Self-education: how to leverage the end of credentialism

The average lifespan of a technical skill is roughly 18 months. The world is moving fast. Anything you learn today may become obsolete tomorrow. It may feel discouraging—why bother acquiring a new skill if it will soon be useless?—but it shouldn’t be. The fact is it has never been easier to teach yourself anything. In a world where knowledge is power, self-education can, in fact, become your superpower. How can you channel the incredible breadth of information available to you to teach yourself anything?

The 3 C’s of self-education

First, you may wonder why you would want to teach yourself anything beside what you learned at school in the first place. Some people are content with the skills they acquired in a traditional setting, and plan on capitalising on these existing skills for the rest of their careers. Either they are wrong, or they are one of the very rare outliers.

There are many reasons why you may want to teach yourself a new skill, but here are three of the main ones.

  • Certifying your skills. Especially if you are a student or in a junior role, self-education can be a great way to demonstrate your skills with a certificate. For instance, Google offers a certificate in digital marketing and IBM offers a certificate in data science. If you do a bit of research, you will be able to find a certificate from a reputable organisation for any professional skill you want to demonstrate.
  • Continuous learning. Once you have enough experience, certifications won’t matter as much. People will assess your skills based on your past and present accomplishments. It doesn’t mean you should stop your self-education journey, though. If you have the ambition to manage people or to keep on working with smart folks, you need to keep up with your industry. You will collaborate better with people if you have at least a basic understanding of their job. For instance, taking an introductory course in UX design won’t turn you into a UX designer, but it will help you better work and better respect the work of a UX designer.
  • Cultivating your curiosity. Finally, self-education shouldn’t always be goal-oriented. Learning for the sake of learning is a worthy endeavour in itself. Whenever you read something interesting that piques your curiosity, consider blocking a couple of hours on a specific day to learn everything you can about the topic. You may find some surprising connections with other areas of interest. And, if not, it will still be fun and will make for great dinner conversations.

These are the three main reasons why you may want to teach yourself something new, but there are not the only ones. You may want to teach yourself something because you have a kid and want to keep up with them, because a loved one is sick and you want to understand what’s going on, because you want to manage your money better or need to make an informed decision. The point is: your education shouldn’t stop the day you finish school. And with all the content you would ever need at your fingertips, you are in an exceptional position to teach yourself anything.

Designing an effective learning loop

Autodidacticism is another word for self-education. What I like about this word is its ancient greeks origins, which are rooted in arts and philosophy. Self-education is not only about methods and strategies, it’s about goals and meaning. In order to teach yourself anything, you need to design effective learning loops that leave space for self-reflection.

Self-education learning loop
  1. Goal. Before deciding what you want to learn, decide what you want to achieve. Do you want to get a specific job at a specific company? Go through LinkedIn and Glassdoor to figure out what skills are required. Want to be able to help your kid with maths? Check their curriculum. Want to switch careers and become a software developer? Do your research and figure out the kind of stuff you’d like to work on. When in doubt, ask a friend or the Internet. There’s no shame in stating your goal and asking people what skills you should focus on.
  2. Strategy. Now that you have a goal (“Learn front-end development”, “Speak basic Spanish”, “Master Adwords”), you need to devise a learning strategy. This is where you go and do a bit more research to figure out the resources you will use to teach yourself that skill. I will share a few at the bottom of this article. This is a good time to note that “self-education” doesn’t mean being on your own. If you’re a complete beginner, it’s usually better to rely on the kind work of people who created curriculums for the skill you want to master.
  3. Practice. Acquiring a new skill is all about consistency. Make sure to block time to learn. It’s much better to study for twenty minutes a day each day for a week than to do it all in one go. Try to be as consistent as possible. It helps a lot to have some form of accountability, whether through a study group, an online community, or a mentor. You may also want to create an artificial deadline for yourself, or progressive artificial deadlines. For instance: “Learn how to introduce myself in Spanish before my next meeting with Martina” or “Learn the basics of JavaScript before my next 1:1 with my manager.”
  4. Feedback. There’s no loop without feedback. I’m a big proponent of learning in public, and I think the generation effect is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal. Share your progress, gather feedback, and incorporate it into your learning practice. For example, you could share what you learned through a blog post, or just Tweet about your latest work. It may feel intimidating at first, but feedback really is a gift.

If you’re learning something just to satisfy your curiosity, ignore the first step. Remember that not all self-education needs to be goal-oriented. You can learn something new for the pleasure of expanding your mind.

Mindframing for self-education

If you need a more structured approach, mindframing can be applied fairly easily to self-education. The steps are quite similar. Mindframing is my own personal growth framework. Whenever I want to learn something new, I apply the following steps.

  1. PACT. Commit to mastering this new skill and make it public. It could be through telling your friends or posting on Twitter.
  2. ACT. Consistently study, practice, and experiment. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend cultivating this new skill; what matters is how consistent you are.
  3. REACT. Share your progress, questions, discoveries with your peers. Create small projects based on what you learn. Build stuff in public.
  4. IMPACT. Once you feel more comfortable with this new skill, work on something more significant. It may take much longer, and that’s alright. Share it with the world, then, based on the feedback you get, decide what your next pact should be.

This is a very short overview of the PARI method. Remember that methods and frameworks are just guidelines. It’s okay to bend them and play with them.

The end of credentialism

By teaching yourself anything, you will elevate yourself above the traditional evaluation methods used by recruiters and managers alike. It may take a couple more years, but there is already a shift in how companies recruit technical employees. The focus is now on skills rather than credentials. If you want to make the most of this shift, here are a few resources to get started.

  • Thousands of courses from leading universities around the world, such as Harvard, Stanford, and MIT.
  • Coursera My favourite course there is Learning How to Learn, which is free and was taken by more than 2 million students so far.
  • Udemy — Paid but mostly affordable courses about any topic you could imagine. Do your research, some courses are scammy. I did a web dev bootcamp there I was really happy with.
  • MentorCruise — Once you’re a bit more advanced in your journey, it may be beneficial to connect with an expert to get support and answers when you’re stuck.
  • Other options — There is an infinity of niche options for you to learn about absolutely anything. Just use your judgement and make sure the price feels right, there are many online education scams.

Good luck! Self-education can be a long, arduous journey, but it’s well worth it. It will open new doors and help you close the ones you want to close.

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