Autodidactism: The ultimate guide to becoming a self learner

Autodidactism is the practice of self study.

Ask any successful person how they feel about education, and almost all of them will tell you that education was a big part of their success. But with the skyrocketing cost of college, advanced education is becoming out of reach for a growing number of people. So how do you maintain and expand on your education without sinking into a lifetime of student loan debt? Enter the world of a little known practice called autodidactism.

In this very long article, I will explain what an autodidact is, why you should be one, and how to do it.

What is an autodidact?

So what is an autodidact? An autodidact is someone who studies new topics on their own in a deep and comprehensive manner. There are a lot of people who are curious about the world around them, but autodidacts take it a step further.

Instead of just visiting a museum or reading nonfiction books, an autodidact will get a textbook, perhaps even at the college or graduate school level, and take notes about what they learn. Depending on the field of study and their budget, an autodidact might even do some sort of lab work involving tinkering, experimentation, and hands on learning. The goal of autodidactism is to gain a deep understanding of the topic through self study.

Autodidactism vs lifelong learning

Autodidactism is related to the concept of lifelong learning. While some people bundle them together as one concept, I prefer to draw a distinction between them.

To me, a lifelong learner is someone who keeps their mind active well into their adult life and old age. They probably read nonfiction, watch some documentaries now and then, and enjoy museums. They just stay curious and enthusiastic about any opportunity to learn something.

An autodidact takes it further than that. They don’t just learn, they actively study and take a deep dive into a subject, maybe even reaching a point where they can contribute new knowledge to the field.

If you want to use a fitness analogy, a lifelong learner is someone who lives a generally healthy lifestyle, while an autodidact is more like an amateur or even professional bodybuilder. The difference is really just a matter of depth.

Why become an autodidact?

At this point, you might be wondering why you should become an autodidact.  I would argue that you not only should become an autodidact, but also that the world is reaching a point where autodidactism will become a necessity. In fact, we might have reached that stage already.

Many of the jobs available on job websites are positions that could be automated within the next decade. Cashiering and manufacturing jobs are already being handed over to machines, and truck driving will probably be automated within the next decade. My point isn’t to make a claim as to whether or not this is fair or right, but simply to say that it is happening either way.

The economy of the future will require people who can continue to learn new skills and continue to adapt. Everyone will be an entrepreneur to some extent, and that necessarily means you need to innovate. Those who are willing and able to pursue self directed learning are the people who will get ahead.

Famous autodidacts

Some of the great creators and thinkers throughout history have been autodidacts. Just to list a few:

Ray Bradbury – Author of novels in many fields, especially known for his science fiction works. Graduated high school during the Great Depression and couldn’t afford college. Instead, he went to the library 3 days per week for 10 years to continue his education.

The Wright Brothers – Invented the airplane. Neither one of them completed high school. They owned a bicycle shop to make a living and self studied aeronautics as a hobby.

Henry Ford – Founder of the Ford Motor Company. He did not attend college.

George Bool – Self taught mathematician and philosopher who made numerous contributions to both fields. In particular, he developed the field of boolean algebra, which lies at the heart of all computer logic.

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek – Considered the father of microbiology. Mostly self-taught, he developed microscopes that were more powerful than anything else at the time. Used his microscopes to make some of the first ever observations of many common microbes.

… and many, many more.

Autodidactism is not dead

Many of the famous autodidacts listed above lived a long time ago. When reading about autodidacts from a few centuries ago, it is easy to criticize autodidactism as an outdated concept. You might be wondering if autodidactism even still works in our modern world.

The answer is yes, it does, and I know from experience. I built Lernabit. I wrote all of the code, built the database, made the Android app, and manage the servers. I have never had a formal class in programming, computer science, or business. I learned it on my own with books, the internet, and writing a lot of code.

And it isn’t just me. Even engineering applicants at Google are no longer required to have a college education. The book “Biopunk”, by Marcus Wohlsen describes a similar DIY movement that is taking place in the world of biotechnology.

