Why Self-Educated Learners Often Come Up Short

InTheLibrary

I have a pet peeve about certain people who attack formal education systems and claim to pursue self-education. Not because universities are spectacular learning environments (they usually aren’t). Or even because self-education isn’t a worthwhile goal (it’s probably one of the best).

It’s because I’ve noticed many of the university-hating self-taught are the kind of people who read a couple self-help books per year and believe that’s basically the same as getting a degree. Then they get angry at the bureaucratic system that won’t let them get their ideal career. Sigh.

Why Self-Education Often Does Worse than Schooling

In my experience, self-education tends to be very good at high-level ideas.

If you wanted to spend a few months understanding evolutionary biology, you could probably read about a dozen books on the topic. These books would give you the broad strokes of what’s going on in the field, the challenges being faced and what science currently understands.

But I’ve noticed that the typical approach to self-education tends to be lousy at the deep, detailed knowledge of a field. Reading those evolutionary biology books won’t give you the statistical methods for analyzing gene selection, or the functions for how a population evolves over time.

For the most part, this omission isn’t a bad thing. I have no desire to do research in evolutionary biology. So if I had only read The Selfish Gene, The Origin of the Species and a few other books on evolution, I’d be satisfied with my knowledge. The broad strokes are enough.

The problem is when one tries to replace self-education for more formal training. Such as trying to give yourself the equivalent to an undergraduate degree in computer science, nutrition or accounting.

Here, the benchmark for success isn’t whether you can keep up a conversation about the ideas at a cocktail party. You also need deeper knowledge of the technical details of the field.

Why is Deeper Self-Education Important?

I really enjoy Ben Casnocha’s “T” model for learning new things. The idea is that, ideally, there should be a wide range of subjects you have a basic understanding of (the broad top of the T). But, in addition, there should also be a select few skills you are an expert in (the narrow stem of the T).

For the top of the T, deeper self-education isn’t terribly important. I’ve read books on linguistics, evolutionary biology, cosmology, gestalt therapy and world history. But I’m not an expert on any of those things, nor do I plan to be.

However, for the bottom of the T, I believe it is critical to know how to develop a deeper approach to self-education. Let’s say, for example, you want the major focus of your learning efforts to be computer programming.

You could take a degree, or even post-graduate education, in the subject. But for a field as rapidly evolving as computer programming, what you learn in school will quickly be replaced. So, even if you pursue formal education fully, you’ll rely a lot of educating yourself.

Alternatively, you could be completely self-taught. If this is your approach, then the necessity to deeply educate yourself is even greater. Quick overviews of topics without understanding mathematics, operating systems or computer architecture won’t make you an expert.

In either case, whether you pursue university doggedly or abhor it, you’ll need to spend a lot of time teaching yourself if you want to become really good at something.

How to Become Deeply Self-Taught

I’m still experimenting with the best approach to this. My major focuses are writing and entrepreneurship, both of which tend to have far less technical knowledge. However, other areas I’d like to expand to a decent level of depth include statistics, web programming and psychology.

These other fields are adjacent to my really important work, so I believe having the equivalent of a year or two of formal education in statistics, programming or psychology would support my major focuses of writing and running businesses.

So, while I can’t offer the magic bullet that will allow you to obtain the same knowledge without the tuition costs, I can share what I’ve found so far.

The Importance of a Curriculum

The reason acquiring deeper knowledge is difficult, is that the further you stare down the microscope, the less relevant it appears to the big picture. This is often why so many students lose motivation at school. Just how is understanding integrals, polymorphism or the ATP-cycle important for my life?

The one strength of formal education is that it forces you to adhere to a curriculum. When you know that you need to learn Statistics 1000 before taking on Statistics 2000, it is easier to focus on learning about p-values and bell curves, even if they seem irrelevant at the time.

Therefore I believe any self-education attempt needs to find a curriculum early on. Think of it like having a map when you’re in an unfamiliar country. No, you don’t need to follow it dogmatically, getting lost can be part of the fun. But having a map with you ensures you don’t stay lost permanently.

