“She can’t listen and follow directions.” That’s what my teachers always hated about me. For example, one of them screamed in my face for drawing a killer whale instead of a castle.
“What’s wrong with you?” she wailed. She pointed at the instructions. Yes, for how to draw a castle. The instructions explained everything my drawing needed, right down to a moat and drawbridge.
It was art class. But what I wanted to do didn’t matter.
Later, I figured out the secret. There wasn’t anything wrong with me. Just the directions. So I’d made my own.
I’ve been doing that ever since. Even when it led to trouble. You can imagine I got terrible grades until the end of middle school, when the board finally let me into their gifted program.
After that, I bloomed. These teachers let me do what I wanted. As long as I could show that I was learning. They didn’t care about listening and following directions. Just results.
In fact, they usually didn’t give directions at all.
Surprise, life doesn’t give you directions.
Here’s the secret about education — and life: Nobody can teach you anything. Not really. The sooner you accept that, the better. Even the greatest teachers can only show you how to teach yourself.
That’s always been true. But now it’s especially true. The shape of information has changed. If you sit around waiting for someone to show you how to do something, your butt’s going to get numb.
People like me, who hated school, wind up doing pretty well in this new era. The people who got really good at following directions?
Not so much.
Like us all, they reach a point where the directions run out. Then they flounder. They spend years — maybe the rest of their lives — searching for guides, mentors, teachers.
Some people with master’s degrees and doctorates still show up in my office on random afternoons, wanting a blueprint. And I do my best. I wish I could do a Vulcan mind meld with them.
But I can’t. And the information you need to succeed, or even tread water, simply can’t fit into a pamphlet. I’ve spent ten years scraping bits and pieces of knowledge off different places.
Here’s my best advice: You have to learn to teach yourself.
You have to forget about grades. Today, most of my students just want a C or better. So they can earn a degree. Some want me to spoon feed everything to them, so they can spit it back at me. That’s what passes for learning these days, and it’s how they grew up.
They pass my class, but that’s all they do if they don’t actually pay attention to the spirit of the class — which is to teach yourself.
One of my professor’s used to tell us this: “Getting an A in my class means nothing. You’ve got to go way beyond that.” He could sketch out the basics, but we had to do the rest. It was up to us to figure out how to read a thousand pages a week. Up to us to figure out which conferences to present at. Up to us to figure out the difference between a good seminar paper and a publishable article. Up to us to figure out the right questions to ask him.
And it was hard as hell.
Some people never figured that out. I’ll never forget going out for drinks with some first-year doctoral students who bragged about their grades. “I got all As,” one guy told me proudly.
He hadn’t read the fine print on his degree. A 4.0 and perfect attendance doesn’t guarantee you a job.
An autodidact has to absorb everything. Life is the lesson. Everywhere you look, there’s a teachable moment. You connect fragments of information and experiences. You infer, theorize, intuit. Make guesses.
The people who thrive, the ones I don’t worry about, learn how to teach themselves by doing.
They know the limits of what I can do. Show them the tools. How they work. Give them the projects and answer their questions.
A couple of years ago, one student wanted me to teach her all of Wix. She stopped me in the middle of a class discussion and demanded a tutorial. “You can’t expect us to figure all this out ourselves.”
To which I said, “Wix has tutorials…”
“But which ones am I supposed to use?”
This went on for a few minutes, until I convinced her to come to my office for an appointment — where I told her the truth. I wasn’t going to put the rest of the class to sleep with lectures on how to build a website. I could show her what a good website looked like. I could give her clear expectations. I could print out a list of beginner steps and watch her get started. And I could tell her if her website sucked, and make her redo it. But she was going to have to learn to use the tools on her own. What a bummer.
Finally, she made herself learn how to build a website. She hated me for it, and reamed me on the teacher evaluation.
“Doesn’t teach,” she wrote. “Makes you figure out everything yourself.” Which isn’t entirely true, but close enough.
The irony is that I’m showing my students how to do things that I never learned in a classroom. Things I picked up on my own. When I think about it, most of what I do at my job involves self-taught skills.
Nobody ever taught me how to write effective emails.
Nobody ever taught me how to analyze and code qualitative data.
Nobody ever taught me how to write a publishable article.
Nobody ever taught me how to teach.
These are all things I figured out by observing, imitating, and doing. Books and articles helped. So did mentors. Pieces of advice here and there. Listening and following directions just doesn’t cut it.
Ten or twenty years ago, teachers could skate by with lectures and PowerPoint slides. The occasional group project. Multiple choice tests. A term paper. Some teachers still take this approach. It does absolutely nothing to prepare anyone for anything.
Now, I do none of that. My role is simple. Every week, I make my students figure out how to do something.
Education isn’t going away. But it’s changing. It can happen almost anywhere now, not just within the walls of a classroom. In fact, you’d be amazed at how little learning happens there sometimes.
The auto-didact is becoming the norm.
A course or seminar can give anyone a nice start. But it’s not enough. Never was. Some people arrive in this world with ridiculous privilege. But if you don’t have money, or family connections, then knowledge alone won’t help. You need a mindset, an attitude.