Autodidactism is not an outdated concept. It is still possible to learn new skills and use them to build something meaningful without any formal training.

How to be an autodidact

If you have read this far, you are probably interested in autodidactism enough to become one yourself. Remember that autodidactism is really just the practice of deep, self-driven studying of a certain topic, so becoming an autodidact is mostly a matter of just picking up a textbook and getting started. But with that in mind, here are a few tips that you might find useful.

Tools for autodidacts

There are some tools available that will help you on your autodidactic endeavors. I won’t bore you with the obvious tools like Google and Wikipedia, but here some useful sites you might no know about. They are divided up by the goals they can help you accomplish.

Free books and textbooks

Project Gutenberg – Under copyright law, book copyrights expire after a certain number of years (the number of years varies by country). At that point, the book enters the public domain. Project Gutenberg hosts the full text of thousands of public domain works for free download.

Librivox – Similar idea as Project Gutenberg, except Librivox makes public domain books available as audiobooks thanks to the work of volunteers who read the books out loud and record it. The quality of the recordings can vary, but some are very good.

Wikibooks – From the makers of Wikipedia, Wikibooks offers free textbooks about a wide selection of topics. Most are incomplete, but this page lets you browse by their level of completion and find the ones that are done or almost done.

Free courses

Khan academy – This incredible resource is listed first for a reason. Khan Academy offers high quality video courses for free. They offer subjects ranging from kindergarten math to advanced finance, cryptography, and even LSAT preparation.

YouTube – There is an impressive amount of free educational content to check out on YouTube. There aren’t a lot of organized courses, but if you have a specific question you need help with you can usually find a video about it on YouTube.

Open Courseware – Many colleges including Stanford and MIT now post their lectures online for free. The easiest way to find them is through the Open Education Consortium. Just be sure to check the date, because some of them can be a bit old, especially the ones from MIT.

Paid courses

Treehouse – Most of the courses on Treehouse are about computer programming, but they have a large selection of courses within that field. A monthly fee of $25 gives you unlimited access to their courses.

Lynda – Lynda offers courses about technology and business skills for $30 per month.

Research papers

Google scholar – This little-known section of Google will only return search results from peer-reviewed journals, patent applications, and legal documents. Excellent for science and engineering topics. Try it out here.

DeepDyveDeepDyve lets you pay one monthly fee of $49 to get unlimited reading from thousands of scientific journals. That might sound like a lot of money, but it really isn’t when you consider that a single paywalled journal article can normally cost $10-15 or more just to read it.

Don’t forget the library

With the entire internet at your disposal, it’s easy to forget about your local library. In fact, a trip to your library will often be far more productive than hours of surfing the web.

This is especially true if you want to learn about business, marketing, and related fields, but also for many other fields. A lot of the content you find online for those fields is formulaic, repetitive, and of very little value. But if you browse the shelves at your library you can find many hidden gems.

For other fields like science and computer programming, most of the good stuff is online. The printing cycle for physical books simply can’t keep up with the speed at which STEM fields are moving forward.

Math is an exception. I’ve found that a real math textbook usually has better explanations of the subject and much longer list of practice problems than what you can find online. And unless you are at the very cutting edge, math doesn’t change very much so math textbooks age well.

After spending some time as an autodidact yourself, you will start to get a feel for which topics are best to search online and which ones are best to get from a book. Just try a bit of everything and see what works for you.

How to remember what you learn

Whether someone is learning on their own or as part of a formal class setting, one of the greatest challenges to the learning process is the issue of trying to remember what you learn. This is where Lernabit comes in handy. Lernabit is specifically designed for autodidacts to solve the challenges of learning on your own.

By using Lernabit to keep track of what you learn, Lernabit can remind you to review it and make the memorization process a lot easier. Also, certain feeds in Lernabit will prioritize the notes you already have created about that topic that are due for review.

