The Internet along with other technology these days has provided us with more access to knowledge and information than ever before. Due to this, we have no excuse to be ignorant about the things we are passionate about.
In fact, if we use these tools properly and we are willing to dedicate the time and effort, many of us can become a kind of expert on topics and subjects that we may have little to no formal education in.
I’m personally a strong believer in self-education, also known as autodidacticism. I purposely opted out of graduate school because I thought choosing my own curriculum, and embarking on a life-long journey of knowledge, would be more beneficial to me in the long-term (as well as less expensive).
This was at least what was true for me. I’m not against graduate school in principle – many professions depend on it – but I do think there are just as effective alternatives to further education depending on what you want to learn, what kind of skill sets you want to develop, and what kind of career you want to pursue.
For example, being an artist, journalist, or designer is a lot less dependent on graduate school than becoming a doctor, lawyer, or some other profession that requires a license.
The purpose of this article is to lay out the fundamental ways we can self-educate ourselves about nearly anything. You can use these in conjunction with formal schooling or as an alternative, depending on what you want to accomplish.
But no matter how you plan to use the advice here, following these guidelines can definitely help you take your education or career to the next level.
Diving into different reservoirs of information
The Internet provides us with many different reservoirs of information in the form of articles, e-books, videos, audio, etc.
One of the first things I usually do when I come across a subject I want to know more about is search for it on Wikipedia. Wikipedia can be a great and reliable starting point to learn more about a subject.
A 2005 study done by Nature found that Wikipedia is almost just as reliable as the Encyclopædia Britannica when it comes to science-based articles. (While Wikipedia averaged 4 factual errors per entry, the Encyclopædia Britannica averaged 3 factual errors per entry – not that big of a difference.)
To get the most of Wikipedia, be sure to check out the references and citations section at the end of each article. Also pay close attention to claims that are followed by “citation needed” – there’s a good chance those statements are speculation and not based on facts.
One could probably spend a whole night surfing Wikipedia, clicking page after page and learning new information. But if I want to dive further into a subject, I’m most likely to go on Khan Academy or Academic Earth or iTunes U (which can be found in the iTunes store) to see if there are any free courses available.
Many top notch schools including Yale, Cambridge, and Harvard provide full video lectures of entry-level courses offered at their universities through these sites.
Another reliable site to search for new information is TED, a good source for videos and lectures from teachers, scientists, journalists, philosophers, artists, entertainers, designers, and experts of all types. It’s not exactly a good place to find depth of knowledge, but it can open you up to new ideas and new ways of thinking about various subjects.
Two other huge reservoirs of information, which aren’t always the most reliable, include Google and YouTube. From this point, you’re really opening yourself up to anything that anyone creates and makes public, but that doesn’t mean that valuable information can’t be found through Google or YouTube if you use them right.
The key thing to remember when reading anything online is to find out where it’s coming from. Who is the source? What are their credentials? What organizations are they associated with? Are they providing evidence and research for their claims or just pulling stuff from nowhere?
Of course, in your pursuit to become an expert, diving into different reservoirs of information also includes offline resources too, such as television, radio, libraries, and museums. The Internet alone doesn’t encompass all of human knowledge. You should try your best to expose yourself to as many different sources of information as possible.
Organizing a feed of related blogs/websites/news/resources
As you build a foundation for your knowledge, it is equally helpful to pay attention to the latest news and findings within your given subject.
There is almost no area of human life that someone isn’t writing blog posts or articles about on a regular basis. Just search “[Your Subject] blogs” on Google and start finding blogs that are related to what you want to learn more about. Start making a small list of them, then organize a feed on Feedly or Netvibes.
By checking your feed on a regular basis, you will be able to follow the latest trends and research within your subject, keeping your knowledge fresh and up-to-date.
But of course, the same rules apply to blogs as they do with any other kind of information-seeking (perhaps even more so): find out what you can about the source, ask yourself what kind of evidence they have for their claims, and evaluate how trustworthy they really are.
As an information junkie, I sift through lots of different blogs and websites on a daily basis. And if I had to guess, I would say 80% of what I consume is, at least in some way, a distortion, misrepresentation, or straight out lie. However, if you keep a critical and open mind, it’s well worth sifting through 80% of the junk to find the 20% that is actually informative and insightful.
Over time you’ll find what sites and blogs tend to provide the best and most ground-breaking articles, and you can then narrow down your feed to the essentials.
A lot of material on the internet gets recycled over and over again, so you don’t need to follow every single related site to be on top of your game. I personally follow over 50 psychology-related sites (no, I don’t read them all, they just pop up in my feed), but there are probably less than 10 within that list that consistently post new and interesting findings.
Interacting with others on social media and forums
Digesting information is only one major part of education. Another just as important part is interacting with others, communicating your knowledge, and engaging in healthy debates and discussions.
