The Demand For Autodidacts – The Self-Taught in an Age of Shrinking Budgets by Patrick Van Horne

Here is another great piece by Patrick Van Horne of the CP Journal and author of the outstanding book Left of Bang. Here Patrick discusses the importance of Autodidacts' (self learners). It always been my preference to seek those people out who have a growth mindset. A willingness to continually learn. Continually improve. EVOLVE!

The New Reality

During wartime, budgets for the military and law enforcement go up and, in turn, the training and equipment that our nation’s protectors need to do their jobs well becomes more readily available. Since the beginning of the “War on Terror,” the military saw the Department of Defense’s budget nearly double from $287 billion per year to $530 billion per year.[i] At home, law enforcement has seen a similar expansion. Following September 11th, the Department of Homeland Security was formed and, through DHS, local police departments had access to grant money for training and equipment through a number of different programs. However, during peacetime or when the public loses interest in the “war,” budgets shrink. After the Korean War the defense budget shrank by 43%. After Vietnam the defense budget shrank by 33%. After the Cold War the budget shrank by 36% and, while it will be a few more years before the final cuts from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are realized, the amount of money allocated to the defense and law enforcement communities continues to decline overall.[ii]

When people without any experience in either the military or law enforcement listen to the outcry that will come from people within those communities as budget cuts are announced, the first image they often have is of the life-long bureaucrat. This is the person who only cares about the fact that because his or her budget is going down their department is going to be smaller, which means that their “status” has just been reduced. When administrators feel like they have been slighted, there is usually a lot of concern that trickles down the chain of command to the men and women who are on the ground. They realize that the bureaucrat (who doesn’t have anything personally at stake when making decisions about how much training those people should get) has also just been incentivized to cut corners and show how they are “doing more with less,” because that is how they will get ahead and be promoted in an era of shrinking budgets.

This often results in check-the-box training events where standards are lowered, class sizes are increased and training hours are reduced to the minimum amount required for a certificate. Maximizing the number of man-hours trained helps an organization to look like they are mission capable, at least in the bullet points of a PowerPoint briefing up the chain of command. For the operators and protectors on the ground, though, shrinking budgets can be terrifying because there is nothing scarier than being deemed “paper-ready” by someone far removed from the actual danger. People who work on the ground realize the very real difference between sitting in a classroom to learn a new skill and being able to actually perform those skills in a real-life situation when your life could be on the line for making a correct or incorrect assessment. Since the allocation or the size of the budget is a “third bucket problem” for protectors and is likely outside of your control, this article is about understanding the impact of budget cuts on your personal development and knowing where you should focus your time, attention and energy, so that you can truly succeed in your profession.

At the time that I am writing this, our country faces an enemy who wants to destroy the freedom that America was built on, one IED and one beheading at a time. We face criminals who have studied our legal system, understand what law enforcement officers can and can’t do, and continually adapt to grow their illegal enterprise. We face the risk of online self-radicalization and the anger of people who believe that opening fire in a public area is the only way to be seen as important and powerful. For the members of the military, the law enforcement community and security professionals, the public expects that you are capable of stopping these attacks and protecting the freedom that allows them to live their lives. Because they expect this of you, they are going to hold you accountable when a criminal succeeds. The public is going to see each successful attack as a failure of the government and the security professionals who were present at the scene. Despite shrinking budgets, these are the conditions that you have to learn to thrive within. Is it a double standard and hypocritical when the same people who want you to do more with less get mad and criticize you in the press when an attack is successful? Of course it is, but whether this is “what you signed up for” or not, this is the new reality.

What you do in response to this reality is your choice. The first option is for you to maintain the status quo, complain about the situation and continue to wait for your organization to provide you with the training you require to do your job because you believe that they have a moral or legal obligation to do so. While refusing to do any personal development outside of working hours will not get you fired, it is also the most direct route to being average and mediocre at best. While that is acceptable to some people, if you are reading this article, it is probably because the thought of being mediocre is the same to you as outright failure. If you are looking to do more than just “get by” in your job, you need to become an autodidact.

