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What is an Autodidact?

When I picture an autodidact, I see a certain kind of person – and since I love learning subjects by myself, I decided to paint a portrait of that ideal autodidact. This article is just that portrait.

By being an autodidact, I mean the act of mastering subjects and skills through autonomous learning. This means searching out your own resources, creating your own goals and deadlines, and working autonomously. I don’t mean teaching yourself something – this is an illusion. You need resources, and you need to learn from those who went before you.

I’ve learned guitar, Spanish, Chinese, writing, psychology, and more through self-guided study. After observing myself repeatedly facing the challenge of autonomous learning, reading about mastery, and watching others fail in their attempts to do the same, I’ve found we require certain core qualities to be a serious autodidact.

I intend this as a guide for those who want to be more than autodidacts. We can turn ourselves into ruthless autodidacts – serial learners who are masters at doing it alone. To be sure, this isn’t the only way to learn, but it has some enormous benefits.

At the end, I’ll sum up what I think is the ruthless autodidact so you get a clear idea of what to shoot for. Before that, let’s look in detail at the six key qualities of autodidacts.

Quality 1 for the Autodidact: Love For The Craft

We need to have a connection to our pursuit. Sure, with external motivation we can whip ourselves into studying or drag ourselves to a class, but that strategy won’t last long in this form of study. You must be in love with your craft. It should stir up emotions of wonder and inspiration in you. This love is the force that will bind you to your pursuit and keep you stuck to it when all seems lost.

I started learning Mandarin Chinese in 2020 out of pure fascination. After teaching English to Chinese kids for six months, I realised that there was an entire civilisation I was ignorant of. Then I started reading little texts in Chinese, and the beauty of the characters struck me. They were mind-bogglingly complex, yet intricate and pleasing on the eye. My intrigue bordered on the religious. I simply had to learn it, so I dived once more into learning a language by myself.

If anything, you should love the process, the practice, the touch, smell and taste of your craft. It inherently fascinates you beyond any external motivations. With these high levels of inspiration, you have a compelling drive to explore your pursuit for its own sake, meaning you’ll stick with it for long enough to get good.

Autodidact Quality 2: Determination and Persistence

As we’ll see throughout this article, being an autodidact requires a certain mindset. I like comparing being an autodidact to a desert or a jungle. It’s tough in there. The learning journey is fraught with obstacles, and you need to be strong enough to battle through them. Your strength and will are put to the test. It’s go hard, or go home. If you’re meek and passive, you’ll be swiftly destroyed.

In a structured learning environment, determination and persistence aren’t so crucial. The learning is spoonfed. You have pre-defined milestones. You know that in six months you have an exam whether you like it or not, and in most cases you know exactly what the exam will entail. Sure, you still need resilience to pass an exam, but much of the hard work is done by others.

You’ll pass through various states of stagnation and demotivation on your journey of being an autodidact. I’ve found the end of the beginner’s hump to be particularly barren. You no longer have the dizzying excitement of the start, but you also have few results to grab to. You tend to see the vastness of the territory you’re exploring, and experience a long plateau in your progress. The key is to stick through the boredom, or even take a sadistic pleasure in it, knowing that brighter times await you at intermediate and advanced levels.

I’d even say that determination and persistence are the two key qualities of an autodidact. They get you on the path. They keep you going when you meet obstacles. And ultimately, they’re what keep you on the learning path long enough to get seriously good.

Quality 3: Self-organised, Self-motivated, Self-reliant

As an autodidact, you typically lack externally imposed routines and deadlines. You also lack the teacher figure, the one who keeps us on track, is our shoulder to cry on, and answers our doubts. The self-taught path is one of uncertainty, chaos and tension, and you’re in charge of handling the turmoil. This is why most people prefer to rely on teachers and authority figures. They’re simply unable to direct themselves.

In this form of study, you can’t look around for help too much. Sure, you can consult others, go on internet forums and share your journey with friends and family. But most of the time you’re going to be alone. If you don’t set the agenda, nobody will.

