Self-directed learning can be a way of looking at life. In all situations, there are opportunities to transform ourselves and create new things.
Blake Boles, author of The Art of Self-Directed Learning, believes that the self-directed learner chooses to act differently from other people.
This is far from being a superpower or an innate characteristic. It is hard work with good doses of conscience and humility, and it is accessible to anyone.
When I was translating the book to Portuguese, I fell in love with the seventh chapter. Blake points out six fundamental changes in attitude for the self-directed learner to fulfill his mission of learning all the time. My purpose here is to share my reflections on each of them.
1. From “I can’t” to “I could if I”
Frequently we think that we are unable to accomplish something.
Giving a speech at the company, backpacking around the world, speaking another language, reacting differently in a conflict… All this is really hard. Still, try to imagine another context with slightly diferent assumptions.
“I could give a speech if the audience was made up of people I know and trust”
“I’d feel more relaxed about backpacking around the world if I invited a friend to go with me”
“I’d be able to speak another language if I practiced in an environment free of judgment”
“I could react differently in this conflict if I took five deep breaths and prepared myself in advance”
The change from “I can’t” to “I could if I” is the art of manipulating the context and premises of the challenge so it’s a little easier for you. And, by doing so, it’s possible to create alternative paths out of despair.
2. From “I should” to “I choose to”
We always have choice. In saying this, I am not turning a blind eye to all the conditioning and inequalities that reduce our freedom. Privileges (or the lack of them), unfavorable conditions and external pressures do exist.
But, repeat with me, we always have choice. Even believing that we have choice is also a choice. And, among the various ways of looking at life in this world, maybe this is the one that frees us the most. Sometimes a change in perception is all we need.
To believe that we always have a choice is to plunge into freedom, on the one hand, and to practice the art of self-responsibility, on the other. “I should” means that we are letting the other choose for us — whether it be someone else, the culture in which we are immersed or both.
And what about those situations where we feel we have a duty to do or not do something? Even in those, deep down in your mind, think: “it is still a choice”. We can choose to follow the “duty” or not.
3. From “I don’t know” to “I’ll find out”
The self-directed learner tries to make meaning of the world all the time. He is not satisfied with an “I don’t know” answer, although he understands that it is often important to admit not knowing. A paralyzing “I don’t know” is different from a curious “I don’t know”.
Instead of stopping, the self-directed learner keeps searching for new possibilities of meaning, understanding that he will never find “the” truth. As the search intensifies, new perspectives and skills are created. And with new answers, new questions will always appear, even more interesting and complex ones.
The discovery process is different from the “acquiring knowledge” process (which biologically doesn’t make any sense). Discovering is a living process of creation. Discovery is always an invention.
From a curious “I don’t know”, it is possible to use Content, Experiences, People and Networks (CEP+N) to learn (I’ll write more about this in a next post). When we are curious and free, the sources of learning multiply.
4. From “I wish” to “I’ll make a plan”
It is tempting not getting our ideas out of our heads. On the one hand, it will always be safer than the concrete world, because nothing or anyone besides ourselves can question these ideas. On the other hand, the world of ideas is a prison. The price of never getting our ideas out of our heads is to never reap the fruits of their materialization.
Self-directed learners have many ideas like anyone else, but they are seriously concerned with implementing some of them. It’s not just about making a plan, it’s about acting fast to test the main assumptions. The reality is great in presenting us with situations that are different from what we initially anticipated. We need to plan, act and rapidly evolve in face of what happens with our ideas in the real world.
For that, it is essential to select which ideas we want to implement and which ones can remain hidden in our heads (or in Evernote) for a while. Letting go hurts. But remember: you don’t have to do everything at once. What ideas would you prioritize to have a chance in the real world at this point of your life, and how many of them can wait? What is more important to you now?
5. From “I hate” to “I prefer”
Self-directed learners know that focusing too much energy on negative things is not productive. This is different, of course, from allowing yourself to discharge emotions like anger, for example. Not blaming yourself for feeling something is a sign of emotional intelligence.
However, “I hate” means keep feeding negativity even after the anger or sadness has passed. Expressing preferences in a hateful manner keeps people away, just as complaining about everything does. Focusing only on the problem does not help in finding solutions.
There is always room for “I prefer”. Instead of pointing out everything wrong that you notice in something or someone, talk about the things that are really important and meaningful to you in positive language. Make clear and specific requests if necessary.
The world already has too much hate. Self-directed learners welcome differences as learning opportunities. And reflect on their preferences, expressing them to others when needed.
6. From “I have to” to “I get to”
The fuel of the self-directed learner is his intrinsic motivation. So when he wants or needs something, that desire burns inside. There is no time to lose.
Many creative impulses are fleeting. If we do not respond to the inner call to write that text or create that project, it may be that later our cognition has already been populated by other things. This is especially true in the digital world, where distractions are the norm.
On the other hand, if we start to execute all the ideas that go through our head, we will probably find it hard to finish things. Once again, understanding your current moment and what new “beginnings” fit into it is critical.
And how about when we procrastinate on something indefinitely? The habit of procrastinating can be an alert that the task does not communicate that much with our intrinsic motivation — what we really want. Or it could mean the lack of an efficient system or routine. In both cases, it’s time for some reflection.
When it makes sense, the self-directed learner starts to pursue what he wants. And, if it keeps making sense, he creates the systems and routines to persist.