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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?

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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.