Autodidactism: The Art of Self-Education


“The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.”

-Steve Jobs

Are you tired of being in debt from student loans?

Do you want to go back to grad school or get your doctorate but it’s just too expensive?

I know I do.

But, I refuse to get myself into debt.

I finished college a couple years ago with two amazing degrees: a B.A. in Finance and a B.S. in Spanish.

Unfortunately, I graduated at the worst possible time to be majoring in finance. I had a great internship at Merrill Lynch.  Then, as a result of America’s failing economy, Bank of America ended up acquiring the firm, firing all the people who I had networked with, and Merrill Lynch merged with BOA.

I worked for free for six months, every day after my college classes, and then I had to work my “real” job (the one that paid the bills) and every single connection that I had made was fired. Over the next six months, the entire building was shut down, packed up, and gone from my hometown.

I guess you could say graduating during the financial collapse of 2007 really opened my eyes to how the world works.

Nothing is guaranteed.

Even hard work doesn’t pay off. You can take all the right steps, gain all the experience, but if the timing is wrong, you don’t have a chance.

You see, I majored in finance because I wanted to trade derivatives in Chicago. At the time, I thought majoring in finance was the safe bet, the smart play, and the specialization that ensured my future well-being. This was going to be the degree that guaranteed me a paycheck.

Majoring in Spanish was a passion play. It seemed super challenging to take courses entirely in Spanish, but after traveling abroad to Chile and Argentina my sophomore year, I knew I was passionate about learning languages, traveling, and experiencing other cultures.

Well, as you already know, my safe bet turned sour. The economy collapsed in 2007-08 and the entire unemployed-albeit-experienced financial executives flooded the marketplace. My odds of landing a job in a diminishing job sector flooded with applicants disappeared. Spanish, on the other hand, looked promising. Since I could not get a decent job, I desperately wanted to travel to Spain and begin taking an international MBA program outside of Madrid. This option turned out to be too expensive and getting into debt wasn’t an option I was willing to take.

So, what did I do?

For starters, I became an autodidact.

An autodidact, what’s that?

An audodidact is someone who is partially or wholly self-taught.

Autodidactism is self-directed learning or the art of self-education.

Famous autodidacts include: Thomas Alva Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, and Frank Lloyd Wright. These are just a few prominent examples. Other claims to fame include the rapper Nas, Eminem, Russell Crowe, Jimi Hendrix, Malcolm X, and Julian Assange.

Since I have become an autodidact I have learned a number of different subjects that college never afforded me the option to explore:

  • Nutrition: Sadly, I never learned anything about proper  nutrition in school. The majority of information in schools is largely propagandized and misleading. Luckily, this is beginning to change. The truth about the benefits of proper nutrition are beginning to see light in college towns across the U.S. I have studied everything from the Adkin’s Diet, vegetarianism, veganism, raw diets, juicing, and the oh so popular Paleo Diet.
  • Exercise and Fitness: I have learned how to manipulate my body in a variety of different ways from studying on my own and personal experimentation. These include three distinct forms of fitness: bodybuilding physique, endurance or runner’s physique, and strength and conditioning physique.
  • Supplementation: Though I am not currently using any supplements, they are very interesting to read and research in my free time . The impact and potential for extending human life has yet to be verified, but supplementation could hold a small window of opportunity.
  • Meditation: This was never taught in school, but I cannot begin to describe the impact that meditation has had on my life.
  • Cooking: I fell in love with cooking after college. In fact, during my time researching nutrition I discovered the benefits of cooking. Cooking you own food is a great way to be healthy, understand the simplicity of your own ingredients including understanding what you are putting into your body, and loosing weight.
  • Management and Leadership: These are two distinct ways to run a business or start your own. Everything I know about both of these subjects has been a direct result from reading books, personal experience, and talking with others in the field.

My learning is still not finished. It never will be.  I am always trying to improve my writing skills, the process of sustainability, and how to improve myself.