The Internet, again, provides us with a range of opportunities to do this with a diverse group of people from all over the world. We have Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, and Reddit communities all focused on specific subjects that we can follow and participate in.
These give us with a way to connect with like-minded people (and sometimes not-so-like-minded people) and pursue new knowledge together, not just by ourselves.
I sometimes purposely follow people who disagree with me on things, because I like to expose myself to as many different viewpoints as possible. Often by better understanding what someone else believes, and why you disagree with them, you can better understand the nuances of your own beliefs.
Having real knowledge should mean you are able to communicate it clearly to others, it’s just as dependent on regenerating information as it is about absorbing information.
If you read books and articles all day but you can’t remember what you learned or communicate it to someone else in a cohesive way, then you may have wasted your time consuming information but not really fully digesting it (“in one ear, out the other”).
Engaging other experts
One of the best ways to accelerate your learning is to connect with those who have already achieved highly specialized knowledge in their respected fields.
Many teachers, scientists, philosophers, as well as a wide array of other professionals and experts are available to contact via e-mail. And despite their high status, most are very happy and willing to answer questions and point you to new sources of information, books, articles, etc.
You can often find the contact information for experts by searching their name on Google. You can also go to their organization’s website and see if they have a page on faculty (universities almost always publicly provide e-mails to their professors).
Facebook and Twitter are also becoming popular places to interact with other professionals and experts. I’m friends with the personal accounts of various college professors and researchers in economics, philosophy, psychology, and more, and I’ve never even met these people in person. Many times I’ve even commented on their FB statuses, wrote on their wall, or tweeted them, and I’ve gotten thoughtful responses back.
I think we take it for granted just how willing many people are to help us out, answer our questions, or point us in the right direction. Educators in particular seem to have an instinctive need to reply back to other people’s questions.
Reading academic articles
Academic articles published in a peer-reviewed journal are by most standards the most reliable information we can consume regarding a subject.
While subscriptions to these journals can range up to $100-$1,000 per yearly subscription or $20-$40 per article or even $4 to rent an article for just 24 hours, many journals also allow open and free access to many of their articles.
Good databases to search for these free academic articles include Google Scholar and the Directory of Open Access Journals. You can usually search by subject, keyword, publication, author, or article title.
Another thing you can try doing if you know the article name is to search “[Article Name] PDF” on Google and seeing if there is a PDF for download anywhere.
Many times even if you find an article that is blocked by a pay-wall, you can still read the Abstract, which is usually a short but informative summary of the article and what researchers found.
Keep these resources in mind whenever you come across academic research mentioned in an article (whether it’s a newspaper, magazine, or pop science website). By reading the original material you can decide for yourself if a journalist is over-exaggerating or misrepresenting a study, or reporting it accurately.
Applying knowledge to real-world situations
On your path toward becoming an expert, about half of the knowledge that you learn will be knowledge that was communicated to you via words. This is known as explicit knowledge, such as from reading a book or listening to a lecture.
However, there is a whole other realm of knowledge that you can only learn through action and practice known as tacit knowledge.
A good example of tacit knowledge is riding a bike. You can read books or talk to others about it all day, but you won’t really be able to learn it until you get on the bike, try to pedal and balance yourself, fall down, get back up, continue to practice, and eventually “feel” what it’s like to actually ride a bike until it becomes second-nature.
In the same way, we need experience to develop true expertise – we need to put ourselves in real world situations where we actually put our knowledge into action.
You can find some opportunities to do this by interning for a company, getting an entry level job, or volunteering at an organization where you can get direct, hands-on work.
You can also try practicing stuff on your own, it depends on your goals. For example, if you’re trying to learn how to become a musician, comedian, or entertainer of some sort, then start coming up with a routine, practicing it in front of others, and booking small gigs for yourself. Or if you want to become a computer programmer, screenwriter, or photography, start your own projects during your free time. Or if you’re learning a language, practice writing and speaking it.
The point is you need to always take what you learn and put it into action in some form. This the only real and substantial way to work your way up any learning curve.
Just as a reminder, it’s important when seeking knowledge that we don’t get trapped in the theoretical – that we focus on knowledge that is practical and relevant to our lives. Ask yourself how your knowledge changes the way you act and changes the results you get in life. If it doesn’t make a significant difference in your life, then what’s the point in knowing it in the first place?
Cultivating the right attitude toward learning
No matter how effectively you use the advice above, it’s important to remember that no one becomes an expert over night.
I’ve been studying psychology for 7 years (both formally and informally) and I don’t consider myself an “expert” yet, although perhaps on a gradual path to become one.
Being an expert in any area of life is a process that takes a lot of work, time, and dedication. Before all else, you need to have a relentless passion for what you want to learn more about.
The next most important step is to cultivate the right attitude toward learning. Be humble about what you know and be willing to admit when you’re wrong.
You will never know everything, but at the same time there is always something new to be discovered.
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