If you’re trying to master the art of teaching yourself new subjects and skills — aka autodidactism — you have some reading to do.
Below are five books that have served me well. The authors are basically my mentors when it comes to self-education and reading.
They’ve provided me with methods, philosophies, advice, and, most of all, inspiration to go on with my studies. I hope they can do the same for you.
The Well Educated Mind
I read The Well Educated Mind a few years ago when I was obsessed with the idea of a classical education based around the great books.
Aside from providing well-thought out chronological reading lists for various types of books — novels, history, autobiography — it also provided me with a lot of principles for effective self-directed study via reading.
It was Susan Wise Bauer who introduced me to the three-stage approach to reading great books, also known as the trivium:
- Grammar: Understand what’s being said.
- Logic: Analyze the parts and how everything is connected.
- Rhetoric: Form a critical opinion of the book.
In The Well Educated Mind the author also discusses how to use the trivium for each of the five categories of books.
I came away with a serious understanding that reading history requires a whole different batch of techniques than reading an autobiography.
So much differs — what you look for, what you take note of, how you evaluate its merit.
I recommend this to anyone who wants to read the great books of history/politics, novels, poetry, theater, and/or autobiography in chronological order. Susan Wise Bauer is a great guide.
Interested in becoming more knowledgable about history. Check out my Western history self-education roadmap.
Deep Work led to a monumental shift in my views surrounding work.
When I read it, I was working in tech sales and feeling like something was off. I wasn’t enjoying the work and was feeling drained all the time. I just couldn’t put my finger on why that was.
Cal Newport threw a spotlight on the issue for me: I was spending too much time doing shallow work — sending cold emails, manipulating reports, researching leads — and not enough time doing the deep, cognitively demanding stuff that fills up your soul.
From then on, I started to take my drive to become a writer more seriously. I had learned that one of the best sources of fulfillment in life is challenging, focused, creative work.
You might be wondering where self education comes into play here. The reason I recommend this book to any autodidact is because it outlines the best way to approach studying.
It teaches you about the importance of focusing intensely on the task, or book, at hand, for a sustained, and at first uncomfortable, period of time (1-3 hours).
After reading the book I set a goal. I would write without distraction for 1.5 hours straight for 2 weeks, then increase it to 2 hours, then 2.5, and so on.
It’s amazing what you can get done in these short intense bouts of work. The same can be said for how much you can learn in just one hour.
Wondering if you have what it takes to become an autodidact? Read the 6 common personality traits of autodidacts.
The Intellectual Life
“Have you two hours a day? Can you undertake to keep them jealously, to use them ardently…If so, have confidence. Nay, rest in quiet certainty.” — A.G. Sertillanges
I first learned about The Intellectual Life from none other than Deep Work.
It’s a guide for people who want to devote themselves to living a life of ideas, study, contemplation, and intellectual creation.
It’s both theoretical and practical, describing the intellectual life and telling you how to lead one.
I highly recommend checking out Jared Henderson’s conversation about the book in this podcast episode of The Classical Mind.
I also recommend actually reading it. You’ll find all sorts of pieces of advice for how to go about your studies, like the quote at the top about setting aside two hours a day for your studies, and how profound a change that can make.
He goes into reading, note-taking, the best time to study, the use of memory, and so much more, while also philosophizing quite a bit.
Want to know the benefits of living an intellectual life? I encourage you to read 10 reasons to engage in self-education regularly.
Ultralearning is the best guide I’ve read for teaching yourself new skills. I finished it in one night.
The author, an exceptional autodidact himself, defines ultralearning as “a strategy for aggressive self-directed learning.”
The book outlines the nine universal principles of Ultralearning and provides plenty of real-world examples and findings from scientific literature on learning to back his claims.
The most interesting part for me were the stories about people teaching themselves new skills — languages, drawing, computer science, etc.,
These were fuel for inspiration, not only for me to keep on practicing self-education, but also to keep on building this blog.
It shows that people are out there doing amazing things with nothing but some books, practice, and determination.
I definitely recommend grabbing this book if you’re considering learning a new skill to change careers or enhance your life.
A Tip for How to Read More Books This Year
Want to read more books this year, across many genres, but can’t find the time?
I love the ability to listen to books at night when my eyes are tired or on my long walks around town when I just can’t sit in a chair any longer.
Martin Eden is a semi-autobiographical novel by Jack London that tells the story of a young, rough, and poor sailor who, through intense self-education and sacrifice, becomes a celebrated writer and public intellectual.
It’s my favorite book of all time. If a biographer were to write my story, they’d have to give the name Martin Eden to one of the most pivotal chapters.
I recommend it to self-directed learners because it’s inspiring. Throughout the book Martin’s intellectual development is on full display. You see the results of his reading and study.
You see how it makes him a stronger thinker, a more careful and eloquent speaker, a better writer. And you come to remember how life-changing self-education can be.
You also see many of the challenges of self education. (check out the 7 biggest self education mistakes I’ve made).
The best parts of the story for me are the times he spends in his study with his books or his typewriter, in a small room surrounded by books.
After reading one of those scenes I always feel a strong urge to find a quiet place to read a book.
Want to read more literature like Martin Eden? Then check out my popular guide on how to self-learn English literature from scratch.
Want to Become an Autodidact?
If you’re interested in teaching yourself hard skills and academic subjects, I recommend giving these books a read.
Also, consider checking out my guide on how to become an autodidact, where I’ve integrated a lot of my learnings from these books into a 7-step approach.