March 18

Learning To Learn: What Autodidacts Can Teach Us About Self-learning

Whoever came up with the expression easy as pie probably never made one. So many rules to follow when making a pie: don’t overwork the dough, keep the butter chilled, coat every part of the flour with fat, and on and on. I wouldn’t describe any of that as easy. Similarly, self-learning sounds like fun in theory but can be vexing in practice. Thankfully, autodidacts have made it easy for us. They’ve figured out clever ways we could learn all sorts of things. All we need to do is copy their methods.

But first, a little background saga of my self-learning journey.

My self-learning saga

After spending years in a highly structured high school learning environment, I landed in a college where attendance in class was optional. “Sweet,” I thought! And didn’t let that perk go to waste. I figured I didn’t need to wake up at ungodly hours to jostle for space in the overcrowded Modern Physics class (or, for that matter, most classes). Instead, I would self-learn. I had the textbooks and the library (these were pre-google, pre-internet days). After all, how hard could it be?

Soon, I had my answer. Frickin’ hard.

An amalgamation of factors—not knowing how to learn, poor time management, not having the right resources, lack of expert feedback, etc.—led to one result: dismal academic performance.

Alarmed, I course-corrected. I went conventional, showing up to classes like I was supposed to. 

By the time I graduated, I had understood my limitations well. Even though I’d memorized and could recite Schrodinger’s wave theory, I still understood diddly squat about quantum physics. Self-learning wasn’t working for me: I failed to grasp the essence of the concepts when I learned by myself.

Graduation meant I’d also reached another promising milestone in life. I wasn’t a teen anymore, and with it came the realization I wasn’t omniscient. What a relief it was to know and accept there were things I still didn’t know.

From “yay” to “boo” self-learning

Those college years were enough to shake my confidence in self-learning. I walked away, believing that self-learning wasn’t really a thing. “I’m going away to the library to self-study” sounds way better than saying “I’m going away to hang out with friends,” but they were the exact same thing in my mind.

I was convinced that self-learning was simply a clever euphemism concocted by devious minds to avoid succumbing to society’s expectations and obligations. And that’s how I became a cheerleader for expert instruction, strongly believing that you cannot learn something well unless you are taught conventionally by an expert.

That is, until I ran into autodidacts.


Autodidacts are self-taught people. They determine what, when, how, and where they want to learn. And, unlike my rather miserable experience in college with self-learning, autodidacts can learn, comprehend, and remember new subject matters, over and over again.

To understand how they do it, let’s turn to one of the most famous autodidacts of the last century —Nobel laureate and theoretical physicist Richard Feynman.

Richard Feynman

Described as one of the most original post-war minds, Feynman’s creativity and genius profoundly influenced the course of modern physics. But he left his mark on more than just physics. In 1985, Feynman published his memoir, ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr.Feynman,’ heralded by many as one of the best books on science of our times.

But, first, let’s be honest here. Does the thought of reading a book on physics or by a physicist excite you? That’s what I thought too. But then Feynman, with his legendary wit and utter disregard for any identities people tried to pigeonhole him in, regales readers in his unputdownable page-turner of a memoir.

Varied interests

In his own words, Feynman describes himself as a perennially curious character. Always inquisitive, Feynman recalls a high school incident when he went to check out the book ‘Calculus for the Practical Man’ at the school library. When the librarian told him the book wasn’t meant for him, Feynman fibbed that he was taking the book home to his father.

Once home, Feynman didn’t simply skim-read his new library book. Instead, he devoured it cover-to-cover, taking detailed notes that even included an index for his future references. His elaborate notes are now part of a museum collection, but here are some sneak previews.

A chronic autodidact, Feynman taught himself, in his later years, how to play the drums, speak Portuguese, pick locks, and decipher Mayan hieroglyphics. He could do all this (and more) because he had created an infallible learning system.

Feynman’s self-teaching methods have proven so popular that there’s now a formal Feynman technique to self-learning.

The Feynman technique to self-learning

The Feynman technique to self-learning has four key steps to it, paraphrased below:

1. Imagine teaching your concept to a 12-year-old

Pick a concept you want to teach and imagine teaching it to a 12-year-old. Why 12? Because they are usually clever enough to absorb new ideas but are unlikely to be too opinionated or prejudiced.

