Self-teaching often trumps courses as a way to learn.
Courses are often required, for example, for legal certification. But sometimes you can avoid courses, which are often costly, inconvenient, and larded with masses of material you’ll never use or have forgotten or become obsolete by the time you need it.
For many people and for many things you’ll want to learn, a wonderful way to learn is be an autodidact, teaching yourself. It may be best explained by examples. I’ll offer three from my life.
How I learned career counseling
It was 1985. I knew nothing about career counseling but wanted to become one. I didn’t want to get another degree—my years of courses from high school through PhD made clear that, for me, the amount of useful, enduring learning, for all that time and money, was too small compared with what I could have been learning for free on my own.
So instead of more school, I read a few time-honored books, such as What Color is Your Parachute, attended local and national conferences, and got permission to watch my favorite career counselors at work. I then started coaching friends on a volunteer basis, having good career counselors watch me. I asked for honest feedback, accepting and rejecting as I deemed wise.
At the point I felt I was providing sufficient value, I started charging clients. To this day, I continue reading articles and participating in online and in-person forums. That has worked—I’ve long had more than a 95 percent client-satisfaction rate, the San Francisco Bay Guardian dubbed me “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach,” U.S. News called me “Career coach extraordinaire,” I’ve penned many career articles in major publications, and my book, Careers for Dummies (link is external)will be published next week.
How I learned rose hybridizing
When I moved to California from New York, I was struck by how roses bloomed just three months a year in New York but eight in California, quite a romance factory. But rose leaves are subject to fungus. This learning opportunity too was before the internet so I went to the major local horticultural library and read articles and book sections on hybridizing roses for disease resistance. I visited two world-class hybridizers, watched and asked lots of questions. I then started my own hybridizing program, as I do most things, with low risk: in my backyard with just a half dozen plants. When I had a question, I consulted a book or called a hybridizer. I joined the Rose Hybridizers Association, read their book for beginners, and asked for advice and shared lessons I had been learning. I now have two roses on the market, roses resistant enough to fungus that they needn’t be sprayed, and for the past 20 years I receive an annual, not-trivial royalty check.
How I learned to write poetry
Four months ago, I had not written a single poem. But having always enjoyed writing, poetry was one vehicle I hadn’t tried, so I decided to, as I do with most things, do a deep dive into it. I started by reading a few articles, selected from among Google search’s top results. Always liking to have my work have impact rather than simply writing poems for myself, I found a website that allows anyone to post their poems—AllPoetry.com (link is external)—and started posting my poems there. Readers offer feedback, which as usual, I accept or reject on what I believe are the merits. When I felt the need for additional professional input, I read a book on poetry (Poetry for Dummies (link is external)) and later, more advanced books. My poems have since won eight gold medals on AllPoetry.com, 175 of my poems are collected in a book, Poems Plain (link is external), and in a month, my next book, Poems Pragmatic, will merge those with 200 new ones. Then, I anticipate having reached the point where my pleasure of learning and growing as a poet will have peaked and I’ll likely not write another poem, certainly not another book of poetry. I’ll move on to some new thing to autodidact. Because autodidacting is so self-customized and low-cost, I look forward to that next challenge.
True, being an autodidact isn’t for everyone. Many people need to assume the course’s aforementioned liabilities in exchange for the structure of school: An instructor will lecture you, lead a discussion, tell you what to read by when, and dangle a grade to motivate you. But if you’re a self-starter, you might want to take a shot at being an autodidact.