Let’s look at the top pros and cons of autodidactism and how to overcome its downsides. If you want to become a serious autodidact, this article is for you.
I’m a serial autodidact and a huge proponent of this form of learning, but I acknowledge that it has downsides and that it takes a special mindset and approach to be successful with it.
Read my article on The 6 Key Qualities of The Ruthless Autodidact for a comprehensive look at the skills you need to become a successful autodidact.
Let’s touch on what autodidactism is before we start looking at its pros and cons.
What is Autodidactism?
By autodidactism, 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 largely alone. 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. But in autodidactism, the onus is on you.
As you’ll see, I’m a huge fan of this approach to learning, and I’ve seen first hand that it’s a legitimate method. But I also recognise there are genuine downsides that are tricky to overcome. Let’s look at them.
The Cons of Autodidactism
Autodidactism Con #1: Uncertainty
The nature of autodidactism lends itself to doubt and uncertainty on the learning path. These do not exist in formal learning environments.
When we learn at school, much of the uncertainty is taken away. We have a clear structure in advance. Even when we’re 12 years old, we know the crucial exams come in a few years time. We know we’ll slowly improve our skills and be guided on the way. This gives us a long-term roadmap and instills a sense of certainty within us, even if we’re afraid.
The same happens at university. We know when we’re supposed to graduate, and this gives us a sense of finality. We have it all planned out in advance, and all we need to do is fill in the blanks.
In autodidactism, none of this certainty exists, at least not by default. There is no pre-defined endpoint. The curriculum is more flexible, and we can change it at will. Our learning path spreads out endlessly into the future. This uncertainty can be maddening and may leave us confused and overwhelmed.
Con #2: Loneliness
Make no bones about it, the learning journey is tough. Fortunately, at school and university we’re surrounded by others who are going through the same experience. We feel supported, part of a group effort. We realise our fears and insecurities are par for the course.
This is far from guaranteed in autodidactism. When you’re sitting alone at home studying your craft, it can feel as though you’re the only such person in the world. And nobody is at the same point as you in the learning journey, unlike in formal environments, where we all tick the same boxes.
All of this makes us doubt our ability to succeed. We doubt whether it’s all a dream, an unrealistic fantasy that we’ll never bring to pass. In our solitude, all our inner fears and doubts are dredged up.
Autodidactism Con #3: Lack of Authority Figure
From day one in education we become used to associating learning with an authority figure, a supposed fount of wisdom. They tell us what we need to learn, and we do the repetitive exercises they prescribe. It’s a very one-way process, almost as though we ourselves aren’t learning. And we relive all our needs for protection, guidance and a loving parental figure.
Sure, these needs are natural and are healthy when channelled adequately. But I’ve noticed that some people simply can’t operate without the oracle figure. They have no idea how to navigate a long learning journey without the spoonfeeding. If this is you, you’re in trouble. Sure, you’ll have teachers and authority figures, but you can’t go passive and expect them to give knowledge to you. You have to earn it.
This over-reliance means we reach adulthood and have no idea how to learn. Believing that learning is only possible when everything is packaged and delivered by a higher power, we think that autodidactism is impossible. And we lack the inner strength necessary to see it through to the end.
Con #4: Lack of Imposed Structures
On the same line, you’ll have no clear curriculum, semester, timetable, or learning plan. Nobody gives you a slap on the wrist if you don’t do your practice. Nobody will even know. You’re not being asked to follow a routine and structure; you demand it of yourself.
A favourite psychologist of mine said that when humans are left to their own devices, without a deadline to meet or schedule to uphold, we usually fritter away our time doing nothing. This is a huge danger on the path of mastery. It’s very easy for a hobby or side project to fade into darkness without anyone realising, not even yourself. The lack of imposed structures is a main cause of this.
Con #5: Lack of Personalised Feedback
With in-person learning, particularly in small groups or one-to-one arrangements, we usually receive personalised feedback from those who’ve walked the path before us. This stops us repeating common errors and falling into bad habits.
This is usually missing in autodidactism, unless we find a way to receive feedback. One solution is to find a benchmark, perhaps by researching experts in the field and watching them perform. We then use that standard as a baseline for our performance and analyse what we do to the nth degree. We become our own feedback system.
Con #6: Need for Determination and Inner Strength
Given all the above cons, we see that to be a successful autodidact we need huge doses of determination and discipline. This is a con because we’re in trouble if we lack them. We can somewhat get by in school and university even if we have no self-belief or determination. We can sit back, settle into the rigid routines, and let the formal learning structure carry us along as we perform mediocrely. This won’t fly in autodidactism. We need to set the agenda and be stubborn in the pursuit of our goals.
