An autodidact is someone who teaches themselves a new subject or skill, from philosophy to Indian cooking, without the help of a trainer, coach, or institution. They mostly learn through reading books, taking online courses, and using other online resources, like blogs or videos.
Regardless of what they’re learning or practicing, most autodidacts share six common personality traits that make them successful.
It’s likely that you are an autodidact if you have a high number of the below personality traits:
- Self-motivated: They rely on nothing but passion, self-discipline, and interest to engage consistently in their studies.
- Curious: Autodidacts have a strong desire to learn about the world and the various subjects they’re pursuing.
- Disciplined: They hold themselves accountable to do the readings and work that they promise themselves they will do.
- Systematic: Autodidacts borrow or design their own self-directed study plans.
- Goal-Oriented: They set learning goals to guide their studies and their study plan.
- Resourceful: They know how to find study materials, often free or affordable ones, that will help them reach their goals.
In this article, we’ll go over each of the six common characteristics of autodidacts more in-depth. We’ll also share why having these personality traits is so important for an autodidact’s success.
1. Autodidacts Are Self-Motivated to Learn
As my grandfather told me many times, “you learn for yourself Sam, nobody else.” Autodidacts take this code to heart.
They take their education into their own hands, and, though they often use their knowledge to help others, they do not learn for vanity metrics or fancy titles, or because an authority told them to do so, but because they know knowledge is power and freedom.
Countless people in school learn for extrinsic reasons. One common extrinsic motivator is grades or report cards to show off to their parents. They are not intrinsically motivated to learn the material. And this leads them to cutting corners and retaining very little information after the exam is over.
I’m guilty of this, even outside of school. Not so long ago I set a reading goal for 60 books in a year, and for each book I read, I updated my goodreads. Tracking is a good way to work towards goals. But there was a problem in my plan.
Because other people can see my goodreads activity, I started to partly read for my peers. I started to read dense books more quickly than they deserved, or picking shorter books to get closer to my number. Luckily, I caught myself and stopped this ridiculous charade.
As an autodidact, you really have to put learning the subject deeply as your primary goal. Sure, hitting a number of books read can be a good motivator, but it shouldn’t be the main one. Put acquiring the knowledge and challenging yourself first and all else after it.
If you want to read more books but lack the time, consider getting an Audible membership so you can listen to books on-the-go.
They offer a 30-day free trial for their Premium plan (you get 1 free audiobook, 2 if you’re an Amazon Prime member).
2. Autodidacts Are Curious About One or Multiple Subjects
Autodidacts tend to be extremely curious about their chosen subject(s). They relentlessly search for new sources of information, scouring the internet for free online courses and recommended reading lists.
They watch YouTube videos during lunch breaks, and do anything else they can to improve their understanding of the material.
Autodidacts are also in tune with this curiosity. They notice when it arises and they follow it. Curiosity is their guide for what knowledge to seek out next. Curiosity is the light shining from around the bend.
For example, if an autodidact was reading an introductory textbook to philosophy and found themselves yawning over the ethics section but laser-focused when reading about epistemology, they would likely order some books by the philosophers mentioned in the epistemology section or find an online course, like MIT’s MOOC on the Theory of Knowledge:
Keep in mind that autodidacts are often curious about multiple subjects and/or skills. That’s a good thing. For example, someone might take a rhetorical device they learned from studying philosophy and apply it to their essay writing.
This cross-pollination between the different disciplines also enables them to have unique thoughts on the material. Someone studying sociology while reading 19th century novels will have an especially unique perspective on the meaning of the books.
To satiate this craving for knowledge and skills, some autodidacts study multiple subjects at once. For example, I’m currently reading books on storytelling techniques in the morning and history/sociology books assigned by my reading group at night.
3. Autodidacts Are Disciplined & Study Regularly
Because they have no teachers checking in on them or mandatory upcoming exams, autodidacts have to be extremely disciplined in their studies. They have to hold themselves accountable to do the work, to study and practice regularly.
This is why many autodidacts dedicate the same hour every day to their studies. It makes learning a habit that is harder to break.
For instance, Ben Franklin used to study every morning for about an hour. He called it “prosecute the present study.”
Some autodidacts take this discipline to the extremes. In his efforts to pass the University of California’s entrance exams and attend college, Jack London finished all the requirements of a 4-year high school degree in just a single semester.
