Self-Education 101: 5 Steps To Start Teaching Yourself

I remember when I was first getting into the gym back in highschool, I had a friend who was my training partner for the summer. They were it as one could be, and the attention they got confirmed it. Other people would tell them about their PR’s (personal records), how sore they were, their “splits” (what you train each week), and would often ask them for gym advice every chance they got.

Based on their physique, I figured that they knew what they were talking about. After all, how could someone so fit not? I was there to learn from them!

So I followed them around the gym, copying every exercise they did. Until one day, mid-set during an exercise (My oddly vivid memory tells me it was a Rope Pushdown) they muttered “Is this for my biceps?”

Rope Pushdowns are for your triceps. So I corrected them on it, and their response was equally as surprising:

“What’s the difference?”

I wasn’t sure how to explain that, so after we finished at the gym I went home and opened up a few tabs on basic human anatomy and muscle functions. After a little while of reading and watching some videos, I had a better understanding of the human body.

Over the course of the summer the dynamic changed from my gym partner showing me around to me teaching them the in’s and out’s of the human body and gym program design. Every time they asked me a question, I’d either already know the answer, or would promptly go home to learn about the subject myself. By the end of the summer, I was one of the few knowledgeable people on human anatomy, and the go-to resource for physical fitness. And my own results showed for it as well.

Teaching yourself is tough, because it requires a lot of personal willpower and incentive (not to mention the constant anxiety of “is this information right?”). But when you do teach yourself a subject, it slowly integrates into your life over time, sharpening your capabilities. As Nassim Taleb says (and what I repeat to myself with every book I finish):

“What I learned on my own I still remember.”

Self-education is one of the most life-changing habits you can participate in. Not only because it is the exercising of agency, of actively doing something instead of passively waiting (or trying to find immediate solutions). It’s learning for its own sake, of getting a better understanding of the world and yourself. Self-education can be as simple as learning how to tie a tie for your kids grade 8 graduation, or as large scale as teaching yourself a new language because you plan on moving to a new country. In any case, the habit itself is a beneficial one to have.

There isn’t too much on HOW to educate oneself, although there’s plenty on the values and results of it. Self-education is an individual process, so it’s up to you to decide how you want to do it. I’m sharing my approach with you today, in the hopes that it’ll spur some interest in self-education and creativity with ways you can apply it yourself.

So, let’s jump into it. Here are my 5 steps to self-education.

Step 1: Deciding What You’ll Learn

The first step is being intentional when it comes to what you want to learn. Sit down and determine what topics you want to study, skills you want to hone, or areas you want to improve on. Are you extremely nervous at meetings and want to learn how to speak up and present an idea of yours? Are you planning on having kids one day and would like to learn a bit about good parenting habits to help (guilty)? Are you terribly uninformed about investments (double guilty) and want to brush up on your understandings so you can go toe-to-toe with your suddenly-an-investor friend (and maybe get into investing yourself?)

Take some time to write down areas you’re interested in or skills you’d like to develop. Eventually you’ll have a list that might look like this:

  • Stock Markets
  • Public Speaking
  • Vegetarian Cooking
  • Better Sleep
  • Mental Health Habits
  • Setting Boundaries in Relationships
  • Work-Life Balance
  • Learning Japanese
  • Travelling on a Budget

Once you have your list, narrow it down to a few subjects or topics (ranging from 1 to 3, as you want to strike a balance between consistency and variety). Since we’re just starting you off, let’s go with one: everyone’s favourite, public speaking. Great! Once you’ve picked your subject(s), you can start the next step. Oh, and save the list.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Step 2: Determining Resources

Now you have your subjects. Next up is figuring out how you’ll get information. What resources will work? Not only that, but which ones are reliable and factual, and which ones are purely opinionated and don’t have any research or proof to back them up?

To filter through all the options, you first need to determine where you’ll get your information. Find resources that fit with you. Some people like watching documentaries, some people like reading paperback books, some like listening to audio. Whatever resources you decide to use, make a list of them.

