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On Destiny, Influence, and the Impossibility of Being Self-Taught

self-taught

1. Self-Taught

Back when I played music I used to say I was self-taught, because I never went to music school or took lessons. But then someone corrected me: “Really, you taught yourself everything?” he said.

“You never listened to other people’s music?” he continued. “No one ever showed you something? You never asked for help? You didn’t steal your early ideas from other musicians, like all musicians do?”

I got the point: I may have lacked formal education, but I benefited from those who had gone before. One way or another, I had learned from my peers. And after that experience, I stopped saying I was self-taught.

2. Destiny

Over coffee, I talked with Marie about life as an architect. “How did you choose that career?” I asked.

“It’s a long story,” she said, but the first part wasn’t long at all. Marie was at a midwestern state school, with few ambitions and a half-hearted plan to study art because it seemed interesting. There was no real career goal. Then one of her professors said, “Have you ever thought about architecture? You’d be good at it.”

It was seemingly an offhand comment, but that was all it took. The idea clicked and Marie changed majors. Ten years later, I sat and talked with her in that café, far from the midwestern school she had attended.

Isn’t it interesting, we said to each other, the things that define our lives? One positive comment from a professor, and a decade onwards we’re sitting here.

3. Influence

Of course, one negative comment can create just as much impact on someone’s life (sometimes even more) as a positive comment. This is why language and the means of delivery is so important.

I remember meeting with someone else who was serving on a team I was in charge of years ago. I wasn’t happy with how he had handled something, and I sent him what I thought was a gentle correction by email.

After sending the message, I realized that I probably should have spoken to him in person about it instead of emailing, but I thought, well, we’ll talk about it later in the week.

By the time of our meeting, I had largely forgotten about it. But he looked across the table in the restaurant and was very quiet. Finally he said, “Could you have been a little nicer about that?”

Then I realized that what I had said, regardless of its overall merit, had caused unnecessary harm.

And I felt terrible, which I deserved to feel, and which isn’t really the point since I was the one who had made someone else feel terrible as well. I had used my influence for harm instead of good.

***

The point is that we all learn from one another every day. You can learn to improve yourself, or to advance in a discipline. You can also pass on your knowledge and influence to others. See: great power, great responsibility.

Things that seem small at first will come along and affect the remainder of our lives. Is it due to fate, chance, or destiny?

Sometimes it’s hard to say for sure. And does it really matter? Either way, lives are changed, and the next step is up to you.

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48 Comments

  • Stephanie says:

    Nice one! Especially your first point about being self-taught. I never looked at it that way but it is true.

    We are human beings and we are all related to each other. Therefore we all influence each other and we are more depending on each other then we realize.

    To be independent sounds cool, but one way or another, we all depend on each other because we have not choice but to be influenced by one-another.

  • Arthur says:

    Cool article! Reminds me of Steve Jobs telling how a random calligraphy course in college ended up influencing Apple to be such a reference in design. By the way, 100 Startup is great!

  • Alana says:

    I really love this bit
    “The point is that we all learn from one another every day. You can learn to improve yourself, or to advance in a discipline. You can also pass on your knowledge and influence to others. See: great power, great responsibility.”

    I’m privileged to have many wonderful mentors in my life. I glean as much as possible from
    them and I owe them so very much.

  • Amy says:

    In Freshman year of high school, a substitute teacher took me aside after a project in which we were supposed to write a short story. This man meant very little to me at the time; I had no established relationship with him.

    “You are an amazing writer,” he said. “This is something you should really consider.”

    Today, I launched my very first book. I think about that talk often, and wonder why that conversation in particular resonated with me.

    It’s interesting how life works out, and how much influence you can really have on someone… even when you don’t know them.

  • Chris says:

    CONGRATULATIONS on launching your first book today! That’s excellent.

  • Besides, the best way to learn is to watch and try. Copy, if that word doesn’t have too bad reputation. That’s how children do it, when they start to walk and talk. Being completely independent would mean being completely cut off from others.

    I truly agree with you about the means of delivery. Constructive criticism is something most of us are really incapable of, mostly because of the difficulty of delivery.

  • Brianna says:

    I agree whole-heartedly with everything in this post, especially the section on influence. We are all influencing each other, whether we like it or not, for better or worse.

