If you’ve ever tried to teach yourself a new skill on your own, you’ve likely come across the terms autodidact and polymath on the internet.
Autodidacts are people who teach themselves skills and polymaths are masters of many skills. Often, a person who is an autodidact is also a polymath, and vice versa. Some of the most successful people in history, from George Eliot to Alexander Hamilton to Elon Musk have been one or both.
In this article I’ll go deeper into the differences between an autodidact and a polymath, and also show you why many people are both at the same time. I’ll also go over how to become an autodidactic polymath.
What’s the Difference Between an Autodidact and a Polymath?
An autodidact is a person who learns skills and subjects primarily on their own without formal schooling or training, and a polymath is someone who is proficient at multiple skills or subjects.
If someone learned political theory outside of school by reading a lot of political science books and watching online lectures, they’re an autodidact.
If someone learned chemical engineering at college, creative writing at an MFA program, and cooking through a formal training program in Paris, they’re a polymath, but not necessarily an autodidact. They learned multiple disciplines, but didn’t do it primarily on their own.
So, the fundamental condition for being considered a polymath has to do with how many skills you learn, while the condition for being an autodidact has to do with how you learn.
Can You Be an Autodidact and a Polymath Simultaneously?
In the real world, it’s rare that you’ll find someone who is a polymath but not an autodidact. Typically, if you come across a polymath, it’s likely that they’re also self-taught in at least a few of their fields.
To become skilled across many disciplines, you usually have to take some of the learning into their own hands.
Attending college courses or formal programs for every skill you want to pick up is expensive and not always optimal, as other students or teaching methods might slow down your progress, and you might not be able to follow your unique interests.
An example of someone who is both an autodidact and a polymath is Leonardo Da Vinci. Through self-directed study and experimentation, he taught himself painting, architecture, engineering, and other disciplines.
Benjamin Franklin, who taught himself writing, science, diplomacy, and more, is another common example of someone who is an autodidact and a polymath at the same time.
I like to call these remarkable people autodidact polymaths — those who teach themselves multiple subjects or skills to a level of near or complete mastery.
In our economy, an autodidactic polymath is a force to be reckoned with. They’re agile, versatile, and constantly picking up interdisciplinary knowledge that helps them improve in their primary discipline as well as the other fields they’re engaged in.
How Do You Become an Autodidactic Polymath?
To become an autodidactic polymath, you need to have two things more than anything else: curiosity and self-motivation. These core personality traits, along with these other 4, will help you push yourself and learn skills, ideas and concepts at an impressive speed.
You need to be able to select multiple subject areas or skills you want to learn and then chart a course of self-directed study to attain proficiency, and then even mastery, and you need to be able to stick to it through difficulty and doubt.
If you already have one skill you’re employable for, you’re on your way to polymath status. Now all you have to do is pick something else you want to learn, and then learn it by yourself.
You could pick to learn any of the following:
- A new language
- An academic subject (check out my 7-step guide for self-studying philosophy)
- An instrument
- US politics
- A trade like carpentry or plumbing
The options are endless, so listen to your curiosity. Some people might tell you to study this or that, but don’t listen to them more than you listen to your inner self. Motivation will only remain if you pick a skill you’re truly interested in learning.
After you’ve chosen your field of study, start learning about how other masters at that craft or subject learned it. You can do this by searching reddit, perusing college syllabi, reaching out to experts, and even using our self-education roadmaps, where we try to chart the best way to self-learn a new subject.
Next, design a learning plan that replicates the barebones of the learning processes you’ve encountered, and tweak it to fit your own learning preferences, style, and goals.
Then acquire the materials — books, online courses, textbooks, etc. — and start studying and practicing every day. There’s no need to push yourself to exhaustion.
We’re all busy, so pick a duration that works for you, albeit aim to push yourself a little past your comfort zone. Within a few months, six months, a year (depends on your effort and goal) you’ll have become an autodidactic polymath.
Bottom Line: Autodidacts vs. Polymaths
Autodidacts (self-taught people) and polymaths (masters at many skills) are both becoming more common because information is more accessible to a wider range of people.
If you’d like to learn more about autodidacts, polymaths, and self-education in general, keep exploring Knowledge Lust, where I’m constantly posting about these topics and creating step-by-step self-education plans for various subjects, from US politics to economics.