, I have sat down to revisit these observations. Have I held to them as much as I wish? Yes, surprisingly, I have. There was no overnight change when I returned to the USA, I still love shopping too much, but little by little simplicity has come into my life. This is the key, my friends. Nothing happens overnight. It is through time that a little becomes a lot.Advertising
Last Updated on January 21, 2020
Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)
Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.
This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.
The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.
Table of Contents
The Keys to Learning Anything Easily
Learning comes easily to people who have developed:
Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.
People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.
Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.
When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.
Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.
A Feeling for Connectedness
This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.
A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).
The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.
How to Self-Taught Effectively
With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:
Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:
Learning the Basics
Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.
Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.
What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.
Hitting the Books
Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.
Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.
While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.
My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.
Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.
A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.
Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.
Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice
One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.
These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.
Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.
For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.
Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.
In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.
If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.
At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.
More About Self-Learning
- 6 Effective Learning Techniques that are Backed by Research
- 7 Steps to Make Self-Learning Effective for You
- 42 Practical Ways To Improve Yourself
Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com