Learning for yourself and by yourself is hard; even though there’s never been an easier time to be a self-directed learner. 

The current education system around the world is designed to churn out non-self-directed learners. It’s no surprise most of us have a harder time learning by ourselves. It can be hard to shift that mindset that’s been engraved in your being from a young age. 

I went through that exact shift at the ripe old age of 12. 

Before starting high school I transitioned from a regular education system to an alternative education system by the name of Acton Academy Guatemala; a system that primarily promotes self-directed learning. Making that transition was the best thing that I’ve ever done for myself, but it was not easy. 

Back in the day, I was your typical straight-A student who was good at being told what to learn. I never questioned anything because I didn’t have that curiosity to learn beyond what teachers were teaching. I killed myself studying out of pure anxiety about what my parents and teachers might think if I didn’t get an A. 

When I transitioned to Acton it took me some time and conscious effort to rewire my brain. It took me years to switch back to that curious mindset that I thought I didn’t have. 

I struggled with being hands-on with my education and choosing what was best for me to learn. Taking responsibility for my education was fun but it was also an overwhelming process. 

After 10 years of practice, I can officially say I am a pretty great self-directed learner. And I have a few tricks up my sleeve that might help you. 

And I know what you’re thinking, “Isa, I’m too old to rewire my brain.” You and I both know that’s just an excuse. If you want to cultivate this awesome skill, stop BS-ing yourself. Instead, follow these steps and you’ll be on your way to becoming a self-directed learner in no time. 

Understand that self-directed learning is hard 

The first step in your self-directed learning journey is recognizing that it’s not gonna be an easy feat. 

Having someone telling you what and how to learn is easy. But taking action and choosing what and how you want to learn is hard. It takes a lot of personal responsibility. So you have to own your journey and accept the process. And you have to be open to failure. 

Once you understand that self-directed learning is, in fact, hard, you have to find a way to push through. And you’re gonna want to do that through your why. If what I’m saying sounds like gibberish, allow me to explain. 

Your why is like your long-term vision and it’s gonna look different for everyone. 

Why are you choosing to become a self-directed learner? How is it going to help you get to where you want to go? Dive deep and you’ll have a solid foundation that’ll guide you through the hardships. Your why will help you stay committed to your goal. 

I choose to be a self-directed learner because I want to be in full control of my life. When it gets hard and I don’t want to be responsible for my education, I go back to my why. I use my why as a compass to reinforce my commitment to myself and to guide me through the tough times.  

Once you choose the hard way and establish why you chose it, it’s time to take action! 

Stay Curious

I still struggle with this one daily. But I’ve found that the best way to be constantly learning is to stay curious. You know how little kids are always asking why? That’s what we’re going for. 

But how do we build this habit? 

The best way is to question everything and anything. Ask yourself why? How? What would happen if…? 

Every time you wonder something, no matter how ridiculous, google it. What would happen if I didn’t wash my hair for a month? How are tea bags made? These might sound like unimportant things to know but if you’re curious about them, why not use your resources to find out? 

This sounds like a small action to take for something as big as self-directed learning but curiosity is one of the most important traits for a self-directed learner. It gets the ball rolling on your journey to learn bigger and more useful things down the road. And little by little you’ll find yourself learning without even intending to. 

Learn to find the right tools 

Google is a fantastic tool for self-directed learning. But you need to know how to use it correctly. You can google anything you want in seconds, but there’s a lot of questionable information out there. And you need to know how to filter it. 

The easiest way to do this is to go on a research adventure. Want to learn about makeup? YouTube tutorials are probably your best bet. Want to learn about corporate finance? Coursera or Udemy might have something for you. 

Don’t limit yourself to the first few things you find. Scroll down, read reviews, join online communities and ask for suggestions. There’s a lot of valuable content hidden online. Go out of your way and find the best tools that can help you learn what you want to learn. 

Another thing that I’ve done besides a bunch of curated research is to look at industry professionals who do what I want to learn, and consume their content. Most of the time these people have blogs, books, podcasts, videos; you name it! So consume their content and read and watch what they recommend you should read and watch. If you feel stuck with your research, industry professionals might be a good starting point. 

Hold yourself accountable 

This is the hardest thing that comes with being a self-directed learner. It’s easy to blame your teachers or your parents for your lack of education. But it’s not as easy to blame yourself. 

The most important thing you need to do is set specific goals to help you figure out your learning system. If you’re not in a structured program, you need to add that structure. Make space in your day to learn and practice. Write specific action items on your to-do list and schedule so you know what you have to do and when you have to do it.

And at the end of every week review those goals and reflect on what the outcome was. Do you need to set more challenging goals? Or do they need to be more realistic? Adjust accordingly until you find your sweet spot. 

The best way to hold yourself accountable is to teach what you’re learning. When you have to share or show what you’re learning, you will realize if you’re actually learning or not. So share your new skills! Create a project, make a tutorial, write a blog post. If you find yourself not able to share your skills properly, you haven’t learned them yet. Go back, refine your system, and try again. 

If all else fails, get a running partner. Find someone in your life who wants to help you grow and who is willing to give you some feedback. Let them know what you’re learning and what your weekly goals are and report what you have and haven’t done weekly. The action of reporting to another human will immediately make you want to hit or surpass your goals. And if you fail, you have to own it. You can’t BS yourself out of it when there’s someone else in the mix. 

Figure out the way that works best for you but make sure you’re holding yourself accountable. You won’t get much done otherwise. 

Whether we realize it or not, we’re learning all the time. Learning is part of human nature and it doesn’t stop once you graduate school. 

You are responsible for your own education whether you choose to believe it or not. So why not own up to it and become a self-directed learner? It’s a tough ride but it’s worth it! 

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