Learning Outside the Academy

Too many people think you need permission to learn something, or that difficult things have to be learned in school. However, the prevalence of this attitude is much lower among entrepreneurs than practically any other group. Although going to school to learn things seems to have worked quite well for some of my friends, it's never really been my first choice, so hopefully by explaining alternative strategies for learning I can help out other people for whom schooling isn't an option.

In August of 2008, I decided that I wanted to do my undergrad degree at Peking University in Beijing, instead of applying to schools in the states. I had spent an incredible summer in Beijing as an intern in a lab at Peking U, and I was determined to get in. My idea was that I'd spend the five months before the admissions deadline in an immersion program and pick up enough Chinese to pass the admissions tests. As it turned out, there are no immersion programs except the Defense Language Institute (only open to military members, oops) that will teach you Mandarin in that span of time. I decided I'd learn it on my own, and here are some notes (cleaned up a bit) that I wrote down after I was admitted to PKU, and managed to pass all of my first semester classes. I've since found that these lessons are applicable to more than just studying languages:

  1. Make a curriculum. Breaking a big concept like "fluency in Mandarin" (or "learning to program in Lisp" or whatever) into concrete pieces is step one. Often what you choose to skip is as important as what you learn. I asked my mentors and friends exactly what I would need to make it through my first year at Peking University, and the consensus was that I could skip learning how to write characters and how to read classical Chinese, in order to focus hard on speaking, listening, and reading. I've ended up going back to the things I skipped, but the order was really important, and trying to do it all at once would have been disastrous.
  2. Make practice as close to the real thing as possible. Instead of using materials intended for students, I played a game where I'd enter all the characters I encountered in daily life into my phone, and they'd all get dumped into a flashcard program at the end of the day. This meant that every character I learned was a character I had run into on the street, with absolutely no time wasted on esoteric or outdated stuff taught in classes. To practice listening, I watched movies and paused at lines I didn't understand. To practice speaking, I talked at every opportunity (and there were many.) As a sidenote, the effect that the attitude of native speakers towards foreign learners of a language has on one's ability to learn quickly can't possibly be overstated. For this reason I think Mandarin Chinese is easier to learn than French or Japanese; in Beijing coming off as unfriendly or aloof is considered extremely rude, which is not the case to the same extent in either Tokyo or Paris.
  3. Genius doesn't have much to do with it. Schools and parents in the US emphasize intelligence over effort in a bunch of subtle ways, whereas in Asia, effort and diligence is the focus. Regardless of what side of that debate you come down on, if you've decided to learn something, deliberating about your own natural talent for that thing does absolutely nothing for you. Tanaka Ikko, one of the founders of Muji and a graphic designer of extreme skill told a student complaining about his own lack of natural design sense: "First is strength. Second is strength. There is no third or fourth. Fifth is sense." This isn't machismo, it's just a better understanding of how mastery is actually acquired.
  4. Find something you can pour yourself into happily. Don't bother trying to learn anything you aren't truly interested in. When I was learning Mandarin I didn't think twice about spending hours in front of a flash-card program drilling characters; this sounds strange, but it really wasn't unpleasant at all. Each character brought up so many associations, and the thrill of being able to read a little bit more of the newspaper each week kept me going. Obviously there will be difficult periods, but if you find yourself miserably plodding forward for any significant period of time, quit and go learn something you actually enjoy.
  5. Find teachers. Not going to school for something does not mean you should go without teachers. Accomplished mentors are usually delighted to take motivated students. Find a really good teacher for something will let you learn way faster than you could otherwise, and no matter what they charge per hour it'll be cheaper than paying tuition at a school. Good teachers are actually really undervalued monetarily, especially in the united states (not so much in places like Hong Kong, where top tutors make seven figures) so spend as much as you can on good instruction whenever you find it. Skillshare is a great way to find solid teachers, and you'll benefit also from meeting lots of other people studying what you're studying.

There are quite a few other tactics I think are really useful for people learning outside of the academy, such as book selection, peer groups, and the discipline of time management. I'll happily answer any questions about this stuff directed to me on Twitter at @firpond, where I'm currently learning interaction design through a series of small projects and internships.


This essay appear in Shareable's paperback Share or Die published by New Society, available from Amazon. Share or Die is also available for Kindle, iPad, and other e-readers. 


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