Becoming The Autodidact


Being an autodidact means that you are self-taught. But being self-taught doesn’t mean that you have to study the laws of thermodynamics, physics, psychology or finance in solitude. Being self-taught doesn’t mean that you have to rely solely on yourself to relate the concepts that you are studying in one area to those you are studying in another field. Being an autodidact means that you are the one to direct your own learning. This means that you are the one to find the resources, research, books and videos to learn a new concept. Other times, it means that you are the one to seek out the experts in the field and contact them so that you can learn directly from them. Being an autodidact shifts the responsibility for learning from others to rest squarely on your shoulders. This leads to the one and only one pre-requisite needed to grow – you have to want to.

The fact that you “have to want it” is pretty cliché though. In the next section, I will explain what “wanting it” actually looks like. But, before I do, let me counter the three most common excuses I hear when the topic of being self-taught comes up. These excuses are:

  • The person doesn’t have the time available to learn
  • The pursuit of self-development isn’t possible because it is too expensive
  • The person believes they don’t have the natural talent to learn.

All of these are baseless excuses. Let’s start by eliminating the money excuse first. The amount of free or very cheap resources that have become available over the last few years is pretty remarkable. With MOOCs, you can take classes from Stanford, MIT, Harvard and a number of other schools for free through EdX. If you aren’t interested in college level classes, you can take a look at the Kahn Academy, where you can take a ton of the classes offered in various subjects from kindergarten through high school, once again for free. If you need a refresher on statistics, calculus or micro-economics before starting one of your free college classes, the Kahn Academy has you covered and can also eliminate the “I’ve been out of school for too long” excuse. If you prefer a course shorter than a full semester or want to learn about a specific topic, you can look at Udacity and Udemy for classes taught by professionals in a variety of fields at a relatively cheap price. With Kindle editions for books being priced nearly 50% lower than their print versions, knowledge held within books, in the minds of world class academics, professionals and educators is as accessible as it has ever been. While this excuse may have had merit historically where you would have to get accepted by and pay a college for this sort of education, the Internet has helped to reduce the barriers to education to such an insignificant level that finances are no longer holding you back from developing yourself.

After eliminating the financial excuse, sometimes the follow-up comment to the availability of all of the free resources is, “Well, all of those options are online and I like to learn in-person because I don’t get as much out of online classes.” The fact that you get more out of learning in person is probably true and is also probably the reason why MIT, Stanford and Harvard have no problem offering their classes for free online. They know that students will get a lot more out of a class when you have the opportunity to engage with other students in discussions and ask the professor questions. But assuming that you can’t just take a couple of years off of work to go back to school, would you rather not learn anything at all? I choose to highlight this all or nothing dichotomy of online learning because to say that this is the reason for not developing yourself isn’t a financial constraint. Does online learning require a greater degree of self-discipline on the part of the student? Yes, without a schedule of when you need to show up for class or a specific day of the week that you have to have assignments completed and turned in, the student does shoulder the burden of making sure they progress through the class. When learning is framed as a self-discipline issue, sometimes the conversation will then transition into the next excuse, time.

The second excuse that I hear as to why people haven’t started proactively learning is that there simply isn’t enough time in the day. I understand that you are already working too many hours at your job and that when you get home, you want to spend time with your family. While you can’t be criticized for that, I’d encourage you to look at where you have spent your time over the last seven days. Did you spend time on the couch watching a sitcom instead of watching a video lecture? Did you listen to music on your way to work instead of listening to an audiobook? Did you read a magazine instead of opening up a book before going to bed? We certainly all need time to unwind each day, and without relaxation knowledge retention decreases, but could you squeeze out 30 minutes a few times a week to go through another module of a class or chapter in a book? Use of time is a choice. While those who can dedicate more time to their pursuit will learn more than those who can only carve out an hour a week, the “no time” answer is simply an excuse that people hide behind.

