An old library with old books and statues of famous intellectuals. Image from Unsplash.
Aaron Wright
Jul. 19, 2018

Autodidactism: The ultimate guide to becoming a self learner

Ask any successful person how they feel about education, and almost all of them will tell you that education was a big part of their success. But with the skyrocketing cost of college, advanced education is becoming out of reach for a growing number of people. So how do you maintain and expand on your education without sinking into a lifetime of student loan debt? Enter the world of a little known practice called autodidactism.

In this very long article, I will explain what an autodidact is, why you should be one, and how to do it.

What is an autodidact?

So what is an autodidact? An autodidact is someone who studies new topics on their own in a deep and comprehensive manner. There are a lot of people who are curious about the world around them, but autodidacts take it a step further.

Instead of just visiting a museum or reading nonfiction books, an autodidact will get a textbook, perhaps even at the college or graduate school level, and take notes about what they learn. Depending on the field of study and their budget, an autodidact might even do some sort of lab work involving tinkering, experimentation, and hands on learning. The goal of autodidactism is to gain a deep understanding of the topic through self study.

Autodidactism vs lifelong learning

Autodidactism is related to the concept of lifelong learning. While some people bundle them together as one concept, I prefer to draw a distinction between them.

To me, a lifelong learner is someone who keeps their mind active well into their adult life and old age. They probably read nonfiction, watch some documentaries now and then, and enjoy museums. They just stay curious and enthusiastic about any opportunity to learn something.

An autodidact takes it further than that. They don't just learn, they actively study and take a deep dive into a subject, maybe even reaching a point where they can contribute new knowledge to the field.

If you want to use a fitness analogy, a lifelong learner is someone who lives a generally healthy lifestyle, while an autodidact is more like an amateur or even professional bodybuilder. The difference is really just a matter of depth.

Why become an autodidact?

At this point, you might be wondering why you should become an autodidact.  I would argue that you not only should become an autodidact, but also that the world is reaching a point where autodidactism will become a necessity. In fact, we might have reached that stage already.

Many of the jobs available on job websites are positions that could be automated within the next decade. Cashiering and manufacturing jobs are already being handed over to machines, and truck driving will probably be automated within the next decade. My point isn't to make a claim as to whether or not this is fair or right, but simply to say that it is happening either way.

The economy of the future will require people who can continue to learn new skills and continue to adapt. Everyone will be an entrepreneur to some extent, and that necessarily means you need to innovate. Those who are willing and able to pursue self directed learning are the people who will get ahead.

Famous autodidacts

Some of the great creators and thinkers throughout history have been autodidacts. Just to list a few:

Ray Bradbury - Author of novels in many fields, especially known for his science fiction works. Graduated high school during the Great Depression and couldn't afford college. Instead, he went to the library 3 days per week for 10 years to continue his education.

The Wright Brothers - Invented the airplane. Neither one of them completed high school. They owned a bicycle shop to make a living and self studied aeronautics as a hobby.

Henry Ford - Founder of the Ford Motor Company. He did not attend college.

George Bool - Self taught mathematician and philosopher who made numerous contributions to both fields. In particular, he developed the field of boolean algebra, which lies at the heart of all computer logic.

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek - Considered the father of microbiology. Mostly self-taught, he developed microscopes that were more powerful than anything else at the time. Used his microscopes to make some of the first ever observations of many common microbes.

... and many, many more.

Autodidactism is not dead

Many of the famous autodidacts listed above lived a long time ago. When reading about autodidacts from a few centuries ago, it is easy to criticize autodidactism as an outdated concept. You might be wondering if autodidactism even still works in our modern world.

The answer is yes, it does, and I know from experience. I built Lernabit. I wrote all of the code, built the database, made the Android app, and manage the servers. I have never had a formal class in programming, computer science, or business. I learned it on my own with books, the internet, and writing a lot of code.

And it isn't just me. Even engineering applicants at Google are no longer required to have a college education. The book "Biopunk", by Marcus Wohlsen describes a similar DIY movement that is taking place in the world of biotechnology.

Autodidactism is not an outdated concept. It is still possible to learn new skills and use them to build something meaningful without any formal training.

How to be an autodidact

If you have read this far, you are probably interested in autodidactism enough to become one yourself. Remember that autodidactism is really just the practice of deep, self-driven studying of a certain topic, so becoming an autodidact is mostly a matter of just picking up a textbook and getting started. But with that in mind, here are a few tips that you might find useful.

Tools for autodidacts

There are some tools available that will help you on your autodidactic endeavors. I won't bore you with the obvious tools like Google and Wikipedia, but here some useful sites you might no know about. They are divided up by the goals they can help you accomplish.

Free books and textbooks

Project Gutenberg - Under copyright law, book copyrights expire after a certain number of years (the number of years varies by country). At that point, the book enters the public domain. Project Gutenberg hosts the full text of thousands of public domain works for free download.

Librivox - Similar idea as Project Gutenberg, except Librivox makes public domain books available as audiobooks thanks to the work of volunteers who read the books out loud and record it. The quality of the recordings can vary, but some are very good.

Wikibooks - From the makers of Wikipedia, Wikibooks offers free textbooks about a wide selection of topics. Most are incomplete, but this page lets you browse by their level of completion and find the ones that are done or almost done.

Free courses

Khan academy - This incredible resource is listed first for a reason. Khan Academy offers high quality video courses for free. They offer subjects ranging from kindergarten math to advanced finance, cryptography, and even LSAT preparation.

