Learning to Learn

Published on March 9, 2024

I was homeschooled from age 10 to 15. This form of schooling consisted of a general lesson plan outlined by my mother and the required reading to take the tests.

But my “traditional” school day was only 1-2 hours.

What did I do with the rest of my day? Learn whatever I wanted to learn.

I spent many hours at the Richmond Memorial Library and other libraries around the county reading and researching on their blazing-fast (around 20 Mbps) internet connection.

These formative years taught me a crucial lesson: you have to learn to learn.

If I were to break down the “learning to learn” process into three points, it would be these.

Start with an Output in Mind

I don’t think it’s helpful to learn how to use an application or technology just to learn it. It is better to start with a specific output in mind.

I didn’t learn HTML to feel good about myself. I wanted to make a website for my sleight-of-hand show, so I started by asking, “How do you make a website?” In those days, that meant learning how to write HTML. So, I learned HTML.

I didn’t learn filmmaking for the sake of learning filmmaking. To be specific, I wanted to make videos—documentaries and live event videos. 

I didn’t even know “filmmaking” existed. But I knew what I wanted to make and then learned the words to describe it, which led me to filmmaking.

Always start your self-education by identifying what you want to do or make.

Develop Taste

If you speak to anyone who has gone to school for a creative field, you’ll find out that a large part of their education is studying the masters.

Does that mean every art student loves Salvador Dali or is captivated by Vincent van Gogh? No.

However, understanding who these people were and why their art resonated with people is critical to developing taste.

I think it’s important to highlight here that you need to study the work and the people behind the work, even if it doesn’t resonate with you as an individual. This is especially true in the age of social media when it’s easy to find someone who speaks to you personally but may not have mass appeal.

Start with the people heralded as experts in their field, and put in the work to understand why they and their work appeal to people.

Niche down from there. But start with masters who have some form of known value. Start with the people who have made a living from their craft or whose work has sold for millions of dollars.

I believe the age-old adage “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” applies here.

That doesn’t mean you’ll never find a skilled craftsman teaching. But I would offer this test to tell if someone knows what they’re talking about.

Do they spend more time teaching than they do creating? If they spend more time teaching a thing than doing a thing, I’d advise caution.

Most masters in a craft don’t have a plethora of how-to guides, but they do tend to have bodies of work that are easy to find. I’ll touch on the “how-to” part in my next point.

Reverse Engineer

When I got my first marketing-related job, I ran social media for a non-profit organization. It was my job to grow the social media channels.

A large part of social media at the time, and still is to this day, is graphics.

I knew enough about Photoshop to be dangerous, but I didn’t know how to use many of the tools or features, and it took me a long time to make even a single mediocre graphic.

But I was working with a team, and we had a few graphic designers on the team. I asked them to make me a few graphics that I could use for the banner image, profile image, etc., and they were happy to help.

Then, I asked them for their working files. I spent hours reverse-engineering how they used masks, shapes, filters, etc., and it taught me a lot about what goes into making a design.

Of course, knowing what goes into something and how to do it yourself aren’t the same. But because I had a look behind the curtain, I now knew the features and tools I needed to learn. Then I went deep, reading blog posts and watching videos on Lynda, understanding how each tool and feature they used worked.

Reverse engineering something is an excellent way to discover the hard-skills you need to learn.


Are there a hundred other things I could say about “learning to learn”? Of course. But the three points above are what I would deem the most important. If you can apply these ideas to your own learning process, you’ll pick up other tools and insights along the way that will help you develop your own processes for acquiring new skills and domains of knowledge.

Meet the Author

Ethan Thompson is a Divisional Marketing Manager for a global safety company. He has worked in the digital marketing field for 13 years and loves the challenges the ever-changing field brings. When he isn't exploring new digital marketing tactics at his desk, he's out exploring Western New York. During the warmer months, he can often be seen riding his bike around the Empire State and sampling the local beer selection.