For example, when you search for a hashtag, any notes you have with that hashtag that are due for review will show up first. That’s cool because it helps you recall what you already know about the topic before learning something new, which provides context that helps the new information sink in. This and other features on Lernabit are carefully crafted to help you remember everything you learn.

How to stay motivated as an autodidact

At some point, everyone loses the motivation to study for brief periods of time. Sometimes you get tired, sometimes you are too busy, but in any case, it’s normal to lose motivation sometimes.

If you need a break from studying for a day or two, that’s fine. In fact, some time away from studying can help the information take hold in your brain. By leaving your studies to go enjoy a hobby, exercise, or do something creative, you can help the new knowledge form connections with existing information in your brain. So losing motivation sometimes isn’t really a bad thing as long as you get back on track soon before you start to forget what you have learned.

One of the hidden benefits of Lernabit is that it helps you stay motivated to keep learning. By actively reminding you to come back each day to study, Lernabit helps yo retain what you have already learned with just a few minutes of studying, even if you can’t find the motivation to do any new studying that day.

How to avoid becoming a quack

If not done properly, autodidactism can quickly turn into quackery. You’ve probably seen what I mean before. When I talk about quackery, I refer to the people who claim all types of miracle inventions and breakthroughs. I’m talking about the guy who claims to have built a perpetual motion machine or a cure for cancer that won’t get funding because “nobody understands it”.  Becoming “that guy” is one of the risks you take when you learn something on your own without the guidance of someone who is already at the level you want to reach.

But in any field, those at the cutting edge are necessarily autodidacts. If you are discovering something that has never been known before, or if you are building something that has never been created, you can’t get guidance from someone who is already at that level because there is no such person. So how does an autodidact push the limits of their field without becoming a crackpot?

First, get rid of the idea that autodidactism and outside instruction are mutually exclusive. Just because you are learning something on your own, that does not mean you can’t learn from other people. In fact, that is exactly what you are doing as an autodidact anyway. If you study a textbook, somebody had to write it. If you read a scientific paper, somebody did that research. If you visit a museum, there was a curator who put together the exhibits with an intent to teach something. So don’t think that autodidactism requires you to be an intellectual lone wolf. Indeed, self directed learning with a dash of collaboration is precisely what is going on at the highest levels of academia.

Second, keep an open mind. Becoming an autodidact requires discipline, but it also requires courage. It takes courage to approach a tough academic subject without a teacher. It also takes courage to admit when you don’t understand something or when you are wrong. You absolutely must keep an open mind and be willing to change your viewpoints as you gain more understanding of a subject. If you admit when you are wrong and take that as a sign of poor understanding of the topic, you will eventually gain a deeper knowledge of your field. But if you hold on to misunderstandings and try to warp reality to line up with your biases, you put yourself on the fast track to loony land.

Conclusion

A true lifelong learner realizes that education is not something you get and forget about. It is an ongoing process that must continue throughout life. I hope this introduction to autodidactism has inspired you to pursue lifelong learning and given you some tools to help get you started on making your education a lifelong experience.

Remember everything you learn about any topic with the education app designed for autodidacts. Create your free Lernabit account now.

Review your notes more efficiently than ever

Lernabit helps you remember more of what you learn as efficiently as possible. With Lernabit, it is very easy to create notes about any topic using text, images, and audio. As long as you continue to review your notes every day, the information will eventually become part of your long term memory.

Over the weekend I made some updates to the site that focus on the second step of that process: reviewing your notes. I made a few different changes that make the entire review process faster, easier, and more efficient. In addition, the new changes also make it easier to review notes about one specific topic.

Previously, the flow of events to study a note looked like this:

  1. Find an interesting note
  2. Click the “Add to review list” button
  3. When the note was due for review, it appeared on the “Reviews” screen
  4. Review the note and click “Complete” to bring it up to date

This had a number of problems. The main problem was that is was inefficient, but it was also very confusing and not intuitive. Also, the “Reviews” page would only let you review a random selection of 20 notes.

With the new changes, all of the functions to add, remove, and review a note on your list are consolidated into just one button that appears on every notecard anywhere on the site. If the note is not already on your review list, the button will let you add it. Once the note is on your review list, the button will be a different color to let you know that it is time to review it. When you have reviewed it, just click “Done reviewing” and it will be brought up to date. Also, if the note is already up to date, the new button will tell you so that you know it is already on your list but just isn’t due for review yet.

With the new and improved button, reviewing your notes is really easy:

  1. Find interesting notes
  2. Click “Add to review list”
  3. Browse the site as normal. Click “Done reviewing” for anything that is due.

For an example, here is a note I created a few days ago about the famous quote by Nathan Hale:

Image of a notecard showing the new Review Button that helps you review your notes more quickly
An example notecard showing the new Review Button.

You can see the new button in the lower right corner letting me know that it is time to review it. After clicking “Done reviewing”, the review is now up to date. Here is the same notecard after reviewing it:

Image of a notecard showing the new Review Button that helps you review your notes more quickly
An example notecard showing the new Review Button.

If I see this notecard in the feed, I will know that it is already on my review list but does not need to be reviewed right now.

Newly designed note page

The page to view a single note has also been redesigned. It has been simplified to remove clutter, and the new review button has been added to that page as well. Here is a recent note I created about Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer that also shows the recently added YouTube embed feature:

Image of the new review button that helps you review your notes more effiently
The newly designed note page showing the new review button

You can also see that the new page has added the navigation menu in the left column to more easily explore notes on Lernabit.

Easily review your notes by topic

In addition to the new review button, there was also a change to how notes are sorted in some feeds to prioritize the notes on your review list. For example, when you search for a hashtag, the first notes that appear will be notes on your review list with that hashtag that are due for review.

With these changes, it is very easy now to see which notes are due for review. As you browse notes, you can mark them as “complete” right from the feed. For longer notes, the entire content is not displayed in the feed, but if you click on it you will be taken to a page to see the entire note. That page now has a review button as well to mark it as “complete”.

One of the coolest results of these changes is that you can easily review your notes by topic. For example, to review all of my notes that include the hashtag #italian, I just search for that hashtag and see all of my notes that are ready to review. This allows me to review what I already know about that topic to help provide more background before learning anything new.

Remember everything you learn about any topic

These new changes will make it easier to review your notes, helping you remember everything you learn about any topic.

Embed Educational Videos From YouTube In Your Notes

Lernabit is a note taking app designed for self learners. It helps you remember everything you learn about any topic. Now, you can even embed educational videos from YouTube in your notes to create rich media notecards.

Educational videos are some of the most powerful tools for self learners. With so many educational videos available on YouTube, you can learn a wide range of topics ranging from computer programming to history. Now, combined with the power of Lernabit, you can remember everything you learn from YouTube videos.

How to embed a YouTube video

Embedding a YouTube video in your notes is really easy. All you have to do is copy a link to the YouTube video and paste it into your note. Lernabit will automatically find the video on YouTube and embed a video player into your note when you view it.

Where will embedded videos appear?

When you embed a YouTube video, it will appear in the feed and on the dedicated page for that note. It will also appear when you review the note so you can watch the video without ever leaving your review session.

In any case, the video will have autoplay disabled. This is especially useful on mobile devices because it saves data and battery life. In addition, Lernabit is an app that is commonly used in libraries and other quiet places, so disabling autoplay helps prevent unexpected disturbances and distractions.

Lernabit helps you remember everything you learn, about any topic, from any source. The new video embed feature on Lernabit helps you get the most value out of the useful educational videos available on YouTube.

I’ve made the first donation!

From the start, the mission of Lernabit has been to improve education by identifying the various obstacles people face when getting an education and finding unique solutions to those problems. Whenever possible, I try to find ways that the various problems can solve each other. For example, college students and lifelong learners need better study tools, and elementary school students and teachers need supplies. The solution was to build a study app for self learners and use some of the money to support charities focused on education. The study app has been around for a while now, and I’m excited to say that the second part is now in action: I’ve made the first charitable donation on behalf of Lernabit!

The project

It was just a simple $10 donation to a 4th grade classroom in Cleveland, Ohio through DonorsChoose.org. This project stood out to me for a few reasons. First, the school is in a low income area. I strongly believe that education is one of the most powerful forces that drive social and economic mobility, so I love the opportunity to support low income students.

The money will be used to buy kits and supplies so the students can get hands-on experience with electronic circuits and fossils. That’s another reason I liked this project. Having a degree in biology, I know how important it is to get hands-on experience early on. I remember as a kid going out into the woods to look for animal tracks, identifying trees, and playing with telescopes and microscopes. That hands-on experience exposed me to the amazing world of science in a way that a book never could.

Finally, I also like this project because it had a matching donation from the First Million Fund, which celebrates the first million projects funded through DonorsChoose. Thanks to their matching donation, my $10 donation means the projects gets an additional $10 from the First Million Fund.

This is just a start

A $10 donation might not sound like much, but it is still important. Obviously I want the amount of my donations to increase over time, but this first donation is important because it shows a commitment to my mission for Lernabit. For the first time it bridges the gap between the for-profit side of Lernabit and the greater social objective to make education accessible and open for everyone.

Moving forward, I’m excited to continue building new features in Lernabit and making more donations to charitable causes.

P.S. – You can help!

As of this writing, the project I donated to still needs $99. If you want to help, head over to the project page on DonorsChoose and send them a few dollars.

Find Outstanding Educational Content With Lernabit

Image of a dark library

The aim of Lernabit is to be the best app for self-learners. No matter what you want to learn, Lernabit can help you. Up until now though, Lernabit has been a note taking app that helps you more efficiently memorize what you learn. The only problem with that is that you still needed sources of content to study. In other words, Lernabit could help you remember what you learn, but it didn’t give you much content to learn from. The most recent update to the site is the first step to changing that.

Across the site, you will now see links to articles from a hand-picked selection of websites that offer high quality educational content. Using RSS feeds from those sites, Lernabit automatically fetches the most recent articles from those sites and creates a note with a description of the article and a link. And, just as you can view a person’s profile page and see what notes they have created, you can also look at a specific feed to see more from that particular site.

Even cooler, by turning the links into regular notes, they behave just like any other note on Lernabit. They appear in search results, you can add them to your review list, they show up in the feed, and they are included in the list of suggested notes. Simply put, this update means that there is a lot more content available for browsing on Lernabit.

What feeds are included?

By now, you are probably wondering what feeds are included. Here is the complete list categorized by general topic as of this post, and more will be added over time.

History/Biography

General education

Writing/Grammar/Vocabulary

Foreign language

Art/Design

Business/Investing/Economics

Tech/Programming/Computer Science

Science/Math

Suggest A Feed

The list of feeds shown above is just a starter list. If you know of another feed that should be added, you can suggest new ones here. I’d especially like to see some more suggestions in these categories:

  • Art and design
  • Computer science, programming, etc.
  • Science and math

If you know of great sites focused on education, send them in! They might be included in the public feed on Lernabit.

Lernabit Relaunched 1 Year Ago Today

The new Lernabit homepage after relaunching

Today is the 1 year anniversary of the relaunch of Lernabit.

Initially, Lernabit was just a place to get free 10 minute long audio lectures about a range of different topics. Those short 5-10 minute long audio lectures were called “Bits”, and the goal was to help people learn new things in short periods of free time. And because they were in audio format, you could listen while working out, doing housework, etc. But the first version of the site had a lot of different design flaws that prevented it from gaining much traction. So in June 2016 I took Lernabit offline to rebuild it from the ground up. On September 22, 2016, the brand new site was relaunched. Here is what it looked like:

The new Lernabit homepage
The new Lernabit homepage after the relaunch. It didn’t even have a logo yet!

One of the most important changes that came with the relaunch was the ability for anyone to create their own Bits. Before that, I was the only one creating them. But I learned that most of the educational value came from the process of creating them, and listening was just a way of keeping the knowledge fresh. So the new version of the site allowed anyone to create audio lectures of their own and share them with other people.

Since the relaunch 1 year ago, Lernabit has continued to evolve. The Bits are now called “Notes”, and they aren’t just audio format anymore; you can also create Notes in image or text format. Another change that has taken place since the relaunch is with the addition of privacy features on your notes. Back when they were called “Bits”, they could only be public. After changing them to “Notes”, I added the ability to creating private Notes as well.

In that time period, the Android app and the website have gone through many design changes, the most notable change being the switch from a green to a blue color scheme. There have also been a lot of improvements in speed and mobile device usage.

Accomplishments

So what has Lernabit actually accomplished in this last year?

We’ve provided free educational content to people in 76 different countries. It is interesting to see a map of where people are visiting Lernabit:

Map of visitors to Lernabit
Map of visitors to Lernabit

As expected, most of the visitors are from the United States. But this map really becomes interesting when you compare it to this map of global internet availability:

Map of global Internet availability
Map of global internet availability. Source: https://www.internetsociety.org/map/global-internet-report/

The same portions of Africa, the Middle East, and South America are lighter. Now, this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise; people without internet access won’t have much luck accessing a website. The real  reason these maps are interesting is because they validate an important philosophy behind Lernabit.

Since day 1 of Lernabit, the goal has been to make education more accessible around the world. But any attempt to make education more accessible must consider the fact that there are many different barriers to education, and each one needs its own solution. That’s why I never did believe that a website alone would magically bring education to people around the world. When the site relaunched a year ago, I decided to pledge 5% of all profits to charities focused on education around the world. Now this is where you come in.

Now that a little bit of money is starting to come in from Lernabit, I look forward to making good on my pledge to support charities. I want everyone reading this to leave a comment telling me about your favorite education-related charities. They can be big or small, in the US or abroad, but they must be focused on education. Tell me what you like about them. After doing some research myself, I’ll pick one to be the recipient of the first donation from Lernabit. Let’s try to bring education to the people living in the lighter spots on those maps.

Android App Update: Version 2.4.16

A new update for the Lernabit Android app should be appearing soon in your list of updates.

Version 2.4.16 includes a major change to the home screen by moving the search box up to the top of the screen. Where the search box used to be, you will now see a list of suggested notes that you might like. These suggestions are based on the notes in your review list, which is a good indication of the types of content you want to learn more about. If you don’t have any notes on your review list yet, it just pulls up a random selection of notes with a high score (more on that in a second). As you add more notes to your review list, it can give better suggestions.

The suggestions are also partially based on a scoring system that has been built to help find the best notes on Lernabit. The score for a note is based on a variety of data points like word count, the number of people who have that note on their review list, and others. However, the score does not consider the publication date of the note. There is already a feed to see the most recent notes in chronological order. The scoring algorithm is designed to help find the best notes overall and to dig up notes you might find interesting regardless of when they were created. It is only used sporadically right now and will be applied to more features in the future as the algorithm is tweaked and improved.

Also new in version 2.4.16 is a major performance improvement in infinite scrolling, plus some other minor bug fixes, design changes, and performance improvements.

Get the latest version of the app now

Take Notes From Anywhere With Offline Notes

Just a quick update. The latest version of the Android app has just been released (version 2.4.15).

There are a lot of optimizations and bug fixes, but the coolest feature is the new ability to take notes while offline. When you create a new note, the app will try to create it as normal. If no internet connection is available, it gets saved for later. Then, the next time you start the app, it will check for an internet connection again and upload the notes that were created offline. This also works with attachments.

With the ability to take notes offline, the app becomes a lot more useful in situations where an internet connect is not available, such in remote areas where you might find interesting plants or wildlife. It is also useful for places like museums which often have poor wifi (at least in my experience).

Click here to get the free Android app