Academic learning transforms us into autodidacts

Academic learning transforms us into autodidacts: Most of our knowledge comes from a combination of experience and information. The most appealing quality of information is its availability. However, we measure our lives in experiences. More reading materials available here, here, here, here, here and here.

What is an autodidact 


Definition of autodidact is an individual who engages in self-directed learning, acquiring knowledge and skills without formal instruction or guidance from traditional educational institutions. This pursuit of knowledge is driven by personal motivation and a thirst for learning. Autodidacts take charge of their own education, relying on various resources such as books, online courses, tutorials, and practical experience. They exhibit a high level of curiosity, independence, and self-discipline. Autodidaction often possess a broad range of expertise across diverse subjects, as their learning is not bound by a predefined curriculum. They embrace lifelong learning, constantly seeking new information and expanding their intellectual horizons.

My learning history

I spent most of my life looking for academic knowledge. When I was a child my parents were too poor and overprotective to provide me with quality experiences. There were also pretty few books in our library. So I spent most of my childhood playing chess, reading encyclopedias and daydreaming about various times and places. The information was scarce, the experience even more scarce, so I used imagination to fill in the gaps. After finishing the first degree, I finally had enough time and money and interesting friends to buy all the books I could fancy and fill in the gaps.

It took me several years to fulfill my craving for quality information, and by the time I started my Ph.D. I also started to collect various experiences. I finished my Ph.D. 15 years ago. If anything, I have been learning more since. While some of my mathematical foundations were learned in the University, I consider myself an autodidactic in everything else. I had many jobs in various disciplines, I read a lot, and I had some great friends to guide me in my search.

The fallacy of academic knowledge

Somehow I always used to get great marks at school. This is probably due to my character. I am very systematic, strategic and disciplined. The problems started in my Ph.D. I had to learn subjects from articles that contradicted each other. And at the same time, I got a job, doing something that was not described in the articles I read. Three things seriously and simultaneously confused me: (1) how come the academic knowledge I learned to trust is so fragmented, (2) why can’t I learn to do my job the same way I learned to do the homework and (3) why neither the academic background nor the hands-on experience helps me to be a better and happier human being.

Young people tend to be more creative, more energetic, and capable of taking greater risks. The way the paradigms are built, we usually start with a handful of experiences and only then try to generate a theory. Why do we learn theories in the University before we had any reasonable hands-on experience? Why do we spend the years when we can make the biggest change reading about the things that were achieved by other people? There are strong voices in the business community calling students to drop the school and do some actual work: it is OK to go to school later, but there is only a small window of opportunity where we can take serious chances and explore the world.

The foundation knowledge

Some knowledge needs to be learned in a formal way before we can have our hands-on sessions. This is probably not the knowledge we get at school. For example, this is a short list of subjects that are foundational for my personal understanding of a great knowledge base:

  • Metalearning. Speed Reading and mnemonic techniques, creativity, and critical thinking.
  • Mathematics.  Including linear algebra and simple differential equations.
  • Physics.  Mainly mechanics and optics.
  • Programming. Python and C++, web programming.
  • Psychology. Conditioning, some level of CBT and NLP, common cognitive biases.
  • Finances. Supply and demand, technical indicators.
  • Medicine. First aid, anatomy.
  • Legal and accounting. Drafting contracts and patents, reading financial reports, navigating taxation issues.
  • Communication. Public speaking, copywriting.

I feel everybody needs to have good foundation knowledge in the subjects above. This is my personal opinion based on my experience, and I did not do further research. I do not know of a school that can provide this sort of training or a degree such a school can give.

A combination of first degree in engineering and second degree in business covers many of the aspects above. I do understand that a brain forms over time. A child can learn Shakespear, geography, history, and only a more mature person can learn the more advanced and practical skills.  At the end of the day, even if we have a great and very expensive education we will probably complement it by becoming autodidacts in other areas.

