Self-learning in the vegetable patch: 5 important ingredients

What can be learnt alone and what cannot? What is the fine-line between discovering something and learning something? Do we need expert help to learn? Do we need expert help to KNOW we’ve learnt?

All these questions interest me a lot at the moment and I’d be happy to have your comments. For today, I just want to share an example of something that feels like self-learning to me, underlining the different things that make it possible: Welcome to my vegetable patch.


Motivation is key

Since I bought my small farm in January, I have delusions of “living off the land” and “keeping livestock”. Fortunately, Delhaize is just down the road and my chickens are well behaved!

But I still have a vegetable patch. Having spent the initial day digging and turning the soil, a month waiting patiently for weeds to die under cardboard boxes and plenty of time doubled-over planting seeds….. things have started to grow!

I was motivated by the challenge of growing my own vegetables, the ideas of relaxing in the garden with a family project and the (potential) reward of eating the vegetables afterwards. As far as I can tell, the first 2 are examples of what @DanielPink calls Motivation 3.0 in his book “Drive”. Eating the vegetables sounds like a classic example of extrinsic motivation (the proverbial carrot becomes reality :-)).

Without these motivations, I am not sure I would learn (or do) anything in my vegetable patch.


Clarity of mission

Covey says you have to begin with the end in mind in order to be effective. Csikszentmihalyi says you need clarity of mission to get in flow. I agree with both. Vegetable patch mission: Grow some vegetables!

Ok, got it. What next?

Last week, I was confronted with a dramatic vegetable patch situation: My garden-pea crop is falling over. Nobody ever told me this would happen. I didn’t know they would grow so tall and only my own understanding of gravity and growth tells me now what the problem is. Time to self-learn!

Mission: Help them stay upright. I hold on to this idea like a burning torch in the darkness of my ignorance.

Mission is key to successful self-learning.


Ability to evaluate the as-is situation and self-coach for options

In my post on self-learning competences, I talked about the need to self-coach and give feedback. I am a fan of the GROW model from Sir John Whitmore. Faced with my droopy peas, I applied this model to self-coach myself towards solutions:

  • I want the peas to stay upright as I have an intuition that this is best for growth
  • Assess reality: Peas not upright, future growth in bad direction…
  • Options: stand and hold them, recruit children to do the same, look on internet for answer, tie them individually to a bunch of sticks, put a wire from one side to the next and hope they climb it, create a fence ….
  • Assess options in relationship to mission, vision, resources, competences etc… (children not motivated 😉
  • Choose action





Available resources, including own materials, own competence and time to discover and learn

I decided to go for the fence solution. I still don’t know if this is what people generally do and frankly I don’t care.

Not wanting to spend money on a fence, I looked around for something that might do the trick (much like William Kamkwamba and his windmill): I found chicken wire and a few bits of old bamboo.

3 hours of work.

I tried, I failed. I tried, I succeeded.


Encouragement and feedback

Csikszentmihalyi says it is important to get feedback from the world. When self-learning, this might come from simply seeing (lack of) results, but it can be equally helpful to seek out other 3rd parties for feedback and other ideas. Whilst failing to create my effective fence, I asked 2 people for their input

  • My 35 year old wife came with encouragement in the form of words (“Well done” and “keep it up”) and presence (her simply being nearby boosted my activity – I hoped to show her how clever I was !)

  • My 6 year old daughter came with feedback: “That’s not going to work papa. You don’t have enough chicken wire for all the peas” Good point – this feedback helped me to slow down, think ahead and change course…



Voila, what seems to me to be 5 important ingredients for successful self-learning.

What do you think?

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Thanks for reading!


Published by Dan Steer

Wandering corporate trainer, learning and development consultant, conference speaker and professional El-Magico. I help people get better at stuff by creating and facilitating Infinite Learning © opportunities. The world would be a better place if everyone was doing what he loved and doing it well. I am working to bring out the "El Magico" in everybody. Training in presentation and communication skills, leadership, social media for learning and marketing, learning and development management + personal effectiveness.

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