    I’m next on the list for the $100 Start-Up from the library and I can’t wait to start reading it.

  • rixturey says:

    I like the one about self-taught. It’s the same as self-made. Everyone benefits from the work/lives all of creation (human and nonhuman). Someone cared for you as a child (good or bad). You use society’s resources (roads, electricity, housing, etc.). This doesn’t even take into account all those invisible forces that make our lives manageable and productive each day. Hey, without the sun, we all are goners. Let’s all show some gratitude!

  • Ryan McRae says:

    Someone asked me, “How would you feel about teaching soldiers in Afghanistan?” I couldn’t escape the question and here I am. If you would have told me this last year, I would have asked you to sober up.

    But I quit my job, gave away 60% of stuff and here I am.

    We all influence each other; we sometimes can possess the clarity and perception to speak into each other’s hearts and change the course of another.

    And that is a good thing.

    And it is really, really hot here in Jalalabad. My friend didn’t mention that. Ugh.

  • It takes a lot of courage to admit our mistakes, thank you for reminding us that our words have the ability to make a difference! Heard a talk by Rick Belluzzo recently, and your story reminded me of a quote he shared, “A good leader is both hard headed and soft hearted.” Thanks for being such a constant source of inspiration Chris! (:

  • Kevin says:

    I actually don’t see a problem with referring to oneself as “self-taught”. For one thing, it means that you learned on your own instead of having a teacher to guide you. For another, it doesn’t mean that you taught yourself everything, or that you know everything—contrary to what the smart-ass response you received would suggest.

  • The destiny comment got me too, a local photographer in town told me – you have a bit of an eye for some pictures I had taken on a trip that I was sharing with some friends. Four years later I am running a wedding photography business and it was one of those “who would have thought” kinda things.

  • Never thought of it that way. Most of my “self-taught” skills that are actually things I learned through watching Youtube videos, reading blogs, and speaking with more experienced people. Thinking of knowledge in this way really makes me appreciate all of the free content that I’ve consumed from countless bloggers, podcasters, and speakers.

  • Uttoran Sen says:

    Firstly Chris, self-learning music is a great achievement in itself, whether or not other musicians or their music had influence over you. Also, there is the uniqueness in music that sets you apart from others.

    About destiny and influence, every day I do a thorough review of my day and see how others are affecting my decision or for that matter even choices that i make. My life is different from those that surrounds me, not on the internet though, where everywhere i find parallel thinking bloggers.

    Sad to hear about the terrible mental damage (exaggeration) you gave to one of your team member, however, if it helps him improve on the very thing that you found worth mentioning, it will still be worth it? At least you meant well.

  • Kimberly says:

    Its good to be aware of our choices of words. As what the book of proverbs says, our tongue has the power of life and death. We ought to be responsible for our words, though this can be really difficult at times.

  • ANTHONY says:

    Good article. Never thought of it that way. True learning is a cumalative process through our own experiences and from others.

  • Mike Luff says:

    Did you, by any chance see the pagentry from London, UK, of the ‘thousand boat or ship’ passing Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth celebrating her Diamond Jubilee on a review on the Thames River on Sunday? What a wonderful sight. The Brits are so good at Royal Pagentry.

    Cheers Mike Luff, Burlington, Ontario, Canada.

  • Chris says:

    @Mike,

    I was there last weekend and saw all the flags! It was nice of them to celebrate both the Jubilee and the arrival of The $100 Startup on foreign shores. 🙂

  • Kathryn Plett says:

    I enjoyed this post, and I agree, it is amazing what a word of encouragement can do and how it can spur someone on to a level they never thought possible. Add to that the element of choice that we have in >going that way> …. (or not) …. it isn’t enough to have the word of validation because each of us must chose what we will do. Sort of reminds me of those “choose your own adventure” books. Life is adventure, by each choice we make.

  • Clare J Fitzgerald says:

    Hi Chris – great post. I read it just after I had put pen to paper about the realisation that I had many years ago about the power I had in influencing the lives of others – my children, immediate family and the many people I have had the pleasure to lead over the years in business.