The final excuse that I want to eliminate before moving on with the one requirement to being self-taught is when I hear a person say that they just aren’t are capable of learning new skills. This is described last because once a person realizes that finances, self-discipline and time are all things that can be controlled, this final attempt at explaining why they can’t develop themselves (because of something seemingly uncontrollable) is still just an excuse. Due to the growing body of research on neuroplasticity, we know that we can improve our brains because of the fact that our brain is a muscle. The more we practice, expand our perspectives, learn new tasks, and experience new experiences, our brain will continue to learn and grow. When you look at strengthening your brain, you will find that it is really no different than any other muscle in the body. If you stop working out, your body will become weak. If you stop trying to learn, your brain will deteriorate. While there will be challenges and frustrations along the way, that is just part of the learning process that can be overcome if you really want to

Even though we know learning and growth is possible, why don’t more people learn to speak foreign languages, learn to code, learn to play a musical instrument, start a business, learn to fly a plane, or begin exploring any other skill that they want to learn? It comes down to the mindset they have when they approach education. Do you have a fixed or a growth mindset?

The Requirements For Being A Self-Taught Professional

If you want to learn the skills needed to succeed, thrive, and win on the job, the one thing to consider is what type of mindset you have. As Carol Dweck talks about in her great book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,[iii] there are two types of mentalities that people have when it comes to learning. There is a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.

As Dweck discusses in her book, a fixed mindset entails believing that your qualities are carved in stone. This leads you to be driven to prove yourself over and over again. People with a fixed mindset look at every situation as one where they need to prove their intelligence, personality and character. When you spend time trying to figure out if you are going to look smart or dumb in a certain situation, your energy is wasted trying to prove what you already have learned instead of trying to go out and learn new information and ideas. The example that she uses in her book that really stuck with me was that people with a fixed mindset are trying to prove to people that they are holding a royal flush and not letting people know they are actually holding a pair of tens. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, would look at those cards as only the starting point, not the final answer.

A growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things that you can cultivate through your efforts. While everyone has different inherent traits (intelligence, aptitude, talents, interests, temperaments, experience,) everyone can change and grow through experience and drive. If you want to get better, you have to realize that there are things you don’t know and actively seek to fill those gaps. Learning is a choice and it requires that you expose yourself to some risk. You probably won’t succeed at new tasks or concepts right away. There will be setbacks and challenges. There will be disappointments along the way, but taking the risk is a requirement to make the leap. If you push through the struggles and persevere, you will find new solutions to problems that previously seemed unsolvable.

A mindset is about motivation. Without the underlying driving force to learn something and be better, there isn’t going to be any improvement. A growth mindset is the only thing that you need if you want to be a self-taught professional. You can’t outsource the sequencing and programming for your professional development or simply hope that your organization provides you with the training you need. You have to take control over it. You have to determine what gaps you have, what mental models you want to expand upon and who has the information that you need. In future articles, I’ll talk about ways to accelerate the learning process, different areas that you might want to focus your studies on, and provide ways to get paid to learn. All of this, though, will be wasted words without first having the drive to master new skills.

In our new reality, criminals, terrorists and attackers are adapting. They choose the time and place of their attack, and they do everything possible to avoid detection until the last possible moment. They study our tactics, techniques and procedures to find vulnerabilities. Defeating them requires a growth mindset so that our nation’s protectors can adapt more quickly and continue to maintain the upper hand. While traditional methods and processes to train protectors have worked in the past, we can’t let a fixed mindset get in the way of progress. There is too much at stake. When you look at what you can control in your life and what you can’t, know that one of the only things that you can actually influence is your personal development. If our country is going to continue to progress forward and overcome the threats we face today, what we need are people who aren’t going to rely on organizations to provide the training needed to succeed, but professionals who will find the resources they need to proactively develop themselves.


[i] Plumer, Brad. “America’s Staggering Defense Budget, in Charts. “Washington Post. The Washington Post, 7 Jan. 2013. Web. 11 Feb. 2015. (link to article)

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006. Print. (link to book)