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Personal Knowledge and Informal Learning

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Some problems caused by a lack of knowledge or skill are purely personal in nature. They affect how you live your life, and solving them would make your life easier, but even if you do succeed in mastering skills necessary to overcome such problems, it is unlikely that anyone will ever ask you to prove that this is the case. Examples of purely personal problems like this might include not knowing how to behave during a date, or how to beat a depressed mood. Problems of this personal nature can be pursued independently by way of self-study.

There are many places you might look to learn about the area of knowledge you lack. You might:

  • Search the internet for information on your topic (as you are currently doing).
  • Search your local library or bookstore for books, workbooks and magazine articles relating to your topic. Obtaining a workbook and following the exercises described therein can be a particularly helpful thing to do.
  • Take classes relating to your topic offered by local institutions and experts.
  • Hire the services of a local teacher who is expert in your topic
  • Join a club or attend a support group (local or online) relating to your topic so as to socialize with other people interested in addressing your topic.

These varying ways of learning about a given topic can be mixed and matched in different combinations as best fits your needs.

The first two suggestions above encourage you to study prepared written materials on your own, while the latter three encourage you to take a more social route and learn from others who are struggling with your issue or who have mastered it. Both types of knowledge (individual study and social study) are valuable. Individual study exposes you to ideas in an efficient and systematic manner that is unlikely to be available to you outside of a structured class. Alternatively, social opportunities for learning can help you to meet and form valuable relationships with other people who can expose you to new ideas, encourage you to read new authors or explore new techniques and methods, and provide you with opportunities (such as jobs !) that you would not otherwise have known about. The process of forming relationships with other people who share similar learning interests is known as Networking, and networking is very important.

A major advantage of pursuing a social path towards learning is that the people you interact with can help guide and motivate you to continue on your learning path. This is especially important when the going is rough and you would otherwise be easily discouraged. For example, alcoholics and other addicts who do not understand the practical things they need to do to reign in and control their drug use cannot generally hope to learn how to be sober on their own. Caught between cravings and withdrawal symptoms, such people are under enormous pressure to keep using. Their behavior is out of their control, and they really need a group of people around them to help them set limits for themselves. Formal rehabilitation and drug treatment programs and more informal twelve step style programs can help provide this needed limit setting in a way a book or internet site cannot.

Learning is a difficult process during the best of situations There are always complex choices to make. Having an experienced guide to help you navigate makes learning that much easier to complete. A Mentor is someone with more experience and knowledge than yourself who takes an interest in your growth and agrees to help guide your progress.

It is a good idea for people engaged in a learning process to seek out mentors to help guide their growth.

Mentors can offer their services on a formal or informal basis. They may volunteer their mentoring services, or receive compensation for them. Master tradespeople and professors who agree to take on apprentices are serving in a formal mentor role, as are sober sponsors who agree to sponsor new twelve step members. However, an experienced co-worker who provides friendly advice just because he or she likes you can also be thought of as a mentor. You can have one or more mentors at a time, or across your learning career. As you gain in mastery of your area of learning, you can help younger students by agreeing to mentor them.