You could argue all day about which people, alive today or long gone, qualify as the world’s “greatest learners.” But one thing is for sure: you can’t ignore the wisdom of the self-taught.
History is filled with people called autodidacts, or individuals who teach themselves about a subject or subjects in which they have little to no formal education. Benjamin Franklin was an autodidact. So were Jorge Luis Borges, Eileen Gray, Gustave Eiffel, and Frida Kahlo. Modern-day autodidacts might include Julian Assange, Paul Keating, and Bill Gates. The original “self-directed learners,” autodidacts possess intrinsic motivation, self-determination, and a true passion for learning. We’ve all known at least one person who fits this description.
“Look around,” says psychologist Annie Murphy Paul. “We all know at least one successfully self-taught expert, and the tech world is teeming with them.” The question is, how’d they get that way? On this topic, Paul says, “the psychological literature is largely silent.” Still, the psychology of motivation and interest suggests that “self-directed learners are not only born, but can be made.”
If this is true, we have a lot to learn from the world’s best learners, so why not examine a few of their habits? Below we’ve curated ten things autodidacts do to achieve their educational goals on a regular basis.
1. Seek personal renewal.
The celebrated Stanford professor John W. Gardner delivered a speech in 1990 to McKinsey & Co., the consulting firm whose advice has shaped the fortunes of the world’s richest and most powerful companies. In it he talked about the imporatnce of “personal renewal,” or the urgent need for leaders who wish to make a difference and stay effective to commit themselves to continued learning and growing.
“We have to face the fact that most men and women out there in the world of work are more stale than they know, more bored than they would care to admit,” he said. “Boredom is the secret ailment of large-scale organisations. Someone said to me the other day, ‘How can I be so bored when I’m so busy?’ I said, ‘Let me count the ways.’ Look around you. How many people whom you know well — people even younger than yourselves—are already trapped in fixed attitudes and habits?”
So what is the opposite of boredom, the personal attribute that allows individuals to keep learning, growing, and changing, to escape their fixed attitudes and habits? “Not anything as narrow as ambition,” Gardner told the ambitious McKinsey strategists. “After all, ambition eventually wears out and probably should. But you can keep your zest until the day you die.” He then offered a simple maxim to guide the accomplished leaders in the room. “Be interested,” he urged them. “Everyone wants to be interesting, but the vitalising thing is to be interested. As the proverb says, ‘It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.’”
2. Leverage your own experience.
Moshé Pinchas Feldenkrais was an Israeli physicist and the founder of the Feldenkrais Method, designed to improve human functioning by increasing self-awareness through movement.
Until 1946, Pinchas served as a science officer in the British Admiralty, working on Anti-submarine weaponry in Fairlie, Scotland. His work on improving sonar led to several patents. He also taught self-defense techniques to his fellow servicemen. While working on slippery submarine decks, he re-aggravated an old soccer knee injury. Refusing an operation, he was prompted to intently explore and develop self-rehabilitation and awareness techniques through self-observation, which later evolved into the method. His discoveries led him to begin sharing with others through lectures, experimental classes, and one-on-one work with a few.
3. Calculate your motivation-to-inhibition ratio
Kató Lomb was a Hungarian interpreter, translator and one of the first simultaneous interpreters in the world. She was able to interpret fluently in nine or ten languages (in four of them even without preparation), and she translated technical literature and read belles-lettres in six languages. She was able to understand journalism in further eleven languages. As she put it, altogether she earned money with sixteen languages (Bulgarian, Chinese, Danish, English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, Ukrainian). She learned these languages mostly by self-effort, as an autodidact. Her aims to acquire these languages were most of all practical, to satisfy her interest.
One of the principles by which she studied was called the “motivation-inhibition ratio.” Not believing in the so-called language talent, she tended to express the language skill with a fraction, with motivation in the numerator (as well as invested time, although if there is true motivation, one can pinch off some ten minutes a day even with the busiest job), and inhibition in the denominator (the fear of starting to speak, of being clumsy, of being laughed at). In her conviction, the stronger the motivation is within us, and the more we can put aside inhibition, the sooner we can take possession of the skill.