Though there are a significant number of cons, each contains potential. We’re asked to work around those downsides and figure out a way to succeed in spite of them. We’ll look at some strategies for that shortly. For now, let’s cover the pros.
The Pros of Autodidactism
Pro #1: Gain Confidence
One of the great benefits of being an autodidact is the confidence you gain on the journey. After reaching high levels in your autodidactic pursuits, you’ll start believing you can learn anything you want. You see that your success in learning depends largely on your effort and dedication rather than birth or headstarts.
This isn’t delusional: it’s based on your track record. Now you’ve been through the process, you can apply your successful strategies to any new pursuit you undertake.
This is a life-transforming shift. Many of us have dreams we’ll never fulfil because we simply don’t believe we can. We’re convinced we inherently possess some skills and lack others, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Imagine having the self-confidence to know that you can turn your hand to anything, trusting in your persistence and determination to carry it through.
Pro #2: It Toughens You Up
There’s no doubt that learning autonomously boosts your resilience. Autodidactism is like slashing your way through a thick jungle, with a machete you make, and with no well-trodden path, to reach the treasure on the other side. It’s you vs the subject.
In the jungle, you get used to doing martial arts with your inner fears and limiting beliefs. You must repeatedly overcome your resistance and keep slashing, always with your goal in mind.
Not only does this prepare you for future learning journeys, it builds you resistance muscle for life. You can take your hard-won lessons and bring them to bear in your day-to-day challenges.
Check out my video Self-Control Explained to become supremely resilient.
Pro #3: Self-Paced
If you’re a high achiever, you’ll often find that fellow learners and bureaucracy hold you back. Formal classes can be frustrating for this reason. If you’re serious about getting good while the others are there to chit-chat or pass the time, you’ll find your progress limited and delayed.
With autodidactism, you set the pace. If you understand a topic, you can move on to greater challenges. If you need more time, you delay. There’s no need to wait for others.
Pro #4: Design Your Own Learning Journey
How much time do we spend learning things that have no relevance or interest to us? In autodidactism, we have the power to learn exactly what we want and need to. We’re not obliged to sit through classes that bore us. If we dislike a book, we discard it. If a method fails for us, we change it up. When we suddenly develop an interest for something, we can pursue it. We enjoy freedom of choice and of method.
Pro #5: You Learn How to Learn
Because you structure the learning journey then undertake it, busting through all the obstacles in your path, you truly learn how to learn. This is perhaps the most valuable skill we can acquire. It allows us to walk into any new learning journey with a sense of empowerment. You also learn more about yourself and how you work in ways that are impossible in formal, externally imposed learning arrangements.
Now we’ve discussed the pros and cons, let’s look at how to overcome the downsides.
How to Overcome the Downsides of Autodidactism
1. Inspire Yourself
Let’s begin at the beginning. Start by inspiring yourself for the journey and regularly renewing that inspiration. Your vision and desire are the rocket fuel that power the whole path. You’ll need siginificant doses if you want to reach high levels in your pursuit. If not, you’ll lose momentum and nosedive shortly after take-off.
2. Be Organised
Once you have a clear objective, be highly organised. It’s important to have habits, routines and structures, and they don’t need to be crazy elaborate. They are tricky to install, but know that once upheld for some time, they become innate: you automatically find the time to practice and learn. You even find freedom in the structure.
3. Set Clear Goals
Also set clear goals and obligations in the short-term. This helps you direct your forces and focus your attention on the decisive aspects of your craft. It also makes it easier to choose from the thousands of resources available to you. Knowing your goals, you go for materials relevant to them.
4. Connect With Others
Though loneliness is a challenge for autodidacts, there are ways around it. Nowadays it’s fairly easy to create community and connect with others going through similar challenges. The internet offers tonnes of options for connecting with others, from online forums to meetup groups.
Interacting with role models is also easier than ever. Perhaps you can contact them on social or via the internet; they might even have their own community. Besides, you can always take solace in friends and family.
Let’s finish with my top tip for overcoming the difficult aspects of the path: be doggedly persistent. You must commit to keep walking the path no matter what – this is perhaps the number one factor determining success or failure.
You’ll have bad days. You’ll experience moments of confusion, doubt, uncertainty and fear. And you’ll fall and get hurt a few times too. Realise that this is all part of the learning process. See the tough aspects not as inconveniences, but as tests of your mettle. This is how you stay on the path for long enough to get good.
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