There are no real requirements to learning other than a willingness and a dash of self-discipline. But what is massively helpful in challenging that willingness and self-discipline is a set of two plans: a macro and micro plan. The macro plan has to do with the reasons you are going to devote your time to learning something, where the micro plan has to do with the actual activities you should engage in on a daily basis. The former ensures that you end up at a goal that you desire, while the latter ensures that you achieve that goal.
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Now you know that you don’t need to be talented, you don’t need to cater to learning styles, and you don’t need boatloads of time to learn a new skill. There are no true prerequisites except perhaps a willingness to work hard.
So what is actually needed? Well, a plan. Specifically, two plans. Planning should be done at the macro and micro levels. At the macro level, you examine your overall goals and purposes for learning. This is where you make sure that you are spending your time the way you want to. At the micro level is when you plan out your days and hours with activities specifically suited to reaching those goals. Here, you make sure that the time you are spending yields the result that you desire.
The macro level can be accomplished by following six steps.
First, decide what you want to learn. This seems obvious, but there are better and worse things to spend your time on.
When considering a course of action, you will want to first consider your strengths and weaknesses. Often, whether it’s in work or in play, we’re better off emphasizing and developing our strengths than we are trying to minimize our failings. After all, no one is going to ask us to do everything, and when we really have trouble, acquiring help from others is always possible. But excellence in one area, or a small group of areas, easily transforms us into experts in our fields, which is a highly desirable place to be. Emphasizing your strengths when you choose an area to develop is a good idea. Of course, if you want to learn something totally new, that’s also something you can accomplish!
Even if you’re only looking to advance your professional skillset, you should still consider what you want to do when choosing a subject to learn or a skill to develop. Career paths are a consideration, but it’s even more important to consider what sorts of activities make you happy and unhappy. You don’t want a degree in accounting if you hate numbers, after all, even if it would improve your paycheck. Paths that align with your interests and are emotionally fulfilling are usually more rewarding.
Consider Darlene, who works as a web developer. She wants to have greater control over the processes that occur on her websites, rather than outsourcing for code when she needs it to perform certain functions she can’t create herself. Moreover, she wants to be able to manipulate that code and make it from scratch so that she completely understands what’s on her pages. Her vision for her learning is gaining knowledge of more types of code so that she can be a more competent, better-rounded web developer.
The second step is analyzing your current skills and experience to spot gaps in knowledge. Where are you lacking compared to your future self? What do you already know and do well? What do you still need to learn? Can other people fill in these gaps in knowledge for you, or do you need to step up to the plate and seek out additional resources? Once you find areas in which you need to improve, you will be able to discern specific areas you can study and skills you should develop to come closer to your goals. This gives your plan a concrete shape, because you will know exactly what you are missing to get to Point B.
Darlene already develops web pages for a living and knows the most current versions of HTML and CSS by heart, but she currently outsources certain types of coding to others. This leads to problems with version control and gives her a sense of powerlessness over that aspect of her job. If she wants to fill that gap in her knowledge, she needs to study other languages used on the web. She decides to start with Java, as that’s the code she most often interacts with without understanding.
Third, identify the proper solution to your problem/deficiency/goal. This is about surveying your resources. Part of this will depend on your temperament. Are you a self-starter, or do you learn better in a classroom setting? Do you need a source of knowledge you can pick up and put down as your schedule allows, or can you afford to set up regular appointments with a teacher to develop a skill? Your schedule, income, and preferences all play a role in determining the right resources to seek and employ.
Lots of learning resources exist in the modern world, from books, journals, webpages, and podcasts, to seminars, work teams, and formal classes, to one-on-one instructional training in formal and informal settings.
When choosing a resource to learn from, it’s important to consider your own learning preferences, but that’s only one of many considerations. You must also consider the reputation of your source or teacher, and whether you will gain any formal credentials from studying with a specific teacher or demonstrating competence in a certain field. It’s also essential to consider convenience, because a class you can’t go to is not useful, no matter how well-regarded the teacher may be. By contrast, solo studying offers no emotional or technical support from others, while a course or a tutoring situation may involve substantial help and oversight from someone else; if this might be valuable in the area you’re studying, it could be worth paying for.
