Let’s talk about being self taught. I’ve gotten a lot of questions on this topic and thought I should revise an article I wrote back in 2012 which isn’t online anymore.
People ask me “How do you become self taught?” Any advice? Books to read?
I always described myself as a self taught designer because I just didn’t know better. In fact, I never studied anything and dropped out of high school at 15 years old.
But I believe that “being self taught” is a bit overrated nowadays, mostly because it just makes a good story. Being self taught isn’t the opposite of going to university. I actually believe that most students are self taught as well, even if they learned the “official” way.
I mean what does self taught mean. You will always learn from someone else. It might be books, mentors or the Internet. The only difference between taking a class is that you learn on your own agenda. You chose your teachers, and you set your own goals.
Being self taught is rarely an active decision. You never say “Okay, I’m going to be self taught instead of studying something”. Being self taught is just the result in retrospective.
Everything usually starts with curiosity. If you are curious about something and you are willing to learn more, everything happens by itself.
As an example:
As a kid I was always interested in how electronic devices work. My WalkMan (the thing before the iPod), my TV or computer. I would take one of those devices which was still working, and take it apart until I had a lot of parts and screws on my table.
Then I would start to assemble it back together, trying to see if the device would still work after it’s surgery. Most of the time it did not.
I repeated this process again and again until it eventually worked out. The good thing is, you learn a lot while doing it. It’s the process of taking apart and assembling that made me better at it.
While doing so, you’ll create your own little problems and then solve them. At that point, I wasn’t even creating anything new, just playing around with what’s already there.
After some time I learned which electronic part does what and that’s where the magic comes in.
Now that I understood the basics I tried to manipulate it to create something new. My first step at being creative & creating something from scratch.
It’s a little bit like this example you’ve probably heard about. It’s about connecting the dots. But to connect the dots, you first have to collect them. I collected my first dots when taking random devices apart — Then I connected them again.
Everything starts with curiosity and your first step. Just listen to your instincts. My instinct told me that I should take the devices apart, look how they work, and then put it back together — No one told me that. When you let yourself happen to this kind of process, everything else happens on your way.
That’s why I started as a computer scientist first. I was curious about it, then moved into trying to be a software engineer because I wanted to learn how to program my own piece of hardware which I just built. Without it it was just a piece of electronics.
Then I started becoming a designer because I was always spent more time in designing my software and make it more useful. Coding in my case was just the step before designing, which was what I was really passionate about.
After becoming a designer I learned how important the actual content is which you often need to design around. That led me into creating my own content & products. I’m still in the middle of it.
To be honest, I can’t recommend any books because there is just no thing as “I want to be self taught”. That’s the last thing you say when you’re actually self taught.
It’s not a decision you make upfront, it’s just describing the process once you’re already into it. In retrospective it always makes sense. Today, I try to apply the concept to everything new I want to learn about.
Elon Musk is a perfect example for being self taught in his own way. Sure he has a Bachelor in physics. But prior to SpaceX or Tesla he had no experience in mechanical engineering or astrodynamics. Both needed to build rockets, let alone sending them to space.
He started at the bottom. Reading books about the fundamentals, asking other people and googling his way up. Trying to build a rocket, blowing it up a couple times and figuring what went wrong. Then trying again. I can literally picture Elon Musk sitting at home in front of his computer, punching in “How to build a rocket” into Google.
“All I have learned,
I learned from books.” ― Abraham Lincoln
If Abraham Lincoln would have written this quote in 2020, it would probably be “All I have learned, I learned from the Internet, and books.”
I learned a few things along the way, and whenever I try to teach myself or get into a new field I try to follow these simple steps.
It’s completely about the organic process. This isn’t something you can force yourself into. You just start with the first thing that comes to your mind, there is nothing you can do wrong. Breaking something is actually a good exercise, just so you can fix it again.
Don’t listen to other people telling you what’s right or wrong. If I would have listened to anyone, they would have told me to not take a fully functional TV apart and break it with my stupidity, only to spend hours trying to fix it. But for a fact, that was what helped me most.
Surround yourself with people who motivate you and always make you feel good about what you do, regardless of the outcome. These personalities are rare, so if you find them, keep them.
Always help other people. Even if you are a beginner yourself, you can always teach and give something back to those who are trying to catch up. Magical things will happen when you do. You don’t have to be a master to help someone out.
Always surround yourself with people who’re “better” than you. That’s what Donny Osmond said and I think it’s partly true. But I like to replace “better” with “crazier” or “different”.
Breaking the rules is probably the most important piece. Be a rebel, break the rules and don’t be afraid of anything. What if you fail? Get up, try again. If you don’t like it? Don’t do it, do something else. It’s that simple. The good thing about being self taught is that you just don’t know how to do it, so you do it your way and just make it work.