Discipline Matters–It’s Why Most Self-Education Attempts Fail

Deeper self-education requires more discipline than university, not less. Formal education has grades, assignments, attendance requirements and all sorts of external incentives to keep you focused.

Those external incentives probably remove some of the intrinsic joy of learning and create new stress, but they also make learning harder to ignore.

A deeper self-education attempt requires some discipline to see it through. Unlike, broad-stroke learning which can be done from curiosity alone, understanding the gritty details often requires a more conscientious effort.

For example, at the moment I’m working on my French. I love learning French and enjoy it more than most of my formal education. However, that doesn’t mean I work on it only when I feel like it. Being my biggest goal during my stay in France, I’ve dedicated a few 30 Day Trials and many hours of deliberate practice.

Many of my peers stopped learning French once their French classes finished. Without some deliberate effort, it’s easy to forget about your self-education goals and give up.

Application Can’t Be an Afterthought

In formal schooling, actually applying the ideas is a far goal. When you first learn statistics, most professors don’t expect you to start doing your own sampling or analysis. The actual use of the knowledge is put in a backseat to passing tests.

But if you’re going to sustain the motivation to complete a deep self-education curriculum, application must be put first. Otherwise, it is too easy to lose sight of the big picture and stop learning.

Effort needs to be made not just to learn the ideas, but to start applying them immediately. When I was previously teaching myself computer programming, I would always have a project I wanted to use the new-found skills on.

I was able to stay focused on learning French while I was still in Canada, as I had a French girlfriend at the time. How’s that for motivation? 🙂

What If You Don’t Have the Time?

I have a theory that the most successful people in life aren’t the busiest people or the most relaxed people. They are the ones who have the greatest ability to commit to something nobody else forces them to do.

Many people find time for school. Even if they are taking night classes and have a full-time job, they still manage to show up. It can be stressful, but they do it.

However, far fewer people would stick to a deliberate self-education program. They haven’t paid tuition and nobody is going to fail them if they don’t show up. So often they don’t.

I can’t think of another explanation for why someone who is serious enough to take night classes to learn a foreign language or build a new technical skill, can’t apply the same effort to educate himself.

The Goal of Teaching Yourself Everything

I wrote awhile ago about my personal goal of learning everything. I believe self-education (and especially the deeper self-education I mentioned here) is critical to that goal. And, if we really are living in an information-based world, it’s probably critical to almost every goal you have.

What are your thoughts on deeper self-education? Have you been able to teach yourself a subject to the same standards (or higher) than a university degree? Please share in the comments!


  • Lucy

    To state that no one has the discipline to stick to self-education because they have no constraints is wrong. This is the same idiom as “without God we have no morals”

    And regarding taking courses to learn a new language : I took night courses to learn Dutch because I knew that on my own I would not be able to do so! How could I ensure I am articulating and pronouncing the words correctly? How could I practice it if I have no one to practice it on?

    I think a lot of it depends on how you learn things and whether you are passionate about the subject or not.

    Personally I believe that school education on its own just isn’t enough. But then that could be because I feel that there was a lot I did not learn. I had trouble keeping things in my head because :
    (1) I didn’t know the WHY & HOW. Why are we doing it this way? HOW did we arrive to this formula?
    (2) There was a lot of general information and little time to ingest it.

    Now that I am educating myself, I can delve into the details and take my time to really understand everything (the WHYs & HOWs). I know what is my best method for learning and now I feel that I am learning (and retaining) a lot of information.

  • Lucy

    To state that no one has the discipline to stick to self-education because they have no constraints is wrong. This is the same idiom as “without God we have no morals”

    And regarding taking courses to learn a new language : I took night courses to learn Dutch because I knew that on my own I would not be able to do so! How could I ensure I am articulating and pronouncing the words correctly? How could I practice it if I have no one to practice it on?

    I think a lot of it depends on how you learn things and whether you are passionate about the subject or not.

    Personally I believe that school education on its own just isn’t enough. But then that could be because I feel that there was a lot I did not learn. I had trouble keeping things in my head because :
    (1) I didn’t know the WHY & HOW. Why are we doing it this way? HOW did we arrive to this formula?
    (2) There was a lot of general information and little time to ingest it.

