Amid a fun and rewarding conversation with a couple of colleagues recently, I found myself articulating the challenges of being a self-directed learner in the contemporary world. What does it take to thrive as a self-directed learner? There are certainly many benefits to being one, but self-directed and free range learning is not without difficulties. In a world that is often drawn to academic abstractions in the form of degrees and certifications, it is not always easy to thrive as one who chooses alternative pathways to learning.
With that said, there are three key questions for such current or aspiring self-directed learners. Attending to these can greatly improve the joy and quality of the self-directed learning journey.
What do you know? What don’t you know?
Self-awareness is important for everyone, but especially for those who venture further into self-directed learning and alternate learning pathways. Champions of SDL in their own lives represent a full range of self-awareness levels. Some are very competent but not very confident in their abilities. Others are not very competent but they have immense confidence. They have an inaccurate few of their current level of expertise. There are also those with low confidence and competence. Then, of course, there are those who are highly confident and competent, a potent combination.
Regardless, it is important for the self-directed learner to have an accurate and continually updated picture of what they actually do and do not know. We need mirrors to help us see ourselves as we really are. Only then are we able to make adjustments and progress.
When a self-directed learner lacks this self-awareness, it can be disappointing and frustration. They find themselves troubled by a world that doesn’t seem to get them. If one is not careful, it can turn into a cycle of bitterness and even depression. Know thyself.
How do you achieve goals to learn something new?
Once you have a clear and accurate picture of your abilities, it is time to set goals and establish plans and pathways to achieve those learning goals. I can’t overstate how powerful of a skill set this is for people. It allows them to no longer be limited by a ready mix of formal educational offerings to achieve learning goals, but truly turns the world into one’s classroom. Of course, self-directed learners may opt to learn through formal courses and programs, but they are not limited to or restricted by those pathways.
How do you show what you know and can do? How do you tell your story with narratives and numbers?
This last one has occupied more of my attention lately. If you are going to venture into the world of self-directed learning, you must be ready to represent yourself and communicate your learning to the world around you. To learn something through self-direction can be incredibly freeing and rewarding, but what about when you need to seek a job or you are trying to communicate your accomplishments and abilities to others? For the self-directed learner, it is often not as easy as showing your diploma or formal credential. People like myself can complain about such abstractions as inaccurate and inadequate means of communicating expertise, but much of the world remains content with such signifiers of learners. As such, as a self-directed learner, you must find ways to tell the story of what you know and can do. You must be able to do it with narratives and numbers, succinctly and substantively, and in varied mediums depending upon the target audience.
Without this, you can find yourself frustrated and with limited opportunities. You might feel like people don’t get you, that they overlook you. You might even get bitter because far less qualified people seem to get the jobs instead of you, just because those people have the formal piece of paper. Yet, part of choosing the path of the self-directed learner is facing this reality and investing in the skill to effectively represent yourself in such a world. Sometimes it involves knowing when to take the common pathway and earn the credential. Other times you recognize that an alternate pathway will work as well or better to achieve your goals. Those who learn to do this well find few doors closed. We can even find instances of people finding their way in academic or University jobs with few or no degrees even when there is limited precedent for such a thing. Consider people like Joi Ito.
Being a self-directed learner has immense benefits. Yet, it takes time and effort to learn how to thrive as a self-directed learner in many contexts. Learning to invest in the skills associated with these three questions can give you a much greater chance to thrive.