How to Become an Autodidact (A 7-Step Roadmap)

An autodidact is someone who learns subjects and skills primarily on their own, outside of any formal program or schooling. They are relentless in their efforts to acquire knowledge and systematic in their approach to self-education. 

When done right, autodidactism has helped many people reach the upper echelons of their chosen craft of field and astound peers who took a more conventional learning path. 

I can honestly say that no skill has made a larger impact on my earring potential, self-confidence, and quality of life than the skill of self-education. 

Autodidactism has helped me do the following:

  • Switch careers from sales to writing. 
  • Learn skills that make living more fun (e.g., backpacking). 
  • Discover and nurture my true interests. (e.g., US History, literature, philosophy).
  • Grow into a more well-rounded, intelligent, and interesting adult. (some people might disagree here.)

Of course, such life-changing rewards must be earned. To become a successful autodidact, one who actually sees results, you must be disciplined and strategic with your studies.

But more than anything, you must also have the strength to fight through moments of self-doubt, which are likely to come by the plenty throughout your self-learning pursuits. I’ve sure had my fair share. 

In this article, my goal is to help you become a successful autodidact with a 7-step method. Throughout the post I’ll also point out the mistakes I’ve made in my attempts at autodidactism, so that you don’t have to suffer their consequences. That said, let’s jump right in. 

1. Learn the Principles of Self-Education 

Without the right self-directed learning approach, you could spend a few comfortable months thinking that you’re learning without gaining that much knowledge at all. 

As my high school Spanish teacher once said — mental stress, when studying, is a good sign. It means you’re learning. This principle can be applied to many areas of life, like lifting weights for instance. Anyone curling stuffed animal is never going to see results, unless they’re a sponge: 


I remember people in college who would spend hours in the library every single day, only to score a C- on their geology exams. They were always confused and shocked. But I had a hunch as to why they were scoring so low while putting in so many hours. 

It wasn’t that they lacked intelligence. They just weren’t studying effectively. They weren’t using the techniques that successful learners use to quickly pick up, understand, and remember new concepts, skills, and ideas. 

Instead, they were making the following mistakes: 

  • Re-reading their notes or highlights, without practicing retrieving the information with the book closed.  
  • Taking breaks every 10 minutes to check their phone or chat with a neighbor, thus removing themselves from the flow state. 
  • Rarely pausing their reading to summarize what they had just learned in their own words. 
  • Treating studying as a social event. 
Source:Brooke Cagle 

There are much more effective ways to learn. Below are three books that will teach you some powerful learning techniques, like deep focus, information retrieval, and the Feynman technique that will help you make the most out of the time you dedicate to your autodidactic pursuits. 

Deep Work by Cal Newport 

Deep Work is written by Computer Science Professor studying expert Cal Newport, whose YouTube channel I visit regularly, probably because his book represents a turning point in my life. 

The book taught me the value of long, uninterrupted periods of cognitively demanding work, or, what he refers to as deep work. 

In the book, Newport argues that the ability to do deep work is the most important skill in the 21st century for those who want to create both a successful career and a fulfilling life. 

When you can focus for long periods of time on difficult cognitive tasks, you can quickly learn new skills and improve ones you already have until you reach a level of mastery that makes you extraordinarily valuable in the marketplace of talent.  

I remember reading Deep Work on a Greyhound bus on the way back to NYC. I couldn’t put it down. It’s what validated my idea to quit sales and go into a more creative field. And it gave the confidence that I could learn to write on my own without going back to school. 

The entire book is worth reading, but if you’re short on time,  here’s an informative blog post by doist that outlines its main points.  

Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning 

Written by two psychologists and a novelist, Make it Stick challenges traditional wisdom about how we learn, and provides you with evidence-based tactics to learn more effectively. 

Some of the techniques include: 

  • Active Retrieval: This is where you try to recall what you’ve just read or watched. Trying to retrieve knowledge forces it deeper into your memory. 
  • Elaboration: Summarize something you learned in your own words, as if explaining it to a third-grader. Then connect it with other knowledge you have. 
  • Forming the Right Mindset: Believe that you can learn something. Belief alone can have incredible effects on your focus, memory, and motivation. 

