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Notes on Self-Learning

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” – Attributed to Mark Twain (not verifiable)

Autodidact

I grew up in a household with two parents who still spend a big part of their day learning something new. They also happen to be the best teachers I know.

Dad’s college education was interrupted in the early 70s by the famous Moga Protest (student agitations that led to colleges being shut down in the entire state after the killing of two students in a police firing in Moga distict, Punjab). He was a scholarship student and without college there was no money coming in. So at the age of 19 he decided to join a bank in a clerical position. Colleges opened a year later but my dad continued working and joined Punjab University’s evening college instead. He got a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree and continued to grow professionally. But he always felt that he had missed out somehow.

Mom completed her bachelor’s degree, but couldn’t start her master’s because of her betrothal to dad (the 70s were a strange time). Years into her marriage, it rankled her that she hadn’t continued her education. So she did something about it.

As a teenager, I remember times when all three of us would be studying for our respective exams. Dad (a hugely successful banker by now) would be working towards completing another international certification. Mom (who always wanted to be a teacher) would be extending her official teaching qualifications. When they weren’t studying for an exam they’d read for pleasure. Dad and I would discuss astronomy for hours on end (space-time continuum, black holes, relativity) and devour science fiction and fantasy novels by the dozens. Mom and I would read and watch crime thrillers and discuss political science.

Teaching seems to be a hereditary profession. Granddad came from a family of Sanskrit scholars and ran schools for women in his village. Uncles and aunts are professors and teachers. Mom has taught a generation of high school kids. Dad has been teaching banking for years and now develops courseware for the BFSI space and trains other master trainers. I started teaching my classmates in study groups when I was 14 (it helped me clear my concepts and revise for exams).

My parents have only ever harboured two ambitions for me: be happy and be educated. I wanted to grow up and become a scientist and teach at a top-notch university. But life follows its own path. After completing an engineering degree at IIT Madras, I decided to take up writing full time. Many short stories and books followed. And then game development, design and product management happened. In between, I taught children of all ages (6 to 20): science fiction and fantasy writing, comic book appreciation, the convergence of science and poetry. Even now, as a Studio Head of a gaming company and an advisor/mentor to a bunch of start-ups, I am most at ease in front of a whiteboard, with a marker in my hand, breaking down a problem into its core components for everyone present.

And while I am exploring new fields and learning new skills constantly – formal higher education is still not part of my life. I still have dreams of giving exams (I was a weird child – I was happiest sitting in an examination hall) and running through the corridors of a school or college. And while I have left higher education (a master’s and a PhD, perhaps) for my 40s, my quest to educate myself is at its peak. There has never been a better time to be an autodidact than now.

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This entire post was written in response to a post published by David Jackson: The best people train themselves. David’s blog is a must-read for anyone in the start-up space. The post sparked a healthy debate between me and a few colleagues.

I believe that self-learning or autodidactism is an acquired skill that can be developed over time. In the nature vs nurture debate – this skill definitely falls on the side of nurture. One also learns it by imitation – by observing others – parents, teachers, friends, mentors, colleagues, etc.

Its impact on personal and professional growth is huge if one acquires this skill at an early stage. Also, it is definitely something one can pick up later in life – albeit with a lot of hard work. Even organizations can establish a conducive environment and turn their employees into autodidacts.

But what does it mean to be a self-learner or an autodidact (AD)?

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An autodidact needs to have (or needs to learn) the following three skills:

What

First and foremost, an AD (autodidact) knows what to seek.

  • What are the gaps in one’s understanding?
  • What are the skills missing is one’s repertoire?
  • What does one need to learn?

Example – you are an entrepreneur starting out an online business that helps local artisans directly sell their products to people around the world. While you have dealt with artisans for years and have sold their products offline – this is your first time setting up an online platform. You don’t have a technical background. You are also planning to setup this business on your own (due to a lack of resources). Do you learn how to code and design your own website? What programming languages should you learn? Or should you just buy a readymade website that you can customize on your own? How do you go about customizing? Who creates templatized websites?

For some of us these questions might seem laughable. For a lot of people this is ground reality. This is where they get stuck.

The problem is not one of intelligence. It is one of self-assessment and drawing the correct inferences. It is not just about asking questions – it is about asking the right questions. Sadly, this is where the early education system in most countries fails people. We grow up in an environment where curiosity and inquisitiveness are not fostered. Asking questions is frowned upon.

Asking the right questions and figuring out what to learn is the first skill required for being an AD.

Where and How

Secondly, an AD knows how to be a seeker and where exactly to seek.

  • How and where will I learn what I need to learn?

While it is easy to say: ‘Google it and figure it out’, most people are terrible at searching for answers on their own. In the past we had libraries. Very few people understood the well-defined Dewey Decimal Classification system. We needed librarians to help us navigate the labyrinthine aisles and shelves of a library. A big chunk of humanities knowledge is now on the internet and while search engines are not as difficult to master as the DDC – they are still far from perfect. Finding the correct source of learning is itself a skill.

Example – Yahoo Answers, Quora, Stack Overflow and Clash of Clans forums at an abstract level have the same features. People ask questions. Others answer them. But you go to them for completely different reasons. These communities follow their own set of rules. The “where” and “how” is important to get a successful answer.

Who

You have figured out what to learn and where and how to learn it. You have started learning a new skill. You have made progress. But you are stuck. Your Google skills are maxed out. There is knowledge out there that is undocumented. Its tribal knowledge. It has never been codified. It’s a rule of thumb – a heuristic known to a few. Or it is something one can only learn with experience. Who do you turn to now? The ability to seek out the right mentor or advisor is the last skill.

  • Who will take me to the next level?

Example – You are a 21-year-old CEO of a company that is catching fire. You need to hire an experienced executive to lead your sales team. You find it easy to handle people your own age. But how do you manage someone who is fifteen years older than you? This is where a mentor could guide you. Every Arthur needs a Merlin.

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The above three skills are essential to being an autodidact. But there are two other traits without which the journey towards becoming an autodidact would remain incomplete:

  • Having a good answer to the questions: “Why?” Why learn at all? Why put in all this effort? Every person needs to discover their own answer. Without it there can be no self-learning.
  • Perseverance – self-learning is difficult. Despite advances in technology, it is still hugely dependant on trial and error. It is difficult to figure out your own unique way of learning and follow through with it. Without perseverance it is not possible.

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I mentioned earlier that there has never been a better time to be an autodidact than now. This has been made possible by a number of advances:

  • The best teachers are now online thanks to platforms like Coursera, Khan Academy, Udemy, etc.
  • The best teachers have partnered/ are partnering with the best content creators (directors, artists, film-makers, animators) to produce content of the highest quality.
  • Classrooms were always geared towards the lowest common denominator. Adaptive platforms are able to modulate pace and difficulty of learning based on an individual student’s requirement.
  • On demand teaching – learn when you have the time
  • Non-standard means of assessment that were not scalable in a classroom scenario are now available
  • The ability to shift teaching methodologies based on a student’s growth (or lack of)

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For me the “why” was always very well defined. I learn, therefore I am. I cannot imagine a life in which I am not learning something new every single day. And I am blessed to have a wife who is exactly the same in this regard.

The best teachers arm their students with the tools and skills to become autodidacts in life. For that, I have to thank my parents and the phenomenal teachers and mentors I have met over the years.

Finally, there is one other very important thing that every autodidact needs to do: pay it forward.

Help people to discover their ‘why’. Help people learn their ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘where’. Help people by becoming their ‘who’. Pay it forward by creating tools that enable people to become better learners.

Why I Learn
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