Autodidacticism: Self-Learning for Success

by Brian on November 19, 2014 in Autodidacticism

All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten? Hogwash. Everything I really needed to know about life, I learned outside of formal schooling.

One secret the most successful and most interesting people know is that studying and learning does not end the day you finish K-12, college, or however far you made it through formal schooling.

Want to learn how to start and run a company? How to do a PPC advertising campaign on Google Adwords? Play the guitar? Improve your social skills? Or goodness forbid, pursue traditional school subjects like math and biology even though your school days are well behind you?

It might be convenient if you could drop everything and enroll in classes to pick up these skills. But that’s not always an option, especially if you have pesky commitments like jobs and/or children that need tending to.

Even if you could drop everything, you might not have access to the best teachers. Really interested in studying neuroscience with a Harvard professor? Or an acting masterclass at Juilliard? Even if you discount obstacles like possibly not even living in the same hemisphere, there are still some pretty significant hurdles to getting successfully enrolled in one of their classes.

And some things, like running a company, are very experiential and do not lend themselves well to traditional schooling. Maybe you could get a close approximation by becoming Warren Buffett’s apprentice, but again you have the formidable challenge of getting him to take you on.

Enter the self-directed learner. To wit, the autodidact. If you are reading this blog right now, then you probably are one.

The Autodidact advantage

Open-ended, interest-driven autodidactic learning is qualitatively different than standardized formal schooling.

With the traditional schooling most of us have been exposed to, you are forced to be there. With autodidact learning you are there by choice.

This fundamentally different dynamic drives a fundamentally different attitude and outcome. With self-directed learning you feel internal compulsion to pursue mastery of a subject and learn all the ins and outs. You are, after all, there by choice and doing this as a labor of love.

With traditional compulsory education your motivation usually doesn’t go beyond getting a good score on the next test. The presence of tests themselves, although a useful tool for measuring understanding, alters the learning experience. Even in traditional classroom courses taken purely out of personal interest, the game of anticipating and studying for “test material” often distracts from focus on mastering the subject. It might seem like tests and subject mastery should align with each other, but they are not the same.

Autodidactic learning is freer to meander, emphasize, and explore the facets we find most interesting. And if a particular subtopic is interesting, it doesn’t stop pursuing the finer details because the teacher said they wouldn’t be on the test.

Instant access to the world’s best teachers

The traditional classroom is not the only way to access the world’s best teachers. These people also write books, produce instructional DVDs, and create online courses. And the materials are usually much, much cheaper than learning from the world’s best in person.

So while you are still out of luck for becoming Warren Buffett’s apprentice, you can still benefit from the wisdom of his essays if you have about $20 and an internet connection.

Want to learn to swim like a pro but don’t have easy access to a good coach? For a $20 digital download you can learn freestyle with one of the world’s best coaches.

What about learning from brilliant minds of ages past like Charles Darwin and Adam Smith? They are now gone, but the books they wrote remain.

You can also access the thoughts of the best relationship coaches, negotiation experts, and social skills researchers. One of my core beliefs that I try to express through this blog is that everything is learnable. And I think nowhere is this more true than the “soft skills” of business and life that are almost completely neglected–even deemed unteachable–by traditional schooling.

The Autodidact’s Creed

Learning on your own and at your own pace is cheap, rewarding, and effective. If you need or want to learn skills that you don’t have, the knowledge is just a Wikipedia article, book, or video away.

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