Personal University

How to Set Up Your Personal University

No, you don’t need to rent a campus, hire professors and start charging tuition. Setting up a personal university means taking your self-education as seriously as any schooling you manage pay for. While regular university is expensive and stops when you get a degree, your personal university continues indefinitely and can be run for free.

I’ve always been educating myself. From learning basic programming languages in my pre-teens through to reading about quantum physics and world religions in my spare time today. But it has only been in the last few years that I’ve gotten serious about my self-education. In that short time I went from reading a handful of books each year to over seventy.

But forming your personal university isn’t just reading a lot of books, just like getting a degree isn’t the result of taking random classes. Taking a more well-thought approach to what you learn in your spare time can give you an edge over the haphazard learner.

Getting Sold on Self-Education

If you don’t read a lot outside of work or school, the reason probably isn’t a lack of time. Lacking time might slow you down, but even with fifteen minutes a day you could chew through two or more dozen books a year. The problem is usually that you aren’t sold on the benefits of investing in educating yourself.

Reading and self-education takes effort. While this effort can have big short and long-term payoffs, those gains aren’t always easy to see. If you’re already spread thin between other commitments, it might seem like too much to throw reading a book or two per week on top of everything else.

Here are just a few of the benefits I’ve noticed from a literary gluttony:

  • Improved Grades. Reading more outside your classes broadens the base from which you can learn material inside your classes.
  • Improved Work. Every idea you learn can help improve your craft, whether that’s being a rock-star programmer or the world’s best manager.
  • Life Improvement. Every idea, in the end, is self-help. Even if you aren’t reading books from the personal-development aisle, you are still gathering ideas that you can eventually connect down to improving yourself.
  • Hacking Reality. The more you know, the better you are at decrypting reality. This is the biggest benefit of self-education because the more you learn, the greater your ability to sculpt what you want from the world.

Building Your University Curriculum

The best way to start any self-education is to start writing down what you would like to learn. I did this recently and wrote down dozens of different subjects from card counting to South American history. Write down important books you would like to read. I made a list that included everything from fiction such as Shakespeare and Vonnegut to non-fiction works by Aristotle or Adam Smith.

If your list looked anything like mine, chances are you’ve got enough material to keep you booked for the next few years (okay, bad pun). The next step is to whittle down this massive library into something you can learn over the next few months. Here are a few tips for thinking through your book list to take with you on your next trip to the library:

Pick 2-3 books per topic of interest. Taking only one book on a subject only gives you a single author’s perspective. If you find a subject interesting, you owe it to yourself to pick out two or three books to get contrasting views. Picking out more than three books in advance might be repetitive if you want to cover other subjects.

Read unusual and unusually good books. With every batch of new bestsellers, it is easy to jump on the latest book with the flashiest title. I strive to balance my portfolio by looking for more unusual books and unusually good books that may not get as much buzz today. This gives you a creative edge over the people who only read from the front of the bookstore.

Mix fiction and non-fiction. I used to read almost entirely non-fiction. Lately, however, I realized that great works of fiction can have even more value than non-fiction. Rather than unloading information, fiction gives you an opportunity to rewire how you think.

Use a T. The T-Model is one of the best theories for learning I’ve come across. Basically, it suggests you should focus on building a lot of skill in a select few areas (the shaft of the T) and know the basics about many areas (the top of the T). Using this approach, you can split up your learning between new areas and focusing on your expertise.

Use Wikipedia as a Start Point. Not sure whether you want to read a few thousand pages about a new subject? Just wikipedia a few topics within that area and see whether it spikes your interest.

Diversify. Stock pickers diversify so that the chances one devastating negative event or missing a great opportunity won’t hurt them. Diversifying your knowledge helps as well by focusing your attention on learning things far away from your current understandings.

Make Use of OpenCourseWare. Although online learning still has a ways to go to compete with your local library, OpenCourseWare is very close. Check out MIT’s selection of free online courses. These can help provide the structure of a formal course with the low costs and flexibility of self-education.

See Also: The Independent Scholar’s Handbook. Published in pdf format, this free resource provides a guide for independent learners.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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