I first came across the term autodidact in an article about Benjamin Franklin. I felt that the word held some sort of mystical power, so I obsessively researched the term along with the people awarded this estimable classification, hoping to figure out if I was an autodidact, and, if not, how to become one.
An autodidact is someone who learns a new skill or subject on their own without formal education. Entirely self-directed, autodidacts create their own study plans and follow them until they’ve achieved their goal, whether that’s proficiency in a new language or mastery over an academic subject.
Read on to learn more about what it means to be an autodidact, its benefits, what an autodidactic polymath is, and how to determine if you’re already an autodidact.
What is an Autodidact?
The prefix “auto” means self, and “didact” derives from the Greek word “teach”. Therefore, an autodidact is someone who is self-taught in some skill, concept, craft, or subject.
These self-directed learners choose what they want to learn, be it guitar, philosophy, or a new language, and educate themselves on it until they’ve reached a level they’re satisfied with.
Sometimes, for people like Jack London, Benjamin Franklin, or Elon Musk, this acceptable level is mastery over their chosen art, discipline, subject, or skill.
Aside from choosing what they want to study and accomplish, autodidacts also decide what materials to use. Typically they’ll use a combination of books, textbooks, online courses, and other resources like podcasts or YouTube videos to achieve their learning goals.
Completely free from the control of a trainer or program’, autodidacts also choose their study frequency and how to approach their studies. Some, like myself, create self-education roadmaps to make their self-directed learning more systematic.
To help you understand what it means to be an autodidact more clearly, let’s go over some examples of people who fit into this impressive class of learners.
Examples of Autodidacts
A photographer who learned their craft through reading, practicing, and taking free online classes is an autodidact. So is an accountant with a Military History blog who spends their time off-time reading history books, following military trends, and reading academic papers. And so is the person reading 24 political science books in a year.
Here are some examples of famous autodidacts you may know:
- Leonardi Da Vinci is a polymath who taught himself art, science, engineering and more.
- Benjamin Franklin is an autodidact in various disciplines, including electricity.
- Jack London taught himself how to write novels.
- Thomas Jefferson learned philosophy mostly through reading and thinking on his own.
- Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Johnny Depp are all autodidacts.
You may wonder whether these people and other reported autodidacts learned their craft entirely on their own or if they had help from a teacher or institution at some point along the way. This is where the term autodidact gets blurry.
Because learning is a lifelong process, and there are many opportunities to receive formal education, it’s not uncommon for someone to be only partly an autodidact. Let’s go over the different degrees of autodidactism.
There Are Different Levels of Autodidactism
If a writer went to creative writing school for 2 years and studied the craft on their own for 10, are they considered an autodidact?
I think that they are, seeing that the definition of autodidact doesn’t exactly tell you what percentage of your education in a given subject needs to be self-directed to qualify you as an autodidact.
Most people learn their new skills through a combination of self-learning and formal education, so there is a spectrum of autodidactism.
To put labels on things, we might say that someone who never went to school for architecture and is now a master is a full autodidact. And that someone who learned the basics by reading on their own but then went to school to bolster their education is only a part autodidact.
In my opinion, drawing these distinctions between full and part autodidact is splitting hairs. Anyway, I’m not sure anyone these days could be considered a full autodidact, as almost all of us attended some sort of public education in our youth that furnished us with the foundational knowledge required for the acquisition of most skills or subjects.
I consider myself self-taught in blogging, but I gained a foundation in english composition and writing from my formal education, so I guess I’m only a part autodidact in this craft. The self-taught chemist learned basic math and chemistry in high school. Does that mean they’re only half-autodidact?
Perhaps the computer scientists, house-builders, boxers, chefs, and other self-taught professionals who have learned skills that rely on very few inputs from grade school are the closest ones to true autodidactism.
But in the end, if you’re learning a new skill or subject primarily on your own outside of a formal program, consider yourself an autodidact.
The Benefits of Being an Autodidact?
Being an autodidact can help you in many ways in your professional and personal life. In his book Deep Work, which I definitely recommending reading, Cal Newport argues that one of the most important skills for success is the ability effectively to teach yourself new skills and ideas.
“…in our economy, if you can pick up new skills or ideas fast, you have a massive competitive advantage.”Cal Newport
But, improving your value in the marketplace is only one of the many benefits of autodidactism. Here are some other reasons why people love being autodidacts:
- Study at Your Own Pace: You can go as you please. If time is tight for a week, you can pause your studies. If you have a vacation, you can read for hours a day.
