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How I Self Learn

(notes from an autodidact)

"How do you teach yourself?"

I never wanted to go into depth on this question despite being asked many times over the years. I feel like many of my ideas may be controversial, and I know from other autodidacts that we all have our preferences. In simple terms, what works for me may not work for you.

I hesitate because this is a deeply personal issue for me. I am not proud of my autodidact status at all. I didn't go to college simply because I couldn't at that time. For me, self-learning is a requirement, not an option, and as this article may make apparent, my uneducated background shapes my thinking.

I strongly discourage self-teaching if you don't have to. For most people, especially those who did go to college, the harness of professors and equally intelligent peers is a far more powerful and useful tool. If you can manage to go to college, especially while college loans are guaranteed, I strongly suggest using that as your first option.

I also hesitate because I prefer to keep this blog based on factual information, limiting my opinions to presenting and showing what I am interested in, which happens to be music, databases, programming, and if the word-counts didn't make this apparent, writing.

While some advice is sprinkled throughout, I don't think this article serves as a good "how to" guide. What works for me won't work for everyone. Despite the fact that there is no "one size fits all" solution, there are tons of articles on the web that describe exactly how the author feels it should be done. If this article gives you insight, that is great, but I think of this as more of a philosophy and not a guide. I don't claim to be an expert on learning and teaching.

Without further ado...

Why Become an Autodidact?

There are, in my opinion, 2 types of autodidact:

  1. No Choice
  2. Apex

The first, no choice, is my category. There are many reasons people do not enter into higher education, often through no fault of their own. This could be for geographical, cultural, financial, bad primary schooling, or upbringing that isn't congruent to higher education.

Autodidactism is a long and tenuous road to self-actualization. Regardless of your upbringing or current state, self-teaching is borne through a desire for self-improvement, where I consider self-improvement as improving the student's financial and social status.

Apex autodidact is the glamorous image of the adult sitting in her study, pouring over volumes of books, seeking new knowledge and burning the midnight oil. She has already attained a solid social and financial status. She needs no final goal, and the self-improvement she attains is merely for enhancement.

This main difference between "no choice" and "apex" is that the former has to be more directed and goal-oriented, whereas the latter is able to meander and bit, losing herself in tangential subjects and goals. The apex has already made it in another field, or is, at the least, generally satisfied with her current state of affairs.

My mistake, in a way, was going down the apex autodidact road before becoming the kind of autodidact I am now. I began by working through books on psychology, law, cosmology, writing, art history, and anatomy. While all of this may make me a more rounded person, it doesn't have a practical use for my career interests and goals.

I believe that a lot of resources on self-learning miss the mark. Autodidacts have deeply personal reasons for being self-taught, and I think it goes without saying that without a burning desire, focused on her own growth, a person cannot technically become a full autodidact. This doesn't mean that students can't accomplish anything by not having a drive, but I think this is the crux of why MOOCs have a high attrition rate: the students simply aren't driven by themselves.

What Makes and Autodidact?

Know thyself:

This is the hardest step, but it is the most important step. In a world of no real structure, and the fact that we have no one to answer to, we have to look deep insides of ourselves and answer a few questions:

• What is my interest?

I don't care about any movements. This is something I am going to dedicate many untold hours to, and this is possibly a subject that I am going to build the rest of my life around. I'm going to be struggling at least half the time, so I may as well enjoy the victories while I'm at it.

• What is my motive?

I'm motivated by a few things: a challenge and hopefully a career. There is that something intangible that can only be answered by understanding your interests.

• What Am I Running From?

This sound terrible to many ears, but it helps to have a motivation that is personal. I've mainly had low-paying jobs and I've worked in astonishingly toxic environments. Working in a place I despise gives me the motivation to stay up until 2a.m. studying.

• What am I running towards?

I believe that an autodidact should be reaching for something higher than herself. This may be for her children or taking care of her parents.

I don't have a family, but a big goal of mine is to adopt 2 kids, and that's a nice antidote to the selfish idea of running from something. I think we all need some selfless motivations to continue.

• Is this realistic?

There are a ton of jobs that can't be attained without proper training and certification. There are also going to be jobs that are utterly unattainable for any self-taught person simply because the time and resources aren't available. When asked, I often say some lofty, unattainable goal, like a data scientist. I have no chance, but at least it gives me a general target.

• What Are My Limitations?

This is the most difficult item to discover, simply because we all learn in different ways. This doesn't mean "I'm bad at math, oh well." If math is a needed component for you to succeed, then math it is. Don't limit yourself to sticking to what you are comfortable doing. This is learning and no one says it has to be easy. A college student doesn't have the luxury of sticking to subjects that interests her all the time, and a self-teacher should acknowledge and respect this reality.

