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What is an autodidact?

What Is an Autodidact?
“Autodidact” is a term used to denote people who have learned and possibly mastered a subject with no formal training or coaching. The term “autodidact” combines two words: auto (means “self” in Greek) and didacticism (which means learning). Autodidacticism, therefore, literally translates to “self-education.”

Autodidacts are willingly and constantly seeking out knowledge within a private or informal setting. They resort to books, videos, web content, etc. to educate themselves.

They learn the basics or get introduced to concepts through schools and build on those fundamentals by themselves. The learning process entails gathering, processing, absorbing, and implementing the acquired knowledge.

A complete noob or a non-mechanic reading through hundreds of articles and watching multiple videos on the Internet just to learn how to fix the brakes of their car is an autodidact.

No Individual Is a Pure “Autodidact”
Almost no person is a pure “autodidact.” Though learning is certainly possible outside the realms of an institution or school, autodidacts need the guidance and support of other people almost every time. The help could come their way in the form of interactions with people, DVDs, books, video tutorials, apps, etc. All these tools an autodidact depends on for learning have been made possible by the efforts of some person or institution.

Develops a Mission Statement for Learning

An autodidact will never go about learning without a goal or proper direction. Autodidacts usually focus on a specific subject or topic. They do not take the general route or develop an interest in anything that falls into their lap. This is particularly the case with autodidacts who are looking to master a skill or gather knowledge pertaining to a specific topic.

An autodidact also makes sure the subject they take up provides them a sense of satisfaction and pleasure. Most writers who are autodidacts intend to build a knowledge base so they could introduce more character and variety into their writing through the use of metaphors, characters, settings, plots, etc.

Draws Information From Varied Sources
Most global leaders, particularly in the business world, are autodidacts. To remain effective and make an impact on people around them, they commit themselves to continual learning. This also means autodidacts never complain of boredom or not having anything to do. They are constantly doing something or the other. In other words, after having developed a learning mission, they roll with their learning process instantaneously and persist.

Besides seeking knowledge through texts, an autodidact also acquires knowledge via travel or life experiences. Generally, it is recommended to approach a topic from different and varied sources so that one could have multiple perspectives to work with or learn from. This should particularly be the norm when learning things online.

Doesn’t Get Bogged Down by Life Situations
Autodidacts exhibit curiosity or the drive to know and learn more, even amidst poverty or when conditions around them are limiting or not favorable.

Bill Gates, during his teens and before founding Microsoft, sneaked out of his home every morning and biked to the University of Washington campus so that he could play with supercomputers that were housed in one of the blocks on the campus.

Bill had found that the supercomputers were idle from 3 to 6 am every day, and he used that to his advantage. Mr. Gates played with those advanced computers in the wee hours of the morning, not because he was planning to start a computer software business someday. He did so because computers fascinated him, and he learned programming just to satisfy his inner desire and quest to learn more.

Bill Gates had no supercomputers at home. However, he did not use that as an excuse to postpone learning or completely drop the idea. His deep, primal curiosity to learn about the technology led him to seek out or step out of his comfort zone to acquire pure knowledge. That’s typical of true autodidacts.

Searches for Knowledge Beyond Schools 

An autodidact is not dependent on schools or conventional education for learning. As Dr. Seuss puts it, you can seek help from your teachers, but you must do the majority of the learning by yourself, sitting all by yourself in your nook.

An autodidact realizes and acknowledges the fact that the Internet and the academic setup are erected by others, and teachers are at times necessary. But they do not confine themselves to that. Autodidacts take advantage of knowledge presented to them by both conventional and non-conventional education systems. In the long run, this enables them to contribute to the knowledge pool themselves with their unique inputs.

Autodidacts make strategic use of classrooms, libraries, museums, bookstores, and the Internet. They learn irrespective of whether there’s a teacher at their service or not. They are voracious readers and binge-watch documentaries, like the ones by TED Talks. They regularly attend local workshops, online classes, and seminars. Also, they write down things at every opportunity.

If you like Ted Talks videos, watch this video to learn how autodidacticism could lead to lifelong learning:

Thinks Outside the Box
Autodidacts are students of and for life. They are self-directed learners who think more than twice and outside the box before accepting a thought or idea. Even if the people in their surroundings do not think like them, they will not look down upon or belittle people who do not dare to think outside the “academic box.”

Even when on the verge of completing their doctorate, masters, or bachelors, autodidacts do not stop thinking beyond the scope of their college degrees. They can effortlessly tread academic snags, thanks to their open and flexible mindset. In short, they never allow traditional education to confine their ideas or thought process.

Has a Personalized Learning System in Place
On their passionate journey to procure more knowledge, autodidacts develop strategies to facilitate further learning. They have a disciplined learning system that helps them incorporate new pieces of information and replace old, outdated knowledge with them. This personalized learning system is flexible and non-conforming. It is built to continually ingest new information and recycle existing knowledge.

The learning system could comprise a range of activities, which include:

  • Note-taking, blog or journal writing
  • Brainstorm writing
  • Meditative writing
  • Video blogging
  • Musical or artistic expression

Autodidacts draw diagrams and pictures to increase their engagement with the topic at hand and get their brains a lot more involved in the learning process. The more the associations with a concept get loaded up, the more strengthened the circuitry becomes.

