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Never Stop Learning: How Self-Education Creates a Bullet-Proof Career

Your next job title probably doesn’t even exist yet. So what’s the only skill that promises to pay dividends in the future? Your ability to expand your mind.

Business writer Tom Peters once said, “A career is a portfolio of projects that teach you new skills, gain you new expertise, develop new capabilities, grow your colleague set, and constantly reinvent you as a brand.”

At the heart of expanding your social graph and reinventing yourself is an unquenchable desire to learn—a mindset that stays fluid and facilitates personal growth. It is the learners, those willing to open their minds and augment their skillsets, who will be poised to succeed in the future. 

But how do we foster this desire to learn? Dont we all want to learn? Who ever says, “I really hate learning new things?” Yet, in the midst of searching for security and comfort, I think we often lose sight of whats important and enter a sort of tunnel vision that can lead to stagnation. After a long day at work, Netflix sounds more seductive than spending one or two hours diving into a book that challenges you to think deeply about what you do and who you are.

That said, complacency does not beget success. In today’s networked age, companies and jobs rise and fall in a matter of months. That thing you do? Theres now an app for that, for free. Or there will be soon. That job title of yours could change next week. When thinking about our careers, no one is safe.

The concept of getting and holding a job in one industry for decades is outmoded, a byproduct of the industrial mindset. Nowadays its not unusual to hear of drastic career changes like a CPA becoming a yoga instructor or someone leaving a job that they had for a decade to pursue their art. These transitions are not only difficult, but they require a mindset that helps the individual be flexible and motivated.

The concept of getting and holding a job in one industry for decades is outmoded, a byproduct of the industrial mindset.

By embracing a student-like mindset and learning to turn self-education into a daily habit, you can hone your current skills and develop new ones while enriching your mind. Then, when the time to adapt arrives, the transitions are less bumpy.

Here are some ways to ignite and sustain a passion for learning:

1. Start with heroes from the past.

I must use these great men’s virtues as a cloak for my weakness.”
—Michel De Montaigne 

Having heroes gives you something to live up to, a higher standard. You can pick someone in your field and always point toward them. “That is what they do in times of self-doubt” or “That is what they do every morning to make sure they get their work done.” Its not about constantly comparing to make yourself feel unworthy or unproductive, but rather using a model of aspiration, something to motivate you to find your own rhythm and exert a bit more effort.

Many of my heroes arent alive, and if they are, I have not met them in person (yet). Their teachings are laid out in books, interviews, and articles, and their quotes are scattered throughout my notebook. Whenever I have moments of confusion or self-doubt, I re-read quotes or passages from these books to center myself.

Wouldnt it be great to have a mentor that slaps your hand when you reach into the cookie jar or someone to say, “Hey, I’ve been in this situation before, heres what you should do?” Truth is, you may never get this kind of mentorship, and waiting for someone to pick you is the same as waiting for something great to happen. But you can actively choose your heroes, study their work and journeys, and identify the specific elements that make them great and utilize those lessons in your own life. What’s more, you can learn who inspired them and expand your knowledge from there.

2. Take advantage of free educational resources.

“How can you squander even one more day not taking advantage of the greatest shifts of our generation? How dare you settle for less when the world has made it so easy for you to be remarkable?”
—Seth Godin

Technology has transformed us into excellent gatherers of information. From books, podcasts, blogs, online courses, and tools that provide access to whomever youre trying to connect with, you can study any subject. The access to tools that can bolster our desire to learn is incomparable to any other time in history. Picture your great-great-grandparents learning that you have access to all this information. They would likely be stunned that you didn’t spend all day reading and learning.

Picture your great-great-grandparents learning that you have access to all this information. They would likely be stunned that you didn’t spend all day reading and learning.

