LearnWhat Does it Mean to be Self-taught?


Wade Christensen
writes on August 13, 2015

Photo by Pratik Biyani via Flikr Creative Commons

How the Idea of Becoming Self-taught Infected My Brain

Long before I knew what a computer was, I would jam out to the radio while sitting in my car seat. My parents tell me that I was particularly inspired by the Dire Straits song, “Money for Nothing.” The GUITAR! That was it; I was hooked before age two. I’m sure everyone reading this can acknowledge that the guitar is the coolest instrument. Yes, the bass and drums are more important, but the guitar ROCKS!

I mention the guitar because it was in reference to this instrument that I first encountered the idea of being self-taught. I wanted to play the guitar all through childhood. My go-to bands were pretty guitar-centric, and many of the guitar players said they were self-taught. These people couldn’t read music, they had no teacher, they just figured it out.

I could not wrap my head around the idea of picking up an instrument and just figuring out what to do on my own. I still feel this way when people tell me they are self-taught programmers. Now that I work in tech, I hear the word self-taught pretty often. Much like learning an instrument or natural language, programming can seem incredibly intricate and complex. How do you dissect something like a programming language or the guitar and put the pieces back together?

What Is It About Being Self-taught?

What interests me about the autodidact is the idea of genius. It seems to me that for someone to master a complex topic without guidance or instruction requires a certain level of genius. However, this assumption can be dangerous, and it’s often inaccurate. Conflating the autodidact with the genius leads to the misconception that you must be a genius to teach yourself effectively. Later in life, I came to find that many of my guitar idols were not entirely self-taught. Sure, they figured out a lot of the techniques on their own, but someone showed them a scale or two along the way. So … how much self-teaching is required before you’re self-taught?

Another mental hurdle I can’t bound when it comes to the self-taught musician, programmer, painter, etc. is how the Internet fits in. We are now a Google away from so much information that it’s hard to imagine anyone figuring out anything without YouTube or Instructables guiding him or her. How has the idea of self-taught changed in the age of the Internet? What about something such as Treehouse that exists online but provides structured material?

What Does Self-taught Really Mean?

When I was younger I really imagined my guitar heroes as super beings with limitless talent emitting from each fingertip. I had no idea what self-taught meant. I assumed self-taught equaled no guidance or materials at all. Once I was old enough to track down interviews, it turned out that many of my guitar gods learned from books, friends, videos, and other resources. Now, of course it makes sense that people don’t typically learn in a vacuum, but I was a kid, so what did I know.

Self-taught typically meant someone learning without a formal teacher or program, but access to teaching materials was fair game. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines self-taught as, “having knowledge or skills acquired by one’s own efforts without formal instruction.” This seems pretty open-ended to me. It also seems less intimidating to approach a topic if someone can be self-taught and still use a ton of educational resources. Maybe self-educating isn’t so bad if I’m allowed to get a little help.

So where does this leave something such as Treehouse? We certainly provide resources and materials. We even have teachers and tracks to guide you, but is it a formal education? Does it even matter? Is there actually any benefit or detriment to being self-taught?


Photo by Alan Levine via Flikr Creative Commons

The Benefits of a Good Teacher

Unfortunately, I’m no genius, and I had little luck teaching myself the guitar. I wanted to play the guitar my entire life, and I didn’t really pick it up until I was 25. After some time trying to teach myself I plateaued (at a low level). I asked the local guitar shop if they could recommend a good teacher in the area. I got lucky. They recommended an excellent teacher, and I took lessons with him for over a year before moving to Portland.

I am still a terrible guitar player. However, my sonic shortcomings are far fewer as a result of finding a top-notch teacher. In my experience, good mentors and teachers put you on a fast track. A good mentor knows where the sticking points are and how to overcome them. A good teacher knows how to connect things in a meaningful way. You may find all the information yourself, but it will take you far longer. If your teacher has 25 years of experience, you get to build on that. You are no longer starting at zero. You have the advantage of learning from your teacher’s mistakes instead of having to painfully make them yourself.

A good teacher will also push you when you want to stop. It’s easy to become frustrated when the going gets tough. When you are the only person holding you accountable it can be a slog to keep on track. Sometimes a teacher or a program can make a world of difference when it comes to motivation.

The Benefits of Being Self-taught

I feel that there is a huge benefit in pushing yourself to learn something on your own and achieving that goal. Perseverance is a valuable skill, and you will need it if you want to achieve anything that really matters. Learning to teach yourself will aid you well when you have to learn something for which there is no teacher and lacking internal motivation. In programming this happens all the time—there’s a new framework out, you have to learn it for work, and there is no tutorial.

Some people don’t learn well in structured environments. The danger of reliance on teachers is that we can unfairly decide that someone is good or bad at something based on his or her ability to learn that thing in a single context or curricular structure. I have known many people who thought they ABSOLUTELY COULD NOT understand something until it was explained in a different way. I’ve had this experience. By teaching yourself, you inevitably come across a topic explained multiple ways.

