We were all born self-learners. But, some of us are better at it than others. Our ability to learn on our own wears off as we grow up totally dependent on formal education. We are lucky to have a lot of our work cut out for us, but those who excel are the ones who beat their own paths. A good learner is someone who can strike the right balance between independent learning and guided learning. And we couldn’t find anyone better than a self-taught/ globally certified trainer and award-winning entrepreneur and founder of two educational companies to tell us all about self-learning and how to master it!

1. When did your self-learning journey begin?

The actual beginning was in 2010, but in 2012, I went to study in Germany and I started to participate in student activities which turned out to be my ultimate gateway to learning and knowledge. In 2013, I founded TEDxGUC while I was Vice President of AIESEC GUC’s talent management department. This is where I learned the most. I made mistakes and learned from them in every way possible. In 2016, my startup won the INJAZ competition. I travelled to Silicon Valley after that to receive mentorship from various top notch companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple. I’m sure I learned a lot from experiences I went through in other years, but 2012, 2013 and 2016 were three milestones that marked the beginning of a different phase in my self-learning journey.

2. What did you teach yourself and how did you do it?

I mainly taught myself two things: training and entrepreneurship. As to how I did it, I diversified my resources and tools. It’s the healthy way of self-learning.

I learned everything about the training field after attending several TOT sessions. They gave me information, but not enough experience. So, I decided to capitalize on four main activities to fill in my gaps in experience. Besides reading books in my field and watching TED Talks, I looked for mentorship and did offline shadowing of trainers on stage. Offline shadowing meant that I asked trainers to attend their pre-training rituals and preparations, observe them on stage and analyze their after-training evaluations to create a sequence of operations and practice it. It’s basically following masters and learning from them by doing what they do.

Entrepreneurship is one of the disciplines that I had to keep on learning on my own after a tough journey of success and failures in my startups. I had to learn from the mentors I met in Silicon Valley while getting mentorship from Rise Up’s Abdel-Rahman Sharara & Career Advancers’ Yahya Arafa along with many other tech startup founders. And I learned this by reading books like Disciplined Entrepreneurship and Lean Startup.

3. What motivated you to acquire the kind of knowledge you have and teach yourself the skills you know?

My biggest fear in life is not fulfilling my potential. In Silicon Valley I met entrepreneurs who are more progressive than I am, yet more humble. I learned that I need to put things into perspective and know that I am just beginning and if I want to go ahead I need to keep learning or else I will fall victim to my ego.

4. Is there something you learned in the past, then unlearned and relearned on your own? What is it?

Training Field Competencies.

As a trainer, you think that most of your focus should be on mastering your on-stage competencies, until you realize that the majority of your work is done in the back end! Upon realizing this, I had to research and learn the science of training using the Global Competency Framework of ATD to be able to solidify my leanings.

5. If formal education and earning a graduation certificate were not social and pre-employment requirements, can one totally depend on self-education and never set foot in a school or university?

The equation is simple. If you have the know-how of creating curriculum, capability for knowledge application, and evaluating your level, then you can consciously opt for self-learning. You can build an alternative career while putting into consideration that this might not be common in some cultures. However, if you don’t have the know-how for this, the ideal approach will be to take self-learning as a parallel track to your institutional learning and focus on integrating both in your self-development plan.

6. When attempting self-learning, is it better to be systematic and follow a plan from the outset or try a free approach and see what you’ll come out with?

Every individual has their own learning style according to the theory of multiple intelligences. Basically, it starts with some kind of stimulus. It could be a video you came across, an article that grabbed your attention, an experiential learning workshop or even an audio book. Personally, when I watch a video or a documentary, I start checking multiple links and resources to learn about the given topic before I create my own curriculum. I create it based on reviews, forums and the experience of my mentors. With time, things become more structured and I end up with a mind map for my self-learning curriculum.

7. Do some specializations lend themselves to the self-learning approach more easily than others? Or can you learn anything you want totally on your own? Any examples?

I really don’t know if there is any research backing up any answer for this question. But, I believe that, conceptually, the universe was designed for us to explore and learn on our own through reflection, analysis, integration, synthesis and creation. Decades ago, there was no curriculum, but only teachers in learning circles explaining belief systems, sciences and philosophies at random to students exploring multiple disciplines. This was how things were until we were able to get to a point where specialization in each discipline was feasible. Specializations then facilitated the formulation of a systematic way to learn everything.

8. Does the work market value self-learners? Will their value rise or fall in the future? Why?

Talent Scarcity is more than ever today. This means that employees with the required profile are either unavailable or placed in wrong jobs. This is making employers become more conscious about the need to look for alternative calibers who have their own journeys. However, corporates might be lagging in comparison to startups which are fully embracing the concept of self-learning while hiring. The trend will definitely increase in the next decade as institutional curricula become more and more outdated. Many topics already are not included in schools and universities like programming, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

9. What’s the role of the teacher towards a self-learning student?

“Guide by the side.” Teachers must avoid spoon feeding and just focus on giving guidelines on how to think and provide feedback on application.