YouTube - There is an impressive amount of free educational content to check out on YouTube. There aren't a lot of organized courses, but if you have a specific question you need help with you can usually find a video about it on YouTube.

Open Courseware - Many colleges including Stanford and MIT now post their lectures online for free. The easiest way to find them is through the Open Education Consortium. Just be sure to check the date, because some of them can be a bit old, especially the ones from MIT.

Paid courses

Treehouse - Most of the courses on Treehouse are about computer programming, but they have a large selection of courses within that field. A monthly fee of $25 gives you unlimited access to their courses.

Lynda - Lynda offers courses about technology and business skills for $30 per month.

Research papers

Google scholar - This little-known section of Google will only return search results from peer-reviewed journals, patent applications, and legal documents. Excellent for science and engineering topics. Try it out here.

DeepDyve - DeepDyve lets you pay one monthly fee of $49 to get unlimited reading from thousands of scientific journals. That might sound like a lot of money, but it really isn't when you consider that a single paywalled journal article can normally cost $10-15 or more just to read it.

Don't forget the library

With the entire internet at your disposal, it's easy to forget about your local library. In fact, a trip to your library will often be far more productive than hours of surfing the web.

This is especially true if you want to learn about business, marketing, and related fields, but also for many other fields. A lot of the content you find online for those fields is formulaic, repetitive, and of very little value. But if you browse the shelves at your library you can find many hidden gems.

For other fields like science and computer programming, most of the good stuff is online. The printing cycle for physical books simply can't keep up with the speed at which STEM fields are moving forward.

Math is an exception. I've found that a real math textbook usually has better explanations of the subject and much longer list of practice problems than what you can find online. And unless you are at the very cutting edge, math doesn't change very much so math textbooks age well.

After spending some time as an autodidact yourself, you will start to get a feel for which topics are best to search online and which ones are best to get from a book. Just try a bit of everything and see what works for you.

How to remember what you learn

Whether someone is learning on their own or as part of a formal class setting, one of the greatest challenges to the learning process is the issue of trying to remember what you learn. This is where Lernabit comes in handy. Lernabit is specifically designed for autodidacts to solve the challenges of learning on your own.

By using Lernabit to keep track of what you learn, Lernabit can remind you to review it and make the memorization process a lot easier. Also, certain feeds in Lernabit will prioritize the notes you already have created about that topic that are due for review.

For example, when you search for a hashtag, any notes you have with that hashtag that are due for review will show up first. That's cool because it helps you recall what you already know about the topic before learning something new, which provides context that helps the new information sink in. This and other features on Lernabit are carefully crafted to help you remember everything you learn.

How to stay motivated as an autodidact

At some point, everyone loses the motivation to study for brief periods of time. Sometimes you get tired, sometimes you are too busy, but in any case, it's normal to lose motivation sometimes.

If you need a break from studying for a day or two, that's fine. In fact, some time away from studying can help the information take hold in your brain. By leaving your studies to go enjoy a hobby, exercise, or do something creative, you can help the new knowledge form connections with existing information in your brain. So losing motivation sometimes isn't really a bad thing as long as you get back on track soon before you start to forget what you have learned.

One of the hidden benefits of Lernabit is that it helps you stay motivated to keep learning. By actively reminding you to come back each day to study, Lernabit helps yo retain what you have already learned with just a few minutes of studying, even if you can't find the motivation to do any new studying that day.

How to avoid becoming a quack

If not done properly, autodidactism can quickly turn into quackery. You've probably seen what I mean before. When I talk about quackery, I refer to the people who claim all types of miracle inventions and breakthroughs. I'm talking about the guy who claims to have built a perpetual motion machine or a cure for cancer that won't get funding because "nobody understands it".  Becoming "that guy" is one of the risks you take when you learn something on your own without the guidance of someone who is already at the level you want to reach.

But in any field, those at the cutting edge are necessarily autodidacts. If you are discovering something that has never been known before, or if you are building something that has never been created, you can't get guidance from someone who is already at that level because there is no such person. So how does an autodidact push the limits of their field without becoming a crackpot?

First, get rid of the idea that autodidactism and outside instruction are mutually exclusive. Just because you are learning something on your own, that does not mean you can't learn from other people. In fact, that is exactly what you are doing as an autodidact anyway. If you study a textbook, somebody had to write it. If you read a scientific paper, somebody did that research. If you visit a museum, there was a curator who put together the exhibits with an intent to teach something. So don't think that autodidactism requires you to be an intellectual lone wolf. Indeed, self directed learning with a dash of collaboration is precisely what is going on at the highest levels of academia.

Second, keep an open mind. Becoming an autodidact requires discipline, but it also requires courage. It takes courage to approach a tough academic subject without a teacher. It also takes courage to admit when you don't understand something or when you are wrong. You absolutely must keep an open mind and be willing to change your viewpoints as you gain more understanding of a subject. If you admit when you are wrong and take that as a sign of poor understanding of the topic, you will eventually gain a deeper knowledge of your field. But if you hold on to misunderstandings and try to warp reality to line up with your biases, you put yourself on the fast track to loony land.

Conclusion

A true lifelong learner realizes that education is not something you get and forget about. It is an ongoing process that must continue throughout life. I hope this introduction to autodidactism has inspired you to pursue lifelong learning and given you some tools to help get you started on making your education a lifelong experience.

Remember everything you learn about any topic with the education app designed for autodidacts. Create your free Lernabit account now.