Unstructured learning: How to learn hard skills that pay off forever

Everything we learn at school is structured — teachers and professors tell us what to think, and then when the time is right, they ask us to prove that we understand what they’ve been saying all along.

Everything is predefined. Throughout the process, which usually takes at least a decade, we compete with our peers and aim to get good grades.
In the real world, we hardly apply what we’ve spent years learning in a formal setting unless we learned specific things for what we currently do or intend to do.

The real question is, how do you learn hard and essential things that matter to your success in life and career? How do you explore and dig deeper into complex topics you deeply care about?

I embraced unstructured learning over ten years ago. I followed my curiosities, read many books, and practiced my art consistently.

I explored, wandered and learned from almost every competent expert I knew was successful in the things I was interested in mastering. I took 10,000 hours to a whole new level. A lot of what I’ve achieved in the last ten years can be credited to unstructured learning.

Unstructured learning is popular in child learning. Kids who are lucky to get that natural and organic freedom to express themselves develop cognitive abilities faster. They express themselves creatively throughout the process.

But everything changes once they are introduced to formal education. They are not encouraged to think for themselves anymore. Structured learning takes over.

“We have sold ourselves into a fast-food model of education, and it’s impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies,” argues Ken Robinson, the author of The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.

Discover how you learn

“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” ― Richard P. Feynman

Unstructured learners find and stick to learning methods that work best for them and, most importantly, create habits, environments, and routines to sustain the learning process.

Using tools and methods to your unique circumstances allows you to try as many approached as possible. It helps you build a learning engine you can use over and over again.

Successful self-learners go through a trial and error phase. They find many tools, books, courses and videos that can help them design a firm foundation. And then select the one’s that supports their drive and joy for learning.

“Perseverance, pleasure, and the ability to retain what you learn are among the wonderful byproducts of getting to learn using methods that suit you best and in contexts that keep you going,” writes Kio Stark in her book, Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Anything.

Finding how you learn or the content type that supports your learning improves your chances of sticking to what you start and digging deeper even when it’s hard.

For example, I love learning about Physics, Writing and Investing. And I’ve found long expert essays, books, and videos are my best content types. So, I use all three types of content at the same time to learn more about exciting topics.

I’ve bought books on investing, writing and Physics and saved thousands of long essays on the first two topics. But I prefer videos when I’m learning physics. I’ve found so many incredible videos that explain physics better on Amazon Prime Video.

Learning hard things is challenging. You won’t figure things out quickly. If you want to understand the fundamentals as soon as possible, don’t rush it. And don’t stop because it’s hard. Keep going because you are pursuing your intellectual curiosities.

Many complex things can’t be understood in a few weeks or months. But if you find the content you enjoy, invest deeply and ride on that motivation to keep learning. When you are naturally drawn to what interests you, you can double your chances of figuring things out quickly.

You can’t become a successful lifelong learner if you don’t enjoy the process of learning. If you have to master a new skill or topic to advance your career, but can’t say you enjoy the process, find your bigger why and hold on to that motivation to keep learning.

Successful unstructured learners don’t settle on a single tool, method, approach to learning. They explore, search, discover and try many forms of learning methods and only stick to tools for learning that bring out the best in them.

Here’s a simple process that can help you become a successful unstructured learner:

  • Choose topics you care about or skills with a bigger why — it’s the basic foundation for sustaining the process.
  • Don’t hide your ignorance. Experts started from the bottom. Your ignorance can help you dig deeper and learn faster.
  • Be honest about what you don’t know — and use that to ask the basic and evens stupid questions — question almost everything.
  • Choose your content and always start with the basics (find root knowledge instead of starting from the branches) and immerse yourself deeply. Build a foundation first.
  • If you are learning a new skill, take notes (summarise in your own words) or, better still, apply what you are learning through practice. When in doubt, teach it or explain it to others.
  • Create your own feedback process and do more of what’s working.
  • For every new skill or topic, repeat the process.

Every unstructured learner invests in their unique process. Build your learning method and make it your own. Hard things, topics, domains and skills take time to master.

If you are curious enough, commit to a process you can sustain. Don’t rush it and burn out. Learning anything new can change your life for good.

“Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough.” Richard P. Feynman said.

Learn to double down on what’s working and what you enjoy. Don’t make unstructured learning a chore. The art of unstructured learning is an art.

Master it, own it, and make it work for you. The joy of figuring things out on your own is a fantastic experience.

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This article originally appeared in Medium.