Self-Direction is the Key to Mastery

“What you love to do you will do well.” ~Japanese proverb

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What do Thomas Edison, Vincent Van Gogh, Maya Angelou, Bob Dylan, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Lennon, Steve Jobs, Jimi Hendrix, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln and Malcolm X have in common? What’s shared by all of them- and key for many who we call “gifted” or “genius”– is that their learning was highly self-motivated and self-directed.

They didn’t develop their skills in schools, and much of what they learned did not come directly from teachers. Yet they were students and learners, who learned by imitation and absorption from talented people who went before them, then applied themselves tirelessly to what motivated and interested them.

Bob Dylan was obsessed with folk songs and the music of Woody Guthrie, listening to his records endlessly and imitating his style. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning educated herself by reading literature and studying Shakespeare on her own.

Einstein was bored and frustrated in school but studied at home and thought about physics all day long as he worked in a post office. Jimmy Hendrix imitated the styles of blues guitarists he loved and walked around the house with his guitar, practicing non-stop throughout the day.

Malcolm X initially did well in school, but then dropped out after being told by a white teacher that his dream of being a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a nigger.” He got into crime, was arrested, and then continued his education on his own, with the help of the prison library.

Van Gogh was a Christian minister and art seller who (inspired by the paintings around him) didn’t start to paint himself until he was in his twenties. He then began by imitating a wide range of artists, including Japanese prints and Impressionistic pointalism, out of which he eventually developed his own unique and expressive style.

Maya Angelou absorbed countless works of literature and learned several languages on her own. Without any previous experience she wrote, produced and narrated a highly acclaimed documentary series in the late 1960’s. Shortly after that she wrote her first autobiography, published in 1969.

Abraham Lincoln failed in business before he started to study law, with only one year of formal schooling. Most of his learning came either through reading books or his own efforts and life experiences.

Steve Jobs went to college and quit after 6 months, though he stuck around the campus and took classes that interested him for awhile longer. Much that he learned after that came from work experience, independent study, collaboration with others and his own self-directed efforts.

Thomas Edison did terribly at school, but once he put his mind to a problem he didn’t give up. John Lennon also was a failure at school, but with the Beatles he practiced tirelessly, imitating songs from other bands, learning what kinds of beats and rhythms excited people by watching audience reactions during live shows.

The essential factor with self-directed learning is the time and careful attention put in to master what one enjoys or has an interest in. Talk to anyone you know who is great at sports, music, cooking, art, reading, mathematics or science and you will find that the time, care and effort they put into their passion was absolutely key.

There is no short cut to mastery, as only practice makes perfect. Schools have an essential part to play in helping to educate children, but I think we need to pay much closer attention to the role that a child’s own motivation and self-direction play in learning and mastery.

The greatest gift a parent or teacher can give to a child is to encourage them to pursue their passions and show them how to develop their skills. Give them the support, guidance and tools they need but be careful not to get in their way.

~Christopher Chase
The Art of Learning

Self Educated People Who Have Made a Difference


Every Child is an Artist by Nature  * Flow- The Psychology of Optimal ExperienceUnderstanding How Our Brains Learn  * Toward a More Creative & Holistic Model of Education * Real Learning is a Creative Process  *  Children Need to Be Free to Learn  *  How Wisdom Grows  * It’s a Pink Floyd World – Welcome (Back) to the Machine *  How We Participate in the Creative Life of the Universe  *


About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
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44 Responses to Self-Direction is the Key to Mastery

  1. Thank you for all these great examples. Yes, what we feel inspired by and passionate about is the thing we should follow as a child or an adult. Sure there are basic skills kids need to learn but supporting and encouraging their passion will give them a fantastic blueprint they can follow their whole life. They also won’t give up if they experience rejection either on their path of heart.

  2. LOB says:

    by the way in addition as I know go to the biography of Leonardo da Vinci.
    By learning is like of the appetite, can you spoil the appetite by bad food.” (Codex Atlanticus)
    Look how kids conquer the world and you know how schools need to change.

  3. Jason Gant says:

    Reblogged this on J Gant and commented:
    Check this out…

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  5. jeffstroud says:

    As a self taught photographer and much of my spiritual practice has been by a deep deep desire to “know” to experience the details, even when I am not sure what the details are. Thank you Christopher. I may reblog or ping this blog a bit later!

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  37. Jan Anttila says:

    Thank you for this incredible post. I read aloud parts of it to my students as they embarked upon their Passion Projects, and especially the quote: “What you love to do you will do well.” ~Japanese proverb

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