On Being Self-Taught (The Advantages of Being An Autodidact)

Open Education

Recently, I’ve had a lot of discussions about autodidacticism.

People want to know if they should invest in going college by earning a degree or if they should focus on being self-taught.

Others have commented that there should be a course on how to be an autodidact –despite how paradoxical this notion may seem.

So I’ve been wondering…is there a need for this type of course? What do you think about learning how to educate yourself? Do you want to know how to teach yourself better and actually retain what you learn?

Answering the question to which educative process is a better choice necessarily varies from person to person as we are all very different and extremely varied in our aptitudes to apply what we learn in effective and responsible consistencies at that.

First Of All

As a society, we have become accustomed to these end-all be-all answers to complicated questions when life is rarely a one-sided event. We all have different opinions on how life should be lived and yet we expect there to be this final ultimatum -one single response to our complex inquiries, instead of what should be an integrated examination of the problem itself. We are accustomed to hearing one-sided dialectics, and thus we forget to consider the greater picture of a global perspective, not an individualistic one, in our decisions. The world doesn’t necessarily revolve as we think it does (thank goodness!) for if it did, we’d most likely be thrown out of orbit in our disagreements. A good argument provides an examination of both sides of a situation and serves as a  crucial reminder to what well-rounded thinking represents, as well that exact tool that the educational process attempts to elucidate.

In our efforts to decide, we are always stuck between settling for traditional answers (the past) or choosing uncertainty (about the future). Between  doing “what works,” a.k.a playing it safe versus taking a leap of faith, investing in risky assets (like life and love), and hoping that it will pay off.

You see, everyone is looking for the perfect diet.

But there is no diet that is going to satisfy everyone’s genetic appetite, there is no book that will sit on top of every critic’s bookshelf,  and ultimately being self-taught is more a matter of preference, opinion, and the due diligence of an earnest person than your average show up to class, sit down, and listen to lecture Joe.

Self-education is more like exercise. 

Our results depend on what we put into it. Some people are self-motivated and can work out at home perfectly by themselves for two or three hours a day. Others need group support and “professional” guidance. That’s why Crossfit is popular. Some people are more motivated by outside influences and an atmosphere of competition than their quiet counterparts. They need to strive against something other than themselves to feel a certain sense of progression. Others prefer being told what to do instead of wasting additional effort trying to figure out new skills for themselves. This is why most of us will gladly pay a premium for specialized service.

On the other hand, there are those who prefer life in combination. Variety spices their life allowing them to willingly engage their mental palates across a spectrum of experiences. In the world of investing, this is called a diversification strategy. Investors understand that good diversification strategies help balance risky assets with more traditional, reputable companies. These so-called “life investors” buy the map society has drawn up, deemed safe, and diverge from the set course as they see fit.

If you are interested in being self-taught, now is as good of time as ever before.

Here are a few of the advantages to get you started.


The Advantages of Being An Autodidact

1. Information is cheaper and spreading faster than ever.

Nowhere is this more relevant that the evolving digital culture taking place before our eyes. Wikipedia is the first-ever, free-to-use, encyclopedia that the global community has immediate access to. A short history of nearly everything can be read in some form or another using online wikis. Scholarpedia is the first of its kind!

2. Online educational sites are popping up left and right. They are free and super informative.

edX, Coursera, Khan Academy, Udacity, and even Youtube are great places to learn skills that you might be interested in. The best part is they cost next to nothing, so you can try them out for free. Don’t like a course, drop it. Realized that you aren’t that interested in a topic, stop studying it. Find a new course for free. I know it’s not exactly the same as sitting in an hour lecture with your friends, but it’s pretty close and you have the power to study anytime you want.

There’s always Wikiversity and the current limitations of learning through sites like this if you need more convincing.

3. Scholarly work can be found, purchased, accessed, and read from almost anywhere in the world.

Many scholars (thank you, thank you, thank you!) are the kind souls writing those Wikipedia/Scholarpedia articles we love to enjoy. Many members of the intellectual community are giving those amazing TED Talks we all find so inspiring. And plenty of scholarly books can now be purchased and read on your electronic reading device.

Just as you are able to communicate with the world more easily & readily than ever before, scholars can too. And they are talking online. Keep that in mind. Most of the reasons why people needed to go to a university in the past were because they needed access to scholarly publications (along with proper guidance). Now, at least half of what scholars offer is available online for your personal access.

With Google Scholar sorting through scholarly literature is simpler than ever.

4. Digital libraries are blooming.

Please if you do one thing today, check out Open Library. So many choices, so many books. It’s completely free and up to 5 books can be taken out at a time. It’s truly amazing!

Oh, and there’s Scribd! For $9/month, you can’t beat it. Go ahead and check out their free month trial and see if you enjoy reading books electronically.

5. Internet archives and public-access journals are being consolidated and opened up to the general public.

Check out the Internet Archive if you’ve never heard of it.

Many scholars are working diligently on building their own archives online, such as the House of Living Books/Ritman Library (for all you western Hermetica fans), and The Berzin Archives (for all those interested in a more scholarly approach to Buddhist philosophy).

Public journals are slowly changing. The academic community is beginning to see that everyone should have access to these amazing bodies of work.

6. People are finding new ways to organize information better (and faster) than ever before.

With the plethora of information floating around the digisphere, people are bound to organize it better than they found it.

In fact, part of the goal for this site is to eventually organize and archive the plethora of information out there on human potential.

7. Being self-taught comes with the freedom to learn what you want, when you want, and the choice of paying what you will. 

You literally have a lifetime to learn.

Take the long-term perspective of viewing your self-education this way and you still have plenty of time to go to college, earn a degree, and continue educating yourself long after you graduate from university.

The majority of our society preaches about the importance of education, but how many of us making our self-education a priority each day?

What is more beneficial to the world: the hour we spend at the gym trying to improve the appearance of our physique, or actually becoming more intelligent, learning to make more responsible choices, and eventually sharing our knowlege with others?


There are plenty of materials to begin educating yourself.

But, how do we retain the information we are studying?

Well luckily for you, there’s Bloom’s taxonomy.

Or you can just grab the latest books on education theory to see what the most effective way to learn is.

Being self-taught means you have the freedom to explore and experiment with speed-reading, educational relaxation therapy, and hypnopedia.

You can study on the way to work by listening to audio books, listen to informative podcasts at the gym, or even watch educational documentaries about current affairs, critical social issues, or something simpler like the history of art.

All the tools are there and for the most part they are entirely free.

It’s just a matter of if you will use them consistently or not.

Either way you’ll have to put in work.

But ask yourself, “Do you have the motivation?” or “Do you need a motivator?”

It’s more a matter of where and when you want to work, then if you’ll have to.

Education is a process like everything else.

It takes time, effort, and commitment. Learn to be patient.

Ultimately, it’s up to you take your education into your own hands regardless of where it’s at.



The first image above is courtesy of Hans Poldoja’s Flickr. (Thanks Hans!)

The second image is courtesy of Andrew Kitzmiller’s Flickr and his wonderful bookshelf. (Thanks Andrew!)

Neither of the images above have been edited as per requested.