Traits of a Self Directed Learner

What do Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and I have in common?

We’re all self-directed learners. I’ve proudly been a self-directed learner since 1994 when I realised that no employer of mine was ever going to provide me with the training and development that I needed to make a success of my fledgeling career. Twenty-five years’ of self-directed learning and I do feel I’ve succeeded in evolving myself for the future and have done so through self-employment where I didn’t officially have a training budget.

It’s worked for me and will work for all future learners in the workplace, gone are the days when students gorged on company training programmes. The future is for those that make it happen.

Here are ten traits that you need to master to become a self-directed learner. In no particular order

  1. The first trait is initiative. If your learner has set themselves a goal to learn something, they have the initiative and capability to find suitable learning. They are adept at searching the internet for reading materials as well as audio and video and can also venture offline as well. They just seem to find what they’re looking for. Care your “Great Wall of China” doesn’t block anything of use value – most corporate IT departments block useful sites; they don’t trust people.
  2. Independence comes next. With their learning goals in tow, self-directed learners don’t need permission to learn; they feel empowered to do so. Some companies even provide a budget to further their independence. My employed position in 1997 awarded me with a training budget of £1,000, a year and I was trusted and empowered to use this to buy training. I used it to part fund my early NLP training.
  3. They network well. Possibly members of various associations and unions that provide relevant learning and development. Networking with fellow members and others provides ample learning opportunities sometimes over a coffee or fireside chat. Learning doesn’t have to be formal. My best ideas and insights have come from spontaneous chats with people in my network, and my superior education events have come from my membership of three associations – PSA, SPA and AAISP. Google them.
  4. They embrace responsibility for their learning. The buck stops with them; no one else is going to help them develop; it’s something they’re accountable for.
  5. Self-directed learners plan their own development time. I devote a day a week to personal development, not every week, but on average. Only with this amount of time investment can I achieve my learning goals.
  6. They’re curious to learn things. A goal can lead anywhere. Back in 2012, I committed to master how to create a video for my business and boy was this a giant learning curve for me. Seven years’ later I’m producing some half decent videos, but my curiosity took me to other areas beyond just video production. I’m currently exploring and using live streaming, so my video work streams live to YouTube and Vimeo. My curiosity also took me into Research and Development grants and tax advantages which have saved me a packet over the years.
  7. Self-learners don’t mind starting something at 80% ready. Too many people start projects or activities when they believe they are 100% ready to go. Self-learners believe in learning as you go, and this often requires that you start something and learn/improve as you progress. That’s the modern way. I watch some of my early incarnations of videos which are still on YouTube and compared to my current videos are quite awful. However, at the time, they were new, interesting and achieved my objectives.
  8. Self-directed learners are good at erudition and can adopt basic study skills. I’m aware of my learning style acutely. I know that reading works for me; listening to podcasts gives me the freedom to learn where I want. I know I have to make notes when I learn, I use mindmaps (that’s a technique I learnt way back in the nineties by reading some books). I work well in conferences and can listen to a really good speaker for hours. Incidentally, I don’t do learning activities in groups – that’s not my cup of tea.  I’m very aware of how I learn.
  9. Self-directed learners understand the unlearning process. When you learn something new, you have to unlearn the old first. Otherwise, you’re just piling on new on top of old, and you will struggle to see new ideas and innovations. Before you decide to learn something new, you unlearn the old. For example, when I was learning about trainer video, I had to unlearn all the presentation skills I learnt when performing in front of a group – interaction, questioning, eye contact, movement, gestures – do these things when being videoed and it’ll all go wrong. On the video you look at the lens, keep your gestures minimal preferably nil and maximise your facial expressions and voice.
  10. Finally, I enjoy my learning. It can be hard work, tiring and prone to errors and mistakes but this is what gives me the benefits I seek. There’s always a point, a scary moment when you don’t understand what it is you’re learning. This can cause stress, and you feel vulnerable. You have to drive yourself through this because with a tenacious attitude you will learn it.

With your people committed to self-directing and controlling their learning, the next step is to re-organise your learning and development offering to fit this learner. That’ll come later once you’ve influenced the culture of your workforce first.