Here’s a few resources:

  • YouTube
  • Documentaries
  • E-Books
  • Paperback/Hardcover Books
  • Podcasts
  • Audio books

There’s a lot of variety when it comes to resources, so start small, ensure they’re reliable, and stay consistent. For our example, lets say you like audiobooks, because you take the subway to work and have 20 minutes to yourself in the early morning and evening. The different types of resources can shape how you take notes on what you learn, so keep that in mind while you’re picking.

(PSA: Set aside a small budget to pay for whatever resources you’ll need so you’re not overspending or underspending. Take a look at your finances, and if possible, carve out a few dollars to dedicate to this. If you’re stretched thin for money, consider other methods, such as possible free podcasts online, or YouTube videos if that’s doable. Just remember to double check the credibility of the resources!)

There’s no shortage of resources out there to learn from. Do some research, pick one, and get started! Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

Step 2.5: Fact Check!

Before you continue, it’s really important that you check for credibility. You don’t want to be diving into a podcast or book if the author isn’t basing their arguments in anything factual. It’s okay if an author is sharing their personal experiences, just make sure that you identify that and make note of it. Authors have various ways of showing credibility, so look for anything that shows that. Typically authors sharing their research is a good place to start, such as Jonah Berger’s book Contagious which is a mixture of his own research as a professor and studies he’s referenced during his research. Ultimately, approach everything with a healthy dose of skepticism, learn about the authors, and compare notes across multiple sources.

Step 3: Note-Taking

We’ve decided we’re learning about public speaking, and we’ll listen to audio books to learn. Great! Next up, you’ll want to capture lessons you learn as you go. No, you’re not going to remember it all. It’s a book. The things like 8 hours. Yes, i’m sure your memory is great. ANYWAYS.

Note-taking helps you take the guess work out of learning something, as you can ensure you have whatever you need to know written down. It also makes you engage with the content more.

Below I’ll share some methods of note-taking, but first some advice on taking notes (from my research on optimal learning methods and personal experience on writing things down and NEVER REMEMBERING THEM godimsosurprisedipasseduniversity):

  • Do NOT copy-paste: write it in your own words. It forces you to make sense of the subject.
  • Only write what you feel you need to: you’re not being quizzed on it this time around, so you get to decide what serves you best. Mark what sections or pages you picked up a lesson from for later referral.
  • Less is more: focus on the fundamentals, the principles, or at the very least, what is most applicable. Action is integral here.
  • Talk to yourself: leaving questions for yourself makes note-taking even MORE engaging, as you are documenting your process to making sense of the subject and how it fits into your life. Use those questions to aid in memorization.

Alright, now that we’re through that, let’s look at some ways you can document what you’re learning. Remember when I said the resources you use may influence how you track what you learn? That applies here. Just because the title is note-taking doesn’t mean you need to take notes in a notebook. Google docs, Evernote, Notion, are some ways of tracking lessons you learn as you go. However you decide to track your lessons, keep it consistent for that resource. For my paperback books, I write down my notes in a moleskine notebook. For podcasts, I have a google doc where I write my summaries.

One more thing: My notes when I first started this journey look VASTLY different than my current ones, and the same goes for my podcast notes on my google doc. It’s okay to change how you do things. Experiment!

A glimpse at my podcast notes. I went from making tons of bullet points to just a summary, because I felt I retained more if I had a summary and maybe 1–3 really important points rather than a ton that were more superficial. Summarizing encouraged me to clarify what I just heard.

Step 4: Review What You’ve Learned

Congrats, you’re through your audio book on public speaking and you’ve got some notes to go along with it! Now that you’re through, it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You don’t want to dive right back into the notes after finishing, as you’ll want some fresh eyes on what you learned. Take a break, and return to your notes a little while later (I usually go for a week).

