Thursday, November 8, 2012

Self-Education – the one most useful skill you could ever have

No matter what kind of work you do, whether it’s programming, hardware design, biology, chemistry, archaeology or anything else you could think of, there’s one skill that you'll need if you want to be very successful in each one of them – self-education.

So, what self-education actually is you might ask? Why do I need it? How do I acquire it? What’s it good for? Self-education allows you to be able to find information about whatever you need, process and utilize that information. It gives you power to understand anything you want and do whatever you want, assuming you give it enough time.

Everything I do myself, whether it’s designing games, programming languages, various kinds of tools or experiments, digital logic or even my own processors, I do thanks to the self-education, because I taught these skills myself. Self-education is a skill that allows you to learn other skills. I even left university because it wasn’t giving anything to me, because I could learn things there at my own, faster, better and without having to hassle with petty school projects that are thrown away after grading, in other words, it was a waste of time for me. 

Self-education vs School 

You might wonder… what good are schools then? What’s the difference between self-education and formal school? Actually, even if you’re attending some kind of school, you’re still self-educating yourself, because you can say that self-education is basically the only education there is.

“Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” - Isaac Asimov

What school can give you is a door, a gateway to the realm of information and knowledge, but they can’t force you to go through it, you have to do it yourself. Surely, they’ll somehow try, by requiring you to finish various exams and tests so you don’t get fired, but that’s not very good, because if you cram it into your head just to pass the test, you’re very unlikely to remember most of it later.

Education shouldn’t be forced, because then it’s not really an education. Self-education stems from curiosity, a desire to understand how things work whether it’s a toy a simple bacteria or the whole universe. Good school will try to awaken that spark of curiosity in you, so you can start your own journey on educating yourself and exploring whatever interests you.

“Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.” - Plato

If your approach is that you go to a school, sit back and wait till they force all the information into your head, you won’t do very well. Sometimes I hear “You need xyz school for this and that”, but that’s completely wrong. You don’t need “a school”, you need the knowledge and skills to do some work and school can only help to guide you to get these, but you’re always learning it yourself. I myself didn’t need a school to guide me and provide me access to the information, so I left it, but if you need guidance and access to specific resources, then by all means, go/stay at the school and self-educate yourself in its environment.

Basically, what a good school should do, is to teach you how to self-educate yourself, because by finishing (or leaving) the school, education doesn’t end for you or more precisely, it shouldn’t. If you think that everything you remember from the school will suffice you for the rest of your life, then you might be right, but you won’t get very far. The world constantly develops and changes, you need to tackle new problems, even these that have nobody tackled before and for that, you’ll have to learn stuff you weren’t taught at the school. Life is about constant learning and exploring, so education should be integral part of it, not a separate task that you finish and forget.

“You can’t teach anybody anything, only make them realize the answers are already inside them.” – Galileo Galilei 

What is an education? 

If you want to educate yourself, you have to understand what an actual education is. Many people think that learning is trying to remember as much stuff as possible, so you memorize a lot of facts, so you can then write them down on a test. But that’s useless unless you’re trying to win a “Who wants to be a millionaire” or a similar show.

Education is about getting an understanding of given topic, getting some overview of it and learning how to work with information and use it for something. Don’t try to cram your head with as many facts you can, because that will only slow you down, plus you’ll go insane from the amount of facts there is.

Memorizing facts is not very useful (unless they’re required often, but you’re bound to remember these naturally) and let me give you a nice example of why. When I was at the high school, we had a programming class. I haven’t learned anything there, since I already learned the topic beyond the scope of the school even before I started the high school, but my classmates were new to this. Whenever we were writing a test, which involved writing some simple program to do a specific task (something, that they never did before, but was very similar to what they practiced), teachers not only didn’t care to check if students don’t have cheat sheets, they explicitly stated they can have everything – their notes, the materials they gave them, programming books, whatever they want.

“It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated.” – Alec Bourne

Despite all this a bunch of students always got an F or D. Very bad grades. But why? They had all the facts available to them, so they should score perfect right?


This test required them to use these facts to create something new a new simple program that will do a specific task and for that, they had to have understanding of the facts, which they lacked. Understanding is not something you can simply read out of books, you have to learn it yourself and understanding of how to work with the facts is what you really need, because it allows you to apply the facts and make something new, use them somehow. That’s what true education is.

You can always look up facts somewhere, in books, in documentations, on the internet. If you’re programming, you’ll have to work with the language documentation and function library and look up what you need. What do you actually need is to know what to look for and how to utilize it, how to make the little pieces a part of your large project. If you’re a mathematician, you can work with reference books with equations, if you’re a chemist, you’ll work with chemical tables. The facts are there, written down and you don’t need to carry them in your head all the time. So instead learn how to use them. 

How to understand? 

There are two simple requirements for being able to acquire this true understanding of matters: curiosity and creativity.

You should pursue something that naturally interesting to you, play with it, experiment with it. Like programming? Then find some programming language and write various programs with it, try out various features, just try to make things. Or is it electronics? Then make some circuits, devices and toys. Chemistry? Do some chemical experiments or get wild and make illustrated encyclopedia of organic compounds. Or a calendar. Maybe even a funny poster. Is it biology for you? Study some organisms, whether it’s a tiny bacteria or large creatures, observe their behavior and write it down  and make a study out of it.

Make fun of learning and most importantly – use the information you look up, use it for playing, experimenting or making new things, don’t hesitate to get creative and crazy with it, as long as it’s fun as long as it fulfills you, it’s great. You can even connect learning of multiple fields! Want to learn chemistry and like programming? Then you can try to write a program that will solve chemical reactions for example! Or simulate behavior of some organisms for biology. Just be creative.

“School by Play” – John Amos Comenius

However, don’t expect immediate results. Having trouble at the beginning is normal, but if you keep up the effort it will change over time. The process is quite gradual, so most of the time you won’t even notice it. However from time to time, try to look back at what you did 6 months ago, or even a few years and progress will become apparent.

Simply set yourself some goals, some things you want to create or some things you want to understand. They can be small or they can be big and take a few years to complete, in which case it’s a good idea to break it into many smaller parts and focus on these individually. If you have some goal you’re trying to achieve, something you want to create then all the learning is natural. You don’t study things because you have to pass some kind of test, instead you study it because you need to use the knowledge and skills to achieve your goal, so you learn on the path towards completing your idea.

Also most importantly, you’ll learn to utilize the information and knowledge by doing this. You’ll learn how to work with information, how to research and find it and use it as building blocks of something new and that’s how you self-educate yourself.

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” – Albert Einstein

And one last thing: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes are opportunities to improve, they’re natural and everyone does them, even if they might claim they do not. A lot of people perceive mistakes as something negative, but assuming you learn from them and realize why something cannot be done this way and seek some other way, they’re positive. So whenever someone points a mistake in something you do or make be happy and learn from it. I myself did a lot of mistakes to get where I am now and I will continue making and constantly improve upon them.

“Mistakes are pillars of improvement.” – Tomáš ‘Frooxius’ Mariančík (meeee! :D)

So I wish you a lot of fun while learning, lots of crazy ideas and I hope this article helped you at least a little. Thanks for reading and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.