Self-learning and the power of autodidacticism
Issue 68: Learning in an unstructured environment
It’s Thanksgiving week in the United States and I’m grateful to have the entire week off from work. This time of year is the annual tradition of the end of Q4. There are three things I love doing as the year ends: resting, relaxing, and learning. My body needed time to physically recover and spent a lot of time sleeping longer. Note to self: remember to turn off your alarms.
Feeling fully rested, I spent some leisure time learning. It may be shocking to some that learning is something I enjoy doing as they associate it with work or school. The truth is, you can find joy in learning. My life is guided by curiosity that leads to the desire to seek knowledge. I’ve been in the field of design for almost two decades at this point, yet feel I have so much to learn and grow. My goal is to wake up every morning with the mentality of a student and beginner.
When I finished college, I lost my academic structure of learning as I entered the workforce—no professors, no studio, no classmates. I felt like I wasn’t learning anymore. In the midst of an economic recession in the late 2000s, I was pivoting away from pursuing an MFA in Fine Art and into software design. Going back to institutional learning wasn’t an option for me as it wasn’t affordable. I had to teach myself these skills, and that’s how autodidacticism was introduced to my life.
What is an autodidact? The word that sounds like a protagonist robot in disguise is a fancy word for saying education without the guidance of masters. If there was one thing art school really taught us, it was “learning to learn” and applying it into a practical project. Today we'll cover how to build a culture of autodidacticism in your craft.
Learning isn’t practice, and practice isn’t learning
It’s important to distinguish what learning is, and what practice is. The two concepts dovetail together but play a different role.1
“When we practice something, we are involved in the deliberate repetition of a process with the intention of reaching a specific goal. The words deliberate and intention are key here because they define the difference between actively practicing something and passively learning it.” —Thomas Sterner, The Practicing Mind
Simply put, practicing a lot doesn’t necessarily mean you’re learning and growing. It means you’re building proficiency in the habit. Practice and learning need to balance each other out. The risk of spending too much time on learning without practice is you’ll never acquire the skill in the real world. You see this a lot with designers who have knowledge but might struggle with executing on it or the other way around. The way to mitigate this is by understanding how you learn and setting a plan.
Discovering the best learning methods for you
Learning is different for each individual. Not everyone thrives in an academic setting. For example, I struggled a lot in lecture-based courses in school but thrived in music and the arts because the feedback loop of learning was so tangible. There are seven common types of learning:
Visual: Those who like doodles, mind maps, and images to help them learn
Auditory: Learning through listening to information
Verbal: The spoken or written way of learning—great for people who love reading
Physical: Those who prefer watching a demo or something more hands-on
Logical: For the poindexters who love math, recognizing patterns, and connecting with concepts (Just kidding, poindexters. We love you.)
Social: Interpersonal learners who thrive in groups
Solitary: Those who learn amongst their own thoughts
There may be one or multiple learning methods that resonate with you. For example, On Deck might be a great way to learn if you thrive in cohort-based learning with peers and experts. If you're more of a physical learner, something like Skillshare with step-by-step tutorials might help. Visual learners might like how Maggie Appleton teaches complex concepts in an approachable way. The website Education Planner has a self-assessment you can take.
1. Scope your learning and define success
In an autodidactic environment, you are both the student and instructor. Creating a structured plan in what you want to learn will help you be intentional about your time instead of being caught in the thrash of activity without growth.
Set your level of expertise
I set my spectrum of expertise like this: Hobbyist > Amateur > Professional > Expert > G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All-Time).
Learning can be to grow in a hobby or acquire skills for a new profession you’re exploring. It’s important to have a point of view of how far you want to grow. For example, I love learning about filmmaking but have no desire to pivot careers. My scope of learning is simply for pleasure—a hobbyist and that's all it ever will be. My goal is to build better taste in filmmaking and be able to appreciate it better. In contrast, I might want to build a profession in being an investor. How I learn and the objectives I set would be different from filmmaking.
Set learning objectives for yourself
Learning objectives helps set outcomes of what you want to learn by the end of the session. A simple prompt is filling in the blank of, "At the end of this learning session, I want to be able to ____"
Objective: What skill do you want to acquire by the end of the session?
Assessments: How will you check that you've learned the material?
Instructional strategies: What are the methods or projects you’ll use to validate you’ve learned the concept?
2. Building your own lessons
Upon identifying an objective, break down the work in the foundations of what you want to learn. For example, when I wanted to learn to prototype for iOS apps, I'd break down the work into parts that were important. An objective such as “Learn Swift" is ambitious and difficult to achieve in one session. The larger the scope of what you have to learn, the higher likelihood you’ll quit. I am a big proponent of breaking work down into small wins. Instead of trying to learn Swift in one sitting, breaking down the objective to something where I can create a project helps me stay motivated—"Learn to build simple functional prototypes with Swift." Let's craft an example learning objective:
Learning Objective: By the end of this session, I want to be able to:
Navigate Apple's Integrated Development Environment (IDE) Xcode to build interfaces
Understand the different ways interfaces are constructed in Xcode
Apply to style and customize UI
Learn enough code to build navigation between the different views
Create sample projects to validate your learning. An example project might be "Re-create Instagram's interface." In art school, I remember spending hours in the week re-creating Peter Paul Rubens’ charcoal drawings. Re-creating and re-building are great exercises to measure progress because you can visually compare your work to the original.
The one challenge of being autodidactic is how you evaluate yourself. I recommend not measuring yourself and soliciting feedback from other professionals as you can get biased in your own point of view. Whether it’s building in public or sharing with colleagues privately, get feedback from someone who knows the subject matter better than you to evaluate.
3. Find your study room
Find a consistent place where you can go study and learn. The space where you go to learn might be different than the place you go to practice or work. For some, it may be the same studio space they go to create, and for others, it could be a completely different location. One of my favorite study areas back in the day was at Zoka Coffee in Seattle. I lived near the coffee shop and would always go over there, teaching myself Interface Builder (yes, I'm old school) and code. A lot of my learning methods are by reading, watching videos, and taking sketch notes, so my study room is much more mobile than my creation space.
4. Apply practice to your learning
Now that you’ve set intentions, apply your practice routine. It’s important to mention again that practicing with no learning objective can be going through the motions without growth. You can become proficient at being a hobbyist, and that’s okay if it’s your goal. Set clear targets for yourself. Practice and building projects are great ways to validate your learning.
What I'm excited about learning
With the year near the end, I have some weeks off from work allowing a block of time to do seasonal learning. Some subjects I'm excited about learning:
Research on Visual Programming: At some point, I'd love to write a piece on The History of Visual Programming and plan on investing a lot of time reading and conversing with people
3D modeling with Blender: I haven't done any 3D work since using Cinema 4D back in the day. It's been cool seeing the spatial environments people create in this space I want to learn Blender to build architectural spaces that I could only afford in the Metaverse
Read up on building Figma plugins: I don't do any design work in my day-to-day though feel it's important to stay relevant and knowledgeable in design trends
Organizational psychology: This is a fancy way of me saying I'll be binge-reading Adam Grant's books again
I can’t wait to spend some time digging into new things. My heart warms up so much when I have time to sit and learn. Until next time, happy learning.
Tweet of the week
Music for deep work
When it comes to propelling your work, music sets the tone. My favorite music service is SoundCloud because of all the incredible mixes you can find. This week I wrote this issue listening to the legendary Crystal Method’s Community Service mixes. Check it out and I’d love your recommendations.
The architecture of creativity: "Low floor, wide walls, high ceiling." (Great newsletter post about HyperCard!)
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Rest by Salman Ansari (Get some rest!)
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