- Follow Your Curiosity: You have the option to tweak your path at the request of your curiosity. If you want to linger over a subtopic, you’re free to do so. If you’re self-studying politics and vibe with immigration policy, you can read 20 books on just that if you’d like.
- Learn New Things Affordably: Used books usually range from 5-20 dollars. And online courses, even those given by top universities, can be found for free or affordable prices.
- Have a Fulfilling Intellectual Life: Dedicating an hour or two a day to self-improvement through study can be spiritually satisfying.
- Learn Skills That Improve Your Quality of Life: When you teach yourself to build a house, you can build one for your family. When you learn art criticism, going to art museums is more fun. When you self-learn guitar, you can join a band. The list goes on.
- Study According to Your Learning Style: We all have different learning styles. You can formulate a curriculum that works for you. There are no other students to take into account. For example, if you’re an auditory learner, podcasts are a great addition.
Compared to the conventional way of learning new skills and subjects, autodidactism is freeing and affordable.
For example, unlike in a university program where your curriculum is set in stone and prices are jacked up, you are free to adjust your learning path at any time based on what interests you most. And you can always find affordable books and free online courses, saving you tens of thousands of dollars.
My Experience an an Autodidact
When I graduated college, I felt that I had spent 4 years learning something that only moderately interested me — economics. I felt the need to increase my stock of knowledge about other subjects and to improve my mental faculties, like critical thinking and powers of analysis.
Inspired by Jack London’s fictional character Martin Eden, a 1910s sailor turned self-made intellectual and writer, I decided to become an autodidact in the academic subjects that had been pulling on my curiosity for some time.
My first project was to study American political history, especially the events occurring and ideas circulating during the revolutionary period. For three months, I read various books on the revolutionary war and political philosophy, watched free lectures, took notes, and discussed what I’d learned.
It was an intellectually fulfilling experience, and I learned a ton. Since then, I’ve been learning other subjects that fascinate me, mostly to inform my writing, but also just for fun.
About a year ago I learned the basics of surfing (enough to catch and ride a wave) with the help of a surfer friend and some YouTube videos. Right now, I’m studying the craft of storytelling and doing a self-designed cirriculum in English literature. For me and most other autodidacts, learning is a lifelong process that doesn’t end with school.
What is an Autodidactic Polymath?
An autodidactic polymath is someone who is self-taught in multiple skills or subjects. Leonardo Da Vinci is probably the most iconic autodidactic polymath, for he learned painting, engineering, science, sculpting, and architecture on his own without formal education.
The phrase is the combination of “autodidactic”, which means self-instructed, and “polymath”, a person of wide-ranging knowledge.
Because autodidacts tend to be curious and driven individuals, it’s not uncommon for them to pick up multiple disciplines through self-directed study. Becoming an autodidactic polymath is a common next step for autodidacts.
Autodidactic polymaths are extremely powerful, as they’re able to use that working knowledge of different subjects to come up with unique solutions or creations.
For example, someone who is self-taught in comedy, cartoon drawing, and business is well-equipped to create their own comedic cartoon magazine. A biologist who has also educated themself in chemistry and zoology can come up with creative experiments to answer biological questions.
How Do You Know If You’re an Autodidact?
You can determine if you’re an autodidact by asking yourself one question: have I ever learned a subject or skill primarily on my own, outside of a formal program or training? If the answer is yes, you’re an autodidact.
Here are some examples of autodidacts to help you self-qualify yourself:
|The physics major who spends their downtime reading and writing about Russian literature.|
|An economics graduate who is taking free online courses in environmental science to become a better environmental economist.|
|Someone who is learning to paint landscapes by following a step-by-step roadmap based on an art school’s curriculum they found online.|
|The trucker who listens to US history podcasts and reads numerous books on the Civil War.|
|A freelance tech blogger who spends their nights practicing writing fiction, studying novels, and reading books on novel writing technique.|
|The salesperson who is teaching themselves carpentry through online courses and manuals.|
If you’re not already an autodidact, figure out if you have what it takes by reviewing the six personality traits of autodidacts and seeing if you have a high number of them.
Becoming an Autodidact
An autodidact is a self-taught person. To become one, you first have to do is pick a subject or skill that you want to learn and go forward with studying it regularly.
This learning goal could be something that will help you switch careers, earn money, or to test out if you want to pay to pursue the subject or skill more formally.
Or, your goal might be learning about a subject that you find interesting and valuable based on the concepts and boosts it will provide to your intellect, like philosophy.
Here at Knowledge Lust, I’m constantly researching the best way to break into new subjects and skills. Check out our blogs to see if we’ve covered a skill or subject that you’d like to learn more about.