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7 habits of the best self-directed learners
The best self-directed learners use these seven habits to improve their knowledge and skills in any subject.
- Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Ellen DeGeneres all dropped out of college, yet they became leaders in their fields. Their secret? Self-directed learning.
- Self-directed learning can help people expand their knowledge, gain new skills, and improve upon their liberal education.
- Following habits like Benjamin Franklin's five-hour rule, the 80/20 rule, and SMART goals can help self-directed learners succeed in their pursuits.
People are captivated by the stories of individuals who eschewed traditional education yet still became titans in their field. Bill Gates, Ellen DeGeneres, Anna Wintour, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller; none of them has a college degree, but they have all achieved fame and a level of success few can match. How did they do this? They are self-directed learners.
Nowadays, self-directed learning is less of a cultural curio and more of an economic necessity. New knowledge accumulates so quickly, and industries change so rapidly, traditional education paths can't keep pace. Unless your specialty is the pottery fashions of Ancient Greece, chances are your diploma is out of date before the ink dries. (Even then, you never know when some newly discovered Pompeii will upend terracotta paradigms.)
Need help getting into the practice? Here are seven habits shared by the best self-directed learners.
Take ownership of your learning
Malcolm Knowles was an educator and a champion for adult learning (a.k.a. andragogy). He described self-directed learning as a process "in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes."
The habits we'll discuss here address all these points, but the first step is always to take the initiative.
As Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, told Big Think, this isn't that much different from high school or college learning. "There is this illusion that is created in our classical education system that someone is teaching it to you," Khan said. "Really, they are creating a context in which you need to pull information and own it yourself."The difference is that self-directed learners need to create that context for themselves. They do this by engaging in learning through a growth mindset. Traditional education can inadvertently saddle students with fixed mindsets (i.e., students are either naturally gifted at a subject or not, and their grades will reflect this). A growth-mindset student, on the other hand, knows that improvement is possible, even if it isn't easy.
Set SMART goals
Once you have theinitiative, you need to set goals. Otherwise, rewards will always remain nebulous and unobtainable, and rewards are necessary if you are to remain motivated.
The best self-directed learners know to set SMART goals. SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Time-defined. Any goals you set should meet these criteria.
Pay close attention to realistic time management. Self-directed learning is generally done in our few, precious off-hours. Teaching yourself programming is great. Trying to program an entire video game within a year is a bit much. Break it down into smaller chunks and give yourself time.If you're curious, the opposite of a SMART goal is a VAPID one—that is, Vague, Amorphous, Pie-in-the-sky, Irrelevant, and Delayed. Don't be a VAPID learner.
Benjamin Franklin's five-hour rule
Benjamin Franklin was an author, statesman, inventor, and entrepreneur. He also left school when he was 10. How did he amass the knowledge necessary to succeed in so many trades with so little schooling? He set aside an hour every weekday for deliberate learning. He would read, write, ruminate, or devise experiments during that time.
Author Michael Simmons calls this Franklin's five-hour rule, and he notes that many of the best self-directed learners use some form of the method. Bill Gates reads roughly a book a week, while Arthur Blank reads two hours per day.Be sure to spread your five hours throughout the week. Your brain wasn't designed for cram sessions, and trying to squeeze a week's learning into one day will ensure you forget a lot of the material. Additionally, our brains' neural networks need to time process information, so spacing out our learning helps us memorize difficult material more efficiently.
A lithograph of Benjamin Franklin and his son William performing their famous kite-and-key experiment.
(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Salman Kahn created Kahn Academy to engage learners with exercises they could do themselves. Active learning, he says, helps students better understand the material and know when to apply which skills.
It is easy to engage actively with gardening or math problems, but what about subjects like history, where participation comes mainly through reading books? Bill Gates has a solution for that. He uses marginalia—note-taking in the margins of a book—to turn reading into a vibrant conversation with the author."When you're reading, you have to be careful that you really are concentrating," Gates told Quartz. "Particularly if it's a non-fiction book, are you taking the new knowledge and attaching it to knowledge you have. For me, taking notes helps make sure that I'm really thinking hard about what's in there."
A photo of Bill Gates taken on April 19, 2018, in Berlin, Germany.
(Photo by Inga Kjer/Getty Images)
Prioritize (the 80/20 rule)
In the early 20th century, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto noticed that 20% of Italy's population owned 80% of its land. His analysis was later expanded into the Pareto principle (a.k.a. the 80/20 rule). This rule broadly states that 80% of your results will stem from 20% of your actions.The best self-directed learners use this rule to prioritize their study time. They focus on the 20% of actions that net them the most results. If someone wants to learn to crochet, they don't need to understand the history of primitive textiles to do that (as fascinating as that may be). They need to invest their learning time at hands-on applications and only use spare time to brush up on nålebinding (again, super fascinating).
Visit the library
This one may not apply to learners with the means of, say, Bill Gates, but for most of us, financial limits can interfere with our ability to accrue new supplies. Enter the library. A good research library has books on most any subject, has access to a host of online resources, and can connect you with like-minded professionals or groups.
Author Ray Bradbury couldn't afford to go to college and instead visited the local library three times a week. He went on to become one of the most celebrated authors of the 21st century."A college cannot educate you; a library can educate you," Bradbury said. "You go to the library to find yourself. You pull those books off the shelf, you open them, and you see yourself there. And you say, 'I'll be goddamed, there I am!'"
