One of the biggest myths about self-directed learning is that it’s done alone. Picture the determined leader holed up reading and note-taking, or the undiscovered athlete practicing a sport for hours, experimenting and self-critiquing, or the up-and-coming professional staying up late to watch tutorials and fine-tune their work. But it’s likely that these solitary activities are only part of their learning journey.

In his book, Relational Being, Ken Gergen makes the case that all learning is social – that even when you see yourself as self-taught, the material you use as foundation (readings, videos, etc.) are crafted by other people, and you judge your hands-on experiments by the reactions of others (or how you imagine they might react) even if you don’t ask directly for feedback. (And Gergen has much more to say than these brief examples.) You may not be that philosophical about it, but it’s easy to see that you aren’t really alone when you’re learning.

More to the point, I dare say that the more deeply you involve others in your self-directed learning projects, the more successful you will be. When you make your learning plans, be sure to consider how you can best get others involved in helping you to learn. There are three categories of people to deliberately seek out: people who can impart knowledge and skill, people who will engage deeply with you in the learning process, and people who might inspire you to step up your game.

People who impart: Teachers, coaches, subject matter experts, and feedback-providers.
These are people who directly help you to learn. They have the knowledge and skill you need, and can be enlisted to share their expertise with you to accelerate your learning. We see examples of this in the friend who shows you how a piece of software works, the manager who reviews your work to offer deep feedback and suggestions, and the go-to colleague who generously answers your questions.

People who engage: Co-learners, communities, sounding boards, conversation partners.
Ah-ha moments and insights often come in conversation with others who are invested in strengthening the same skills. People who are learning along with you (even when not at the same skill level) are more than happy to share their discoveries and help you think through confusing concepts and challenging application issues. It may even be useful to form a work-out-loud circle, mastermind group, action learning team, or informal lunch club with the purpose of supporting one another in making progress on learning projects.

People who inspire: Thought leaders, social media connections, content creators, conference speakers
It’s useful to look beyond the people in your immediate sphere to tap into what’s being discussed by industry experts and colleagues in other organizations. They induce fresh insights and bring different perspectives that enrich your learning. One of the powerful features of the internet is that it can bring you into contact with people you might never know otherwise – people who are exploring the same domain as you and leading the practice of your field in new directions. Find ways to get connected to these people to boost your knowledge and skill.

One key recommendation in my Charting Your Course process for self-directed learning is to take steps to connect with others. Consider the kinds of interpersonal support that are possible and determine which you need to include in your learning itinerary. At the very least, enlist a booster who will encourage you and help you to reflect out loud.

In The Social Life of Information, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid highlight the fact that taking in information only gets you so far; it’s interactions with other people that make the most difference. “The resources for learning lie not simply in information, but in the practice that allows people to make sense of and use that information.” They underscore that point by saying: “Where knowledge really counts, people count more than ever.”


This post is reprinted from my 4 Your Development newsletter for February 2022, and is part of a broader series giving advice on crafting and executing successful self-directed learning projects. If one or more of your 2022 goals involves learning, my newsletters and blogs for the first quarter of 2022 will expand on the research-based advice I offer in Charting Your Course.
Also in this series:

>> Everything you know about writing goals is wrong
>> When practicing what you preach doesn’t quite work