When we talk about self-education, we can’t miss the impressive genius, Leonardo Da Vinci. A master artist, anatomist, engineer, scientist, biologist, and experimenter. He never received formal education beyond basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, but continued to learn much more himself.

Imagine self-education in the late 1400s. No on-demand courses. No Google. No access to experts with the click of a button. I can only imagine it to be extremely hard to be only pursued by someone incredibly motivated.

Leonardo was the ultimate doer and learner. From flying machines, to paintings, to dissection, his creativity and imagination knew no bounds.

And then I think of myself. Having access to the best resources at my fingertips. Free online courses by the likes of Harvard and Yale, unlimited books on Amazon on almost every subject, and the ability to hire a teacher anywhere in the world.

But I still struggle with learning.

I was fairly good at studies in school and college and scored good grades and now I wonder why I’m still stuck at the basics of coding for 10 months.

This is why I have immsense respect for self-taught coders / artists’ / marketers etc. Learning and mastering a skill through self-education is extremely hard.

It’s comparatively easier to learn in structured institutes (though what we’re taught and the quality of the education systems is debatable), there are exercises you can follow, teachers who will guide you, and a well-made path from A to Z. The hard part is just showing up to school every day.

In the real world, there’s no textbook or curriculum. There’s no source of continuous feedback. There are no teachers — it’s just you and whoever you can convince to help you. (Yes, there are online courses and I’ve discussed the problems with them earlier.)

Schools are not better for learning, it’s just that after years in our education system, we get used to being spoon-fed lessons and asking just one question – “Will this be on the test?”

Unstructured learning is important. But most people suck at it.

But why does this happen? Why’s it so tough to learn?

Based on my personal experiences enrolling in over 15 courses this year, I think it’s hard because:

  • No direct application of the skill we’re learning – cannot see the benefits
  • Content/teacher is not engaging
  • The subject is too easy or too hard
  • No urgency to learn
  • Fickle Mindedness – starting multiple courses at one time
  • Time constraints – busy with work, business, or family
  • Good old procrastination
  • Digital Distractions
  • Instant Gratification

Even when you learn from the best teachers, self-education can be challenging.

In school/college, it’s not as bad because everything is done for us. We have a set curriculum to follow. Making mistakes is expected. You make friends and figure out how to get by together. Schools offer lots of ways to support students.

The problem is, what schools teach us is not complete. Life consists of a lot more than what we’re formally trained for: managing your finances, buying a house, starting a business, doing taxes, following your dreams, dealing with your own mortality, relationships, eating well, making babies, etc, etc.

We eventually learn how to deal with all these things because life demands it. But starting in a completely new field/skill outside of the structured environment means making mistakes outside our comfort zone, which makes it hard.

Mistakes also seem to be more costly later in life. Failing a job or at a business seems more consequential than failing at grade 9 math.

That’s why after college, most people are exhausted from learning and just stop.

What should we do?

Honestly, I don’t know. I am still figuring it out. But I know the first step is to be curious and question everything. This is why I am writing this post.

Learning happens over time. Leonardo didn’t wake up one morning knowing the entire anatomy of the human body. It took years of experimentation and questioning.

The second step is to read this article, it has some invaluable tips to improve your learning, such as:

  1. Choose to look stupid.
  2. Ask the third question.
  3. Immerse yourself.
  4. Double down on your strengths.
  5. Find excuses to teach.

And check out this course on Learning How to Learn.

You can also follow my learning adventures by subscribing to my newsletter Design Your Learning.

Until next time!

Cover Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

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