This book will help anyone interested in lifelong learning, not just people in an academic program. Applying the methods will ensure you are consistently working towards mastery in whatever subject or skill you choose to learn as an autodidact. 

Ultralearning by Scott H. Young

Scott Young’s first taste of internet fame came after he completed the entire MIT computer science undergraduate curriculum in less than a year using their OpenCourseWare, without being a student. 

He just wanted to learn a lot about computer science. With that attitude and level of self-reliance, Scott is definitely someone worth listening to when it comes to self-education. 

Ultralearning is a crash course in how to plan out your learning project. Drawing from stories of real autodidacts across various fields as well as research in cognitive science, Scott Young outlines 9 principles of effective learning, or, what he calls ultralearning. 

Ultralearning: a strategy for learning that is self-directed and aggressive. 

I read the book in three days. I couldn’t put it down. It completely altered my beliefs about how to approach self-education. He convinced me to practice a more intense style of learning, and to focus on one subject or skill for months at a time instead of spreading myself too thin. 

This book is great to read before you set up any of your own self-education plans or curriculums. I recommend reading it after you’ve chosen a skill to learn. That way, while you read the book you can jot down ideas that come to you for your self-education plan. 

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2. Choose One Subject, Craft, or Skill to Learn

As a beginner autodidact, it’s important to focus on learning one subject or skill, or else you may spread yourself too thin. When you focus on just one thing, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish in just 3 months, let alone an entire year. 

During my first forays into self-education, I made the mistake of trying to learn multiple subjects at once, parrly because that’s what I encountered in formal schooling, but mostly because I was a cocky, overconfident newbie. 

I really thought that on top of work I could study history, writing, and literature every day:

The self-education portion of my schedule in the early days of my autodidactism  

The problem was that while I did gain some breadth I made very little progress on each of my learning goals, and ultimately became demotivated and gave up. I’ll use a reading analogy to show why this approach so often leads to demotivation. 

When you read one book at a time you see yourself making great strides towards the end of the book. You’re reading 40 pages a day, and that feels great. Every night when it’s time for bed you can look back at the progress and feel like you truly moved the needle.  

However, if you read three books at once, and only read 13 pages per day of each book, it feels like you’re making less progress even though you’re reading the same number of pages. 

The same goes for when you’re studying multiple subjects at once. So, for your first project, pick one skill or subject that you’re super excited about. Below are some other tips about choosing what to learn:

Choose Something You’re Truly Curious About

Your choice could be something academic like philosophy, English literature, economics, or environmental science. Or it could be a more practical skill like public speaking, programming, painting, or rock climbing. 

A lot of people choose to study a skill or subject that will help them advance their careers, but others pick ones that they think is just darn fascinating, will lead to erudition, or will enhance their life in some way, like rock climbing: 

Source:yns pit 

Whatever skill you choose to make your focus and your reasons for choosing it, make sure it’s something that seriously interests you. Don’t just pick something that seems romantic to study. You’ll burn out quickly. Your curiosity must sustain you through months of mental toil. 

Pro Tip: If you’re not sure about committing to a subject, try reading a book about it. This will tell you if you’re truly interested or being influenced by other forces to study it. 

Pick a Learning Project that Has Real-Life Payoff

It’s also a good idea to pick a learning project that you know will have a real-life payoff. For instance, if you plan to travel around Spain in six months, perhaps you’d choose becoming conversationally fluent in Spansih as your learning goal. 

Or, if you were trying to switch careers into a more creative field, you may choose to learn graphic design and buid a portfolio. Maybe you want to learn US politics to have more intellectual conversations with a group of politically-savvy friends. 

I’ve found that simply knowing how much becoming proficient at a skill is going to benefit you in the real world can help you stay excited about the learning project. 

Consider Picking a Skill That Lends Itself to Testing 

One of the hardest parts of self-education is determining whether or not you are actually improving. And when you can’t tell, doubt can creep in and convince you that you’re just wasting time and not actually learning anything. Sometimes, this doubt is enough to turn you off the path entirely. 

Therefore, as a beginner, it helps to pick a skill or subject that is easily testable. For example, skiing is a testable skill. You just keep trying to do harder slopes and see if you succeed or fail. The same goes for most other physical skills, be it mountain biking, house-building, or carpentry. You get accurate and consistent feedback about your skill level when you try to do the skill. 

