June 16, 2021

What Is Self-Directed Learning (and Why Do We Need It)?

By: Sarah Williamson


Children are innately curious—sometimes to the point where they overwhelm the adults around them with their constant questions. One can easily imagine that the old expression “Curiosity killed the cat” was first spoken by a parent who was tired of being asked “Why?” for the millionth time by a curious preschooler. This curiosity implies a drive towards self-directed learning.

The desire to learn and explore is the driving force behind human development. It manifests in our ability to identify and solve problems, adapt, and improve our quality of life. 

But all too often, our childhood curiosity is discouraged. Whether it’s in school, at home, or in the workplace, we’re encouraged to wonder less and concentrate more. We study and work at institutions that value repetition and efficiency, processes and procedures, control and rules. 

As we get older is that our collection of deeply held beliefs and tacit assumptions grows. These mindsets can be very useful—they help us more easily navigate the complexities of everyday life—but they also rely on prior knowledge. Unless we consciously seek out new perspectives and challenge ourselves to continue learning, we risk self-imposed limits on our curiosity. 

The Ones Who Stay Curious

In decades of studying entrepreneurs, Gary Schoeniger, the founder and CEO of the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative, found that they tend to engage in learning constantly. And most importantly, their learning leads them down paths of their choosing.

Self-directed learners set their own goals, use experts and resources to achieve those goals, and take responsibility for their knowledge. When people are self-directed in their learning, they become the masters of their journey rather than bystanders with little direction or vision for their future. 

ELI’s research has found that entrepreneurs often prefer learning settings and methods that are non-formal and informal. By nonformal, we mean structured learning situations that do not have an official curriculum or syllabus; think of an extracurricular course or lesson outside traditional school. Informal learning situations are those with little planning and organization and no intended learning outcomes. Informal learning often happens where individuals observe activities in a social setting, seeing what works and doesn’t work for other people. 

These types of learning prepare people well for self-directed work outside of a known system. That is, they help people think less like employees and more like entrepreneurs

Becoming a Self-Directed Learner

Why do some individuals seem more inclined to direct their learning? And why aren’t the rest of us more like them? 

Schoeniger believes that the answer lies not in their heredity but in the compelling nature of the goals that self-directed learners choose to pursue. Having a compelling goal:

  • Activates our intrinsic motivation. Studies have shown that we learn best when searching for the answers to our own questions rather than those posed by someone else (like a teacher, employer, or parent). 
  • Lures us out of our comfort zones. It gives us a reason to explore unfamiliar terrain while keeping our eyes wide open for new knowledge. 
  • It causes our psyche to produce the energy, focus, and fortitude we need to work toward our endgame. Distractions become less alluring because we aren’t on auto-pilot. Instead, we’re engaged and alert and “in the zone.”

Other people usually figure out what we need to learn within standardized systems and what criteria we must meet to be successful. But, implicitly, they also tell us when it’s OK to stop learning and coast through the finish line. As a result, we become comfortable on well-worn paths where someone else decides what is useful. 

Self-Directed Learning is Entrepreneurial Learning

The way ELI defines it, entrepreneurship is the self-directed pursuit of opportunities to create value for others. Therefore, to decide how we will create value for others, we must gather information about the problems they need to have solved—with no one there to tell us what direction to go. 

The more valuable we become, the better off we are likely to be—not only financially but also in the sense of meaning and purpose we have in our lives. 

This is why self-directed learning matters, whether or not we are entrepreneurs. All of us want to be valuable to others in our work and our lives. However, if we rely on others to drive that definition, we will constantly push ourselves to live by their expectations. 

Self-directed learners rely on themselves to find new ways to increase the value they provide. They develop the skills the world around them demands and find ways to put those skills to work. They not only ask “Why?” but also “What if?” and “How can I?”