This article is part of a series known as #30DaysOfThanks.


self-directed learning

Recently, I wrote an article for GenTwenty that raised a few eyebrows, about my decision to go against the societal grain and not attend university. While I stand by what I said in that piece, and hope to illuminate my choice more clearly, a few points got overlooked, things that may allow other twenty-somethings, whether they’re employed, at university, or drifting aimlessly, to benefit from the opportunities derived from self-directed learning.

My choice not to attend university beyond the courses I’d already taken was, in its most simplified form, twofold:

(1) I didn’t have the time or energy to pursue what I saw as my future career, writing, and

(2) it wasn’t the right fit for my learning style at the time. 

My reading speed, once fast enough to get through gargantuan books in a matter of days (and still comprehend the meaning and nuances), had slowed to a trickle. I struggled to keep up, in spite of my efforts to get a head start as soon as I had the reading list, and I grew frustrated with my inability to participate fully in the discussions, having only been able to skim many of the readings. I needed to be able to read and learn and discuss at my own pace, and the quick-paced environment of a university class was not going to provide that.

Making the decision not to get an undergraduate degree took years, but in the end it just felt right. I would have done the same thing even if I hadn’t had a steady day job. Whether you’re in university or not, unless you’ve got full scholarships (and maybe even if you do) you’re going to be paying your way somehow.  I would have cobbled together a patchwork of part-time jobs if I’d had to.  Feeling secure about work had one obvious benefit, though: it was one less thing to worry about. 

I was anxious about whether I’d be able to stay motivated; how my friends and family (except for my mum, who was supportive from the beginning) would view my decision; whether I’d regret it down the road. I didn’t have any of those answers. All I knew was I would be giving myself a chance to breathe, an opportunity to fall in love with learning again, and the mind space and energy to pursue my writing. This wasn’t a loss–it was a gift.

At its best, self-directed learning is about engaging, not just with what’s right in front of you but how it connects to the bigger picture: the bigger picture of your career, your interest in Anne Boleyn, your goal to become more comfortable in the kitchen, making an informed decision during the next federal election. 

Everything you do gives you experience, a crucial factor in many job listings. Looking at listings that express the desire for a candidate with either a bachelor’s degree and five years of experience or a master’s degree and two years of experience (both of which typically come out to eight years in total, though sometimes longer), drives home the point that knowledge and being able to apply it are two different things.  Even Hermione Granger struggled with that one at times.

Over the last few years, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to:

  • Publish pieces with GenTwenty, The Writer, and several other publications
  • Rekindle my love of writing fiction
  • Learn to cook cheaply, cheerfully, and healthfully
  • Volunteer with the local dance community, including customer service, teaching classes, and organizing, and catering events for 100+ people
  • Launch a writing coaching business
  • Nurture friendships with people of numerous ages and worldviews
  • Develop better communication skills, both online and in person

While I could have done all of this while attending university, I couldn’t have made these major priorities and still stayed afloat in the academic pool.  My progress has been much quicker and more in-depth as a result of tackling life the way I have. But what about you, GenTwenty readers? What if you’re in university or working two jobs or have a young family? Can you still give this self-directed learning thing a spin?

self-directed learning

The beautiful thing about self-directed learning is that you don’t need to attend to it for a certain number of hours every week. You can set your own goals, shape your own curriculum, as it were. Blake Boles’ Art of Self-Directed Learning is a wonderful resource, but here’s a few ideas to get you started:

– Read a book that you wouldn’t normally read. (Recommendations from friends are a great place to start.) Something as simple as reading about a worldview that differs from yours can work wonders to get your wheels turning.

– Take note of what interests you, be it from eavesdropping on a conversation in the grocery store checkout line or admiring your neighbor’s hummingbird feeder, and follow it up. Be inquisitive. Find a children’s book from the library that tells you exactly what you want to know.

– Be your own teacher. We can guide ourselves better than we realize, especially if we analyze our failures. Next time your cake comes out of the oven all gooey and undercooked in the middle, double-check that you followed the recipe to the letter and check online for any errata to the cookbook. You can also research baking techniques in general, and apply what you learn not just to this recipe but others, too.

As the future unfurls, I don’t have a bachelor’s degree to fall back on, or recommendations and leads from professors, or classmates I can hit up for networking opportunities. I do, however, have numerous contacts from the various communities I’ve become involved in; a sense of real world dynamics, including how to live on rice and beans for days at a time; and years of work experience. 

My day job may continue virtually untouched for years to come, but rather than bank on that possibility, I’m going to keep building my escape pod and one day, hopefully not too far in the future, I’ll ride it out into the cosmos (AKA the world of full-time writing and coaching). But for now, every day I’m learning something about the world, about myself; every to-do checked off nudges me one step closer to my goals. 

In these autumn months, when gratitude is on most everybody’s  mind, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity that is self-directed learning, for what it can bring to all our lives, and for its advocates, who encourage us to step onto a path a little outside the box in order to open our eyes to a whole new world.

READ MORE  Career Stories: I've Always Been a Writer... Now I Work in a STEM Field