There are numerous masters across many fields from the arts to business to mathematics who learned their skills primarily through self-directed study and intense practice.
As an autodidact myself, it’s always inspiring to read a bit about self-learners who have reached the tops of their fields, so it was fun doing research on them.
Today, I’ll cover 9 famous and modern autodidacts alive today, and give some insight into how they learned their crafts. Hopefully you’ll find some tactics you can apply to your own learning goals.
Famous Self-Taught Entrepreneurs & CEOs
Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Tim Ferriss are excellent examples of self-taught entrepreneurs and CEOs.
Elon Musk, CEO and Chief Engineer of SpaceX, and CEO of Tesla, is a modern autodidact in rocket science, among other skills.
According to Jim Cantrell, Musk’s aerospace industry mentor, Musk self-learned rocket science by reading textbooks and talking to experts.
At the beginning of their relationship, Cantrell lent him a few textbooks to study, and Musk quickly read them and committed them to memory, regularly quoting full passages from the books.
He also surrounded himself with experts, and asked them a lot of questions in an effort to learn from them. Musk demonstrates the power of self-education. It might be an autodidact who gets the human race to the moon.
Bill Gates is one of the most successful, and richest, tech entrepreneurs of the last century. Remarkably, he taught himself many of the skills needed to bring his vision of Microsoft to life, including programming.
His self-education in coding started when he was 13 years old when his got their first screenless computer terminal. He had quick successes. At 14, he and his friend created a traffic-counter that earned him 20k in its first year.
Bill Gates went to Harvard, but dropped out to work on his business idea, Microsoft, with his friend Paul Allen.
Gates says that from that moment on he used every spare minute to learn the art of coding. According to Gates, the best way to learn programming is to write programs and to study great ones, and that’s what he did.
Today, he has a lot of advice for new programmers, which sheds light on how he mastered the craft. For one, he recommends that new coders learn to read code and understand it. When he gives advice, it’s best that programmers listen up.
The modern-day polymath Tim Ferriss has the resume of a savant who doesn’t know what they want to do with their life — angel investor, tango star, entrepreneur, biohacker, non-fiction author, and host of one of the most popular podcasts in the world.
But, actually, he’s just a guy with a lot of interests and a system for learning difficult skills and concepts on his own.
Although he did get to learn writing under John McPhee, he learned most of his skills on his own through self-directed study, talking with experts, deliberate practice, and his learning method of skill deconstruction:
His self-education truly began after college. While working in sales, he spent nights working on his side hustle, BrainQUICKEN, an internet-based supplement business, learning entrepreneurship and nutrition by reading and talking to experts.
The company succeeding, he soon found himself overworked and depressed, and moved out to London to stay with a friend, where he taught himself Stoic philosophy. This helped him regain his sense of wellbeing and motivation.
This period of his life provided him with the inspiration to write The 4 Hour Work Week, a book which challenges the traditional 9-5 then retire viewpoint on life, and teaches people how to create passive income businesses online, using tactics like selling information products or living abroad in low-expense countries.
The book was an instant success. It struck a chord with the public, especially those fed up with working too many hours in jobs they disliked, or merely tolerated. I remember reading this in college. It definitely planted in me the idea of freelancing and creating a blog.
Tim went on to write 4 more books, all best-sellers. One that I gifted my girlfriend is The 4-Hour Chef. He immersed himself in the skill of cooking, learned it, then wrote a best-seller about how to learn it yourself. These days he’s advising tech startups and running his podcast.
A true autodidactic polymath, Tim talks a lot about self-learning on his podcast. Here’s an episode titled The Art and Science Learning Anything Faster. Check it out. I listen to Tim whenever I need some motivation to work on my business or to shake up my life.
Famous Self-Taught Filmmakers & Actors Alive Today
Below are just some of the directors, screenwriters, and actresses who successfully learned their crafts without attending film school: Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Meg Ryan.
Aspiring screenwriters should study the career of Tarantino to learn how to effectively teach themselves the craft.
As a young man, he was obsessed with movies. He’d watch his favorites over and over again, and he even got a job at Video Archives video rental store, where he had access to all the movies he wanted. He studied them religiously.
His knowledge of film grew each day, and he’d spend a lot of time at work talking with colleagues and customers about movies.
Now a famous filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino never attended film school. His education consisted of watching and studying film, trying to write scripts, and trying to make his own. He’s a case study in the effectiveness of immersion in one’s craft as a path to mastery.
Check out this article by The Script Lab for some screenwriting lessons from Tarantino.
Christopher Nolan, one of the best directors of our time, never attended film school. Instead, he studied English Literature in college and taught himself the craft of filmmaking.