As an experiment, I started drawing in December 2013. My first thought was, “I should take a few electives at my university” but one course would have cost me close to $1,000. Instead, I searched online and found a portrait-drawing course for $20 on Skillshare. I went on YouTube and searched for “Drawing 101 tips” and studied the videos I found relentlessly. I followed artists on Instagram, studied their sketches and watched their time-lapse videos. I emailed a few artists and asked questions. I purchased books and skimmed through them. But above all, I did the work. The knowledge that I obtained from these various sources improved my mindset and methodology.

The tools and platforms that facilitate self-directed learning are growing by the day. Websites like CreativeLive, Skillshare, and Khan Academy provide content that is invaluable to our education. Its easy to overlook the value of the tools and options that we now have compared to 20 years ago. Take advantage of them. 

3. Explore unrelated subjects.

“Creative insights often occur by making unusual connections: seeing analogies between ideas that have not previously been related. All of our existing ideas have creative possibilities.”
—Sir Ken Robinson 

Say youre a graphic designer. Why not study something like Greek architecture or fashion? Or lets say youre a fitness coach. Why not study public speakers or read biographies on famous sports coaches?

One of my favorite joys in learning is studying seemingly unrelated subjects and then connecting them to my interests. Knowing that my mind is being exercised to connect the dots, even if its a subject thats unfamiliar, allows me to unearth new insights and develop a richer understanding. It helps with cross-pollinating ideas, exercising creativity, and exploring the edges.

If you find yourself devouring the same kind of information constantly, change it up. Dive into subjects that youre unfamiliar with and extract insights that have potential for connection. It may not be important now, but who knows what frontiers will open up. Lifelong learners collect dots, but they are even better at connecting them.

4. Make learning a habit.

“Education is what people do to you and learning is what you do for yourself. You’re not going to be on top of mountain all by yourself with a #2 pencil … What we need to learn is how to learn.”
—Joi Ito

A desire to learn is a fruitful asset that will fuel you throughout your life. Without this unquenchable desire to grow our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, we stagnate. We become comfortable with what we know and may feel that there isnt anything else to learn. Of course, that kind of thinking is poisonous: there is always something that we can learn that will improve how we lead our lives and do our work.

Learning isn’t everything, however. On top of all these practices, its also important that we engage, discuss, and experiment with the knowledge that we obtain. 

There is always something that we can learn that will improve how we lead our lives and do our work.

In the words of the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca, “If wisdom were offered me on the one condition that I should keep it shut away and not divulge it to anyone, I should reject it. There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.” 

Learning is the lifeblood of a fruitful career. And it’s available to you right now. It’s neither a personality trait nor a gift. It takes humility to admit that we have much to learn, but this realization can be a catalyst to the kind of lifelong learning that helps us improve, thrive, and contribute in a way that is deeply meaningful to ourselves and others.

How to Take Control of Your Quest for Learning:

Organize a group study with co-workers or friends: 

Everyday I try to engage in a conversation that explores or questions the things that I’ve learned. How is it useful and why? How can I apply it to my life? Why do I find this important or useful? What are the elements and what am I failing to see or understand? You can do this with anyone. Carve an hour out of your day to simply discuss something that you learned or found interesting. Get weekly drinks or host dinner parties with people you respect. Share a passage of an article or an idea that challenges your current beliefs. See how other people think about it so you can expand your thinking. 

Apply what you learn: 

Reading information prepares your mind, but are you actually utilizing it in your daily life? When you read something that can improve your work, do you apply it and experiment? Learning is about improving the way you live and how you make decisions. It would be foolish to collect knowledge without implementing it.

Question everything: 

My friend sent me a funny meme, and I replied with a quote that I had saved in my notebook. But for some strange reason, a part of me wanted to research the quote I was sharing. I never had that urge before, but I’m glad I did. Thirty minutes later, I found out that the quote wasn’t even true—the actor never said it. How did I find out? She clarified it in an interview, and that interview was on the second page of Google. Weigh everything. Do some research on your own. Keep asking why. Take the individual parts and examine them, try to understand how each part functions and supplements one another.