Source:​​Ski Profiles 

Learning how to write personal essays at a publishable level is also testable. You can send your completed works out to publishers, and they’ll tell you if your piece has been accepted or denied. If you keep getting denied you have more work to do. And when they start accepting your essays, you get the validation that you’re improving and not just spinning your wheels. 

With some subjects its harder to test your knowledge, especially academic ones in the humanities or social sciences, as these can be essay-driven, and essays are hard to objectively self-grade, unlike a math or physics test that’s primarily multiple choice and short answers. 

For example, here’s an essay prompt from an American Lit course on MIT OpenCourseWare: 


Of course, there’s no answer key. However, I don’t want to dissuade you from studying philosophy, literature, history — I love these subjects. Like many problems that come up in self-education, this one of limited feedback can be overcome with a bit of ingenuity. 

One solution is to try to to find a tutor or a friend who has studied philosophy to grade your papers. Coursera also has philosophy courses that allow you to interact with a professor and get peers to grade your papers. You could also compare your essays to those of other scholars and note how yours is insufficient. 

Generally though, as a beginner who is new to self-education, it’s smart to choose one subject that is easily testable. After successfully reaching a learning goal, which we’ll discuss next, you’ll have built up the confidence to start taking on subjects less amenable to testing and feedback. 

3. Define an End-Goal 

Defining a learning goal gives you direction. It will help you create a study plan that takes you to the place you want to be skillwise. 

You’ll choose courses, books, and materials that help you reach your goal, while avoiding those that do not. With so much material to choose from, this allows you to create a more deliberate learning plan. 

Often, the best end-goal takes the form of a final project that will require you to use everything that you’ve learned. Make it achievable but difficult to reach. Also, don’t forget to include the date by which you want to achieve the goal. Consider following the SMART goal-setting system.

Here are some examples of end-goals for different self-education projects: 

  • Skiing: Ski a double black diamond in Park City Utah. 
  • House-Building: Build a log cabin that my family can stay in. 
  • History: Publish a history on {Certain Topic}. 
  • Computer Science: Finish a replica MIT undergraduate curriculum using MIT OpenCourseWare. 
  • Chess: Rank in the top ten at a regional tournament. 
  • Creative Writing: Get a short story published in the New Yorker by July 2067. 
  • Languages: Get level B2 on a Spanish spoken proficiency test. 
  • Philosophy: Publish 25 YouTube video essays on philosophical topics.  

Sometimes, as in the philosophy example above, you’ll be working on the project throughout your studies. In that case, it might also true that the project is never really finished. If so, pick a more specifc goal that proves you’ve improved, like get 15k subscribers to the channel. In most cases, specific goals are better than vague ones.

Later, when you reach your goal, you may continue to continue working on your craft or subject, or, you may start an entirely new learning project. As an autodidact, the choice is entirely yours. 

4. Research the Best Ways to Learn Your Chosen Skill/Subject

In the book Ultralearning, Scott Hughes recommends that people dedicate a lot of time to planning their self-education project — 10% of total learning time, to be exact. 

So if you plan to spend 150 hours learning a skill, you should spend around 15 hours researching things like learning materials, effective learning methods, available tests, necessary gear, and anything else that will help you reach your goal. 

When I read this rule, I realized why I had gone wrong so many times before. I always did some superficial research, perhaps finding a few online courses and books to use, and then, so excited, I’d plunge into the learning project the very next day, only to run into countless questions and issues as I worked through the plan. 

A half-ass plan isn’t going to cut it. There’s so much to take into account when creating your own self-learning plan. That’s part of why universities can charge so much. 

Here are some questions to ask as you do your research: 

  • How am I going to test my knowledge?
  • What materials do universitiies or people recommend for studying?
  • Can I break this skill into multiple subskills? 
  • Where will I capture my notes?
  • How did masters learn this skill? What did their apprenticeship look like? 
  • Are there concepts and facts I need to learn early on?
  • Which order should I read these books?

Of course, you can’t plan everything perfectly, but you can answer some of the above questions to give yourself a better paved path to your learning goal. 