Understanding the Benefits of Self-Education, Limits of The Traditional Model, and The Future of Education

The great thing about self-education is that you have complete control over the material that you want to master.

In many ways, the university hinders students from learning. Personally, I disagree with a lot of university’s system of basic requirements. Prerequisites hinder student growth potential. Precious time is wasted on classes that teach material students will never see again. Precious dollars are wasted on classes students could care less about. Can you think about a freshman class that seemed like a waste of good resources?

There are tremendous benefits for the modern day autodidact.

The Internet is booming with free educational resources.

The answer to any question is only a Google search away. The pace at which students rush to Google to answer their every question is only going to continue. The iPhone will continue getting smaller and smaller, while simultaneously becoming closer to our mouth, eyes, and ears granting easier access. It is moving closer to the face and further from the pocket. Accessing information will become more convenient as time progresses.

The traditional educational system, on the other hand, needs serious reformation. Educating the 21st century needs revision, a new model; luckily, this is something you can start yourself: it’s called  autodidactism and it has been around for years.

There is enormous potential in self-directed learning and the future is bright. Technology is playing a crucial role in the evolution of education. Companies like Apple have created products that merging with classrooms. The iPad is replacing the textbook, notebook, pen & pencil, and trapper keeper. Expensive college textbooks can be bought at a fraction of the price that they used to thanks to digital formatting. And anyone, college student or someone studying in their living room, can afford to buy these texts. Innovative networks like Coursera and Khan Academy understand that the university of the future is online. Both institutions are growing quickly and expanding their consumer base.

Self-education is the future. Those who learn from the comfort of their home or on-the-go are at an unmistakable advantage over the student trapped in the classroom. Social networking will continue to develop and find innovative ways for group social interaction. Google Hangout is a great example of this already. Imagine Google Hangout for the classroom. Modern day education is under scrutiny by the most unlikely of participants, society’s youth. They love technology, understand the benefits, and they have access to an unprecedented amount of information about the world. With access to these tools, adolescents are challenging traditional models and changing the way the world works.

Everything around us is screaming “mobility is the future! ” Why can’t education be more mobile?” Educating oneself while out and about is going to continue. Over the next fifty years, the coffee-shop, couch, and car are going to replace the classroom.

Most colleges offer courses that are online. Institutions like the University of Phoenix is already entirely online. I completed my TEFL certification entirely online through the International TEFL Academy which is located in Chicago, IL. They recently interviewed me.

The choice of becoming an autodidact is clearly yours to make. Personally, I feel that the future of education and innovation will revolve around autodidacts and the information that they consume. Self-education increases productivity and focus because it allows students to engage in studies they are passionate about learning. No one can motivate you more than yourself. I can testify honestly to that statement. I have learned more from teaching myself, training myself like Tynan, and putting myself through trials of experience and all this has been countless times more educational than college has ever taught me.

On the same token, it’s quite interesting that my desire to learn, educate myself, and really pay attention to subject matter didn’t arrive until after I graduated college. There is something in letting go of all of the pressures and deadlines of college that released me. When the stress of it all was gone, I picked up a book and read something that really interested me for the first time. It was this moment that changed my life. I encourage you to find a book that interests you, pick it up, and read it cover to cover.

For those interested in reading more about autodidactism, here are the top five books for anyone interested in its theory or application from actual self-educators and based on my research these are the best books out there (none of these books are affiliate links). I will be picking these up at some time throughout my travels and getting back to you with summaries.

1. Self University by Charles D. Hayes: This book looks awesome even though it was published in 1989. Charles D. Hayes is a self-taught philosopher with some interesting ideas on life-learning, psychology, and he lives in Alaska. Pretty cool!

2. Peak Learning by Ronald Gross: This book is about utilizing technology to improve learning. The only problem is the methodology might be a little outdated. I will be on the lookout for a cheap, used copy and let you know how it reads. The most recent review looks promising enough.