Share what you’ve learned: 

After I finish books, I write about what I’ve learned on my blog. It’s a way for me to practice connecting the dots, to examine my pattern of thinking and my level of comprehension. I can take the information gained from the book and connect it to other notes that I have saved. You dont have to share it publicly if you dont want to. You can keep a journal for yourself, sort of like an archive of your own thinking. The purpose of this exercise is to be aware of how youre thinking about a subject, and to find the weak spots that need attention and development. 

Keep a commonplace book: 

Right now I can slide my thumb across my phone, tap on Evernote, and access an archive of all my learning. From quotes, anecdotes, metaphors, studies, and links to videos, I have an organized database of knowledge and wisdom. This is my favorite tool for self-education.

Whenever I highlight something in a book or hear an amazing story in an interview, I write it down, along with the author’s name, source, and page number. I write one or two sentences before the quote stating what it is about and what other subjects I can connect it with. The idea is that you want to have something that is immediately accessible and organized. If I’m having a bad day I can search in my file under “Dealing With Adversity” and have a wide range of perspectives and solutions from a variety of thinkers. It’s like having all your teachers and mentors close by.

How about you?

How do you stay hungry for learning?

More Posts by Paul Jun

Paul Jun is a writer and author. His latest book, Connect the Dots: Strategies and Meditations on Self-education, is available. His blog, Motivated Mastery, is where he connects the dots between subjects like mastery, philosophy, psychology, culture, self-awareness, and more.

Comments (50)
  • Say Keng Lee

    As a lifelong, dedicated autodidact, this fine musing is music to my ears. Well done!

  • Anna Skazko


  • Jay

    Think about the alternative to learning, stagnation. Which leads to unemployment or a failed business.. That’ll get the wheel churning.

  • Stuart Blessman

    Yet now I find myself digitally hoarding thoughts and articles and ideas…

  • chundley

    Very good advice and very well-written article. I’ve spent considerable time trying to convince friends, families and colleagues of this with mixed success. I once worked for an organization with full tuition paid for to 23 colleges and still couldn’t get some of the folks without degrees to take a single class, even though, coupled with bulletproofing a career, union stipulations would have resulted an obligatory raises for those workers upon completion of an AA (and they had a generous credit for life experience). It’s difficult to get folks ensconced in our entertainment-based culture to see past that.

    • Paul Jun

      Agreed. Changing minds proves to be a very difficult act, even with compelling evidence.

  • KP

    Excellent read…Reminded me of these quotes–
    “Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for”–Socrates
    And when we do that I am sure this will hold true:
    “Formal education will make you a living, Self-Education will make you a fortune”-Jim Rohn

    Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. ~Henry Ford

    Learning is what leads to Earning(‘l’ becomes silent 😉 )….Just my 2cents.

  • Tané Tachyon

    Right on! The only thing that got a confused look from me was the “Wouldn’t it be great to have a mentor that slaps your hand when you reach into the cookie jar” bit — personally I would recommend mentors that bake cookies rather than slap them away — Guy Kawasaki even has a “be a baker!” riff he goes on about in talks. 🙂 Otherwise, excellent approach and advice!

  • Edward Tanguay

    Very good article. I’ve been practicing this philosophy for about a year now listening to at least one MOOC lecture everyday and recording my notes. The quality of the professors at Coursera and edX are generally very high, and this practice has taught me about and made more interested in many things, and my conversations with other people have become much richer and varied. I can only recommend taking the advice of this article. Here is my “commonbook”, as the author calls it, where I keep notes on everything I learn:

  • Bojan Živković

    Excellent article!

  • Francis

    Great article Paul!
    I find the thing that motivates most to learning something is the feeling of being an outsider who doesn’t know what everybody else does, the feeling there is so much to catch up with. Like being in a foreign country is the greatest motivation towards learning a language. Conversely, people who do the work they were trained to do at school, with others in the same situation, tend to be complacent about knowledge. With the internet nowadays, there are thousands of communities of people who know about all sorts of subjects, so we can spend our lives trying to catch up with them.