(Pro-tip here: now is a good time to reorganize your notes. Make some tweaks, beautify them, and organize the points into themes.)

While you’re reviewing what you learned, you’ll want to look for two specific things: possible patterns or themes in the book (so you can hone in on the essentials), and guiding questions or comments you’ve left yourself that you can build on. If you didn’t do that, that’s fine! You can write some questions or comments to yourself now, which is what Step #5 is all about.

After I review my notes the first time, I don’t really have a schedule for returning to them. Sometimes I’ll pick up a notebook and read notes a few weeks later, sometimes I won’t touch them for a while. The notes are there for me to pull from when I need extra inspiration or projects where they can be applied. I don’t need to integrate every lesson into my life fully, so I can keep them there until they’re needed. I did this with my notes on Jonah Berger’s Contagious: when I was working on a project proposal for work, I found the chapter on Triggers and used some of the lessons there in my proposal.

Having a small notebook to take notes in, or an app on your phone, allows you to review notes on the go without lugging around the original text. Photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash

Step 5: Applying What You’ve Learned

Now here’s the fun part: how am I going to apply what I learned? If you’ve gone through an entire audio book, you’ve probably condensed it into a few pages. Sweet! In this final step, you’ll be looking for ways to apply what you’ve learned to your own life.

It’s a simple process. The first thing you want to do is figure out what areas you want to improve on, and then pick lessons that you can actually work on. Whatever you decide, my suggestion is to start small. Trying to make widespread change in your life is a surefire way to make no changes at all.

So, we want to get better at public speaking. Let’s say you’ve got a small conference coming up you’re a regular attender at, and you want to run a session for it and make it good. You refer to your notes (specifically Chapter 2: Attack of the Butterflies) and pick out a few lessons from the author. Lesson #1 was that you need to set boundaries on what you will talk about and what you won’t, so you spend some time writing out ideas and hone it down to one subject you’re really interested in. You also learned you need to get to the venue early to scope it out and adjust to the room you’ll be in so you’ll be more confident, so contacting the host is on your to-do list. Finally, you need to practice your presentation, so you schedule weekly practices for the next few months.

There you have it! You’ve listened to a whole book, learned some lessons, and applied them to your life. And when the conference comes, you’re more than ready to give an amazing session.

From there, you can start the cycle over: pick another subject, another book, another way to learn. You can double down on your subject by finding another public speaking audio book, switch to a semi-related subject like social psychology, or change gears and learn about something you’re interested in like Japanese. You can put the books away and go back to playing videos games until the next subject you want to learn appears. The choice is yours! It is self-education, after all.

Bust out those whiteboard markers! I often use my whiteboard for idea brainstorming & how to apply what I studied. Photo by Mark Rabe on Unsplash

So, that’s how I approach self-education. Remember learning for yourself is a personal experience, and benefits you when you do it your way. Whatever you want to learn, for whatever reasons you want to learn it, and how you want to do so: it’s up to you. Learning for your own sake is one of the greatest gifts we have in life, and hopefully will enrich your life as much as it has enriched mine.

Oh, and if you haven’t googled the function of the biceps and triceps already, it’s this: triceps are the group of muscles responsible for extending the arm at the elbow joint. Biceps are responsible for flexing at the elbow. They’re a bit more complex than that, but there’s your first anatomy lesson. You’d be surprised how many muscle-heads don’t know that.

Carpe diem, kids.

Authors & Figures who inspired this post:

  • Cal Newport
  • Robert Greene
  • Tim Ferriss
  • My old gym crew, who always seek the truth and self-actualization
  • My Sensei & Senpai, who taught me agency and my ability to learn no matter the circumstance
  • My dad, who never hesitates to tinker and find the meaning of things

P.S. If you’re embarking on your own journey of self-education and would like a friend along the way, leave a comment! Journey’s are always more fun with more people.

Poli Sci grad, Comms Strategist, great at remembering names and terrible at pronouncing them. I write on a number of different topics!