My Limitation

I have a very difficult time with memory. It was a noticeable and researched issue for me growing up. I saw a few doctors for my excessive forgetfulness and astonishingly poor memory. I really hate talking about this because everyone will jump in with all sorts of advice in how to improve my memory. Believe me, I know every trick in the book, as I had to read a ton of books on memory improvement and took considerable guidance on this issue.

Example: During my trigonometry class, we had to memorize the identities [1]. Being among the best math students in the school, it was shocking to the teacher how much I struggled with this. We were tested, and I scored the lowest grade on the test. She asked a few students and me to stay after school to work on the identities. "You aren't going to leave until you each have these memorized," she said. We all studied, rewrote the identities over and over, and after an hour, we were pulled up to the desk and quizzed on each of them. She pulled me up and I couldn't get a single one. One by one, the other students left, thanking the teacher for caring (a rarity in my school) and I was the one who was left. She pulled me up and flashed the cards. I got a few right, probably on guess, and she said I didn't do good enough, and I stayed a while longer, rewriting the identities over and over. Once again, she pulled me up and flashed the cards. "You got that one correct last time..." After a few more attempts, she shook her head and said "My goodness, you simply can't do this... I'm sorry to put you through this."

I was quizzed at home about the home phone number (these are the days of land lines, caller ID just came out, and answering machines) and I could never remember it, despite having the same phone numbers for years.

How did I manage to finally get past all of this? Was I going to be relegated to a planet where recalling names was beyond my reach? Was I going to never know my own phone number? No, of course not. There had to be some way to remember something. I had a larger than average vocabulary, so there had to be something that allowed me to memorize items, but what was it?

Turns out that I can remember patterns very well. If I could only remember how a phone pad looked (very difficult for me), I could remember the pattern of the phone number and use that pattern to remember the phone number. This pattern was there, and just came via my fingers. Once I looked at the number pad, I would freeze up and forget. So, when I was asked for my phone number, I would grab the nearest phone and mime out my dialing multiple times until I was confident that I could look at the numbers and not forget the pattern.

I still have a horrible memory in general, but I am much better at recalling names. I figured out some mental gymnastics to finally get good at this. I've managed to freak people out by remembering their names 6 months after a single meeting.

Typing works the same for me. I use a blank keyboard and I don't know where many of the keys are from memory. I type pretty darn fast, but I only recall a few patterns and build on those patterns.

This pattern-building is exactly how I learn, and I think it is reflected in my articles. If you look at the music theory articles, you will notice that I change everything into a pattern and build up from there. This learning style works well for me, though many people may consider it over specific.

We all have our limitations, and my opinions are shaped by my own limitations.


Find Good Resources

You are what you consume. I believe that good resources have a few features:

• They Challenge You

I don't think it is ever worth your time to take a class or read a book that is a review of prior concepts. If you have the resources already, what is the point of doing review if you don't need it?

If I run into something that is new and I know I can't understand it because I don't fully understand concept X, I can go back and relearn what I forgot. There is no need to read Calculus 1 and another book called Calculus Level 1 if they both cover the same topics. Just move on to Calculus 2. College students get C's and there is nothing that stops them from continuing.

I strongly believe that a good resource doesn't make things look easy. There are a ton of popular resources out there that claim to make "item X fun and easy to learn." This is cheating yourself. Stay away from these resources.

• They have reinforcing exercises.

The hallmark of poor resources are resources that encourage passive reading. This does not mean that there aren't valuable resources that don't have end-of-chapter exercises, but the resource I use are taken in context of what I am attempting to learn.

If I am learning how to read music, I'd rather have a resource that has plenty of sheet music to practice with, as opposed to a book that has a few short pieces scattered throughout a book of exposition.

At the beginning, try to stick to resources that are fundamental, and seek books or courses with exercises. The resources that cover specifics will still be there. It is better to approach specialized resources with a solid foundation. A lot is implied in these resources, as the authors tend to assume the reader is at a certain level.

Don't Learn from Bad Resources for Any Reason

I sigh when people say "Reading horrible books helps you learn what NOT to do." No, they don't. This implies that the student is sophisticated enough to understand what is wrong and why it is wrong.

There is nothing mind-expanding about questioning why something is wrong. Simply dismiss it and don't go down these paths. You only have so many hours in a day, and those hours will be far better spent learning from good resources. Don't worry, you will trip and stumble so often that you will learn what is wrong just from the act of trying to get things right. At some point, you will find things you disagree with and you will be sophisticated enough to understand why, but don't put the cart before the horse. The quickest way to learn is learning from your own mistakes.

What About MOOCs?