    What I discovered back then was that much of my daily routine and reactions were unconscious. I was not paying attention to what was going on in my head and how I was feeling or to the impact I was having on others. I was more focused on getting everything done and solving the myriad of issues I had to manage each day.

    I knew I wasn’t a bad person, and I knew that my intentions were good – but I knew I had to change. To be more present, to love everyone around me, to focus on feeling more joy, gratitude, love, wonder and connection to the world around me every day.
    So I set about changing the trajectory of my life by making small changes – baby steps – in 1 or 2 areas of my life and now I live much more consciously – more aware of my impact on others.

    Thanks for the reinforcement of these concepts Chris – it’s like you read my mind.

    Love your work

    Clare

  • For the first time I strongly disagree with (my interpretation of) your second point. It’s fair to say that we should be mindful of our words, but I don’t think we can take the lion’s share of responsibility for the effect of our words on someone else. What someone else does with what you say is almost entirely out of your control, and it would be hazardous to base your sense of self-worth or integrity on something you can’t control.

    I do think we’re responsible to think about what we’re saying before we say it – we should feel bad about our words when we have a negative motivation for saying them. But we shouldn’t feel proud of ourselves for someone else accomplishing something great after we say a few words to them. Words will always be cheap, it’s what we do with our lives that counts.

  • Very powerful post! One of the things I have learned while travelling is the impact, influence and difference only one human being can make in their surroundings. Even a smile or laughter has such an empowering effect! Sometimes, we are not aware of the impact our actions or words on others.

  • Marcel says:

    Hi Chris, great post! It’s really good to have sometimes someone who gives out of nowhere a good hint and a new perspective how to see some every day things, thank you.

  • Katya says:

    I’m a fan of “informal” learning, but this gets me thinking about how we get taught informally by the people around us.

    When I was a kid I was singing in the car. I asked my mom, “Do I have a good voice?”
    She replied, carefully, “Well… I would not try to make a career out of it”.
    The car was very silent from then on.

    When I was 13 I showed a drawing to my mom and proclaimed, “I want to be an artist when I grow up.”
    She replied in shock and horror: “Oh! No you don’t. All artists are Promiscuous!” And proceeded to tell me about how weird artists are, and how they do drugs and wear black. Her normal reserve put aside, the intense power of her conviction burned into my brain.

    After a series of “respectable” jobs, I was 29 before I sold my first painting. It takes a long time to unlearn things that we pick up informally, so it’s probably good to be very very conscious of what we’re being taught, and to actively try to unlearn some of them!

    It’s good to be consciously taught. To be engaged, to question and seek. Maybe that’s what we mean when we say “self-taught.” It’s not passive, as childhood lessons often are.

    BTW I sing in public again. I’m singing Journey right now.

  • Kristine says:

    Great post! I think the reminder about how our negative comments make an impact is a great reminder. Especially through email, I’ve seen a lot of unintentional harm done.

  • James says:

    It’s so funny that since I started restructuring my life personally everyday I seem to get an email that really hits home. This story was it for today, thank you.
    I have always been a drill sergeant type when it came to business. No fun just work, work, work and it becomes where you detach yourself from others feelings. There has been many times that my wording cut someone deep but to me it was just business. I was wrong and now I must walk the talk when it comes to understanding that peoples views and feelings come first before I speak my words. Think before you speak has finally soaked in. People like Chris and Pat Flynn have shown me a different way of living life. Now I’m dedicating my life to helping people express themselves in a professional way. I’m definitely happier now slowing down my pace and really taking the time to communicate with my people. Much love to all the positive people out there.
    James D

  • buff says:

    Excellent post. Thank you for words that really touched my core. I’ve been on both sides a few too many times and am constantly striving to remember how powerful kind words are, even when addressing something that’s seems small at the time.

  • Maia Duerr says:

    I love this reminder that we stand on the shoulders of others, and that we have more of an impact on people than we know.

    This post reminded me of that old Latin maxim, Noblesse Oblige… nobility obliges. In other words, if we are blessed or privileged with some kind of asset, whether that is money or knowledge or something else, we are obligated to pass it on in a way that benefits others and society.

    And that, in turn, reminded me of an old spiritual maxim… the more we give away, the more we have.

  • This post reminds me of what Jeff Goins says: “When are you a wirter? When you say you’re a writer”. I have to say I’m self taught on most things I do online. Great post Chris, I hope you’re enjoying the tour!

