Teachers do have their place in the world but sometimes it is important that we learn stuff on our own. Sometimes there is no teacher available, in those times, it the value and importance of learning own your own increases tenfold.

People like Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution has made him one of the most influential figures in human history, are often thought of as natural geniuses. You may be surprised to learn that much like Cajal, Darwin was a poor student. He washed out of medical school and ended up, to his father’s horror, heading out on a round-the-world voyage as the ship’s naturalist. Out on his own, Darwin was able to look with fresh eyes at the data he was collecting.

Persistence is often more important than intelligence. Approaching material with a goal of learning it on your own gives you a unique path to mastery. Often, no matter how good your teacher and textbook are, it’s only when you sneak off and look at other books or videos that you begin to see that what you learn through a single teacher or book is a partial version of the full, three-dimensional reality of the subject, which has links to still other fascinating topics that are of your choosing.

Neurosurgeon Ben Carson, winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his pioneering surgical innovations, was initially flunking and gently urged to leave medical school. Carson knew he learned best through books, not in-class lectures. He took a counterintuitive step and stopped attending lectures to give himself time to focus on learning through books. His grades soared and the rest is history. (Note that this technique would not work for everyone—and if you use this story as an excuse to simply stop attending classes, you are courting disaster!).

In the fields of science, math, and technology, many individuals had to carve their own path in learning, either because they had no other way, or because for whatever reason, they’d thrown away previous learning opportunities. Research has shown that students learn best when they themselves are actively engaged in the subject instead of simply listening to someone else speak. A student’s ability to grapple personally with the material, sometimes bouncing it off fellow learners, is key.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal was horrified when he had to learn college calculus as an adult, after he had become serious about becoming a doctor. He’d never paid attention to math in his youth and lacked even a rudimentary understanding of the material. He had to go rummaging back through old books, scratching his head to figure out the basics. Cajal learned all the more deeply, however, because he was driven by his personal goals.

Inventor and author William Kamkwamba, born in 1987 in Africa, could not afford to attend school. So he began teaching himself by going to his village’s library, where he stumbled across a book titled Using Energy. But Kamkwamba didn’t just read the book. When he was only fifteen years old, he used the book to guide him in active learning: He built his own windmill. His neighbors called him misala—crazy—but his creation helped begin generating electricity and running water for his village and sparked the growth of grassroots technological innovation in Africa.

American neuroscientist and pharmacologist Candace Pert had an excellent education, earning a doctorate in pharmacology from Johns Hopkins University. But part of her inspiration and subsequent success arose from an unusual source. Just before entering medical graduate school, she hurt her back in a horseback-riding accident and spent a summer under the influence of deep pain medication. Her personal experiences with pain and pain medication drove her scientific research. Ignoring her advisor’s attempts to stop her, she made some of the first key discoveries involving opiate receptors —a major step forward in understanding addiction.

College isn’t the only way to learn. Some of the most powerful and renowned people of our time, including powerhouses Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg, James Cameron, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak, dropped out of college. We will continue to see fascinating innovations from people who are able to combine the best aspects of traditional and nontraditional learning with their own self-taught approaches.

Taking responsibility for your own learning is one of the most important things you can do. Teacher-centered approaches, where the teacher is considered to be the one with the answers, may sometimes inadvertently foster a sense of helplessness about learning among students.6 Surprisingly, teacher evaluation systems may foster the same helplessness—these systems allow you to place the blame for failure on your teacher’s inability to motivate or instruct.7 Student centered learning, where students are challenged to learn from one another and are expected to be their own drivers toward mastery of the material, is extraordinarily powerful.