    Now that I am educating myself, I can delve into the details and take my time to really understand everything (the WHYs & HOWs). I know what is my best method for learning and now I feel that I am learning (and retaining) a lot of information.

  • chips

    institutional/formal education should be under the broad category of self-education, i.e pursue schooling because you want to teach yourself a certain discipline, not the other way around where one depends his learning to what the school provides, which are often lacking.

  • chips

    institutional/formal education should be under the broad category of self-education, i.e pursue schooling because you want to teach yourself a certain discipline, not the other way around where one depends his learning to what the school provides, which are often lacking.

  • Saman Yousefnia

    I’m in the exact situation as you , i’m currently at University studying Applied Mathematics but i can’t stand the Academic system ! so most of the time , i ditch the classes to study the exact material they are teaching at the classes , on my own ! but that has resulted in poor grades (and a few good grades !!!!!) and getting removed from the courses ! at first i thought that my bad grades mean that i haven’t understood the material but later in one of my courses (Combinatorics) which i had studied on my own i got my worst grade to that day , but i used the material that i had learnt on my own to solve a problem in Circuits theory for my electrical engineer friend with the help of path minimization algorithm (Graph theory) and that’s when i understood i have to leave the school (cases like that also happened later but i wont bore you with them !) , people like us just can’t handle the academic structure but are motivated to learn certain subjects ! so it’s better for us to leave the school and study on our own !

  • Saman Yousefnia

    I’m in the exact situation as you , i’m currently at University studying Applied Mathematics but i can’t stand the Academic system ! so most of the time , i ditch the classes to study the exact material they are teaching at the classes , on my own ! but that has resulted in poor grades (and a few good grades !!!!!) and getting removed from the courses ! at first i thought that my bad grades mean that i haven’t understood the material but later in one of my courses (Combinatorics) which i had studied on my own i got my worst grade to that day , but i used the material that i had learnt on my own to solve a problem in Circuits theory for my electrical engineer friend with the help of path minimization algorithm (Graph theory) and that’s when i understood i have to leave the school (cases like that also happened later but i wont bore you with them !) , people like us just can’t handle the academic structure but are motivated to learn certain subjects ! so it’s better for us to leave the school and study on our own !

  • Jason Pompa

    i self studied psychology in my teen years and aced my intro psyche class without studying. the classroom is a nessecary thing (although i hate how it is implemented) because most people don’t have a hunger for knowledge. And it’s convenient to have an expert of a field at a stones throw to save heavy digging sometimes. I never met anyone who claimed to be self-educated except my grandfather… but i gain new knowledge everyday because i love knowledge. Therefore i love the internet, the information equalizer.

  • Jason Pompa

    i self studied psychology in my teen years and aced my intro psyche class without studying. the classroom is a nessecary thing (although i hate how it is implemented) because most people don’t have a hunger for knowledge. And it’s convenient to have an expert of a field at a stones throw to save heavy digging sometimes. I never met anyone who claimed to be self-educated except my grandfather… but i gain new knowledge everyday because i love knowledge. Therefore i love the internet, the information equalizer.

  • Jason Pompa

    teal is a nice color

  • Jason Pompa

    teal is a nice color

  • bsdpowa

    They ARE better than others and certainly better than you in every single aspect. How you can self study medicine or theoretical physics is beyond me… You must be smarter than Tesla and Einstein combined, have you been contacted by the government to work on their top secret projects yet?

  • bsdpowa

    They ARE better than others and certainly better than you in every single aspect. How you can self study medicine or theoretical physics is beyond me… You must be smarter than Tesla and Einstein combined, have you been contacted by the government to work on their top secret projects yet?

  • bsdpowa

    Tell ’em son! Who needs formal education when you can purchase a book from Amazon and know everything!!!!!!!!!!! Live freeeeeeeeee, don’t get sucked into the biggest scam in the world called higher education!!