10. What makes a good offline or online learning course? What are the factors we need to pay attention to when choosing one?

The trainer needs to have hands-on experience, and the course a clear competency model with metrics and an evaluation scheme. Most importantly, the course must be divided into milestones to allow the participant to focus on each competency on its own.

11. What is a mentor and how can they be helpful? What is the difference between a mentor, a trainer and a teacher?

A mentors’ main role is to share experience to help you boost your learning process. They help you avoid common mistakes and correctly interpret uncommon situations through a personal relation based on informality. Trainers and teachers have a more comprehensive role that is systematic and measured. What should be common, however, between the three of them is the provision of a safe learning environment that is judgment free.

12. How do I decide that I need a mentor and on what basis do I choose them? How do I find them and what should our relationship be like?

I personally believe that everyone needs a mentor all the time. It’s the frequency of meetings that may change based on where you are in your journey.

How mentorship works for me is not magical, it’s pure logic. To find mentors you need to define what you want to learn in the next period of time and what kind of profile you need to learn it from. Then, you’ll need to look for relevant events, such as conferences that could potentially feature the relevant profiles. Conferences can serve as a great medium for meeting a mentor. When you find someone that interests you, take a look at their LinkedIn profiles or mutual friends on Facebook. Once you are decided on the person, send an email asking for an introduction during the conference and provoke a discussion on any mutual ground you two may have. Introduce yourself and your need in one minute. It could also be in the form of a short e-mail or an online meeting in case they are busy or cannot meet you face to face.

As to how you should present yourself, you’ll need to show them “PURPOSE + PROGRESS” rather than “PASSION”. Don’t worry about what they would be gaining from the whole thing or why they would have any reason to help you. You see, everyone wants to be a part of a great story. If a mentor feels that their potential mentee is purpose driven and up to something huge, validated by progress and effort, they will want a piece of the cake.

Showing progress has multiple techniques:

  1. Never ask generic questions like: “Tell me what to do?” or “I feel lost” or “Can you help me in anyway?” These simply send the wrong vibe. Go for more specific requests that are relevant to the mentor’s area of expertise.
  2. Inform the person in front of you that you’ve been around some of the prominent figures in this specific field. Make the mentor realize that you’re not a waste of time.

The worst answer you’ll ever get is a “No” followed by “E-mail me” OR “Try contacting X person who will be of great help”.

13. What are the steps of teaching yourself something?

Decide on the cornerstones of the topic by googling an outline from Coursera, or the websites of Stanford, Harvard, or any accredited institutions or associations related to the field.  Then search for the top 3 courses under each category: videos/online courses, audio books, and offline courses. Start with several videos or one chapter in the audio book before you decide to go for a paid course. This is mainly to test your motivation and interest before you commit yourself.

14. How do I know that I learned something correctly and that I have covered it in a way that makes me an expert in it? Any indicators?

To validate you have to:

  1. Attend online or offline conferences that present all the latest updates about the field to make sure you’re always in the loop.
  2. Seek credentials that have auditing or exams to test your knowledge and standards
  3. Apply the know-how you gained onto business or personal cases to validate the execution
  4. Look at multiple resources and outlines of this topic to make sure that you explored a wide spectrum in the discipline and not just the core of it

15. What is one all-encompassing piece of advice that you can give a self-learner?

I have shadowed tens of trainers, entrepreneurs and business leaders and they all share three characteristics:

  1. the ability to self-learn
  2. the ability to find and utilize mentors
  3. the ability to network with prominent figures in their field

These are not your fuel to success but traits that will help you be distinguished and unique. If you look at these as secondary factors that don’t require your money, time and effort, then you should definitely reconsider your strategy.

Amr El-Selouky

After graduating from the GUC with a double major in Marketing & HR, Amr founded TEDxGUC while being the Talent Management Vice President of AIESEC GUC. With multiple internships in Nestle, Microsoft & Unilever, Amr decided to shift his focus to the world of social entrepreneurship, working as a Training Specialist at Emmkan. He got accredited as an HRCI certified trainer before he founded CampUs, an INJAZ award-winning startup that sent him to Silicon Valley to be mentored and trained at companies like Facebook, Google, Apple and Uber. Amr also worked as a Sales Manager at Mars Egypt for 3 years where he held over 30 student training and mentorship sessions across 13 universities in Egypt. He is also the founder of The Trainer, an ICF accredited Career Coach and an L&D Product Manager in Noon Academy for E-Learning. In 2016, Amr was featured as one of Egypt’s 25 under 25 most influential entrepreneurs by Startup Scene.