THE BLOG
01/30/2015 01:48 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2015

Direction Matters: Self-Directed Learning Is a Key to Success

It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things. -- Leonardo da Vinci

Doing what you love and being a lifelong, self-directed learner used to be optimistic ideals, but in the 21st century, these traits are becoming hard line requirements for success.

Success is not a mystery bequeathed to those of us with the right parents, the big fortunes or the best educations. Living a life that you love is not the result of a daily grind, in which you force yourself to do work that doesn't matter to you.

Success is simply the result of a continual process in which you organize your life around yourself.

How do you do this? How do you organize your life around you?

First, you dig in deep and find out who you are. You ask yourself the big questions. Who are you? What do you love? What are your greatest strengths and talents? How can you use your unique abilities in the market place? How would you like to position yourself on the socio economic ladder?

Then, you make a commitment to learn whatever it takes to realize your dreams. You make a choice to become a lifelong self-directed learner. You choose what, when and how you learn.

You stop waiting for your dreams to come true, and you go out and make them happen.

Eric Hoffer, one of the most influential social philosophers of our time, started out as a migrant worker who loved to learn. He was a teenager, with no formal education, when his parents died and left him 300 dollars. He took this meager inheritance and moved to California, where he worked as a day laborer so that he could support himself while he read everything he could about philosophy. Hoffer's first book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, was published in 1951 when he was nearly 50 years old. This book has been used for more than 60 years to help explain the reasons that people join fanatical movements. Hoffer's work was widely referenced in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

You don't need to have the intellectual capacity of a famous philosopher to become a self-directed learner. In fact, even people on the verge of dropping out of high school can benefit from this practice.

Nine high school students in Western Massachusetts proved this when they created the Independence Project, a school within a school that was completely controlled by the students.

Among the nine participants, two were contemplating quitting high school, one had failed all of his math courses and another was a dyslexic, struggling to get by. Two of the participants were honors students, and the rest fell in between these extremes.

The project lasted one semester. During that time, the students read eight classic novels in eight weeks, far more than would be required in a whole year of Advanced Placement English. They also required themselves to engage in complex math activities, challenging scientific inquiries and transformative individual and collaborative endeavors.

The student who had failed at math spent three weeks teaching the others about probability. The dyslexic student, on the verge of complete failure, ended up mastering advanced studies while he taught himself the piano. Even the honors students progressed, as they were reminded about why they loved to learn, and inspired by their capacity to teach others.

The students in the Independence Project are remarkable but not because they are exceptionally motivated or unusually talented. They are remarkable because they demonstrate the kinds of learning and personal growth that are possible when teenagers feel ownership of their high school experience, when they learn things that matter to them and when they learn together. In such a setting, school capitalizes on rather than thwarts the intensity and engagement that teenagers usually reserve for sports, protest or friendship. -- Susan Engel, author of "Red Flags or Red Herrings: Predicting Who Your Child Will Become."

The Independence Project demonstrated that process is more important than content when it comes to learning. In traditional education, we are taught to measure our progress through memorization and test taking, but memorization and test taking only illustrate our temporary grasp of content. Learning how to learn is far more beneficial than memorizing content. Once we know how we learn best, we can take on unfamiliar challenges because we have mastered the process of learning; we can handle the failure and the practice that leads to the permanent absorption of almost any content.

Any fool can know. The point is to understand. -- Albert Einstein

When you know who you are, what you want and how you learn, you become virtually unstoppable. You become what you do. Your path becomes clear.

It takes courage to make a choice to break away from the pack. It's easy to be fooled by the idea that you can be successful without a lifelong learning habit. But you can't ever really learn enough.

The need for learning never stops because mastery is a moving target. Someone who knew all there was to know about communication in 1990 could not even operate the devices we use today.

"The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." -- Alvin Toffler

If you stop learning, you'll miss out on the joy of discovery, one of the most satisfying experiences in a human life.

So, be your own cavalry.

Stop wasting time with the miraculous resources at your beck and call. Technology now makes it possible for you to learn almost anything, at any time.

Listen to your heart. Learn about the things that matter to you. Organize your life around YOU.

In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. -- Eric Hoffer