By exploring ideas on your own you also find little helpful tidbits that might have been excluded from a formal program. Digging around for a piece of knowledge on your own helps you critically understand something beyond the way a teacher thinks you should comprehend that topic.

Where Does this Leave Us?

So, what does it mean to be self-taught? After toying with the question a bit, I feel like being self-taught is nebulous. We no longer live in a time where information is difficult to find. However, the Internet is still short on formal educational programs. We are somewhere between being self-guided and being instructed. In a way, I think this is a good place to be—it’s the best of both worlds.

In this hazy world, Treehouse and similar resources are a good example. We provide formal “tracks” of information to follow, and we have top-notch teachers. At the same time, things are changing quickly. Forums and Googling allow students to teach themselves—fill in the gaps, push themselves, etc. We encourage our students to keep reading documentation and take their lessons further. It’s like having a teacher show you how to become self-taught.

In the end, I think it’s less important that someone be self-taught or formally educated. The truth is that curiosity is what matters. The desire to be self-taught is a good one, because it means that you are actively thinking and motivated to learn. I still hold people who are self-taught in high regard, because we often assign genius not to people who have an extraordinary ability to learn but to those who are incredibly tenacious in their desire to learn.


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5 Responses to “What Does it Mean to be Self-taught?”

  1. Hikaru Sorano on February 17, 2016 at 1:52 am said:

    Me a true Self-taught person(o whatever you want to call it) find it more natural that the way you explained in the article. The process of learning is a everyday situation where all the things you see, all the things you interact, you need to see and understand what’s behind it.
    The interest in things just comes alive and you immediately start to analyse, compare with things you already know, and then figuring out the way it works.
    In this sense I´ve learnt music (but not the pentagram, which is the formal way), experimented and went to amazing places in terms of sound, I’ve learnt how to drive just watching and perfected a teaching technique for everybody. Also I started an amateur film-maker careerer which I hope takes me far. Languages just listening to people speaking it. It’s an amazing feeling to find out that all that information is getting to you and you will be able to use it!
    It´s not like you say “I want to learn X or Y concept”, You just do it without thinking. So in this way you became capable of understanding very complex concepts and are able to manage huge amounts of information and variables in a process.
    Everything has useful information, internet, books, other people experiences, but mostly, your own experience on which you are building constantly and at a exponential speed as time goes by.
    So, the self-taught people really exist but often they don´t know they have that ability and they suffer because the can’t fit in. I was there until I understood that I could go further by myself.
    My recommendation for all is to experiment and you will be surprised.


  2. I actually think self-taught is most appropriate, even in the age of the internet. If you look at formal education, you will find it very rare for a teacher or professor to educate just from their own knowledge. They use books and movies and other works to help in the educational process. Their value comes in sifting through all the possible material on a given subject and selecting the material that is best suited for the skill or knowledge level of the student. Even once suitable material is found, a good teacher will then help the student understand the material and work through issues when the student becomes stuck on a topic.

    Google is a very poor substitute for a teacher since Google can’t determine good teaching material from bad. It also can’t match the material to your current knowledge level and recommend the appropriate items for you to study. Likewise getting a tip from a friend or colleague is also not the same as a formal education. Like Google, they are just another source of information.

    Being self-taught implies that I sought out the information and learned it myself. If I got stuck on a topic, I had to find the answer myself (either through my own reasoning or through further research). That term does not diminish the utility of all the blogs and documentation available to aid in learning, but information alone is not the only component of teaching. I am proud to say that I am a self-taught programmer, even though I later went on to get a degree in computer science. My degree helped fill in some gaps in my knowledge, but I was writing programs long before I had my first programming course.

  3. I’m starving to have a mentor

  4. Perri Jackson on August 17, 2015 at 9:27 am said:

    Like you, I have considered this subject quite a bit over the years.
    There is an amazing amount of resources available to us from from highly skilled and educated individuals, including access to pictures and recordings of their art.
    Given this, I am uncomfortable using the phrase ‘self-taught’ at all. Every single bit of those resources is ‘teaching’ from a separate source other than ourselves.

    To me, it is actually a bit insulting to the people who gathered their skill and knowledge into the books or articles or made the video or whatever to claim that one is self-taught. ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ comes to mind.
    Even when we reverse engineer items from specs or pictures, the the original serves as a ‘formal’ resource. It does not hop into our heads unbidden, a thought you have already explored. 🙂
    I don’t believe that any of us are truly ‘self’ taught.
    But you did use a phrase that I do like for ‘informal’ learning – ‘self-educating.’ Although the difference is subtle, this is not a true synonym for ‘self-taught’ in my mind.
    Self-taught implies that no one has gathered the information in a cohesive way in order for the individual to follow.
    Self-educated says that the individual is using formal and informal resources to learn about the subject without a formal setting.

    Although I feel we should be incredibly proud of our initiative while engaging in self-education, I’m much more comfortable with the appropriate hubris and courtesy involved in that phrase. 🙂

    Thanks for the article and the conversation.

  5. Finally, a good read about self-taught.

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