Self-teaching is the most valuable skill a human can learn.
Not only does it open to you up to all channels of knowledge, but it gets you in the habit of admitting when you don’t know something. Thinking you have all the answers is one of the biggest inhibitors of personal growth. Understanding where you’re ignorant, and learning how to transform ignorance into expertise essentially give you unlimited growth potential.
My first self-teaching experience came early. I was trying to design one of the first iPhone apps, a game, way back when the iPhone was new. The device had so much functionality that no other consumer product ever had—accelerometer, gyroscope, etc.—and I knew there was enormous potential.
The process of designing that game didn’t make me a world-famous game designer. But it did teach me about the methods and milestones of self-teaching, and gave me a process that I’ve applied numerous times throughout my life.
3 simple steps to teach yourself something new:
- Start broad. I’m a strong advocate for a breadth-first approach when it comes to a new subject. You want to understand the full range of that topic, and enumerate the key sub-topics that go with it.
For example, when I was designing that app, I started with the broad goal of designing a game. Through Googling, I learned the three main components of game design: physics, programming, and design. With this list, I Googled further, looking for materials that could deepen my knowledge of each area.
In the “broad” phase, Google is your friend. Learning to be a great Googler—using the right keywords, identifying credible sources, following promising threads—is an enormous asset for today’s self-teachers.
- Prioritize depth based on your goals. Once you have a broad overview of your main topic’s key sub-topics, you’ll have the option of diving deeply into each one. But, especially when the thing you’re trying to teach yourself has to do with a business objective, time is your most valuable resource. You won’t be able to go equally deep on all areas at the same time.
So, prioritize the areas based on your short-, medium-, and long-term goals. For game design, the most important thing for me to learn was programming; physics was a function of what I programmed, and beautiful design was a nice-to-have at that point.
In a business context, time-sensitive goals like product launches will create different priorities than time-agnostic goals like fending off competition. Your top priorities should define your schedule of deep dives.
- For depth, identify thought leaders and absorb their wisdom—ideally, through books. When I was pivoting my company to Web3, I had to do a lot of self-teaching to understand how the process should look, what resources I’d need to facilitate it, and what options I had. Some of the best sources for answering these questions were my competitors. I read all their material, and in so doing, understood what it meant to build a scalable Web3 solution.
Past a certain point, though, you have to go analog: Get off the internet, start reading books. If you read three books on a single topic, it puts you in the 90th percentile of global knowledge on that topic.
Googling is a great way to establish your competency map—the key areas in which you’ll need expertise in order to teach yourself something. But past a certain point, you’ll have to go way down rabbit holes, and the best way to do that is through books.
Ultimately, self-teaching is an exercise in knowing what you don’t know. The more times you go through the process, the better you’ll get at evaluating your level of knowledge in an area and making smart decisions about how and when to go deeper.