Darlene is highly motivated but often pressed for time. She considers community college courses, learning from books and journals, and even hiring a private tutor, but ultimately decides to engage in one of the many online programs to help her develop her skills on her own schedule. These courses won’t automatically get her credentials, but she’s aware that she could take a skills test to certify herself once she gains skill mastery, and as she will have an immediate use for Java in her current job, she’s not worried about being unable to use her new knowledge in the future.
The fourth step is developing your learning blueprint. Once you know what you want to accomplish, you should look for people who have already accomplished your goal. These people will serve as a step-by-step guide for how to get to where you want.
If the person is famous or no longer living, you can research their life to figure out how they became who you want to become. If they’re not particularly famous or renowned, even better, as you can approach them personally and ask about their road to success. Take note of any struggles, education, or personal relationships they had to overcome or pursue to reach their goals, and try to find ways to mimic this path in your own life. This can give you deeper insight into skills to focus on and paths to pursue once your initial research project is complete.
Darlene sits down and has a conversation with her team supervisor about the best ways to advance her career and land a comparable job to her mentor when the time is right. He tells her about specific skills she’ll need to learn and certifications she’ll need to complete once she gains the skills she needs. He will tell her about the struggles to expect and how to overcome them. Darlene may ultimately choose a different path, but researching blueprints provides clarity and information.
The fifth step is to develop measurable goals. Your learning goals should be simple, specific, and easy to quantify. You need to set up deadlines where you will measure yourself against your expected progress using the metrics you devised, and you need to stick to that schedule. Placing your goals and expectations in a public, visible space will increase accountability by ensuring that others are aware of your project and your expectations. Remember, you should be acquiring specific, measurable skills and abilities by set points in time, and these benchmarks should all be in service of your larger learning goal.
If you’ve chosen a more formal environment, your class times may be set for you, but you must still set aside time to study, learn, and practice on your own time. No class gives you all the practice you need to master its skillset on the teacher’s time. If you’re engaging in self-study, setting up a consistent schedule for studying on your own is even more essential.
Keep in mind, genuinely mastering a skill takes a little time even with the best techniques, so be generous in the study windows you provide yourself. You don’t only want time to read or watch a video, but also to reflect upon what you’ve learned, perform meaningful exercises, and catch and correct the errors you are inevitably going to make.
Darlene marks a schedule for herself based on the units offered in her online course, sets aside specific times to undertake each course, and allot blocks of time to study each unit. She also allocates a specific time each week to take the unit’s quiz. She programs this into her phone so that she doesn’t forget the plan, and prints a copy of her calendar to put on her cubicle wall. She stays on track throughout the months, and as a result, she will reach her goal of programming proficiency.
Sixth, set aside time throughout to reflect on what you’re learning and reevaluate whether you’re progressing at your maximum capacity. After all, if one method isn’t working, that doesn’t mean you’re hopeless! Sometimes all you need is more accountability or greater independence to really shine. You want a learning plan that gets your skills where you want them to be, not something that isn’t clicking and is therefore wasting your time. A chef will always taste their food while they are making it; you should assess your progress in a similar way.
Darlene sticks diligently to her plan and is happy with her progress, but finds the course itself a little low on support for her needs. She solves this problem by approaching her supervisor with questions when she needs further clarification. He’s happy to help her along. Ultimately, she gains the skills she needs and becomes a more efficient, more skilled employee.
The macro level of a self-learning plan is not complex. In fact, it is quite simplistic. It mostly articulates a systematic process of optimizing the path you are taking.
However, at the micro level, there’s still a blank. We haven’t yet described the specific techniques and day-to-day activities you’ll have to complete to transform learning from an idle way to pass time into a method of gaining skills that will serve you throughout your life.
Learning is the act of taking in information . . . but then what? The first step – finding a video or book and sitting down to passively absorb the information it contains – is never the problem. Even the macro plan isn’t hard, and most of it will come as second nature or common sense. The hard part is transforming the knowledge we’re exposed to into stable, long-term memories we can use.
What do we do with the information to truly learn it? How do we go from merely being able to recite e=mc squared to understanding how to apply it and why it works? There are four main pillars to self-learning that we will introduce here and cover throughout the book.