5 Myths About Being an Autodidact

Have you ever heard people refer to themselves or others as autodidacts? Today I hear quite a few people describe themselves this way as if it were a largely genetic trait like having blue eyes or being a certain height. “Some people are autodidacts,” they explain. “Others are genetically predisposed to depend upon others for their learning throughout life,” they seem to suggest. Others use the term “autodidact” as interchangeable with genius. Still other people reserve the word for the few and rare people throughout history like Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci. Yet, perhaps there is value in keeping our minds open to a broader understanding of what it means to be an autodidact, recognizing the potential in every learner and helping people bring out their inner auto-didacticism. To do that, let’s take a moment to dispel five common myths.

All autodidacts are geniuses.

There are certainly some fascinating and inspiring examples of people with incredibly high IQs who also happen to be autodidacts, but the term is certainly not limited to those who score off the charts in traditional IQ tests. An autodidact is, in the basic sense of the word, a self-taught person. The term comes from two Greek roots that mean self and teaching. It has nothing to do with your raw or natural cognitive abilities. It does have to do with embracing an approach where you own and pursue your learning.

Either you are born an autodidact or you are not.

Some people seem to have higher natural propensities for curiosity and other traits closely associated with the personal pursuit of learning, but I’ve yet to see any evidence that autodidacticism in the broader sense is simply the result of a collection of genes. We can learn to grow along the spectrum toward autodidacticism. Becoming an autodidact is a about cultivating a commitment, habits, and mindsets more than living out some genetically pre-determined path for your life.

Autodidacts must always be anomalies.

Traditional education systems do not largely celebrate, nurture or create space for autodidacts in the making. In fact, this approach to learning may well be frowned upon in some formal contexts. This perspective has become so prominent that some treat the autodidact as an aberration…an oddity. It just isn’t normal. That is only because the system doesn’t know what to do with it. When we look at spaces created to nurture self-education, we see that it is far from an anomaly. It can even be celebrated as the standard way of learning. In other words, what we consider normal or an oddity is contextual. Go to more self-directed learning communities and dependent learning is the oddity.

Autodidacts don’t go to school.

Most do go to school. Some flourish in school. Some don’t. However, there are plenty who embrace a self-taught approach to life while also taking advantage of a formal schooling experience. In some ways, that is represented in what I write about self-blended learning. The connected and digital worlds are helping even more people begin to discover the benefits, what this looks like and how it is possible for them.

In addition, there are many instances where a person gets a more traditional education in many areas but cultivates a more autodidactic approach to learning in other areas of one’s life, perhaps skills and knowledge not focused upon in formal education. Consider the budding hacker who never takes coding classes, the history major who becomes a gifted sales executive or stock broker, the high school student who teaches herself to sing and play a half-dozen instruments, or the young woman whose fascination with nature leads her to become a self-taught outdoors woman and naturalist.

In addition, it is the autodidact who pushes knowledge forward in the world, venturing into fields that don’t have formal areas of study in academia or elsewhere. They are the groundbreakers. They might participate in formal education, but sometimes they are launched into the life of an autodidact because their curiosity does not align with the formal curriculum.

Autodidacticism is a rarity.

Much of the innovation in our world depends upon a spirit of autodidacticism. Our world is full of people who are self-taught in one or more domains of their lives. While we often reserve the world for someone who seems to be self-taught across many domains of learning, the truth is that all of us are autodidacts in one or more areas, even if it is in simple skills that we use around our homes. Any of us can expand that approach to new domains, using it to develop greater skill and ability in the arts, academic subjects, solving complex problems in the world, personal finance, starting a business, personal health and fitness, building stronger and healthier relationships with other people, or maybe pursuing a social innovation in the world.

The time is ripe for an autodidact revolution, and those who embrace it will find their lives enhanced and their opportunities expanded.

Does Our World Need More Leather Apron Clubs?

I used to read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography once a year. Now I get to it every two or three years. Each time I read it, something new captures my attention. This time it was an excerpt where Franklin describes the formation and purpose of a learning community called Junto (or the Leather Apron club) in 1727. From this group emerged the idea of a shared library, later the subscription library, as well as the American Philosophical Society. Rather than getting it secondhand, I’ll let Franklin explain Junto to you, and follow it up with a few observations about the implications for life in a digital and increasingly networked world.

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which was called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory; and, to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

The first members were Joseph Breintnal, a copyer of deeds for the scriveners, a good-natur’d, friendly middle-ag’d man, a great lover of poetry, reading all he could meet with, and writing some that was tolerable; very ingenious in many little Nicknackeries, and of sensible conversation.

Thomas Godfrey, a self-taught mathematician, great in his way, and afterward inventor of what is now called Hadley’s Quadrant. But he knew little out of his way, and was not a pleasing companion; as, like most great mathematicians I have met with, he expected universal precision in everything said, or was forever denying or distinguishing upon trifles, to the disturbance of all conversation. He soon left us.

Nicholas Scull, a surveyor, afterwards surveyor-general, who lov’d books, and sometimes made a few verses.

William Parsons, bred a shoemaker, but, loving reading, had acquir’d a considerable share of mathematics, which he first studied with a view to astrology, that he afterwards laught [laughed] at it. He also became surveyor-general.

William Maugridge, a joiner, a most exquisite mechanic, and a solid, sensible man.

Hugh Meredith, Stephen Potts, and George Webb I have characteriz’d before.

Robert Grace, a young gentleman of some fortune, generous, lively, and witty; a lover of punning and of his friends.

– The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Notice the attributes of this group.

  1. It existed for “mutual improvement.”
  2. It included people from diverse occupations and experiences.
  3. Participation was not limited to people with formal education or credentials (notice the self-taught member).
  4. Each member was required to come with questions (from “any point of view”) on almost any subject (although they focused on “morality, politics, and natural philosophy”).
  5. These discussions were diverse and not limited to the official professions of the participants.
  6. The focus was a search for truth, not to win the argument.
  7. Each person was required to write an essay on a topic of personal choice and interest every three months, and read it to the group for discussion.

As I look at this list, I’m intrigued by many elements.

  • It is question-driven instead of book driven (even though books were an important part of the learning in this group). Notice how that is qualitatively distinct from most schools and classrooms.
  • This was not for a degree or credential. It is for self-improvement, with an eye toward that which also benefits society.
  • This is not about looking good, winning a debate, or earning accolades. It is about the pursuit of truth.
  • This is not driven by writings or lectures. Instead it is truly peer-to-peer learning. With that in mind, every member is expected to contribute in substantive ways.
  • It is not teacher-driven.
  • It is not about getting professional development so you are eligible for a raise or promotion.
  • It is about growth and the pursuit of truth.
  • This community empowered members to be active and engaged citizens.
  • This is a vibrant learning community.

I can’t help but think that our world and societies would be better off if they were seasoned with more learners and groups like this. Similarly, I have to think that we can leverage the connections of the digital world to build and nurture such communities.