My recommendation is to survey the field you want to get into. Read reddit and blog posts to learn how masters learned the skill. On Knowledge Lust you can find self-learning roadmaps that you can follow or tweak to fit your learning style and priorities. 

Don’t be afraid to email people to ask them how they did it. If you’re learning something academic, go to Univiersity websites and look at their undergraduate curriculums, then look up books, online courses, and other materials you can use to learn the subjects they require.   

MIT OpenCourseWare publishes thousands of course syllabi and reading lists for courses spanning the humanities, social sciences, STEM, and natural sciences. They give you assignments, exams, readings, schedule, and more. A small handful include lecture videos too. This allows you to create a curriculum that maps what an actual student would undergo.  

Here are just some of the subjects they offer courses for (181 for electrical engineering, and so on): 


Research is such an important step in becoming an autodidact in a specific subject or skill. You want to feel confident as you work through your plan that the plan is in fact effective.

5. Create Your Self-Education Plan

Write out your self-education plan and keep it somewhere you can easily reference and edit it as you go through their studies. Here you’ll write down the materials you’ll use, the learning methods you’ll employ, and the schedule you’ll follow.  

Study Materials 

Look at what others did to study your subject or skill to a level of mastery. Were there certain books they read, or online courses they took? Did they use notebooks or flashcards to memorize facts? 

Were there online exams or essay prompts they used to test their knowledge, exercise books they used to direct thier practice? How about software? Did they need to subscribe to specific online tools? 

Make a list of all the materials you’ll need to buy, enroll in, rent, or borrow before you start your studies. That way, when it’s time to move on to the next part of your plan, you won’t have to wait around for an Amazon package with your textbook in it. 

Learning Methods

For methodology, my recommendation is to read Ultralearning with your chosen subject or skill in mind. As he goes through the principles of effective self-education, brainstorm ways you can implement the learning principles like immersion, spaced repetition, skill-drilling into your learning plan.

For example, I read the chapter on immersion while thinking about how to learn the personal essay. This spawned the idea of deeply reading one essay a day from publications I enjoyed and analyzing it to figure out why the essay was considered great. 

Also, use the internet to survey what masters in your chosen field have done to reach their level. Did they spend a lot of time doing memorization activities? How much did they read? Were there specific practice exercises they did? 

I remember reading Jack London and other writers hand-copied their favorite writing to get a feel for great writing’s rhythm and style. I’ve also heard that many programmers prioritize projects as a key component of their learning plan. I learned from Benjamin Mcevoy that people studying English Lit on their own should write a book review after finishing each book.  

Google how to learn your skill. You’re bound to find some methods you can integrate into your self-education plan. Many experts love to lay out their process for becoming so skilled to help other people. Also, check out my self-education roadmaps. I may have already done a lot of the research for you. 

Study Schedule 

Figure out when you’re going to do your studies. This might be for two hours every evening after work, or every Saturday. Spacing your studies out across days is often better since you interact with the material more often, thereby increasing the odds you memorize it. I also recommend creating the schedule in Google Calendar so you stick to it.

Also, it helps to pick some exercises and predictable learning activities that you can set on autopilot and do at the same time every day. This consistency makes it easy to turn a study or practice into a habit. For example, every morning I read for my English Lit project for 30 minutes, before I start work: 

And each night I do a lecture and more reading: 

The only time that I break from this autopilot schedule is when I finish reading a novel. Then, I spend a few days using my study time to answer discussion questions and write a critical essay about the novel. After I’m done with this, it’s back onto the autopilot schedule until I finish the next book on the list. 

Here’s another example. If you were learning how to program, you might dedicate 1 hour every morning to direct practice before work, and 1 hour at night to reading books about programming. Sometimes you would have to exchange those for other tasks based on your curriculum and online coursework, but, generally, that’s how you’ll spend your study time. 

Cal Newport talks about the value of an autopilot schedule in this video: 

Setting up your study schedule in advance and including some autopilot exercises (which may change month to month) lets you devote your thought to your studies instead of figuring out what to do next. 

6. Start Studying & Stay Disciplined 

Now that you have your plan, it’s time to start studying your chosen subject or skill. Sometimes, it can be hard to stay disciplined without some external institution or a teacher holding you accountable or threatening to fail you. 