  • Janet Chilton

    Great way to start Monday morning. As a life-long learner at an age when many friends are retiring from jobs they disliked, I find myself doing the opposite: powering into a new career by melding age and experience with new ideas and opportunities to create wisdom to share with others on the same path. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Paul Jun

      Cheers to that, Janet.

  • stuy1974

    Such valuable advice for so many but could ‘they’ be bothered reading the article?!?

  • Walter De Marco

    Nice article!

  • Daryll Santos

    I also like writing down everything that I learn! Now your article is also included, hehehe.

  • Camilla Slotfeldt

    Awesome! Great tips for keeping your knowledge. I have many notebooks and many text files/ evernote notes, but never could take the time to really organize them like you said. This article was great inspiration for organizing my learning and focusing more on it. Thanks!

  • Hanso Lo

    As I browse the web I use Delicious to bookmark an interesting site (article, artwork, science, etc) I don’t have time to fully digest at the moment. When I have bookmarked 10-15 sites I then spend an hour or so I go back and investigate what about the sites I found interesting, and then fully research and and digest what they have to offer. Since Delicious keeps my bookmarks in the cloud I can access them from any device making learning accessible at any time.

    • Paul Jun

      Interesting. The same way you use Delicious I use Pocket. Ever heard of it?

  • Tracy

    Like this article, maybe I should also try it; collect and organize the learnings somewhere.

  • Simphiwe Nkosi™

    Great article.. this is wonderful to me because I’m at this point in my life where I’m reflecting.. looking at my life, career, friends and all that is around me.. but I relate to this particular article because I’ve just realized the importance of time usage .. and reading and learning is now in my 24hour schedule. and so this article just motivated me to actually go ahead and do something with my time. thank you, thank you.

    • Paul Jun

      Great to hear!

  • nikos

    great and inspiring article!!!…allow me to connect it (my personal reflection while trying to connect some dots) with Carol Dweck’s work on growth and fixed mindset!…thnx for sharing!..just started creating my personal dB of knowledge and wisdom…and this is my first favourite article!

    • Paul Jun

      I love Carol Dweck’s work—absolutely fascinating and undeniably true.

  • Chris Raymond

    I have been a lifelong learner, with multiple degrees, multiple skill sets, keep up on changing technology and tools.

    This is generally great advice. BUT (isn’t there always one?): Don’t assume that this will create a “bullet-proof” career. Factor in the reality of unconscious ageism fairly widespread in the design industry, in my experience and those of others in my cohort, and plan your career, self-learning committed or not, accordingly.

  • Omar Faizan

    Great Paul! Some of the most essentials have been covered above, There is a constant battle between making a routine and getting yourself some spare time for leisure, heres what I did :-
    1. I Divided the week into leisure days which would be friday nights, saturdays and sundays, Which in turn resulted in self satisfaction and motivation for going ahead,
    2. I also studied different subjects on alternate days to avoid getting boored of the same topics,
    3. Notes is something that have highly help me in applying what ive learning and also helped as a revision tool

  • anson

    l like this article very much

  • mohmmad sakr

    nice article

  • fdmz

    Great article , liked it

  • A. Brian Dengler

    Paul, this is an excellent article. I am over 60 and I believe learning is a life-long process. Similarly, it is hard to justify spending $1,400 for a college course in, let’s say, web design, when MOOCs and other online resources can provide a similar experience. If you take it one step further, taking similar training from a variety of resources may give you a better perspective. I took 4 online courses in entrepreneurship from a variety of quality resources, which I believe gave me a more holistic perspective in the field. However, I wonder if you, or any reader, may be concerned about the “credentials” that such self-learning provides. Indeed, such self-training may help an individual in the workforce, but is the employer ready to acknowledge such self-development skills or does the employee still expect the “credentials” of taking the $1,400 college course?

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