He claims to have studied for 19 hours a day, seven days a week, for three months. Jack London’s autodidactism in this regard was no short of a superhuman effort. And his attempts to learn novel writing were no different in terms of intensity.
While you don’t have to, and probably never should, attempt to be like Jack London, you really do have to buckle down over the long term if you want to attain master via self-education. Consistency is the key. And mastery is definitely doable as long as you’re pursuing something meaningful and interesting to you.
4. Autodidacts Are Systematic in Their Approach to Learning
Because they don’t have teachers creating their curriculums for them, autodidacts have to seek out or create their own self-education roadmaps. Often, this means picking a subject, reviewing syllabi from top institutions on that subject, and tweaking them to better suit your needs.
Other times it means buying a bunch of books on a subject, starting with the basics and working deeper and deeper into more specific subtopics, while supplementing your learning with YouTube lectures or visits to museums.
Your system for learning truly depends on what subject or skill it is you’re trying to teach yourself as well as your exact goals. Someone learning art history for fun is going to have a very different looking plan than someone learning construction to build their own house.
What matters most is that you impose some order on your studies. Figure out how those before you mastered the subject and then include their techniques to your own plan. And try to create a schedule for learning, with self-imposed due dates for your readings and other study activities.
If you need some guidance on where to start with certain subjects, our site has a ton of step-by-step, logically constructed roadmaps for various subjects, from how to teach yourself philosophy to how to educate yourself in U.S. politics.
You can follow these roadmaps exactly or modify them to better fit your preferences and goals. At the very least they’ll give you some ideas for how to approach your studies.
5. Autodidacts Are Goal-Oriented
There are many reasons why someone might pursue self-education in a given subject. Autodidacts know their ultimate aim, and strive to reach it.
Here are just some of the ultimate goals autodidacts might set at the beginning of their studies:
- Become a Master at this Skill: Some autodidacts like writers, artists, programmers, actors, engineers, architects, or other craftspeople might have the lifelong goal of mastery as their guiding star.
- Learn Enough to Know if I Should Pursue a Degree: Some people self-educate to sample different subjects and see if they’re interested enough in it to go to college or graduate school for further study.
- Get Good Enough to Do This Skill Professionally: Many people who are working a job practice and study a skill so that they can switch careers.
- Learn Enough to Be Conversant in This Subject: it’s a more vague goal than the others, but some people just want to learn enough about a subject to be able to talk about it at cocktail parties and other events.
- Get a Self-Directed HS/College Education: With costs running into the hundred thousands, many people are creating and pursuing their own undergraduate curriculums.
But autodidacts also set smaller, more short-term goals. For example, if someone is trying to self-learn digital marketing, they may pick up a book on advertising with the goal of getting better at running PPC ads.
Having this reading goal will help them read deliberately. They’ll be able to tell what parts of the book they spend the most time on, what sentences and paragraphs to underline, and what they should jot down in their notes for later use.
6. Autodidacts Are Resourceful
Autodidacts have to be able to find their own study materials. A professor doesn’t tell them what to read and watch. Fortunately, the internet makes this easier than it used to be. You don’t have to consult the local librarian, although that can help.
Many companies like Udemy or SkillShare (for creative skills) offer online courses for free or at affordable prices on a variety of different subjects. And there are plenty of reputable reading lists out there.
Plus, many people share their own autodidactic journeys in their chosen subjects, which you can use as inspiration for creating your own self-education plans. Additionally, institutions often put their course syllabi up online.
One of my favorites is Yale Open Courses, which has a ton of options:
With so much out there, the hard part is sometimes therefore choosing what not to add to your study plan. Autodidacts must therefore also be selective. Part of my goal here on this blog is to give you the resources and learning roadmaps that will help you most effectively learn your subject.
The Power of Autodidactism
Autodidacts are people who learn skills and subjects primarily by themselves, whether that means holed up in a room reading books or out practicing their skill. Most autodidacts are self-motivated, curious, disciplined, systematic, goal-oriented, and resourceful.
They are a powerful bunch, as they can pick up new knowledge and skills without going to school or getting a coach. If you’d like to become an autodidact, or learn a new skill on your own, check out our self-education roadmaps, where we walk you through how to teach yourself various subjects and skills.