Traits of a self-directed learner


What do Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and I have in common?

We’re all self-directed learners. I’ve proudly been a self-directed learner since 1994, when I realised that no employer of mine was ever going to provide me with the training and development that I needed to make a success of my fledgeling career. After thirty years of self-directed learning, I feel I’ve succeeded in evolving myself for the future and have done so through self-employment, where I didn’t officially have a training budget.

It’s worked for me and will work for all future learners in the workplace; gone are the days when students gorged on company training programmes. The future is for those that make it happen.

gone are the days when students gorged on company training programmes.

Here are ten traits you need to master to become a self-directed learner in no particular order.

  1. Initiative

The first trait is initiative. If your learner has set themselves a goal to learn something, they have the ambition and capability to find suitable learning. They are adept at searching the internet for reading materials as well as audio and video and can also venture offline as well. They seem to find what they’re looking for. Care your “Great Wall of China” doesn’t block anything of use value – most corporate IT departments block useful sites because they don’t trust people.

  1. Independence

Independence comes next. With their learning goals in tow, self-directed learners don’t need permission to learn; they feel empowered to do so. Some companies even provide a budget to further their independence. My employed position in 1997 awarded me a training budget of £1,000 a year, and I was trusted and empowered to use this to buy training. I used it to part-fund my early NLP training.

  1. Network

They network well. Possibly members of various associations and unions that provide relevant learning and development. Networking with fellow members and others offers ample learning opportunities, sometimes over a coffee or fireside chat. Learning doesn’t have to be formal. My best ideas and insights have come from random discussions with people in my network. My superior education events have come from membership in three associations – PSA, SPA and AAISP. Google them.

  1. Responsibility

They embrace responsibility for their learning. The buck stops with them; no one else will help them develop; it’s something they’re accountable for.

  1. Plan Own Development

Self-directed learners plan their own development time. I devote a day a week to personal development, not every week, but on average. Only with this amount of time investment can I achieve my learning goals.

  1. Curious

They’re curious to learn things. A goal can lead anywhere. In 2012, I committed to mastering how to create videos for my business, and boy was this a giant learning curve for me. Seven years later, I’m producing some half-decent videos, but my curiosity took me to other areas beyond video production.

I’m currently exploring and using live streaming, so my video work streams live to YouTube and Vimeo. My curiosity also took me to Research and Development grants and tax advantages, which saved me a packet over the years.

  1. Learning As You Go

Self-learners don’t mind starting something at 80% ready. Too many people start projects or activities when they believe they are 100% prepared to go. Self-learners believe in learning as you go, and this often requires that you create something and learn/improve as you progress.

That’s the modern way. I watch some of my early incarnations of videos that are still on YouTube compared to my current videos, which are pretty awful. But they were new and exciting at the time and achieved my objectives.

  1. Aware of Learning Style

Self-directed learners are good at erudition and can adopt basic study skills. I’m aware of my learning style acutely. I know that reading works for me, and listening to podcasts allows me to learn where I want. I know I have to make notes when I learn; I use mindmaps (a technique I learned in the nineties by reading some books).

I work well at conferences and can listen to an outstanding speaker for hours. Incidentally, I don’t do group learning activities – that’s not my cup of tea. I’m very aware of how I learn.

  1. Unlearning

Self-directed learners understand the unlearning process. When you learn something new, you have to unlearn the old first. Otherwise, you’re just piling on new on top of ageing, and you will struggle to see new ideas and innovations. Before you decide to learn something new, you unlearn the old.

For example, when I was learning about trainer video, I had to unlearn all the presentation skills I learnt when performing in front of a group – interaction, questioning, eye contact, movement, and gestures. Suppose I do these things when videoed; it’ll all go wrong. On video, you look at the lens, keep your gestures minimal, preferably nil and maximise your facial expressions and voice.

  1. They Enjoy Learning

Finally, I enjoy learning. It can be hard work, tiring and prone to errors and mistakes, but this gives me the benefits I seek. There’s always a point, a scary moment when you don’t understand what it is you’re learning. This can cause stress, and you feel vulnerable. You have to drive yourself through this because, with a tenacious attitude, you will understand it.

With your people committed to self-directing and controlling their learning, the next step is to re-organise your learning and development offering to fit this learner. That’ll come later once you’ve first influenced the culture of your workforce.


About Author

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Paul Archer is an Online Sales Trainer, Speaker and Conference Host. He’d be happy to assist you in moving your workshops online during this challenging period. Email him on or LinkIn with him at The world of sales development has changed, many have missed this and boldly go on to run courses in the old-fashioned way. You want to develop your people – professional advisers, salespeople, coaches - and know there is a better way. He can help you. Think about music. I mean the music industry. In 2000 music became free, illegally at first with Napster, downloads became cheap as chips and streaming now cost $10 a month. In the same way, traditional self-development is now free. Everything is available online. Music artists and bands now make their money performing live. The live experience is what fans will pay money for. Recorded music is merely to create demand for the live experience. He brings his 35+ years of sales expertise and experience to you in two ways: Online, on-demand, just in time. He doesn’t run “just in case” training courses, they’re a thing of the past. Development should be “just in time”. Curated video, live videocasts and webinars, podcasts — books, articles and blog posts delivered via his Learning Platforms, YouTube or your in-house systems. Live. He can bring his expertise to your teams in live sessions, but these are rare now and need to be exceptional events. Conferences, seminars and events, he can educate, entertain them with my unique speaking style that has been enjoyed by thousands of sale people and advisers across the globe. Forty-five minutes, 2 hours, maybe a day – you choose. You figured there was a better way to develop your sales teams, you are right, and now you may want to make contact with him so you can talk further. You can Linkin with him at, and he’ll start a conversation or head to his YouTube Channel for more at email him at or phone him on +44 7702 341769, and where ever you are in the world he’d love to hear from you. Paul is a prolific writer and blogger – maintaining three blogs, with attracting thousands of hits from all over the world. He has published eight books. His latest tome "Pocketbook of Presentation Skills” was released in January 2020 and is available from Amazon. The third edition of his book “Train the Trainer of the 21st Century” is also available from Amazon.

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