4. Practise immersion
One of Lomb’s favourite study tricks was to obtain an original novel in a language completely unknown to her, whose topic she personally found interesting (a detective story, a love story, or even a technical description would do), and that was how she deciphered, unravelled the basics of the language: the essence of the grammar and the most important words. She didn’t let herself be set back by rare or complicated expressions: she skipped them, saying: what is important will sooner or later emerge again and will explain itself if necessary. “So we don’t really need to look up each and every word in the dictionary: it only spoils our mood from the joy of reading and discovering the texts. In any case, what we can remember is what we have figured out ourselves.” For this purpose, she always bought her own copies of books, since while reading she wrote on the edge of the pages what she had understood from the text by herself. This way one cannot avoid picking up something of a language—as one can’t rest until one has learnt who the murderer is, or whether the girl says yes in the end.
5. Build resilience
José Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was forced to abandon his studies at an early age due to financial constraints. At the age of 13, he began to study mechanics to repair cars. He continued the next thirty years working as a locksmith for a metal company, and in an agency of social services. His first novel was published in 1947 without any success at all. He stopped writing for publication, although he continued doing manuscripts for himself. At the end of the 1960s, he joined the Communist party, and after the fall of the Fascist dictatorship in Portugal of 1974, he was the director of the nationalised newspaper Diario de Noticias. Just a few years after the left wing failed in 1975, he began to write again to survive. In that point of his life, the fame came, and in 1998 he won the Nobel Prize.
On resilience, Lomb wrote: “Language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly.”
6. Be open-minded
Frank Zappa was an American musician, bandleader, songwriter, composer, recording engineer, record producer, and film director. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Zappa composed rock, jazz, orchestral and musique concrète works. He also directed feature-length films and music videos, and designed album covers. As if all that weren’t impressive enough, he also produced nearly all of his own 60+ albums.
One of the secrets to his success was, ironically, the fact that he began his career with no formal training: “Since I didn’t have any kind of formal training, it didn’t make any difference to me if I was listening to Lightnin’ Slim, or a vocal group called the Jewels … or Webern, or Varèse, or Stravinsky,” he said in 1989. “To me it was all good music.” It was his diverse musical influences that led him to create the music he became famous for–music that was often difficult to categorise.
When we think about what kind of results we want to gain from our own studies, it’s important to remember that being open to all backgrounds and perspectives will only aid us further in achieving our goals.
7. Break up your goals
Nearly three hundred years ago, Benjamin Franklin came up with an approach to changing habits called the list of thirteen virtues. These were character traits he took to be important, but in which he found himself lacking. He knew that nurturing these habits would bring about positive change in his life. Starting at the top of the list, Franklin spent one week working on each virtue. In the morning he thought about how he would reinforce the new habit throughout the day. During the day he looked at his notes to remind himself of the new habit. At the end of the day, he counted how many times he fell back into the old habit.
To accomplish his virtues, he broke them into small units of work, thinking only about one unit at a time. “Spend most of your time working on the task in front of you,” he wrote, “and avoid dreaming too much about the big goal.”
8. Consider the context
Lomb never studied words in isolation. That way, whenever she needed to remember a word, she’d be aided by clues in the text she was reading or the real-life context in which she encountered it. She even made an effort to memorise words embedded in phrases (e.g. high wind, keen wind), so that if she came to forget one of them, the other word in the pair would trigger it.
9. “Don’t let complexity stop you.”
In his 2007 Harvard Commencement speech, Bill Gates said the following:
“In line with the promise of this age, I want to exhort each of the graduates here to take on an issue — a complex problem, a deep inequity, and become a specialist on it. If you make it the focus of your career, that would be phenomenal. But you don’t have to do that to make an impact. For a few hours every week, you can use the growing power of the internet to get informed, find others with the same interests, see the barriers, and find ways to cut through them. Don’t let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on big inequities. I feel sure it will be one of the great experiences of your lives.”
Embrace the complexity.
10. Learn for life
Louis L’Amour, one of America’s most prolific fiction writers, dropped out of formal education at the age of fifteen due to family hardships. He spent the next eight years traveling around the American West working odd jobs on cattle ranches, farms, lumber mills, and even mines. But he never stopped reading. As soon as he set foot in a new town, he’d locate the local library. If libraries weren’t around, he’d skip meals so he’d have enough money to order books from catalogs. During his career he cranked out over 120 dime Western novels as well as several collections of short stories and poems.
“All of his experiences while travelling, all the books he read, and all the notes he wrote laid the groundwork for his later successful career,” says Brett McKay, who writes about him on his blog, The Art of Manliness. “But even after L’Amour became an established writer, his pursuit of learning continued and rewarded him greatly. He is a perfect example of the fascinating life one can create for himself when he makes the commitment to be a lifelong learner.”