    If you want to know what they don’t want you to know and earn $54756 a week like me sitting at home, please click this dodgy link and buy my e-book for only $5!!!

  • bsdpowa

    Tell ’em son! Who needs formal education when you can purchase a book from Amazon and know everything!!!!!!!!!!! Live freeeeeeeeee, don’t get sucked into the biggest scam in the world called higher education!!

    If you want to know what they don’t want you to know and earn $54756 a week like me sitting at home, please click this dodgy link and buy my e-book for only $5!!!

  • Chris K

    You hit the nail on the head. To code commercially, you need a specific skill set – not just programming – but an understanding of all the related areas that will affect the code you write. This is what a formal degree in computer science will give you. Database theory such as Normalisation. Math such as Discrete math for AI. Security such as SQL Exploits. Microprocessors for IoT. Anyone can write code; but to write using modern software engineering practises – takes a formal education, mostly. Of course some can self teach, but not most. Most just code bad, in-efficient, unsafe programs.

  • Chris K

    You hit the nail on the head. To code commercially, you need a specific skill set – not just programming – but an understanding of all the related areas that will affect the code you write. This is what a formal degree in computer science will give you. Database theory such as Normalisation. Math such as Discrete math for AI. Security such as SQL Exploits. Microprocessors for IoT. Anyone can write code; but to write using modern software engineering practises – takes a formal education, mostly. Of course some can self teach, but not most. Most just code bad, in-efficient, unsafe programs.

  • Nikara

    Alexander, I am so with you! I more than agree with your post!

  • Nikara

    Alexander, I am so with you! I more than agree with your post!

  • lonegull101

    I disagree that college or traditional class room teaching is “deep knowledge” that you cannot get through disciplined self education. I found college to be an over priced cram session, spending only a day or two on any aspect of the subject, then testing after 2 – 3 weeks and a hand full of chapters. A rush through the text books of 2 or 3 classes at a time, within 2 – 2 1/2 months does not equate deep learning. I am a self learner (autodidact) and I get odd looks and comments from people seeing me studying without being in college or a formal class. There is no reason society can’t (re)adjust for alternate learning paths/styles, back in the “old days” they called it on-the-job-training and had apprenticeships where you got paid to learn the skill and job. Now they expect the teachers and a degree to train you so that corporate america can stay in that “job ready” delusion.

  • lonegull101

    I disagree that college or traditional class room teaching is “deep knowledge” that you cannot get through disciplined self education. I found college to be an over priced cram session, spending only a day or two on any aspect of the subject, then testing after 2 – 3 weeks and a hand full of chapters. A rush through the text books of 2 or 3 classes at a time, within 2 – 2 1/2 months does not equate deep learning. I am a self learner (autodidact) and I get odd looks and comments from people seeing me studying without being in college or a formal class. There is no reason society can’t (re)adjust for alternate learning paths/styles, back in the “old days” they called it on-the-job-training and had apprenticeships where you got paid to learn the skill and job. Now they expect the teachers and a degree to train you so that corporate america can stay in that “job ready” delusion.

  • lonegull101

    Exactly, well stated.

  • lonegull101

    Exactly, well stated.

  • a

    Hi,
    Nothing in computer science is obsolete, we still code using similar principles that were used in the 80s, computer science is not about computers, it’s about computation and the time and steps it takes to preform them.

  • a

    Hi,
    Nothing in computer science is obsolete, we still code using similar principles that were used in the 80s, computer science is not about computers, it’s about computation and the time and steps it takes to preform them.

  • Robert Jones

    I appreciate the reply. Apparently I’ve visited this site before.

    I wonder how many articles I’ve read over and over?

    Listen bsdpowa: You don’t need books to learn.

    Step 1: Find something you want to learn.

    Step 2: Find a subject that you enjoy, that you ALREADY understand.

    Step 3: Apply the concepts from the subject you already appreciate, to the new one.

    Step 4: Don’t start at the very bottom, trying to understand. Start on chapter 3 for example. Look into Bloom’s taxonomy.

    Step 5: Dive in — drown yourself for a few weeks. The objective is to be completely lost in the material.