Developing a learning system helps maximize the efficiency with which you learn. Writing down important facts and quotes ensures more of the brain and body get involved in the learning process, and they effectively transform auditory data into tactile and visual information. Taking notes also helps create a record of one’s autodidacticism.

Connects Different Knowledge Domains

Autodidacts willingly unlearn things they previously went by like the gospel if that could help them connect things that do not appear linkable otherwise. The process starts with curiosity and finding out things they’d like to do.

Once ascertained, they go about learning with no fear or reservations. And in this process, autodidacts eventually reach a point where they find a relationship between the thing they are learning and the thing they’ve already learned.

Not to mention, autodidacts do this perpetually and learn something new pretty much every time – which helps them learn a plethora of things about different, but related topics. This learning journey has an endpoint, and when that intellectual impasse is reached, autodidacts reimagine things or break the existing mental paradigm and branch out into something fresh but related in some way.

An autodidact rarely learns something totally new or unrelated to what they already know about. However, they also make sure they learn something new that’s not too related to what they already know. For example, computer operating systems and bitcoins are not exactly related, but also are topics not too alien to each other. A tech enthusiast would not mind learning both.

Puts Theory to the Test
Autodidacts test the concepts they’ve learned by commenting on blogs and/or in related online forms, engaging with like-minded people or experts in the field, inviting their thoughts, etc. The testing process entails putting all the theory learned into practice so that the effectiveness of the lessons learned could be truly ascertained.

Autodidacts also frequently quiz themselves. This cross-examining of things creates learning patterns that help determine how the topics get encoded by the brain.

Revisits and Reviews Things Already Learnt
Periodically revisiting and reviewing already learned material is a great way to look for changes in perspectives (if any). Such periodic revisits also help discover layers or nuances that may not have been obvious during the original learning phase. This is primarily because one’s understanding of a topic evolves with time.

If such reviews do not reveal anything new or help discover new aspects, the learning may not have been comprehensive enough.

Becoming an Autodidact

Almost everyone – at some point in their lives – would have exhibited autodidact traits. Reading a novel, getting fascinated by it, and going online to find out more about the author and their works is a sign of autodidacticism. Getting inspired by someone’s special skills and putting in the time and effort to learn those skills, trying out a new dish, etc. are all manifestations of autodidacticism as well.

Most people are autodidacts without realizing that themselves. However, if you’d like to become an active autodidact or take your autodidacticism several notches higher, here are a few things you could do.

Identify and Follow Your Passion
The word “passion” gets thrown around quite a lot. Contrary to general perception, passion is not an endeavor you’d like to pursue someday. It’s something you are already on top of. A teen “passionate” about photography will not wait for his parents to buy him an expensive camera before he could go snapping pictures. He would be capturing photos with his smartphone, even if the camera on the device is lame.

To become an autodidact, the first thing you must do is identify subjects or fields you can commit to for an indefinite period or take up as a career. You need not stick to one topic or field. Dabble with quite a few of them as that would help you cement your passion for the field or help you realize it wasn’t the right domain for you after all.

Consume Content Like There’s No Tomorrow
Once you have identified the topic or subject that you’d like to deep-dive into, get rolling right away. Look for different knowledge sources as there could be multiples of them. The Internet may have put bookstores out of business, but do not overestimate the Internet as not everything found offline has an online version.

In other words, if there are bookstores in your area, browse the collection and see if you could find something useful. Also, if you have access to a library, do pay it a visit.

Venture Out and Keep Exploring
Besides consuming related content, it’s also advised to read up on subjects that are completely unrelated to what you’re currently consuming. If you are a business leader or an entrepreneur, consuming information that falls completely out of your domain could help you learn a thing or two about your business through a different lens altogether. A new business idea could pop up too.

For example, if you are an investment banker, delving into the various sciences or art and architecture topics could help you learn more about your client’s organizational challenges. Do not branch out for information with a predetermined goal, however. Consume information from all corners with the pure purpose of learning. If you happen to find connections with your existing field of work or core interests, see that as a bonus.

Stay Flexible and Open
To become an autodidact, you need to be both disciplined and courageous. Approaching a subject you never learned or got introduced to during school takes courage. It requires more courage to admit that you do not understand a topic so that you could move on and not waste time on it.

Most importantly, you should be able to unlearn things or accept the fact that your viewpoints could be wrong. This realization usually happens when you get familiar with a topic at a deeper level. If you are able to admit your shortcomings or poor comprehension of a specific topic, you will eventually acquire a deeper knowledge of it.

But if you choose to hold on to your misunderstandings or approach topics with your preconceived biases, you will end up learning things that will do no good or harm you in the long run.

Keep Practicing Things Learned
If you are reading psychology and find an opportunity to discuss what you learned with your family and friends, share your knowledge. If they do not find the topic interesting, cut it out. But if they do find your tidbits of information endearing, continue.

Besides being able to recollect what you learned, you’ll also learn what others have to say. The opinions of people around will help you alter your pre-existing notions about the subject and/or ascertain how you approach the topic moving forward.

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