People studying in the New York Public Library's Rose Reading Room.
(Photo by Sascha Kilmer/Getty Images)
Employ your own motivation
The traditional education path gives you a very clear motivation: Get a good grade to get a good job. Self-directed learning provides no clear motivation, so you'll have to create your own.
Entrepreneur Mark Cuban urges people to never stop learning. The near 60-year-old billionaire is currently teaching himself to code in Python. His reason? He believes the world's first trillionaire will make their fortune with artificial intelligence, and he doesn't want to be left behind.
"Whatever you are studying right now, if you are not getting up to speed on deep learning, neural networks, etc., you lose," Cuban told CNBC. "The more I understand it, the more I get excited about it."
Of course, your motivation doesn't have to be finding the next million-dollar venture. It could be as simple as expanding your liberal education for self-improvement, learning a new skill set to advance in your field, or simply reading a book to share in conversation with others. Whatever the case, the motivation needs to come from you.
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Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.
- When most of your life is spent doing one thing, it matters if that thing is unfulfilling or if it makes you unhappy. According to research, most people are not thrilled with their jobs. However, there are ways to find purpose in your work and to reduce the negative impact that the daily grind has on your mental health.
- "The evidence is that about 70 percent of people are not engaged in what they do all day long, and about 18 percent of people are repulsed," London Business School professor Dan Cable says, calling the current state of work unhappiness an epidemic. In this video, he and other big thinkers consider what it means to find meaning in your work, discuss the parts of the brain that fuel creativity, and share strategies for reassessing your relationship to your job.
- Author James Citrin offers a career triangle model that sees work as a balance of three forces: job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle. While it is possible to have all three, Citrin says that they are not always possible at the same time, especially not early on in your career.
The planet is making a lot less noise during lockdown.
- A team of researchers found that Earth's vibrations were down 50 percent between March and May.
- This is the quietest period of human-generated seismic noise in recorded history.
- The researchers believe this helps distinguish between natural vibrations and human-created vibrations.
Earth is quieter as coronavirus lockdowns reduce seismic vibration<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cc871d5d88a79ecc6605ce488c26a7c1"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_yFF2MziwPA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The team investigated seismic data from a global network of 268 stations spread out across 117 countries. As lockdown measures in different regions began, they tracked the drop in vibrations. Singapore and New York City recorded some of the biggest drops, though even Germany's Black Forest—famous for its association with the Brothers Grimm fairy tales—went quieter than usual.</p><p>The researchers also relied on citizen-owned seismometers in Cornwall and Boston, which recorded a 20 percent reduction from relatively quiet stretches in these college towns, such as during school holidays. </p><p>The environmental impact of lockdown has been dramatic. Indian skylines are notoriously grey. This <a href="https://www.axios.com/coronavirus-lockdown-pollution-drops-india-156b4f1d-160b-44d9-885a-148960b9e469.html" target="_blank">collection of photos</a> shows how quickly nature recovers when humans limit travel and industry. Such photographs also make you wonder why we cannot control emissions to begin with, now that we know the stakes. </p><p>Lead author, Dr Thomas Lecocq, says their research could help seismologists suss out the difference between human-created vibrations and natural vibrations, potentially resulting in longer lead times when natural disasters are set to strike. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"With increasing urbanisation and growing global populations, more people will be living in geologically hazardous areas. It will therefore become more important than ever to differentiate between natural and human-caused noise so that we can 'listen in' and better monitor the ground movements beneath our feet. This study could help to kick-start this new field of study."</p>
Stray puppies play in an abandoned, partially-completed cooling tower inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017 near Chornobyl, Ukraine.
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images<p>The Earth is much stronger than us; humans are its products. In his 2007 book, "The World Without Us," Alan Weisman details just how quickly nature recovers from our insults. Chernobyl offers a <a href="http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160421-the-chernobyl-exclusion-zone-is-arguably-a-nature-reserve" target="_blank">real-world example</a>, while <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/even-if-injection-of-fracking-wastewater-stops-quakes-wont/" target="_blank">earthquakes caused by fracking-related wastewater injection</a> in Oklahoma are evidence of how much damage human "vibrations" cause.</p><p>Weisman's poetic homage imagines a symbiotic relationship with nature. This relationship depends on our cooperation, however. Weisman knows we aren't long for this world, nor is this world long for this universe: in just five billion years, give or take, Earth will implode. We all live on borrowed time. How we live during that time defines our character. </p><p>While he strikes a hopeful tone, Weisman knows nature will eventually have her way with us.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"After we're gone, nature's revenge for our smug, mechanized superiority arrives waterborne. It starts with wood-frame construction, the most widely used residential building technique in the developed world. It begins on the roof, probably asphalt, or slate shingle, warranted to last two or three decades—but that warranty doesn't count around the chimney, where the first leak occurs." </p><p>The play-by-play of our demise continues, though Weisman offers plenty of proactive advice. The question is, will we be able to live up to it? Sadly, nothing in modern society hints at the possibility. </p><p>The only way we seem willing to pause our relentless pursuit of "progress" is when we're forced to do so, as in the current pandemic. The results, as the team in Belgium shows, are measurable. Whether or not we heed the call to slow our impact remains to be seen. Given precedent, it's unlikely, though as Weisman concludes, one can always dream. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>