My Struggle to Follow my Main Tenet of Self-Education (Curiosity’s Dominance)

I end pretty much all of my self education roadmaps with a message telling readers to follow their curiosity. 

Ironically, this is advice that I often struggle to follow myself. When it comes to self-education, I’m much more impressionable than I’d like to be. 

There are times when I choose a book that I feel I’m supposed to have read over a book that I’d like to read. And there are times when book recommendations from public intellectuals knock me from my path. 

Booktube, course syllabi, online reading lists — these are all other crosswinds that combine to blow me around until I’m completely lost, reading several books that someone else told me to read, forgetful of what I wanted to learn about in the first place. 

I have at times thought to myself all these things:

  • “I should probably read all the greatest works of antiquity, the middle ages, and the enlightenment before I read this contemporary work of philosophy.” 
  • “But what about the Odyssey? Every educated person has read the Odyssey. I must drop my self education plan entirely until I’ve read it closely.” 
  • “Shouldn’t I have read all of Plato’s works by now? Surely I must master him before even touching any other philosopher.” 
  • “How the hell can I call myself a writer if I haven’t read everything Dickens has written? I’m a fraud!”

Such unhelpful thoughts, spurred no doubt by information I’m consuming online, at times win out against my willpower to stay the course. 

I believe there are two human tendencies that I, and any person engaged in self-learning, must spot and weed out if they wish to ignore these thoughts and truly pursue their interests in a steady and deep fashion. 

  1. We gravitate towards the books that will give us some sort of cultural capital, even if they do not interest us: We want to catch that Herodotus reference or say we’ve read Stendhal or Flaubert. 
  2. We believe there is some foundation of knowledge we must attain before exploring on our own: We think we have to deeply understand the middle ages before reading a history about renaissance, or read Rousseau and Hobbes before Locke. 

Once you are aware of these tendencies, you can stop yourself from giving into them. 

When a thought, or a YouTuber, tells you to stop studying chess strategy because knowing about artificial intelligence is more profitable or sexy, you’ll be better able to shake your head and keep on learning what your heart, your head, or some undefinable internal force compelled you to learn. 

Some Clarifications on Booktubers, Reading Lists, and the Classics

I want to be clear here that I’m not attacking book bloggers, YouTubers, reading lists, or great book programs. 

We all need to get our information about what to read and study from somewhere, and these are valuable sources. 

However, once you’ve researched a subject, thoughtfully chosen it as your subject of study, and carefully made a study plan, it may be a good idea to limit the advice. 


Well if you come across advice that runs against your study plan, or makes a new subject look shinier than your current one, you may experience self-doubt and grass-is-greener thinking that causes you to ditch the plan. 

Also, I want to be clear that this is not an argument against the canon or the classics. There is so much to be gained from familiarizing yourself with the masterpieces of your tradition. 

Works by Plato, Herodotus, Rousseau, Tolstoy and other great minds are transformational, educational, profitable for analysis, and, perhaps most of all, able to tell you something deep about human nature, your culture, and, by extension, about yourself.  

No, I’m not saying skip the classics. Read them with attention. Make them a part of your reading habit. 

What I am saying by mentioning them and reading lists is that, if you’re anything like me, you may at times find yourself giving these too much power over your reading choices at the expense of your curiosity. 

You may find yourself working your way down Sam Harris’ or Jordan Peterson’s list of recommended books, or Harvard’s or Yale’s, or The Great Books of the Western World series, all the while neglecting the books on your read later list on Goodreads. 

Another potential cost of obsessing over pre-made reading lists is that you might read less often, because you’re not excited about the next book on the list. 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from years of self-directed study, it’s that lists are good for breaking into a subject, but once you’ve gotten an intro, your best bet is to read the books that interest you most, because those will be the ones you’re excited to pick up. 

According to Fareed Zakaria, author of In Defense of a Liberal Education, the books you’re curious about may also be the ones you remember most vividly and learn the most5 from: 

“In my own experience, the courses I took simply because I felt I needed to know some subject matter or acquire cultural literacy have faded in my memory. Those that I took out of genuine curiosity or because I was inspired by a great teacher have left a more lasting and powerful impression.” 

— Fareed Zakaria, In Defense of Liberal Education

I’ve found in my experience of self-directed study that Fareed is certainly onto something. 

Years ago I read Histories by Herodotus for very little reason other than the fact that it was on Susan Wise Bauer’s history list in The Well Educated Mind (a great book on self-education). Today, I can remember one or two key points from it. 

In contrast, I find myself regularly using in conversation something I learned in Battle Cry of Freedom, a civil war history that I chose to read because I wanted to learn about the civil war. 

Plato, of course, knew this rule of learning long before autodidacts like me bumped up against it: 

“Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind.” — Plato 

Self-Reliance as it Relates to Curiosity in Self Education

The main idea that convinced me to give personal curiosity such a dominant position in self-directed study is Emerson’s idea of  self-reliance. 

He believed that you should rely mostly on your own desires and interests to guide you, not on those of other people. 

It’s an that seems easy to follow. One aspect that makes it so interesting is that it’s actually pretty damn hard to pull off, not just in intellectual pursuits, but in all aspects of life. 

Just listen to the way Emerson talks of it:

“What I must do, is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

It’s no easier in today’s information age to stay your course studying subjects that you find interesting. In fact, with YouTube influencers and people like me recommending books to you, it’s all the more difficult. 

Information after a point makes it hard to hear that little voice inside you telling you what parts of the world of knowledge your heart desperately wants to explore. 

Summing it up

What I hope you’ve taken away from this midnight rant of mine is that self-education is meant to be interesting. 

It’s meant to help you cultivate your specific interests, no matter how strange they may be, and to gain knowledge that helps you reach your particular goals. 

It’s not meant to help you reach some abstract level of cultural literacy or to build a foundation of knowledge. 

These of course will be positive side effects, but, in most cases, they shouldn’t be the goals of your learning. 

Remember, while lists, canons, and curriculums can be helpful guides for your self-directed studies, don’t let them be your master. 

Give your curiosity veto power. Give it choosing power. Let it be the judge of any pre-made reding list thrown your way. 

And enjoy the journey of learning what you want, how you want. That’s what autodidactism is all about.

If you want to learn more about how to effectively teach yourself new skills and subjects, I recommend these five books on self-education. They’ve proved indispensable to me in making self-directed learning plans.


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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