In general, I don't like working through MOOCs. While I found a few classes that are immensely valuable, I've found most of them to be lacking. In general EdX is the best collection out there.

My main complaints with MOOCs are:

  1. There doesn't seem to be a straight path from Level 1 to Level 10.
  2. Many of the classes are mislabeled as advanced, but they end up repeating what I have already learned in other beginner courses.
  3. The quality is all over the board. Some classes are well put together while others are just awful. This ends up wasting valuable learning time.
  4. Many of the classes are either watered-down to fit the format or are too complex and don't fit the format well.

I prefer working with books because I can set a pace that works for me and I just do better with reading and note-taking. If you are going to seek out online classes and lectures, I suggest looking into MIT OCW, Stanford Engineering Everywhere, or one of the myriad free college lectures so you can get the full experience.

Pencil & Paper

I believe in taking notes, writing things down, and learning tools that help me gain perspective on an idea. A simple example is a flow chart or E/R diagram, but honestly, any messy idea will work out. My main technique is rewriting until I have a clean picture. There is no proper way to go about doing this. Writing is merely a tool to organize my thoughts.

Accept the Fact That You Will be Blindsided.

It never fails to amaze me what stupid fundamental concept or idea I managed to overlook or not study. My Achilles Heal in programming is matrices and graphs. I never did the requisite work to really work through them and understand them. This shortcoming caused me to outright bomb exactly one interview, but it was devastating to lose that chance.

I've learned to forgive myself for not knowing everything about what I am studying. The simple fact is that the world is much too large to know everything, and that means I am going to end up with missing pieces of the puzzle. I'm not going to be the equivalent to a masters student in 6 years of study, and this is okay. As long as I can understand the concept and have the tools to understand concepts later on, I'm happy with my progress.

Advice I Don't Follow

Use a highlighter.

This is way too distracting for me, and it represents a level of ignorance that may end up causing more focus on a singular point that may not be the correct point, especially taken out of context of the page and paragraph. If I know the concept, highlighting won't change my knowledge; if I don't know the concept, highlighting will not make me know it any better.

It may be a mental issue with me, but I don't like having dogeared, folded, and altered pages. I like my paper to be clean and am easily irritated and distracted by paper markings.

Use flashcards

This shouldn't be surprising considering my story above. I find using pen and paper more powerful and easier to organize. I can also say this is down to preferences. I prefer to use pen and paper pads because they allow me to slowly explore the concept, which gives me extra insights that will allow me to derive the concept later on.

Use Analogies

This falls under the memory techniques that I wrote about above, and this doesn't work well for me at all since analogies require remembering something to remember something else. I prefer to stick with the facts.

I also despise analogies in my resources. Trust the student to learn, and as you are the student and teacher, trust the student to grasp the concepts. Drill into the heart of the matter and don't short-circuit your learning path.

Find a Quiet Place to Study

I grew up around noise and have a very difficult time studying in a library. I do my best focusing when there is some music playing, but I only play music without understandable singing, like dance, epic, classical, or even foreign music. I don't mind studying in coffee shops, for example. The feeling of life around me makes the world feel more natural.

Reward Yourself

This, in my opinion, misses the point of self-study entirely. The drive comes from within and there is no reward or punishment that will make me drive myself. If my personal life goals aren't enough incentive, a fancy dinner on Sunday isn't going to motivate me.

I also think this advice implies built-in punishment. Being hard on myself for not accomplishing some goal makes self-learning, which is not easy as it is, harder than it has to be, adding mental stress where it isn't needed. If I place a goal that I "must" study for 3 hours each night, then that risks forcing myself to study when the time isn't valuable for focusing, it risks me placing a hard limit on my studies, and it risks beating myself up for not accomplishing some goal. Reward and punishment misses the entire point.

Putting It All Together

My golden rule is simple: "If I'm not in the mood to learn, don't." This isn't an all or nothing deal. Learning may well be relaxing on the computer and reading the thoughts of a respected writer instead of opening up Emacs and drilling through Project Euler. There are different shades of learning.

Once I'm in the mood, I simply begin where I ended the day before, unless I feel like I need to redo or review what I learned before. I attempt to split time between theory and practice. This means that I may decide to study some algorithms, continue building out a project, or write a new article. I want to look forward to what I'm going to do, and be excited about the next topic. In practice, this isn't always true. Sometimes I really have to push myself hard to continue working on a really hairy concept or idea, but so much of learning is the journey.

I don't have a fixed process. I don't partition my study times into discrete blocks. I don't mind moving from computer to paper, or taking a short walk to let my mind wander a bit. Sometimes, I make a point to learn some item X on a given day. It may not be a large item, but these little items add up in the long run.

Trigonometric Identities