Self-learners rule the 21st century. Never before has it been so important and so easy to be an autodidact. Why? Because information is abundant and free.
If in times past self-learning was optional, today, not so much. Being able to educate ourselves is an essential skill to get ahead in this century.
It goes without saying that the Internet has completely transformed the way we learn and interact with information. Knowledge is no longer a privilege owned by a select few, locked up in institutions of higher learning or university libraries; it belongs to the mass. Anyone can access and generate new knowledge, repackage it and spread it back to the public. The cost of transmitting knowledge is close to zero.
Yet there is still a cost to be self-educated in the 21st century. It may not be money, but it still requires time and effort on our part. The good news is that it only depends on us. The bad news is that it only depends on us.
I’d say take it as good news, because if you embrace self-learning, opportunities await.
Because of information abundance, new phenomena emerge in society. New opportunities surface that previously were not prominent. What kinds of leadership are up for grabs in the Internet age? How do you distinguish yourself amidst the chatter, tweets, snaps, and selfies?
Here are 4 core ways you can create opportunities for yourself in the 21st century. Hint: all of them require self-learning.
Stories, Not Facts
With facts only a few keystrokes away, it is no longer crucial to be the person with an encyclopedic brain. Any ol’ John Doe can fact-check. Plus, no matter how much trivia a person knows, he can’t beat the collective knowledge of thousands of people. Wherein then lies the expertise?
The pivotal skill is in what one does with his knowledge. It’s not enough to know; you need to process that knowledge and produce something else. Memorization for the sake of memorization is becoming obsolete, unless your work needs to be done without the Internet.
Because information is ubiquitous, people naturally get overwhelmed. Out of this information-fatigue, a need emerges for leaders who can make some sense out of the facts. These are the people who can weave information together into stories, see nuances, assess and analyze. They are the ones who can synthesize across different subjects and disciplines, contextualize information, see connections and errors, and discern the signal from the noise.
There’s a new breed of leaders and influencers who curates and guides people to go where they need or want to go. Coaches, mentors, and thought leaders who can say, “Pay attention to this. Ignore that,” are born, because people don’t want to know everything; they just want to know the important things.
This guiding skill is a subjective one—no two people can do it exactly the same way. There’s no formula that you can plug in for every circumstance. The ones who can seize these leadership opportunities are the self-learners, those who can tap into their individualities to learn and create. They are the ones who can discover and tell their own stories.
Intrinsic Motivation, Not Carrots and Sticks
Udemy, Coursera, Khan Academy, MIT OpenCourseWare. The world of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) is here, and it’s here to stay. Traditional universities are adapting to this development. Courses and great teachers, previously enclosed within university walls, are now accessible to the world much at a low cost or for free. Does that mean, though, that everyone now is as educated as a top university graduate?
Not really, because most people don’t take advantage of them. So for them, it doesn’t make any difference whether there’s one free course or a 4-year’s worth of college degree out there.
Who benefits the most from these online courses? Who would sign-up and follow the curriculum? Who will actually stick to the program and finish the whole way through? Only a very small fraction of the population: the highly motivated self-learners.
Have you ever tried taking a free online course? It’s quite challenging, because self-education requires greater discipline than imposed learning. When other things compete for your time, especially when you pay nothing for the course, most people would choose to abandon it. Maybe “choose” is not the right word here; most people will let the course be abandoned.
There’s a good explanation for this. When it comes to learning, we are trained most of our lives to respond to carrots and sticks—rewards and punishments. When these things are taken away, the external incentives disappear. There’s no major incentive for the learning itself and no punishment when an assignment is skipped. What remains is the intrinsic motivation, which, if absent, then all the MOOC in the world would not make any difference.
To take advantage of the world of MOOC, we’d have to re-program ourselves to commit harder and persevere. We ought to cultivate the love of learning and know how to maintain our own curiosity. Further, we should also know what courses to take that will best serve our time. Is committing tens of hours for a course worthwhile to do in the context of our life goals?
Of course as humans we still respond to incentives and losses, but the difference now is that we have to know how to set these up ourselves, not relying on someone else’s watch. Know what motivates yourself and propels you to move. Put money into it if necessary; have some skin in the game.
The world of MOOC is not education by checklist: fulfilling requirements to get a degree. Rather, it’s a purpose-driven one. You’ve got to make the courses work for you, not you for them. They need to serve your purpose, your goals.
With the democratization of information, the dynamic of knowledge also changes. Knowledge morphs in a much more rapid pace than ever before, so it’s easy to be overwhelmed, feeling like you’re always behind, and always playing catch-up. In many fields, it is no longer sufficient to rely on classroom instructions. That degree you aspire to for 2 or 4 years may be obsolete by the time you graduate. The textbooks you study are already outdated by the time they get printed, because much more new knowledge has been generated during the time the book gets edited, compiled, proofread, and printed.
It is no longer enough to know a set of knowledge. One has to also know how to manage the changing world; how to always learn and keep up with new developments; how to contextualize knowledge; how to understand the arc in the history of a field. Skills are needed to keep a pulse on new developments without becoming a wired-rat that chases every new and shiny thing. While keeping one eye on new developments, the other eye needs to discern timeless principles through reflection.
These skills, which are lifelong assets, are not normally taught in schools. So what you need to do is to complement school with your own learning, because these skills have become essential to succeed. There’s never a time when you can relinquish the responsibility of educating yourself completely to other people. You need to seek them out yourself, develop your own method, find others who have figured it out, and seek pointers.
Gone are the days when you can get degrees and sit comfortably on them for the rest of your life. The types of work that does the same thing every single day is fading fast from our society. Those industrial days are gone and they’re not coming back. Today, life is about re-investing in and re-inventing ourselves.
Actions, Not Theories
Because new knowledge is unpredictable, it’s futile to sit and wait until you know everything to start doing anything. Action is more important than theories. Move and discover, and the learning will happen along the way. Those lessons learned may change too, though, so don’t hold on to pet theories too tightly. Experiment and see what holds true.
Practitioners and empiricists are becoming leaders these days. I should mention that the experiments they do are not the ones outlined explicitly step-by-step with expected results, like in school. These are the experiments that true innovators do, discovery by trial and error. Based on the results, they tweak, iterate, and refine.
The skill to experiment, to ask questions and develop methods to answer them ourselves, to think, to do, and to evaluate, is much in need today. It requires initiatives and it engages a person’s mind, body, and soul. It’s not easy, but those that develop it are going to be the leaders in this century.
I hope I’ve convinced you that it is imperative for all of us to develop and refine our self-learning skill. There simply is too much to lose otherwise. The great news is that this skill is not a magical superpower. Rather, it is more like a muscle that exists in every single person. It can be developed. Its growth depends on its usage and continuous practice.
Everyone can be a self-learner. I believe everyone has the stuff needed to be a leader in the 21st century and make an impact in other people’s lives. Use them, start taking actions; don’t wait until someone else tells you to.
Want more? Check out the others posts in the Individuality series: