The 7 habits of highly effective autodidacts

autodidact notebooksAre you a member of AA? We get no respect. No one understands us. We’re forced to sneak off alone to little shadowy (wi-fi equipped) corners to indulge our habits. We don’t get any sympathy, let alone accreditation, for our addictions. Don’t bother hiding your insatiables behind denial. Come on in and pull up a chair. Welcome to Autodidacts Anonymous.

Throughout history, self-directed learners have been responsible for many of our greatest leaps forward in math, science, literature, architecture… etc. I keep this impressive list of self-taught innovators in my back pocket to defend myself against everyone who has called me crazy for choosing to leave university one year into my degree, when I had a 4.0 (as in perfect) GPA and full scholarships for all four years. I know you’re reading this probably thinking, “Idiot!” Shock, disbelief, pure unadulterated horror – the reactions I got were akin to if I’d confessed to a habit of maiming puppies. Worse still, I followed up my news with, “…and I want to be a writer.” Oh the agonies on the faces of those I loved!

Ten years later and I’ve never regretted my choice. Ok, ok, maybe there were one or two brief moments near the beginning when I was on lumber cash at Home Depot dealing with splinters and grumpy contractors at 7:30 in the morning. Since then, I’ve loaded up this brain with a vast and varied cache of information across more fields than I can list, all by using the 7 habits of highly effective (title inspired by this classic tome) autodidacts listed below. How the hell I’m going to use it to make a living has yet to be determined, but I can say with confidence that I have a graduate level degree equivalent in what could best be described as ‘the evolution of ideas’. In school I could feel my brain closing, tightening up, and now I know why…

Standardized education isn’t just about encoding information, it’s about encoding it in pre-prescribed neural linkage maps. The patterns of association that have been formalized by academia dictate to the brain ‘what goes with what’, ‘what came before what’, ‘this is correlated with that’, etc. Oh sure, you can put together a novel thesis within these parameters, but stray too far into divergent thinking and your 1st year T.A. or PHD committee will give you a big fat fail. How did I achieve an A+ average? I wrote my lab reports and picked my projects according to the personality of who was going to be marking them. Talk about subjective!

Not only does self-directed autodidact learning let you maximize your efficiency by engaging your interest and letting your moods and energy levels personalize your self-teaching schedule, it also builds a uniquely uninhibited neural linkage map that will free your brain to make new exciting connections, interpretations, and value assignments. This map grows organically according to your research through time and allows your brain structure and the pattern/chronology of input to directly influence its design. Read on to discover the 7 habits of highly effective autodidacts…
schoolgirlHabit One: Autodidact mission statement
Are you a generalist or a specialist? Are you tackling a specific topic in order to build a new skill set? What is the purpose of your learning? Pure pleasure? Potential profit? An autodidact mission statement will keep you focused on your learning goals and prevent you from getting sidetracked. As a writer and generalist, my learning mission has been to build a knowledge foundation to provide the broadest possible source material for metaphors, plot, settings, and characters – with a focus on cultural paradigm shifts throughout history. What’s yours?

Habit Two: Vary your sources
We live in an autodidact paradise. This article gives a great list of learning tips, resources, and websites. But don’t forget about books, conversations, and tactile explorations. Always approach a topic from multiple perspectives by using multiple sources, especially when using the internet. And if you start watching TED talks, be warned, they are extremely addictive!

Habit Three: Develop a personalized learning system
Are you a visual, auditory, or tactile learner? Develop your learning system to maximize memory encoding efficiency. Highlighting and once-over reading are bullshit. Unless of course, you’re one of those lucky buggers with a photographic memory. I’ve designed my own handwriting font and symbol set for maximum speed and readability. Writing down quotes and important facts gets more of the body/brain involved in the process and turns auditory information into visual and tactile. Taking notes also gives you a record of your autodidacticism. Source memory is easily corrupted, therefore, personally, I don’t bother too much with noting sources. I also recommend drawing pictures and diagrams to maximize your interaction with the topic and get your right brain involved. The more you can load up your associations for a concept, the more the circuitry is strengthened.

Habit Four: Test through application and socialization
Test your knowledge by commenting on related blogs, searching out conversations with people in the field, or by problem solving within your topic. Use the skills you’ve read about in real-world situations. Quiz yourself. Identify patterns across subjects. These patterns will also help in organizing how these topics are encoded in your brain.

Habit Five: Risk the knowledge path less traveled
Yes, the more passionate you are about a topic, the easier it will be to learn. But don’t wuss out and stick to old favourites. Sometimes you will need to hunker down and tackle what I call Bridge Topics. These are the connecting links between topics that don’t immediately engage your attention but will expand your understanding of your favourites (eg. study loom history and not just haute couture). Randomize!! Take advantage of the suggestion list on Youtube. Follow seemingly unrelated topic strings concurrently. Switching it up is a great way to find new patterns and linkages. Tackle Newton for an hour then take on Victorian kitchen gardens!

Habit Six: Respect the importance of words
We encode through interpretation rather than actual word for word. Knowing this, get fierce about the specific words used by your sources, especially quotes. Otherwise, you’ll be learning through a shallow, stagnant perspective and will miss out on the true depth of your study topics. Identify words that repeat across topics. Also, this skill will help you start to pay attention to the actual words used in conversation – especially handy when ‘negotiating’ with your spouse.

Habit Seven: Revisit and review
Periodically revisit and review source material from early in your topic study. Has your perspective changed? Do more layers appear? Does the information seem more nuanced? In terms of perceived importance, which facts stick out as ‘loud’, which are ‘quiet’? Ideally, this pattern will have changed since your first encounter, as your understanding will have evolved. Have you developed your own theses about the topic? Do these challenge the original source but hold up to argument? If so, give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve learned something. Which, I believe, is the whole point.

12 thoughts on “The 7 habits of highly effective autodidacts

    • Thank you! I checked out your link and, personally, I’m leaning towards “lack of vision.” Without a clear vision, in learning or in water conservation, irresponsibility is a forgone conclusion.

  1. Interesting post. I think the onus is on writers to be generalist for many reasons. Not least the point that even specialist writing benefits if the author has a broad base from which to work. Generalism also offers ways of synthesis which are not available to those limited to a single field. All this stands against the usual academic conceits of course.

    • “Stands against the usual academic conceits” is my middle name! That’s right, just call me Cymbria Standsagainsttheusualacedemicconceits Wood lol. I completely agree with your comment. I can see from your blog that your own generalist nature enables you to mix and match connections that really add an exciting level of intrigue to your work. I’ve got some fresh from Oxford dorm room banter for you…

      My Relative’s Roomate: “People are learning more and more about less and less.”
      My Relative: “Pretty soon we’re going to know everything about nothing.”

      Surprisingly witty back and forth to come out of one of the hallowed birthplaces of “academic conceits.” ;)

  2. thoughtful and vauable info – Cymbria – I’m going to apply some of these habits to my own work, a timely piece as I head into a term of research! Thanks!

    • Thanks Lynn! I was hoping not to step on too many institutionalized toes with this article, especially yours! But of all the academic toes out there, yours have never lost the ability to dance their way into dynamically divergent thinking… and across the dew laden tips of New Zealand grass.

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