You need to define your targets and keep chipping away at them over the course of months and years. You need to seek answers yourself, rather than relying on oracle figures. And you have to learn how to manage the inner chaos that comes up on the path to mastery.

At the same time, learn to surrender to those who are better than you, and copy them. Nobody is truly self-taught: we all rely on role models and past masters to show us the way. It’s best to soak up their discoveries then overturn them later than trying to reinvent the wheel when you’re ill-informed.

Learn more about self-mastery in my video Self-Control Explained

Autodidact Quality 4: Create Structures and Routines

Though as an autodidact we usually lack external structures, we can create them. This is one of the keys to being a ruthless autodidact.

The routines don’t have to be elaborate. If you know how long you’ll practice every week and what you’ll practice, you’re already way ahead of the curve. It also helps if you have certain days, places or triggers.

The power of these routines is that they free up time and mental space. You spend less time mulling over your practice routine and more time practicing. They also release pressure by letting you shift your focus from all your doubt and uncertainty to simply doing your routine. Your goal isn’t to learn a language; it’s to do your language study every week. Let the goal take care of itself.

For my language study, I have a note on my phone where I can see my weekly tasks, the time I dedicate to each, and a weekly tally. Each Sunday, I count up my total study time and add it to my yearly total on an excel sheet, where I have my goals for the short, medium and long term. I have a similar system for guitar practice and meditation.

Habits take on a life of their own and sweep you away. After a certain amount of time, you won’t have to will the habit. It just happens. If you get to this level of automation, you’ll put in plenty of hours without experiencing undue burden.

Autodidact Quality 5: Set Goals and Stick to Them

If you don’t have a target, a bearing, an X on the map, you’ll likely start going in circles and end up back at your starting point.

Goals provides a finality, an outcome for which to mobilise your forces and move forward. They focus your attention.

These goals cannot be vague and half-baked, like a birthday wish. It’s not enough to half-heartedly desire an achievement at some unknown time in the future. You might think keeping your options open is wise, but this is folly. In all likelihood, you’ll lack a clear vision and so never put the work in. You’ll flail and faulter on the path of mastery.

Take the opposite approach. Humans work best when we’re under healthy pressure, required to fulfil realistic but firm deadlines. You need to desire an outcome and set a firm deadline for its achievement.

Goals are in reality a complex topic, but let’s cover the bones. I suggest you should have several goals, as a minimum covering the short (months), medium (one year) and long term (five years). These complement one another – the short-term targets enable you to reach your medium-term goals, which feed into your long-term vision. And here’s a tip: we tend to radically underestimate what we can achieve long-term.

Quality 6: Get the Right Materials

You can waste a lot of time learning topics that are irrelevant to your pursuit, or using ineffective materials and strategies. You’re especially prone to this as you embark on your journey.

Fortunately, there are now an abundance of materials for almost all pursuits. Use this to your advantage. Hunt around for books, videos, audios and courses that both challenge and interest you. Do research. Find free samples and squeeze the juice out of them before committing to a purchase. You’ll save lots of time in the long run.

Trust that as your knowledge of the field increases, you’ll take better decisions as to which materials suit your targets. But also don’t get paranoid about it. It’s best to keep moving with imperfect resources than remain stagnant.

Now we’ve looked at the six key qualities for being an autodidact, let’s quickly sum up what the ruthless autodidact is.

What is The Ruthless Autodidact?

The ruthless autodidact is the person who can autonomously learn any subject or skill. They are masters at navigating the challenging path to mastery and busting through all the mental and practical obstacles they encounter.

Trusting in persistence and the power of repetition, they lock their focus on a goal and never rest until it is achieved. They primarily look inside for their inspiration and love learning for its intrinsic rewards. Though they take guidance from masters and teachers, they don’t get stuck in worship, idealising or perpetual studenthood.

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