3. The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman: I have been wanting this book for a while since reading Derek Siver’s raving review. Initially, I was disappointed with the reviews on iTunes, but I respect Derek’s opinion and I can’t wait to check this out. In a many ways, my current research and writing this blog is my own MBA.

4. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: by Jacques Ranciere: Authored by the Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris. The book discusses the teaching methods of an exiled Paris school teacher, not Ranciere, who made an interesting discovery while teaching Flemish children the French language.

5. Self Design by Brent Cameron: The reviews are all over the place with place with this book, but overall it seems that this book is based on a theory of natural learning that exists in children. It might turn out to be a great supplemental text. I’ll let you know when I get my hands on it.

If you have read any of these or are currently reading them, I would love to hear about it.

Do you have any other suggested readings for self-educators, self-directed learners, or autodidacts?


Source: Pixabay

About Stephan Stansfield

Stephan is the owner, creator, and editor of Peregrine Poise.
He is currently traveling and teaching around the world. When he is not helping others discover their true potential, he finds time to surf, read, and reflect on the important issues of living a good life.


  1. Isaac Desir says


    Thank you for sharing this article. It is very encouraging to me. I am taking my first tentative steps torwards autodacticism. The topics that I am most interested in and currently learning are listed at the end of this comment. It is a fearful prospect to me, but one that I’m certain will be personally rewarding. One of my concerns about this though is being able to secure a livelyhood (I hate that I’m forced to reduce the joy of learning to a paycheck) without a degree based on the knowledge I obtain. I guess what I am trying to ask is, how do I compete with people holding degrees as an autodidact? What are some of the roadblocks or pitfalls and how do I avoid or overcome them? How can I maximize my chances of success in today’s professional environment without a college degree and armed only with my self-teaching. If this is not the right place to ask I apologize for any inconvenience. Thank you in advance for any guidance you can give me on this matter.


    List of Personal Study Topics
    Electrical Engineering
    Business Administration
    Accounting Principles

    • Stephan Stansfield says

      Hey Isaac,

      First of all, being or becoming an autodidact does not mean that you shouldn’t or don’t have to go to a university and obtain a degree. Society is structured to reward people with higher degrees of education over people that have been less institutionalized. Even teaching English in Thailand requires a college degree. So it’s important to understand that autodidactism isn’t a replacement for university or a college degree. Becoming an autodidact is about embracing the responsibility of one’s own education before, during, and after systems of education we typically don’t have a choice in.

      As for you personal study topics, these are wonderful choices and look to be extremely challenging, especially if studied inconsistently.

      What topic would you say you are the most passionate about learning immediately and why?

      Personally, I would love to have the knowledge of all the topics you have listed, but learning them sufficiently takes time and energy, so the question now is what is most pertinent to your production?

      • Isaac Desir says

        Thank you for your quick response and guidance. It has been very helpful. I have a better understanding of the value of university education in today’s society. One thing that I’ve noticed is that I retain that I teach myself much more than what I learn in a school setting. I sure it is because I can take my time to work out the concepts I learn myself. Do you have any suggestions on how to improve retention in timed formal settings?

        • Stephan Stansfield says


          As for retention, ask yourself, “how do we learn?” Repetition and imitation, obviously. But, is it more than that? Why do you feel that you retain more in an informal setting? Is it because you are relaxed, you are more comfortable, or is it because you can control your focus, that is you have the freedom to choose what you study? I find that choice often makes a huge difference in our ability to retain what we learn. What’s really important is attention, concentrated attention. When you pair that with a thirst for knowledge and the freedom to choose what you study, I don’t think you can go wrong.

          Of course, retention works differently for all of us. Some people have terrible short term memories, while autistic savants can remember everything they’ve ever read. Timed settings rarely give us enough opportunity to actually understand and apply what we’ve learned. Most of us resort to quick memorization techniques and cramming instead of actually letting the what we’ve learned soak in. I guess time is always running out. I hope this helps.

