way of life

How to Learn Independently

March 30, 2015

Lifelong learning strengthens your mind’s flexibility and focus, widens your awareness of the world and enhances your competence and confidence.  Too often people feel that, in order to learn, they must pay to take classes from expert instructors.  This makes continuing education seem unattainable to people with demanding schedules or limited means.  Formal classes can be rewarding, if you have time and money for them, but they’re far from the only ways to learn new skills and encounter new ways of thought lifelong. Here are a few low- or no-cost options:

Free Local Cultural Resources

Check in with your local public library.  Many libraries host literary discussion groups and/or free classes to local residents.  Public parks often host free concerts and plays, nature walks etc. Universities also are likely to offer free services to the surrounding community.  In the US these are often offered through the Cooperative Extension service of the land-grant colleges.  These public service organizations are usually run by people who are very glad to hear from neighbors interested in learning, though heir offerings aren’t as widely and insistently advertised as most forms of for-profit instruction.

Online Resources

Internet forums offer the opportunity to crowd-source instruction in subjects from creative writing to luthiery to gardening and woodworking.   People come together online to post questions about their work in progress or reports of their failures and successes. Some participants will be better-informed than others, and you can’t accept all forum-based advice uncritically; however, the same could be said for ‘expert’ advice.  Pay attention to what seems to be the consensus of the group.  Check how closely your situation and goals align with those of people who offer you suggestions. Gardeners in a climate like your own are more apt to suggest solutions that will work for you.  Writers who share your goal–whether that’s earning money, building a reputation, or getting a particular story told–are more apt to understand how to help you move toward that goal.  Keep your questions clear and specific and your responses clear and courteous.

Expert Mentors

Don’t be shy about approaching people with experience in the areas that interest you.  They’re often eager to connect with people who want to understand the things they care about.  When I was independently studying economics I read a newspaper review of a book which had just won the Nobel Prize in economics. I read the book and then wrote a letter to the author, asking if he had time to recommend any further reading. That was the beginning of a two-year correspondence. Start with a limited and clear question, make it clear that you understand your prospective mentor is busy and may not have time…and then see what grows from there.


You can learn many skills by volunteering to do help with work in exchange for training (and, sometimes, room and board).  Most of these volunteer or apprentice programs don’t provide you with a credential, but they do provide you in-person mentoring, hands-on experience and the chance to take part in good work. Habitat for Humanity teaches building skills to volunteers who help to construct homes for needy families. WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) connects experienced organic growers with willing but inexperienced volunteers who want to learn where their food comes from and perhaps build skills to start farms of their own. Idealist.org gathers postings from a wide variety of organizations seeking short-term volunteers or long-term  apprentices to help with work related to human services. 

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