After graduating college, he started directing corporate and industrial training videos for money. Looking back, this job was probably great experience for a young Nolan, as it forced him to work with tight budgets and minimum support from staff.
On the side, he was working on a $3,000 budget film called The Following, which would soon kill it at various film festivals, and inspire him and his wife to move to California.
When asked about whether the corporate work helped him create The Following, he had this to say:
“Absolutely. It’s all part of the same thing and people don’t understand that. Doing corporate work was very useful for Following because nobody will sit around and wait for you. You have to get in there, set up your lights and shoot the head of some company, and if it doesn’t look good he’s not going to be very happy. So you figure out a way of doing it very quickly and efficiently, and that was very much the approach I was able to apply to shooting Following.” – Christopher Nolan, Metro UK
Nolan’s big break came when he wrote the film Memento, which went on to win both critical and popular acclaim, especially for its reverse-order story line, a serious contribution to development of the artform. Since then, he’s directed The Dark Knight, Interstellar, Dunkirk, and many other classics.
Star of such films as Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally (one of my favorites), Meg Ryan originally wanted to become a journalist.
She headed to New York to study at NYU. To pay for school, and perhaps fulfill a then unconscious passion, Meg took some acting gigs in commercials.
Soon, she was in love with the craft of acting, so much so that her studies must’ve faltered, because NYU booted her from the program 6 months before graduation.
I wish I could find more about how she learned her craft, but it seems like she tries to stay out of the public eye as much as possible.
For more famous, modern self-taught actors and actresses, check out this article.
Famous Self-Taught Mathematicians & Writers Alive Today
Yu Jianchun has been called the real-life protagonist of Good Will Hunting, and Steven Pressfield and Huraki Murakami are famous writers who never got creative writing degrees and instead studied their crafts on their own.
An article on Mashable, and many others, have compared Yu Jianchun, a parcel delivery man turned respected mathematician, to Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting.
Without a college degree, Yu Jianchun came up with an alternative and more efficient proof for verifying Charmichael numbers, a concept in number theory, all by himself. Scholars were amazed.
According to Math Professor Cal Tianxin, ““He has never received any systematic training in number theory nor taken advanced math classes. All he has is an instinct and an extreme sensitivity to numbers.” — Cai Tianxin, CNN report
As if gunning for the autodidact’s award (doesn’t exist but should), Yu created this proof while also building himself a house. I’m definitely excited to hear more about this self-taught mathematician’s contributions going forward.
Steven Pressfield is a self-taught novelist and nonfiction author known for best-sellers like The Legend of Bagger Vance (now a film) and The War of Art. In one of my favorite books by him, Turning Pro, he recounts how he taught himself to write novels.
He started by moving from NYC to a small town in Northern California where he could live on the cheap. Then, for the next year, he followed pretty much the same schedule each day. In the day he wrote, and at night, he studied the greats.
“Paul taught me what books to read and what writers to pay attention to. That was what I did at night. I read all the stuff that you’re supposed to read in college but never do, or if you do, you’re not paying attention. I read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Turgenev. I read Cervantes and Flaubert and Stendhal and Knut Hamsun, and I read every American except Faulkner.” — Steven Pressfield, Turning Pro
At the end of the year, he had a finished manuscript. That bad part is that no one would publish it. But, that year made him a pro, and the failure didn’t stop him from persevering. He continued to get jobs, save money, quit, and try again, until he finally published The Legend of Bagger Vance.
It took him 27 years of writing before he published that first novel. The toil, dedication, and heartache must have been brutal, but he outlasted them, always gunning for his dream. This man is a true role model for all the autodidacts out there hustling today.
Huraki Murakami is a famous novelist who never formally studied the craft. Instead, he read a lot of books and taught himself how to write fiction.
His origin story is pretty romantic. He spent most of his 20s running a jazz club and doing a lot of tough physical labor. Then, one day, he attended a baseball game, and experienced an epiphany.
“…the satisfying crack when the bat met the ball resounded throughout Jingu Stadium. Scattered applause rose around me. In that instant, for no reason and on no grounds whatsoever, the thought suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.” — Huraki Murakami, LitHub
He says that it took him a long time to write his first book, partly because he had so few hours to write, but mostly because he had no real idea about how to write novels. When it was completed, he felt it was boring, and needed serious work.
Murakami almost gave up, but, a true autodidact, he persevered and learned the craft on his own. You can read about his full origin story here. Now he’s one of the most popular novelists around.
It’s always inspiring to know that famous people like Elon Musk, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Pressfield learned their crafts primarily through rigorous self-education and self-study. They didn’t need an expensive education to reach great heights, and neither do you.
If you want to master your craft, artform, field, or subject without going back to school, check out our step-by-step guide on how to become an effective autodidact — one that actually makes progress and remembers what they learn.