  2. Mark Jay says

    Hi Stephen,
    Thanks for this great article. I was always finding people who like to learn by themselves. I loved mathematics when I was in school and self taught myself and I still remember the basic principles after about 30 years. The wonderful feeling that one gets when one understand things by self learning is difficult to explain to someone who has not done it. This is main reason I still learn. There is a real joy in going from being a novice to someone who understands a topic all by yourself.

    I am in the field of engineering and I find most of the engineers I deal with stop learning by themselves unless they really are forced to do it. I have been trying hard how to inculcate this habit of self learning. I believe most innovation comes for autodidacts as they are always looking to learn new information and new ways of using these in their work.

    I would love to see a course taught on auto-didactism. I always have a positive outlook and I think most traits can be taught. The current education systems globally seem to be designed to get badges such as “degrees” to prove something to the world. But the sad part in my view is they can kill that desire to learn which I believe is the core value that should be imparted by any educational institute. Maybe my goal is lofty, but in this day and age learning is so easy. When I was young I had to spend weeks looking for books in libraries to learn. Today 99% of the information is available on line and becoming an autodidact is not that difficult.

    I am attempting to study the following:
    1. Human Psychology mainly on how people are motivated and how they make decisions
    2. Quantum Physics
    3. General Theory of Relativity
    4. Electromagnetism
    5. Music theory

    For me I enjoy the journey and I feel I you understand the fundamentals then it is easy to retain as all the knowledge is associative. I don’t really like to memorize things. I tend to forget thing very soon if they not associated.

    I shall continue to look for ways to teach this difficult topic even though that sounds like a contradiction


    • Stephan Stansfield says

      Absolutely Mark! And thanks for the great comment!

      I wholeheartedly agree with your notion that the traditional education system ends up killing people’s motivation for learning. Higher education has become so mandatory that no one stops to consider the genuine purpose of education. Instead, it’s seen as necessary stepping stone to a good, well-paying job. So many fortunate high school students jump straight into college after graduating, rack up a lot of debt, and are forced to specialize in subjects they really haven’t had time to explore or to see if they are passionate about developing. And this is a big downfall of the current education crisis around the world. People have turned education into a necessary part and forgot that it is a complimentary whole to living.

      I’ll be the first to admit, I was an ignorant high school graduates who had the privilege to attend a university immediately after my senior year of high school. Unfortunately, I didn’t appreciate education at the time or take advantage of all the great resources I had at my fingertips. College was more about the stress and uncertainty of graduating and earning a useful degree than exploring subjects I was truly passionate about learning. I’m making up for that now.

      Today, college has become such an essential part of American society that it is almost unheard of to think of doing anything else after graduating high school. It wasn’t until after I graduated college, had a managerial job, and picked up a book on my own accord, not some assigned reading, that I began understanding how much I actually enjoyed educating myself.

      It’s so pertinent for people around the world to understand the power of educating themselves. Schools are wonderful, but the educational system isn’t designed to be the most rewarding motivator in a child’s development. Teachers usually yell at kids for reading books they want to read during the middle of pointless lecture. Drawing is frowned upon. For the most part, creative students are forced into robotic silences of obedience in any of typical classroom of any American public educational institution. This type of irresponsible classroom management reflects poorly on both teacher and student, ultimately killing the child’s inner motivation to step outside the box of conformity and explore new things. Irresponsible institutions kill growth and innovation time and time again.

      Autodidactism grants a person freedom to explore their passion on their own time and in their own way. It’s cheaper than traditional education and I think a perfect step before jumping into debt and specializing in a unknown field. Now technology allows information to flow faster and cheaper than ever before. Hopefully, people will begin exploring and take advantage of the knowledge at their fingertips by pursuing their own self-education first, thinking about what they want to do, and then pursue it wholeheartedly.

  3. Wow awesome share! Where could I do the same here in western-australia?

  4. Thaysmarie Rodriguez Molinary says

    Hi Stephan,

    I just graduated and have survived by being autodidact. I was reading about it and found your page. I loved it, I would like to receive your articles by email.

    Best wishes from Puerto Rico,


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