Project Practitioners > [Myth] Being Self-Taught is More Authentic

[Myth] Being Self-Taught is More Authentic

By Chris Cook, PMP

READ TIME: 5 minutes


“One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.” – Friedrich Nietzsche


In my book The Entrepreneurial Project Manager, I tell a story about a middle school class retreat. This retreat was designed to help kids transition from middle school to high school by finding more about who you are as you start to grow up.

Activities included archery, obstacle courses, campfire discussions, and so on. To this day, the activity that stands out the most was a maze. Before each kid stepped foot into the maze, he or she was blindfolded. A counselor set the scenery by telling a story of how we were trapped on a snow-covered mountain looking for an exit.

Once a kid found an exit, he or she had two choices, immediately be saved and remove the blindfold or go back into the maze to help others find the exit. My strategy was simple, place my foot along the outer edge of the maze and feel for an opening. Once I found it, I would immediately stop playing this game and watch others stumble around.

I ended up finding an exit and doing exactly that. Maybe half of the kids escaped while the others stayed on the mountain. After time was up, the counselor revealed to the group there was no physical exit. The key to exiting was asking for help. Apparently, to my surprise, I had asked for help at some point during the excursion. I still regret not going back and trying to help the other kids escape, but 12-year-old me was not so nice.

Kid’s do-it-alone mindset left them stranded. Had they just asked for help, they and others would have benefitted greatly. This idea of being self-taught and figuring it out on your own only led them further down a path of confusion. Who knows how long they would have been looking for an exit had the counselor let them keep going.

Robert Greene, the best-selling author of many titles including Mastery, gives readers some insights as to the myth of more authentic learning through self-teaching:


  • Find a mentor to learn from and pass ideas back and forth.


While I was working for a company as a temporary hire, the project manager would always respond to my questions with ‘figure it out.’ This advice haunts me to this day. Some people may approach their boss with questions as they come to them rather than look for an answer then approach.

I am of the latter. If I ask a question, it is to seek an answer I could not find on my own. Figuring it out is this idea of self-teaching. You learn more from finding the answers on your own. Maybe. Or just tell me the answer so I can move on to bigger and better things.

Think of this situation. You are trying to estimate a project for an upcoming bid. You have a question about the soil conditions of the site. You check the specification book, which has a soil borings section. The soil borings are taken from a nearby location, but not the project site.

Here is the decision point: Do you call the engineer who designed the project for clarification or do you continue to search the specification book for more answers? I submit a question to the engineer to save myself time while I continue to estimate the known. In this case, spending an hour looking through the specification book could have been spent calculating depths, takeoffs, and other quantities.

For me, ‘figure it out’ has always been a way to pass the buck. Because you do not know, it is easy to say figure it out and have someone else do the work. Giving someone the skills the first time can save you hours on the back end. Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.


  • Why a mentor? Life is short.


Quote from Mastery by Robert Greene:

“The reason you require a mentor is simple: Life is short; you have only so much time and so much energy to expend. Your most creative years are generally in your late twenties and on into your forties. You can learn what you need through books, your own practice, and occasional advice from others, but the process is hit-and-miss. The information in books is not tailored to your circumstances and individuality; it tends to be somewhat abstract.”

The role of a mentor is to streamline the process. A quick fix is not available. An exact template does not exist. However, a mentor has been through a lot and seen even more. These experiences are going to help you avoid pitfalls along the way.

Mastery from self-study may take decades while a mentor can help you reach in a single decade. I think of my training in jiu-jitsu. Of course, I can register online and watch videos from world champion black belts teaching similar techniques as the gym I currently attend, but that situation does not offer me the chance to roll with different people of varying skill levels. Also, the gym setting allows me to speak directly with professors and coaches who can implement techniques or strategies specifically for me.

The online environment tries to recommend general strategies for most people. What if you or I do not fit into that category? The training becomes less effective. The same can be said for training for your project team. As people change and life moves on, your techniques may have to change. One strategy does not work for all teams. In this circumstance, having a mentor to guide you appropriately for your situation helps tremendously.

This mentor could be a boss or someone outside of the company. Your six-month project cannot wait four months for your team to perform. They must move quickly through the stages of a team for the project to succeed. In some cases, you are the mentor for your team. Instead of ‘figure it out,’ use those opportunities to teach and make your team more autonomous.


  • Take the lessons learned and apply them to your situation.


Enter individuality. Life would be great if a one-size fit all strategy was developed, everyone follows it, and success is guaranteed. However, that does not exist. Some guidelines work well. However, you must individualize it to fit your situation.

This stage is the mentor giving ideas and frameworks but never revealing an answer. It becomes a form of ‘figure it out’ without the harsh tones and lack of input. This stage is the kick in the rear or gust of wind to keep things moving forward.

For instance, look at someone who you admire. This person could be a celebrity, entrepreneur, family member, or so on. If you followed their exact template for success, would it work for you? Probably not. Granted, the strategies and techniques may have applications in your life, but their template may need some tweaking to fit your situation.

Resources may be different. Some can get a loan easily and start a business quickly. Others have to work multiple jobs and save up money to accrue the same amount. Transportation may be different. People take the bus to work versus having a vehicle. Many more environmental factors are at work. A mentor can help provide guidance through these varying resources, but it is up to the individual to take advantage. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him or her drink.




‘I did this all on my own’ is a source of pride. However, does anyone actually perform everything on their own? Was there not a teacher who influenced your learning? Is there not a lucky break somewhere along the line? Were you fortunate to have the resources at your fingertips when needed?

This myth of self-taught being more authentic is all about ego. Everyone wants to take full credit for their success. Meanwhile, along the path of success lies teachers, influencers, family members, and a whole host of others that made your dream possible.

Just like in project management, no project or goal is accomplished singularly. The project manager may get the credit, but without a team, there is no end product or service. If mentor is too strong of a word, use leader, influencer, or wise, old owl.

Plus, going on a journey alone is not nearly as fun as having friends take the stroll with you.

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