    Step 6: Find your way out. Objectively. Make sure you don’t kid yourself. Confirmation bias is a bitch.

    Step 7: Now that you know a little bit of the unknown, take it further. Try to get down to the nitty gritty; the atomic level. Stay there until you are completely sure you can articulate the subject, backwards and forwards.

    Step 8: Have a hypothesis? Why not test it? Fourier transformations can objectively measure your synthesis. Fourier series is only an example. Try to manipulate abstractions from first principles. This ensures the knowledge you obtain, stacks upon a foundation that will support the massive integration needed to comprehend complexity. The stronger the foundation, the easier it will be for you to empirically relate. This is ultimately what drives wisdom. Meaning…you could come to conclusions that are extremely practical, yet while also never having experienced it, first hand.

    Step 9: Master pattern recognition. If there are four variables in a scenario, the analogy you use to elaborate its components must also mirror this scenario, exactly, or else ambiguity defeats you.

    Step 10: Repeat.

    Best of wishes to you bsdpowa. Again, thank you for investing time. I appreciate your feedback. I don’t get much of that anymore, which I regret.

    Good day.

  • Robert Jones

    I appreciate the reply. Apparently I’ve visited this site before.

    I wonder how many articles I’ve read over and over?

    Listen bsdpowa: You don’t need books to learn.

    Step 1: Find something you want to learn.

    Step 2: Find a subject that you enjoy, that you ALREADY understand.

    Step 3: Apply the concepts from the subject you already appreciate, to the new one.

    Step 4: Don’t start at the very bottom, trying to understand. Start on chapter 3 for example. Look into Bloom’s taxonomy.

    Step 5: Dive in — drown yourself for a few weeks. The objective is to be completely lost in the material.

    Step 6: Find your way out. Objectively. Make sure you don’t kid yourself. Confirmation bias is a bitch.

    Step 7: Now that you know a little bit of the unknown, take it further. Try to get down to the nitty gritty; the atomic level. Stay there until you are completely sure you can articulate the subject, backwards and forwards.

    Step 8: Have a hypothesis? Why not test it? Fourier transformations can objectively measure your synthesis. Fourier series is only an example. Try to manipulate abstractions from first principles. This ensures the knowledge you obtain, stacks upon a foundation that will support the massive integration needed to comprehend complexity. The stronger the foundation, the easier it will be for you to empirically relate. This is ultimately what drives wisdom. Meaning…you could come to conclusions that are extremely practical, yet while also never having experienced it, first hand.

    Step 9: Master pattern recognition. If there are four variables in a scenario, the analogy you use to elaborate its components must also mirror this scenario, exactly, or else ambiguity defeats you.

    Step 10: Repeat.

    Best of wishes to you bsdpowa. Again, thank you for investing time. I appreciate your feedback. I don’t get much of that anymore, which I regret.

    Good day.

  • Robert Jones

    I honestly don’t remember this post… nor the last.

    As I stated to someone else…. I wonder how many times I keep reading the same articles? The time between seems to be every six to eight months…. Strange.

  • Robert Jones

    I honestly don’t remember this post… nor the last.

    As I stated to someone else…. I wonder how many times I keep reading the same articles? The time between seems to be every six to eight months…. Strange.

  • Robert Jones

    On another note, every positive has a negative…

    So even if I were to state how confident I were, you’d simply equivocate it as arrogance.

    Confirmation bias…. Specifically Dunning-Kruger Effect.

  • Robert Jones

    On another note, every positive has a negative…

    So even if I were to state how confident I were, you’d simply equivocate it as arrogance.

    Confirmation bias…. Specifically Dunning-Kruger Effect.

