In most ways, learning things on my own is a great thing. I avoid the pitfalls of folklore and superstition that teachers come up with when understanding events but having imperfect information, and we always have imperfect information. Making my own fresh mistakes instead of listening to others’ old mistakes can lead me to solutions that others might never try. Reinventing wheels means that I can form a better understanding of why the wheel was made the way it was. Teaching myself means that I don’t have to change my mental models to match those of the teacher.
Mental models are how we simplify our world so that it makes sense to us. My mental model for learning new things is the type of video game where the map lights up as you explore it – like what happens in map strategy games like StarCraft.
At the beginning of the game the entire map is black other than the small circle that you know which is lit up. Then as you explore the map you find out more about the terrain and where the dangers are. I find that thinking about learning in this way makes it a little less intimidating to me. It isn’t that I’m not getting it, it’s that I haven’t been able to figure out a way to get to that part of the map. Takes the ego out of it, the part of you that gets angry and frustrated because you feel stupid.
This video game mental model doesn’t hold up for one of the most important parts of teaching yourself – ensuring that you draw the right conclusions from what you experience. In the video game you explore and what you understand is what you see in front of you. There are no further conclusions to be drawn. In other words, you know what is there because you see it.
When teaching yourself what you understand is based upon the reasoning you use to interpret your experiences. The map is only as good as the conclusions that you draw about it. For example, if you are learning to program and make a wrong assumption about the way something works then you will not have seen the real map. You have to be wary of both what you think you experience and your reasoning. We aren’t particularly good at getting either right.