Mind & Body

Teach Yourself, Change The World

In theory, "don't be a fool, stay in school" is great advice. In practice, however, as college costs continue to skyrocket, the prospect of jumping into America's pool of more than a trillion dollars in student loan debt may cause even the most curious of students to hesitate. Fortunately, there are more free or inexpensive educational resources than there have been at any time in human history – and they can take you further than you might imagine.

Autodidacticism, or autodidactism, is education without the guidance of masters (such as teachers and professors) or institutions (such as schools). An autodidact may have some formal education, but his or her main field of study is sometimes completely self-taught. And they're more than just hobbyists: some autodidacts have been responsible for major inventions and contributions throughout history.

Next Level Learning

Becoming an autodidact requires two important qualities: intensity and intentionality. People like Leonardo da Vinci and Theodore Roosevelt may have been gifted with intelligence, but the most important factor in their success was the intense way in which they approached learning. Rather than waiting for information to come to them, they aggressively sought out knowledge themselves. As the extremely productive Benjamin Franklin noted in his autobiography, "From a Child, I was fond of Reading, and all the little Money that came into my Hands was ever laid out in Books."

An autodidact does not simply learn, but does so efficiently. Autodidacts focus on study methods that maximize outputs and minimize inputs. This is because they do not learn for the sake of learning, but instead learn with the intention of gaining real, tangible benefits. For example, autodidact Bryan Davis, founder and owner of Lost Spirits Distillery, explained to us on the Curiosity Podcast that he taught himself chemistry in order to remain competitive in the spirits industry.

"I was a sculpture major, so this was all new to me. But I figured, you know... if I'm gonna make [whiskey], even if I'm doing it the traditional way, I need to understand all the ins and outs of how this chemistry works," Davis told us. "Otherwise, I don't know what I'm doing, I'm just flying blind, right? So I just figured, well, chemistry is the new art medium. Let's go figure this out." After teaching himself chemistry, he conducted experiments and eventually found a way to alter the chemical properties of rum to age it 20 years in just six days.

"I don't think [I'm a genius], I just think I'm a guy who picked the wrong major in college," he laughed as he explained the importance of intentionality. "There's a difference when you're trying to build or engineer experiments or studies for the purpose of achieving a goal versus for the purpose of acquiring knowledge for knowledge's sake. It's a different way of doing the same thing, in essence. And I was trying to go 'how do you make 10, 15, 20-year-old bottles of booze faster so we can properly compete with the guys with the portfolios that we want to compete with'?"

The World Is Your Oyster

One more skill of a successful autodidact is the ability to connect information from disparate sources and fields. Many of the greatest autodidacts have made their mark by creatively connecting information from various experiences and academic fields.

For example, the "father of modern genetics" Gregor Mendel's pea-plant experiments were influenced by his education in the natural sciences and in religion, and "she sells seashells by the seashore" businesswoman Mary Anning discovered several new species of dinosaur while collecting fossils for her family business. She taught herself French just so that she could read archaeological published in that language.

So where do you go to start learning? There is no shortage of opportunity to educate yourself. Your local library and Curiosity.com are two obvious places to start, but additionally, the "IWantToLearn" subreddit contains a community of more than 200,000 autodidacts who help one another discover new sources for learning specific skills, and there's a smaller autodidact subreddit with some great tips for finding cheap sources. And if you just need basic knowledge to get started, even Davis claims that he got started by using a tried-and-true online encyclopedia.

"So, you know, you go to Wikipedia, you read the articles to get the vocabulary. Then if you don't know a word, then you click on that word, and it takes you to that word's page, and you get more vocabulary, and if you don't know another word, you click that word, and it takes you to the next page," Davis explained. "Once you have the vocabulary, then you can go to PubMed, which is the National Institute of Health's database of all the published scientific papers, and search whatever you want. Then, just start downloading to your heart's content, and viola, all of the world's information is readily available."

To hear our entire conversation with Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits Distillery, stream our podcast using the player below, or click here for our full show notes. You can also listen to the episode on iTunes, Stitcher, Gretta, SoundCloud, and everywhere podcasts are found.

Are you an intelligent thinker or a blind follower?: Maaher Sayeed at TEDxModa 2013

Written By
Cody Gough
October 17, 2017