The first two decades of our lives are spent studying. We study numbers and letters, then algebra and history and finally calculus and literature. In the end, a stern academic hands us a degree. That degree could say art history or literature or economics or zoology. It’s all the same. We are now experts at studying.

I got my degree two months ago. It reads “Bachelors of Science in Computer Science”, not that it matters. The initial holy-god-I-never-have-to-study-again euphoria lasted about a month. I guess lying around all day and raiding the fridge for snacks does get old. So I tried to find something to do.

Thinking I was an expert at studying, I tried to pick up a few introductory books on economics and literature to fill the inevitable gaps formed by four years of specialization. If this was course registration I would be thinking, “electives”. How can any of this material present any difficulty? I just aced Advanced Algorithms Design and Analysis; how hard can economics 101 be? I fell flat on my face. It took a few tries before I acknowledged it. I would start strong and make some headway, then get bored and flip subjects. Then again. and again. and again. I never made it far past chapter two. As soon as I got beyond the introductory chapters my brain dissolved into a useless goop of I-don’t-wanna.

My computer is littered with dead projects. I have a folder full of unread ebooks and a bookshelf crammed with unopened covers. Hi, my name is Louie and I am a miserable failure at self-directed learning.

Normally I wouldn’t get this frustrated at failure. Heck I can count the number of things I’m competent at on one hand. However, I consider studying to be on that hand. Why is learning inside a course so easy and learning outside a course so gosh darned difficult?

Time to put on our thinking caps and figure out why self-directed learning is so difficult. Like any good detective we’ll rule out the obvious. We can eliminate the most glaring hypothesis: that we are just plain stupid and can’t learn anything. This is not true because we just got a degree in studying! Seriously, you were professionally learning material for the last 20 years. Most people don’t stick to a career that long! If you couldn’t study then you would’ve flunked out well before now. So that’s a load off. From my own musings, the biggest differences between course-based and self-directed study boils down to two factors: motivation and structure.

There are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. These are closely tied to the concepts of intrinsic and instrumental good. An intrinsic good is a thing that you want in and of itself. Happiness, a piece of chocolate cake or a beautiful piece of music is an intrinsic good. An instrumental good is something that you strive for in order to get something else. A means to an ends. Money is a good example of an instrumental good. If you’re stuck on a desert island, money is useless. That’s a good test. If you’re stuck on a desert island would you want X. If yes, then X is intrinsic. Otherwise it’s instrumental.

Extrinsic motivation is treating the subject of the motivation as an instrumental good. You want it because it leads somewhere. You study hard for an A in order to get a good job to get enough money to live the lifestyle you want. Course-based learning is strongly extrinsic. You get gold stars in elementary school. You get A’s and scholarships in university. You study hard for the esteem of your peers and parents or to be competitive in the job market to come.

Intrinsic motivation is driven by intrinsic good. You want to study certain materials because you enjoy it, such as a sport, musical instrument or novel that you read over and over again.

And now we come to the crux of the matter. Courses have a lot of built-in motivation: Fear of failure, peer/family approval, future jobs, monetary commitment, supporting your own identity, peer collaboration. Compare this with the motivations of self-study: interest. If motivation is the fuel propelling us towards the finish line, no wonder we empty our tanks, in solo endeavours, well short of the goal.

The question is how do you build up enough motivational structures to support you all the way through to your destination? If anyone has figured this out, I would love to hear from you.