  • RyanMMatthews

    My parents always told me that having a university degree was strictly only to show an employer that you have the ability to self-educate and write a report. Back in their day, it didn’t matter what degree you had but only that you had one. My mother’s Masters in english and teaching had nothing to do with her career path of computer programming and then business and marketing.
    I believe it still applies today unless you are going into a much more specialized field of work which of course is becoming more and more in demand as we progress. However, often people tend to learn more in the first few months about what their career path will be like than in the entirety of their degree.
    All other self education not involving your career is in pursuit of the pleasure of knowledge and it would be wasteful time spent getting a degree for pleasure knowledge. It would also be a wasteful time spent getting into the nitty-gritty of a subject that you are learning for the sake of broader knowledge and understanding.
    Whilst the universe and the science that defines it is amazingly spectacular to me, I would find learning about the wave–particle duality and time evolution formulas or the principles behind quantum uncertainty to be a tedious waste of time for me to learn unless I was pursuing a career in such fields. For that, I’ll leave to the masters of that domain, those who get paid to learn it.

  • RyanMMatthews

    My parents always told me that having a university degree was strictly only to show an employer that you have the ability to self-educate and write a report. Back in their day, it didn’t matter what degree you had but only that you had one. My mother’s Masters in english and teaching had nothing to do with her career path of computer programming and then business and marketing.
    I believe it still applies today unless you are going into a much more specialized field of work which of course is becoming more and more in demand as we progress. However, often people tend to learn more in the first few months about what their career path will be like than in the entirety of their degree.
    All other self education not involving your career is in pursuit of the pleasure of knowledge and it would be wasteful time spent getting a degree for pleasure knowledge. It would also be a wasteful time spent getting into the nitty-gritty of a subject that you are learning for the sake of broader knowledge and understanding.
    Whilst the universe and the science that defines it is amazingly spectacular to me, I would find learning about the wave–particle duality and time evolution formulas or the principles behind quantum uncertainty to be a tedious waste of time for me to learn unless I was pursuing a career in such fields. For that, I’ll leave to the masters of that domain, those who get paid to learn it.

  • Steven Cook

    The Author of this article is false in assuming that the formal classroom is the best environment for deep learning and gaining an advantage in life. In the very beginning of this article the author expresses a personal pet peeve about people who don’t like the idea of going to college. Colleges often force students to take courses that are not even relevant to their chosen fields like “liberal arts” or “evolutionary biology” why would a computer science student need to know any of that information? these courses are nonsense and waste of time for most people. College is not only overpriced but often a waste of time and is ultimately an obstacle in people’s lives. Earning a college degree never guarantees you a job in your chosen career, it is never a concrete method for success and most of the time people accumulate mountains of debt that they will be paying off for several years thereafter. In fact there are many hugely successful people who became millionaires or billionaires who are college dropouts. Now I’m not saying your going to get filthy rich, most people will not but college is not the only path to a successful and fulfilling life.

  • Steven Cook

    The Author of this article is false in assuming that the formal classroom is the best environment for deep learning and gaining an advantage in life. In the very beginning of this article the author expresses a personal pet peeve about people who don’t like the idea of going to college. Colleges often force students to take courses that are not even relevant to their chosen fields like “liberal arts” or “evolutionary biology” why would a computer science student need to know any of that information? these courses are nonsense and waste of time for most people. College is not only overpriced but often a waste of time and is ultimately an obstacle in people’s lives. Earning a college degree never guarantees you a job in your chosen career, it is never a concrete method for success and most of the time people accumulate mountains of debt that they will be paying off for several years thereafter. In fact there are many hugely successful people who became millionaires or billionaires who are college dropouts. Now I’m not saying your going to get filthy rich, most people will not but college is not the only path to a successful and fulfilling life.

  • Gabapentin

    What you’ve left out are the financial straits some people find themselves in. I never was going to have the resources to go to college. Then there are people like me who are pretty profoundly ADD, and simply not well-suited to the classroom env…LOOK, A PUPPY…environment. So we learn, in many cases, by doing. Adding kinesthetic to autodidactic, and all of a sudden you come up with a gomer like me, with a better vocabulary than any of the educated fools I know, and there are a TON of educated fools in the US – look at the election. FWIW, I also know which end of a screwdriver to hold, and can do my own brakes.

    Yeronner (sic), the prosecution rests. I have to go to the bathroom.

  • Gabapentin

    Have you always been an arsehole, or did you take a couple of semesters of that in college?

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