  • Randy says:

    Chris… Just had to say I found your book ‘The $100 Start Up’ and devoured it in a day! Fantastic and VERY inspiring. Doing my part now to spread the ‘$100 SU love’ to all of my blog followers and friends. Thanks again for the great work.

  • Chris says:

    @Randy,

    Thanks so much; that’s kind of you to say.

  • Najeeb says:

    A good quote I recall about destiny and how you get to the future is “You can always connect the dots looking back, never forward.”

  • Kathryn Plett says:

    Yes, that maxim: Noblesse Oblige… nobility obliges, was one that our George Washington and his wife Martha took to heart. They were kind and thoughtful to those that came their way, sharing and opening their home to strangers. There were a great many of our founders who often stated that we all grown further from the efforts exerted by others, and we all benefit…

    I finished the $100 Startup and am so energized Chris! Thanks for the inspiration… looking forward to stopping by Wed at Powell’s bookstore in Portland!

  • It’s so true that there’s really no such thing as being completely self taught. This is such a great post with great examples of how we’re all connected and how every interaction can be powerful. xo

  • Hannah O says:

    Beautiful insights. The last two really struck home – we can’t always tell how one small comment, whether positive or negative, will impact the receiver.

    Imagine the change that could happen in the world if we offered more honest and positive encouragement to those we see who are capable of great things.

  • ann says:

    I am really trying to turn those negative thoughts into something positive immediately… Encouraging post.

  • Anita Horton says:

    I’m a teacher and today was my first day of summer break. This post is a good reminder about how influential teachers’ words are. Thank you for the reflection it caused.

  • Excellent point Chris. “Self taught” is just another and equally legitimate method of learning.

  • So much captured in a post – that so many will be able to identify with. I often say to people that tho I have a formal degree, my real skills and expertise have come from the 20 years of work, informal study and experience afterwards…and there is nothing easy about that! ‘Self taught’ simply means serious dedication to learning 🙂

    I like the reader Uttoran Sen’s comment
    “About destiny and influence, every day I do a thorough review of my day and see how others are affecting my decision or for that matter even choices that i make.”

    That’s not a bad habit to adopt!

    I’ve worked hard to let go of the negative influence of carelessly spoken words on myself and to try to ensure words I speak are fair – as Ena Teo Jia En quoted also
    “A good leader is both hard headed and soft hearted.”
    In my mind, kind words must be critical when needed but soft at heart.

  • If you never had a lesson, you were self-taught. Whoever said that to you is a pompous idiot who enjoys making light of other people’s accomplishments.

    You TAUGHT yourself. You LEARNT from other people as well, but they weren’t specifically teaching you. There is a world of difference.

  • Alison Wiley says:

    I’m new to your site. How refreshing to see a successful person who sees himself as woven into a community of creative people who all spark each other, rather than as a rugged individualist who somehow ‘made it’ all by himself. To build further on your thinking, I suggest that Cultural Creatives typically give each other courage, making us into the matadors in our own lives, facing down the fears that are our bulls. That’s the topic I just now blogged about.

  • Kat says:

    Thanks for a great Post. It caught my attention from start to finish.

  • Dan says:

    Totall agree with the musician part. I’m so close to finishing a bachelor of music, but ain’t going back, coz I know what I want in music and am doing what it takes to get there, which a conservatorium can’t give me.

    On influence, i honestly think that if one negative comment effects you in such a deep level, then it’s a sign that you’re probably not clear on what you want enough. I’ve had plenty of comments stop me what I was doing.

    And I was probably going to quit that thing at the first sign of a challenge anyway. I’ve had plenty of comments cut deep but I had that ‘f**k you I know what I want’ moment and it drilled even harder what I want. So maybe those comments for people are a good thing?

    Maybe people need that kick to quit the crap don’t really have their heart in so they have the time for the important

  • sanjay says:

    Self taught took on a very different meaning in your post.Agree with you on the influence post-we need to be more sensitive to others feelings.Great post.

  • Bob says:

    You sought knowledge from others and applied it to your situation. You did not pay for a session and sit in a classroom. You looked for what you needed. You are self-taught.

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