What Is an Autodidact? (and How to Become a Self-Taught Person)
Being a self-directed learner (commonly known as an “autodidact”) can make a huge difference in your personal success. Instead of relying on a formal classroom, you take personal responsibility for your education and what you’d like to study.
Many influential figures in history, such as Leonardo da Vinci, the Wright brothers, Margaret Mead, and Mark Twain were either partly or wholly self-taught. But what’s interesting is that you don’t have to be famous or a historical figure to become an autodidact. Anybody can be self-taught—all you need is a willingness to learn and the confidence to make it happen.
With that in mind, let’s talk about the autodidact concept, the benefits of being self-taught, and a few simple strategies for getting started.
What Is an Autodidact?
If you spend your time researching just because you are curious, or are constantly looking for knew knowledge because you want to, there is a chance that you're already an autodidact.
Essentially, anyone who has a lust for knowledge could be an autodidact. Autodidacts are people who have a passion for lifelong learning, and who question the limits of formal education. Some common characteristics of an autodidact are having a drive to know more than what is on the surface, and having a need for unrefined knowledge. Autodidacts want to be able to come to their own conclusions about topics and gain perspective by hearing from multiple sources on a matter.
So, how rare are autodidacts? It is certainly easier these days to embrace autodidactism than it was in past eras. But many people still follow the herd of conventional education. Being an autodidact involves learning some basics in school and then gradually diving into the processes that incrementally follow from those basics, continually increasing in both complexity and diversity.
While many people think of autodidactism as a talent that a rare few are born with, this is very untrue. Being an autodidact is a lifestyle. It is a choice that anyone can make. The truth is, most people are autodidacts in varying situations in their lives, but everyone could greatly improve their life by being more deliberately autodidactic.
Benefits of Being an Autodidact
1. Becoming competent in the topics or fields of interest you are passionate about.
We live in a fast-paced economy where more and more people are recognizing that lifelong learning is critical to success. Studies have shown that, on average, people change jobs four times before turning 32. And with technology constantly evolving, the older generation has to find ways to enhance their skills, which could mean either training in a new field or building upon their existing knowledge.
In this environment, the ability to self-teach is vital if you want to keep up with other people who share your passions. Self-learning fosters the continuous development that you need to stay relevant with the times and remain employed.
Energetic autodidacts hold an advantage over people who only learn under systematic conditions, or those who choose to not continue learning at all. One of the most important characteristics of an autodidact is the ability to apply the knowledge that you gain on your own to real-life emerging challenges.
People who have a genuine thirst for knowledge are able to choose any subject that they are passionate about and become educated about the matter. You can focus on your passions on your own time and hone in on your specific interests. You can experience satisfaction while you learn more about something that you truly care about.
2. Developing self-discipline.
As an autodidact, you have a unique responsibility to yourself. Typically, there won't be anyone else watching over you to make sure you remain on track with your learning or put in the necessary hours. You must learn to effectively study and fairly self-evaluate in order to progress properly.
Without formal goals to reach, such as passing tests and obtaining degrees, it can be easy to lose motivation and focus. It can also be tough to learn without peers with whom you can discuss topics and ideas. But as you continue to learn for your own enjoyment and interest, you will develop the self-discipline that you need to learn more because you will be intrinsically motivated to keep going. Learning helps cultivate focus and self-discipline.
3. Achieving excellence by raising the bar on your own capabilities.
As an autodidact, you constantly challenge your own thinking. You set your own goals and achieve them at your own pace. You keep pushing yourself because you know that while there is no cost to failure, there are great rewards to success. As you achieve something that you thought was out of your reach, you will continue to challenge yourself to keep going.
4. Learning to think outside of the box.
As an autodidact, you are an autonomous student. You think for yourself. You don't limit yourself in your thinking or prevent yourself from gaining knowledge in a nontraditional or non-academic way.
Autodidacts remain open-minded and flexible with their thinking, and don't see formal education as being the only means to gaining an education. Because of this, autodidacts can navigate the academic box and take what they want from it, but that is only the beginning of their journey.
5. Avoiding the rising costs of learning through conventional schools.
Access to information is cheaper than ever these days. As the evolving digital culture continues to take place right in front of us, people have immediate access to free online resources that grow every day.
For example, Wikipedia is the first free-to-use encyclopedia that is accessible by the global community—and it is continuously updated. With access to such a wealth of knowledge, people can avoid paying tuition for conventional learning, and instead research what they want to on their own time.
