I always described myself as a self-taught designer. It was the best term I could find; I never studied anything at university and dropped out of high school at 15 years old.
But I believe that being self-taught is a bit overrated nowadays, mostly because it just makes a good story. Being self-taught isn’t the opposite of going to university. Most students are self-taught as well, even if they learned the “official” way.
Whether you are formally educated or not, you will always learn from someone else. It may be books, mentors or YouTube. The only difference between taking a class and teaching yourself is that you learn on your own agenda. When you're self-taught, you choose your teachers and you set your own goals.
Being self-taught is rarely an active decision. You never say, “OK, I’m going to be self-taught instead of studying something." "Self-taught" is just the result in retrospect.
It usually starts with curiosity.
If you are curious about something and you are willing to learn, everything happens by itself.
As a kid, I was always interested in how electronic devices work. I would grab whatever device I could get my hands on – my Walkman (the thing before the iPod, if you remember what an iPod is), our family TV or computer – and take it apart until I had a lot of parts and screws on my table.
Then I would start to assemble it back together, trying to see if the device would still work after its surgery. Most of the time it did not. But I repeated this process again and again until it eventually worked out.
I had no goal to learn; I was just curious. But I learned a lot while doing it. The process of taking apart and assembling made me better each time. While doing so, I'd create my own little problems and then solve them. At that point, I wasn’t even creating anything new, just playing around with what’s already there.
After some time, I learned which electronic part does what, and that’s where the magic came in. Now that I understood the basics, I tried to manipulate it to create something new. My first step at being creative & creating something from scratch.
The learning process is about connecting the dots. But to connect the dots, you first have to collect them. I collected my first dots when taking random devices apart . Then I connected them again.
Everything starts with curiosity and your first step. Just listen to your instincts. My instincts told me that I should take the devices apart, see how they work and then put them back together . No one told me that at the time. When you let yourself follow this process, everything else happens on your way.
"Self-taught is a result, not a goal. It's a verb, not an adjective."
That’s why I started as a computer scientist first. I was curious about it, then decided to be a software engineer because I wanted to learn how to program my own piece of hardware which I just built. Without it, it was just a piece of electronics.
Then I started becoming a designer because I always spent more time designing my software and making it more useful. Coding, in my case, was just the step before designing. Turned out, designing was what I was really passionate about.
After becoming a designer, I learned how important the actual content is that you design around. That led me to creating my own content & products. I’m still in the middle of it.
People often ask me for advice about being self-taught. "Any secret tips for being a self-taught designer? And books to read?" I can’t recommend books because there is no such thing as “How to be a self-taught designer for dummies." Self-taught is a result, not a goal. It's a verb, not an adjective. It's not a decision you make up-front, but the process once you’re already into it.
Elon Musk is a perfect example of being self-taught in his own way. Sure he has a bachelor in physics. But prior to SpaceX or Tesla, he had no experience in mechanical engineering or astrodynamics — both needed to build rockets and send them to space.
He started at the bottom. Reading books about the fundamentals, asking other people and Googling his way up. Trying to build a rocket, blowing it up a couple times and figuring out what went wrong. Then trying again. I can just picture Elon Musk sitting at home in front of his computer, punching in “How to build a rocket” into Google.
“All I have learned, I learned from books.” ― Abraham Lincoln
If Abraham Lincoln would have written this quote in 2020, it would probably be, “All I have learned, I learned from the internet and books.”
While I can't give step-by-step advice to being self-taught, I have learned a few guidelines along the way. Whenever I've tried to learn something new or get into a new field, I've found this to be true:
1. It’s about the organic process.
This isn’t something you can force yourself into. You just start with the first thing that comes to your mind. What have you been curious about? What are you feeling drawn to right now? That's your beginning point. The rest happens on its own.
The good news is: There is nothing you can do wrong. Breaking something is actually a good exercise, just so you can fix it again. Which brings me to my next point.
2. Don’t listen to other people telling you what’s right or wrong.
If I would have listened to anyone, they would have told me to not take a fully functional TV apart and break it with my stupidity, only to spend hours trying to fix it. But for a fact, that was what helped me most.
3. Surround yourself with people who motivate you and encourage you.
Make friends with people who are “better” than you. That’s what Donny Osmond said and I think it’s partly true. But I like to replace “better” with “crazier” or “different.” It's those people who will introduce you to different perspectives and make you curious about the world, rather than getting complacent.
And find people who believe in you and make you feel good about what you do, regardless of the outcome. These personalities are rare so if you find them, keep them.
4. Always help other people.
Even if you are a beginner yourself, you can always teach and give something back to those who are trying to catch up. Magical things will happen when you do. You don’t have to be a master to help someone out.
5. Breaking the rules is probably the most important piece.
Fear kills curiosity, which is a key element here. So don't be afraid. Break the rules, do it wrong. What if you fail? Great, you're learning. What if you don’t like it? Then don’t do it, do something else. It’s that simple. The good thing about being self-taught is that you just don’t know how to do it, so you do it your way and just make it work.