Therefore, I recommend creating your own accountability mechanisms that get you an extra push to give your studies the effort they deserve: 

  • Routinely Post Something Publicly: Even if at first it’s only your friends and family who see your work, you’re going to want to make the best video, essay, or article possible when you know it’ll be subjected to public opinion. Start a blog! 
  • Join a Group of Fellow Autodidacts: With some digging you might be able to find forums or online/in-perosn groups where other people learning your skill discuss their pitfalls and successes and strategies. A writer might join a writer’s group for accountability. They better show up with something to critique. 
  • Put Yourself into Challenging Situations: Someone studying Spanish might force themself to only speak Spansih for an entire week while in Mexico. Or maybe they’ll attend a meetup where native English and Spanish speakers converse to learn each other’s language. 
  • Get a Reading Buddy: If your studies revolve mostly around reading, consider finding a friend or peer who is also interested in reading the books on your list. 

My friend Jackson and I do this and meet every couple of weeks to discuss what we learned from our readings. I noticed some serious benefits from implementing these conversations into my routine. Not only did I become more consistent with my readings, but I also retained more of what I read, probably because I wanted to show up prepared to impress.  

Sometimes, you can exploit your ego to your own advantage. It wants you to look good and competent in front of other people, so you’ll find yourself working harder, reading more deeply, and doing the exercises that you might’ve skipped otherwise. 

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7. Continue Improving as an Autodidact.  

After a few months of consistent study, you’ll have made some serious progress if you chose one subject, done your research on study materials and methods, made a self-learning plan, and stuck with it. It’s safe to say you’re an effective autodidact. 

However, there is always room for improvement. I’m still learning how to study on my own. I often identify problems in my approach that need fixing. 

After say two months of self-directed study, you’ll still have moments of flagging discipline, a loose grasp on some of the learning methods you’ve chosen, and less than perfect mental skills like concentration, retention, and memory. 

That said, you need to continue practicing the art of learning, while focusing on finding your weaknesses and finding ways to improve them. You also need to be sensitive to how you best learn. What motivates you? What doesn’t come naturally to you? And how are you self-sabotaging? 

For example, when I was a beginner, it wasn’t until 2 months of consistent study of American History I realized that I was forgetting a lot of what I had read. Not enough was sticking. I was straying from the learning principle of retention and focusing too much on reading speed.  

“You may notice that your plan relies too much on passive reading rather than retrieval practice.” 

-Scott Young, Ultralearning 

I therefore googled learning methods that would help me retain more of what I read, and I came across Author Ryan Holiday’s note-taking system.

He suggests taking notes as you read and then revisiting them a week after finishing the book to write them into your own words and categorize them. Through this process you internalize what you read. It becomes a part of you.  

I also found Jordan Peterson’s video on reading where he recommends stopping at the end of a page or section and summarzing in your own words what you just read or listened to (lectures/videos). He calls this practicing remembering : 

He does say not to underline and calls it pseudowork. I agree it won’t help you remember, but it will help you find what you want to remember if you do a re-read. So it has its value. 

Anyway, these two strategies together have tremendously improved my ability to remember what I read. Autodidactism requires consistent experimentation in learning methods and materials in order to find what works best for you. 

Make Learning a Part of Your Life

True autodidacts don’t want to stop learning. They’re pathological about acquiring knowledge and skills. They treat their study and practice time as sacred, and hit the books with an almost religious zeal. 

A small minority of people in your chosen field will take this aggressive approach to learning. An even smaller number will study consistently for a long period of time. Lifelong autodidactism, therefore, is one of the best ways to reach eminence in whichever competence hierarchies you choose to enter. 

Today, we went over an approach to becoming an autodidact. If you want to learn more about the characteristics required to succeed with this approach, read this article on 6 personality traits of effective autodidacts

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After graduating college with an econ degree I realized I was still anything but well-educated. Over the last 4 years, I've been trying to fix that, autodidact-mode — by reading books and engaging in self-directed study across multiple subjects. On this blog, my goal is to share my learnings and help others get a well-rounded education outside of school. Education, after all, is a lifelong process, one well worth the investment.

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