There are also many free online courses offered through sites like Coursera and Udacity. If you don’t like a course, you can simply drop it without having wasted any money. If you realize that you don't find a subject as interesting as you expected, you can stop studying it and find a new course for free. This gives you the power to study whenever you want.
6. Opening up of unique opportunities for autodidacts who possess specialized skills or knowledge.
For anyone who is especially gifted with an unusual ability in a subject, whether it is technology, music, math, or anything else, autodidacticism may be the only option. Many famous autodidacts have become well known because of their ability to demonstrate skills that exhaust the knowledge of their teachers. Unique opportunities can present themselves to autodidacts.
For example, Julian Assange is a famous autodidact who opened up his own opportunity for success with his specialized skill. He is a self-taught computer genius who figured out how to hack into computers at the age of 16. This eventually led him to establish WikiLeaks, and allowed him to bring to light some classified documents and war videos that were government property.
Can Anyone Be an Autodidact?
Yes. Here are ways you can be one, too.
1. Discover what you are passionate about.
What do you want to focus on? Knowing or finding your passion is the first step because you won't stay motivated teaching yourself if you aren't passionate about the material. Try starting with smaller topics so you can easily obtain all the knowledge on a given subject. Once you have this mastered, you can advance to a more complex topic, or to a more inclusive view of a subject.
For example, if you want to learn about history, start by picking a specific time period or country. This will allow you to concentrate on something specific without being flooded with too much information.
2. Focus on “just in time” learning.
We live in a world where people are craving instant gratification, which is why “just in time” learning has become popular. “Just in time” learning is where learning is available on-demand, and can be accessed whenever it is needed. In order to stay ahead of the game, people need to have this immediate access to new information.
As learning technology improves, people expect to be able to be trained on anything with immediacy because they want to implement the information right away. If you have to wait to learn, by the time you gain the knowledge you are seeking, the moment is gone, the world has moved on without you, and you have lost any opportunity.
3. Fully immerse yourself in your topic of interest.
This can be a combination of reading about the topic (both books and blogs), listening to podcasts, taking online classes through Udemy and Skillshare, and watching YouTube videos. Make sure to use a variety of resources so you can absorb many different viewpoints on the subject and make your own conclusions if something is up for debate.
4. Attend seminars, workshops, or courses for what you are passionate about.
Consider any alternative methods through which you could learn. For example, many universities offer free massive open online courses, which are taught online about a wide range of subjects and topics. If you do an online course, make sure that you fully engage so you can get the most out of it. This will help you interact with other people who are learning about the same thing.
If you can't attend a seminar, look for a TED talk online. This nonprofit organization is focused on technology, entertainment, and design, and has a mission to spread ideas on innovative subjects. The speakers are typically leaders in their fields with innovative takes on topics or some new ideas that they present.
5. Take notes and create action items.
Start by writing down any ideas that you have about the topic before you begin your research. During the time of your learning, continue to brainstorm and summarize your knowledge to keep track of your learning. Evernote is a useful app that can help you organize your notes.
Reading something once might not make it stick in your memory, but writing it down and reviewing the information later will help you log it in your brain. Once you have finished reading everything that you want to, look back at your notes to take stock of your new knowledge.
Write down any interesting facts or information that you learn, and any observations you have about them. Doing this will help you coalesce all of the information and help you keep track of how far you’ve come during the process. Make sure to take notes about where you originally got the information in case you want to go back to the source later.
In addition to taking notes, create action items for what you’re going to implement next in order to keep your learning organized. Todoist is a great tool to help you manage these tasks. This will help you stay on task and keep your learning moving forward.
Let’s review what we’ve discovered today.
We learned that autodidactic people are those who take learning into their own hands, achieving mastery in the areas they are passionate about. They are the ones who realize that true education doesn't happen simply by putting information near one's brain. Being an autodidact has a significant effect on a person’s success.
We also learned that you, along with everyone else, have the ability to be an autodidactic person. You have the resources that you need available to you to learn about any subject that you are passionate about. You don't have to wait for a class to come along or a rare opportunity to become a master in a subject.
So if you’d like to unleash your potential and take charge of your learning, then I recommend getting started with the action steps that we just outlined.
And don't forget to check out Novice to Expert: 6 Steps to Learn Anything, Increase Your Knowledge, and Master New Skills!