Daydreaming over exotic matters

Most of the time the scientists are daydreaming about some exotic matter. Consider string theory or some entanglement issues in quantum physics. These theories are extremely interesting, complex and counterintuitive. They really make our mind work, and thus are probably great gymnastics for human brains. The mathematical mechanism required to support them is complex and very powerful. And some of these exotic theories eventually provide useful applications. I definitely respect and admire the scientists who work in these fields. For the rest of humanity, it is just a great story, not unlike the stories we learn in literature classes. We do not have the background required to understand these matters and argue about them, nor do we have any way to use them in our jobs or extracurricular activities.

The scientific method

The most important thing to learn in the academy is the scientific method itself. How do we run experiments? How can we analyze the data? Which tools can be used to explain the results and predict new results? What should we read to understand these tools? What does the strange language in the articles we read mean, and why was it constructed this way? The scientific method is learned in the academy, daydreaming over the exotic matters. But once we master it, we can apply it to become autodidacts in a wider sense: learning the things they simply do not teach in schools.

Can we trust our knowledge?


Scientific progress can be viewed as a rapid change of different paradigms. Simple paradigms describing most of the natural phenomena are replaced by significantly more complex paradigms describing a slightly wider range of phenomena. Should we really believe that what we know is true is actually true? Are we fooling ourselves?

Any information we acquire can be viewed in terms of the wider understanding we have. Any meaningful experience we had, can be reevaluated using the new and ever-changing knowledge we have. Both the information and the experiences can be stored and retrieved and measured one way or another. But the way we view the information and the experience, the knowledge itself is not to be trusted. In the most profound questions, we face there are researchers that support our understanding and researchers that contradict it. The novice can have full confidence in what they learn. As we gather more expertise, we become more aware of the areas where our knowledge does not work and we do not even know what questions to ask.

Is curiosity a craving?


There are different kinds of people driven by different motivations. For me, curiosity is a powerful driver, but it is also a craving. There are certain cues that activate my curiosity. For example, when I hear “It is a great mystery” or “The results surprised even experts”. The authors of pseudo-scientific texts always use these phrases to build up some sort of tension, and I fall for them every time. Then for several weeks, I collect information, and with more answers I get I gather further questions. The peak is about a month into the process. I can daydream about the subject, and search the web before I go to sleep. And then I reach a plateau, the new information excites me less and less. Curiously, alcohol addiction in rats follows a similar pattern. Which makes me ask myself: is my search for knowledge any different?

Do not tell me, show me

A very different driver for knowledge is experience-based. Extraordinary experiences greatly contribute to happiness. Even the subjective feeling of time is formed by extraordinary experiences. We want our experiences to involve all senses and we want to be actively involved in generating these experiences. This is the way animals and children learn. When a child gets a toy, he looks at the toy, he tastes the toy, he flexes every joint and he presses every button. When the child knows that pressing a button controls a certain joint of a robot, it is not because he read it in a manual, it is because he pushed the button and the joint moved. This experience-based knowledge is more direct, more memorable and somewhat truer than the knowledge we get from the books. Yet, without knowing what moves the joint it feels very much like magic.

How should we start learning?

I do not know how the learning process should start. What I describe is something that usually works for most people if it can be applied.

  • See the new challenge as a toy, activate it, play with it for a while.
  • Once you crave to know more, read everything you can find.
  • After a couple of weeks, you will have a lot of fragmented information and will need a theory that connects the dots.
  • Now you are ready to understand how the toy works or construct a new toy. Do it!
  • As you progress with your work, you understand the gaps in your knowledge. Now you are really ready to start learning.

What is the difference between an autodidact and a polymath?

Definition of autodidactic and a polymath represent two distinct approaches to learning and knowledge acquisition. Autodidact meaning is an individual who takes the initiative to educate themselves in various subjects without formal instruction. They possess a strong intrinsic motivation to explore and comprehend diverse areas of interest. Autodidacts often rely on self-study, research, and experimentation to gain expertise in their chosen fields.

