On the Benefits of Self-Taught Skills

There are those who hold the view that being self-taught is a disadvantage. As an individual of this sort, my views will be inherently biased. Please forgive me for this, and look past it. If you disagree (or agree) with my rationale, add a comment. I will respond to all comments.

The situation is such that there are advantages to both sides. It is my view that self-taught people are more specialized in their chosen areas of practice, at the cost of versatility.

Consider the range of exercises most Computer Science students undertake. Many of these are tasks that illustrate a particular concept, and will likely never be (directly) applied to any future work.

Many self-educated folks will not opt to study areas outside those that interest them (and why would they?). At the same time, they are not wasting the time they save by not learning otherwise dull concepts. Replacing these with things that capture our attention, and hold it is a far more productive use time.

There are those who hold the view that those trained through traditional channels (universities, formal training programs, etc) are being ‘shaped into drones by the system ‘. While I think this is a bit extreme, I agree somewhat, though I think the defining factor is motive, rather than environment. It just happens that most of those outside of traditional training models (the self-taught) share a common motive: Passion. We thirst for knowledge, and it is this that drives us to expand our understanding of a subject. A person who enrolls in a training program, or structured study of a field may share this interest, though it can safely be assumed that not all who take a course do it for the knowledge alone. Many undertake such training to secure positions in a related field.

I believe that one who learns something strictly for the sake of employability is setting themselves up to become a drone. The mindset required to know that ‘I spent four years studying to get this job’ sets the person up for direction. The goal was to get the job, and to fill a specific role.

The self-taught is more often driven by passion for their art. Where a classically trained developer may complete a project to the specification, the passionate developer is more likely to infuse their work with that extra spark that makes it truly exceptional.

Those trained in a traditional sense are often more versatile than the passionate programmer, and stronger in a wider range of tasks, the self-taught developer is often unparalleled in his ability in a select few areas.

The question I would pose is this: If you required critical brain surgery, who would you rather have done it? The surgeon who is very good at a range of operations? Or a neurosurgeon who excels at his chosen field, but only at his chosen field?

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10 Responses to On the Benefits of Self-Taught Skills
  1. pdufault
    June 24, 2008 | 20:33

    You need to include a social plugin for WordPress so I can stumble you easily.

  2. Chris Olstrom
    June 24, 2008 | 22:08

    Added the Sociable plugin, and enabled support for Digg, del.icio.us, Mixx, Pownce, StumbleUpon, and a few others I enjoy. Hope this helps, and thanks for wanting to stumble it.

  3. Andy
    September 28, 2009 | 22:58

    Hi Chris, thanks for continuing this discussion, it seems to have been a polarizing topic when I posted the geeknews article over a year ago. Your take on the subject is pretty level headed and I mostly agree with your comments, especially when it comes to self-study and a relationship to passion.

    The question you posed at the end is interesting but also not really fair because it's likely the hospitable will have experts available in case the specialist needs assistance in an area they're not familiar with. Sort of like contracting with IBM to deliver a software solution, IBM provides the specialist and if after they begin delivering the solution they need someone with a broader set of skills they can bring that new individual on line. That repository of individuals/knowledge at IBM's disposal is what makes them a good bet to contract work to (I'm not an IBM fan or employee btw :-) ).

    I served a lot of time in the military in technical roles on a submarine, something I learned from those years that I use today as a manager in software testing is that an individual with a broad set of skills and passions that is motivated, is usually a better bet to have on your team than an individual that has proven themselves an expert in only one skill. The reason is that the first person has proven themselves capable of learning more than what's in the books and willing to do what it takes to get the skills/knowledge in order to succeed. That individual is more prepared to successfully deal with surprises which is like insurance for your team.

    Nice blog Chris, i'll send a link.

    • Chris Olstrom
      September 28, 2009 | 23:36

      Interesting point. The suggestion at the end does present a rather one-sided view of things, and divides the situation into a much more black-and-white version of reality than the one we live in.

      The intent was to suggest that self-taught individuals may be more passionate about a subject, as it is that passion that drives them to learn. It may have been clearer to question who you would rather have making the cut, given the option (assuming that either would have the support of relevant experts).

      Ideally, one would have both a broad skill set and strong devotion to the subject matter.

  4. Raul
    October 2, 2009 | 00:51

    Hi Chris,

    I mostly agree with you, but not with this: "It is my view that self-taught individuals are more specialized in their chosen areas of expertise, at the cost of versatility.".

    I educated my self in computing since I was 9 years old, and yes, I'm specialized, but in very diverse matters. I think it depends on if you are interested in many things or only in a few.
    It means that a sef-educated individual can be versatil, and also can be specific.

    In my case, I love programming, graphic design, science, logic, robotics, music, 3D… I'm a project manager, but I'm also an expert programmer, and I'm CEO of my own company… so, I think the question is if people wants to learn about everything, about only one thing, or if only wants to be a robot.

    Each one, self-educated individuals and university students, can be experts and can reach a wide point of view about the situation.
    But, if I can choose, I prefer passion, because when you have a crisis you need it.

    • Chris Olstrom
      October 3, 2009 | 22:17

      My choice of words did not convey my meaning as accurately as I would have hoped. My intent was to suggest potentially reduced versatility within a given discipline, with more aptitude in areas that inspire, and less in those that do not.

      A diminished variety of disciplines is not something I believe to be an effect of self-directed learning. Being driven by passion has the wonderful perk of freedom to follow that desire. In my case, that path has led me to delve into programming, writing, photography, and other (shorter term) adventures.

      I must agree though, passion is indispensable when it comes down to the wire.

  5. Mike
    October 3, 2009 | 19:32

    I agree with Raul in many respects, but a fundamental difference I have seen in many fields between trained and self taught is that trained often seem to think what they were taught somehow defines their limits. I've met very many formally trained individuals who seem to hit a wall easier when it comes to diverse "versatile" solutions to problems or workarounds. Whereas many self taught individuals end up experimenting with self acquired materials and often have found out-of-the-box solutions when the work environment or raw supplies available are less than ideal.

    So the main point I disagree with is that self taught is less versatile. Another thing to think about though is can you find someone who was more self taught prior to formal training, or vice versa. These would be the ideal engineers / scientists. Since these individuals will more than likely have raw talent, intuition, insight for the subject at hand with the passion and standard training necessary to help overcome obstacles.

    The world of course isn't this black n white, it's got alot of grey in between ;)

    • Chris Olstrom
      October 3, 2009 | 21:01

      I suppose versatility isn't exactly what I'm trying to suggest is given up. More that the self-taught focus where their passion takes them. So when a given subject doesn't ignite that fire…

      I'm not entirely sure what the word I'm looking for is. Any ideas?

  6. On Limitations and Self Doubt
    February 22, 2011 | 17:36

    [...] Empower yourself. [...]

  7. elizabeth j white
    December 5, 2012 | 07:02

    I am so glad I saw this article so informative, I have just become aware that I wear a label, the self taught label, I have felt out of the loop in the art world, like I don’t fit in. I was recently told as a artist I don’t have to. I have been painting and creating my entire life as far back as I can remember. there was a time I took some classes in abstract art for which I new nothing about it was about 5 1hour classes, thats it.
    I am 51 now and have been doing this it seems for ever. I now have started getting my art out into the world, but gaining exceptance for myself as a self taught artists has had it’s challenges. just getting someone to take me serious as a artist, thank you your article has motivated me so much

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