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Guest Post: How to teach yourself how to do anything

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This is a guest post by By Kenji Crosland @Unready and Willing

No matter how hard you might try, it’s impossible to acquire any skill overnight. Unfortunately, you still can’t plug a USB into your skull and know kung-fu after getting a few jolts.

Until the day comes when we can install sockets in our brains, we still have to acquire skills the old-fashioned way: we have to learn them.

Learning is decidedly less easy than sticking a wire into your head, but it’s probably not as difficult as you may think. Although it seems a hassle, especially when you’re trying to find a good teacher who offers affordable lessons, it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, one of easiest, most cost-effective ways to learn a new skill is to teach yourself.

Here’s how you do it:

Create Your Own Syllabus

It’s the information age, if you haven’t noticed. Chances are that if there is information you want, you can get it.

Obviously, the challenge is not finding information but sifting through it all. With all the information available, where do you start?

One strategy that works well is to get the five best beginner books on the subject that you wish to learn about.  If you want to learn how to build a web application, for example, just Google the words “Build a Web Application” “Learn” and “Book” and you’re bound to come up with a list pretty quickly. You can read reviews on popular blogs about the best web development frameworks and the best books for beginning programmers. Finally, you can check out amazon.com and find book reviews written by other beginners at your level to see how useful a particular book might be for you.

When creating a syllabus, I suggest you stay away from the blogs and how-to websites. The information these sites provide are fragmented, and rarely provide a comprehensive overview of whatever subject you’re trying to learn. At best, they’re often good only as supplementary material.  At worst, there’s a chance that your online “teacher” may not know what he or she is talking about. You might, for example, want to learn how to become a ninja, and the first teacher you find online is this guy.

Skip the Hard Parts

One of the biggest problems you might encounter when teaching yourself is getting into the trap of spending an hour reading and rereading a single page that you don’t understand.  Instead of obsessing over that one page, skip to other parts of the book (or even other books) that are easier and more accessible.

A book is like a teacher that can only explain a concept one way. If you have one book, you only have one explanation. If you have five books, you have five explanations. If you don’t understand one explanation, all you have to do is see if another explanation makes sense to you.

Start with the easier to read and more accessible parts of your books. When you have a good handle on the easier concepts, it’s likely you’ll have acquired the background knowledge needed to understand the more difficult ones. If all else fails, there are plenty of resources on the internet that should have what you’re looking for. Just Google the concept name, and the word “explained.” Chances are you’ll find a good explanation.

Get Pointers

If you can, hang around a group of people who’ve already mastered whatever you’re trying to learn. Join a music club, writer’s group, toastmasters club, knitting circle or bowling league. The people you meet in these clubs are usually very helpful, and are often happy to give you pointers or short lessons in order to help you improve. How do you find them? Try meetup.com, or Craigslist.

Even if you live in an area so remote that you have to drive an hour just to get to the nearest shopping center, you should be able to get in touch with people through one of the myriad social networking sites. Check out twitter to see if you can’t find a list of experts in whatever area you’re trying to become proficient in. You can be surprised how many of your questions can be answered in 140 characters or less. If you’ve never asked an expert on the web for pointers you should try it. It’s amazing how friendly and helpful people on the web can be.

Have a Time-bound Goal

Imagine two students, both of them sisters of equal intelligence who want to learn Spanish. One student thinks she might book a trip to Spain as soon as she learns enough to be comfortable speaking the language, the other student books the trip ten-months from the date she starts studying, hoping to learn enough by the time her plane takes off. Which student do you think will learn faster?

According to Parkinson’s Law, the second sister will learn much faster than the first. Parkinson’s law asserts that the time it takes to complete any task will expand to fill the time you allow yourself to complete it. This law is applicable to determining how fast you learn.  People with clearly defined, time-bound goals will always learn faster than those who don’t.

It’s important to ensure that your time-bound goals are challenging–to the point where you’re unsure whether or not you’ll be able to make the goal. It might be impossible to learn how to play Für Elise in one year, but you don’t really know until you try. If you give yourself one year to learn this difficult piece, all of your mental resources will be devoted to acquiring the skills that you need in to play it in this limited period of time. You may not make your goal, but even if you don’t you’ll probably still be impressed at the rate your piano skills have improved.

Teaching Yourself: the 2nd Best Way to Learn

Although you can get very far teaching yourself, ultimately the best way to learn something is to have a teacher who can provide you with learning material, correct your mistakes, and give you realistic but challenging goals to shoot for. There’s no substitute for a good teacher.

If you’re like me, however, you might not have the time or the money to be able to get a teacher.  If you can’t get a teacher, there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t teach yourself.

So stop waiting for that USB implant. Get yourself a few books, perhaps a few good DVDs, study them and practice hard. You’ll be knowing kung-fu in no time.

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