On the other hand, a polymathic refers to a person who possesses extensive knowledge and proficiency in multiple disciplines. Unlike an autodidact, a polymath’s expertise stems from a combination of formal education, rigorous study, and practical experience. Polymaths exhibit a breadth of knowledge across various domains, showcasing a remarkable ability to excel in multiple intellectual pursuits.

While both autodidacts and polymaths are driven by a thirst for knowledge, their paths to acquiring it differ. Autodidacts emphasize self-guided learning, while polymaths draw from a diverse range of formal and informal sources to cultivate their multidisciplinary expertise.

What is the difference between self learner and autodidact?

The terms “self-learner” and “autodidact” both refer to individuals who acquire knowledge and skills on their own, without formal instruction or guidance. While they share similarities, there are subtle distinctions between the two.

A self-learner is someone who takes responsibility for their own learning process and actively seeks out information and resources independently. They may utilize various tools such as books, online courses, tutorials, or interactive platforms to expand their knowledge base. Self-learners can be motivated by personal interests, curiosity, or a desire to develop new skills. However, self-learners may not necessarily possess a high level of expertise in any particular field. 

On the other hand, the autodidact definition is that it  goes beyond mere self-learning. Autodidacts are driven by a deep passion for knowledge and possess a remarkable ability to pursue extensive self-study in a specific subject or multiple disciplines. They have a strong internal drive to explore complex topics, master challenging concepts, and acquire a comprehensive understanding of their chosen field. Autodidacts often display exceptional discipline, perseverance, and the ability to synthesize information from various sources to develop expertise.

How to become an autodidact 

Becoming an autodidact, or self-learner, can be a rewarding and fulfilling journey. Here are some steps to embark on this path:

  1. Embrace curiosity: Cultivate a genuine desire to learn and explore various subjects.
  2. Define goals: Set clear objectives and prioritize the areas of knowledge you wish to pursue.
  3. Create a learning plan: Develop a structured approach, breaking down your goals into manageable steps.
  4. Utilize online resources: Take advantage of vast online platforms, such as educational websites, e-books, and online courses.
  5. Develop critical thinking skills: Learn to evaluate information, discern reliable sources, and form your own opinions.
  6. Seek mentorship: Engage with experts in your chosen fields, attend conferences, or connect with professionals in online communities.
  7. Establish a routine: Dedicate regular time to learning, ensuring consistency and progress.
  8. Take notes and review: Summarize key points, highlight important concepts, and periodically revisit your notes.
  9. Practice self-discipline: Stay motivated, hold yourself accountable, and persevere through challenges.
  10. Join or start study groups: Collaborate with like-minded individuals, discuss ideas, and benefit from collective knowledge.
  11. Embrace failure: Learn from setbacks, adapt, and use them as stepping stones toward improvement.
  12. Experiment and apply knowledge: Put theory into practice, seek hands-on experiences, and apply newfound skills.
  13. Engage in reflection: Assess your progress, identify areas for improvement, and celebrate milestones.
  14. Emphasize continuous learning: Stay updated on new developments in your chosen fields and adapt your learning accordingly.
  15. Stay balanced: Find a healthy balance between learning and other aspects of life, ensuring overall well-being.

What does autodidact mean or what is autodidact ?

An definition autodidact refers to a self-taught individual who acquires knowledge or skills independently, without formal instruction or guidance from a teacher or institution. Autodidacts are motivated learners who take initiative, utilizing various resources such as books, online courses, and practical experiences to expand their knowledge in a particular field. They are self-taught individuals who rely on their own motivation, curiosity, and resources to acquire knowledge and skills. Autodidacts often engage in independent research, study, experimentation, and exploration to expand their understanding and expertise in a wide range of fields.

We can have a very formal education in one subject, like a PhD in mathematics and at the same time be auto-didact in something else like cognitive psychology. And we can be equally active in both fields. Autodidacts are often highly respected by formally trained professionals, and offer a more enthusiastic and creative perspective.

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