Now, before you get started, I should warn you of a couple of key attributes that most 12-year-olds have:

a) They have the attention spans of fireflies

b) They speak fluent sarcasm and can be scathingly critical if what you say doesn’t make sense

2. Find gaps

Noting the constraints described above, run through your concept to see if your understanding is air-tight. If not, go back and review/relearn your material to identify where the gaps are. Keep iterating until there are no holes in your understanding of the concept. Do. Not. Rush.

3. Simplify, simplify, simplify

Streamline your topic to stay logical and on point. Eliminate jargon; remember that you will present to a 12-year-old. The point is not to sound intelligent but to actually explain intelligently. There’s a world of difference between the two.

One of my favorite writers (I’ve referenced in previous posts) is Steven Pressfield. He coined the term the foolscap method in his blog. (Foolscap, by the way, is the length of one page on the familiar yellow legal pads.)

Once when Pressfield was struggling to finish a novel, he met a documentarian, Norm Stahl, who imparted these words of wisdom:

“Steve, God, made a single sheet of foolscap to be exactly the right length to hold the outline of an entire novel.”

According to Pressfield, if you can’t fit your concept into a single page, there are gaps in your understanding.

Keep the foolscap method in mind when you try to simplify your concept.

4. Deliver

Deliver your presentation. Or not. This step is optional because, by this stage, you’ve achieved what you set out to do—learned the essence. And your understanding is clear and crystallized. No one, not even a caustic 12-year-old, can accuse you of spouting gibberish. What more can you ask for?

So, yes, being an autodidact is actually that simple.

But before you embark on a learning journey and drag your grudging 12-year-old away from his Fortnite game to be your audience, there are some key self-learning principles to remember.

Self-learning 101

 I’ve never let schooling interfere with my education. Grant Allen

In the age of google, video tutorials, public, and not-so-public messaging forums, there’s a lot of information out there. Life is now like an open-book exam—there aren’t many secrets; it’s just a matter of knowing where to find what you need efficiently.

And therefore, now, more than ever, anyone can be an autodidact. And now, more than ever, most people need to be autodidacts because almost every career, vocation, and hobby requires diverse skills.

Before starting your self-learning journey, it’s good to keep the following principles in mind.

a) Are you motivated?

True learning only occurs if you really want to learn. Like really, really. Like for yourself, without someone forcing you to learn.

Imagine the difference in attitude between someone studying Spanish for their AP exam versus trying to learn Spanish to talk to the cute guy at the local coffee shop. It isn’t difficult to guess who has more fun and is more likely to succeed.

While learning can open many doors—get you a promotion, change careers, fill time, feel accomplished, help you talk to cute guys, you need to be clear about what motivates you. The best learning happens when you learn for the sake of learning, i.e., to truly understand the world around you.

b) Learn by doing (Not by reading)

Ever tried to learn to swim by watching swimming videos? I know a certain someone who did. Needless to say, it was a flop show.

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, Woah!

If you’re someone who puts sliced cheese on bread into a pop-toaster to make grilled cheese, then binge-watching cooking shows isn’t going to turn you into an iron chef overnight. Plus, you may need therapy (entirely my opinion).

True learning takes methodical, deliberate practice. No two ways about it.

c) Learn through repetition

Unless it’s a life-altering event or you are a memory champion, it is almost impossible to crystallize knowledge without repetition.

Repetition and practice are what enable information to turn into knowledge. They are what help turn straggler neurons in your head into neural pathways.

According to Bruner, a professor at the University of Virginia, “the deepest aha’s spring from an encounter and then a return.” In his research paper, Bruner describes the importance of repetition in learning and provides ideas to incorporate repetition into teaching.

d) Get feedback

It’s hard to overstate the importance of getting feedback at consistent intervals during your learning journey. If you’ve ever thrown in a tablespoon of salt into a dish that’s already been salted, you’ll learn next time to first taste (get feedback) before adding ingredients.

Feedback is how you’ll figure out what adjustments you need to make to your learning process.

If possible, find automated tools that could give you feedback. Taking a quiz or a test is an example of this. If automated feedback isn’t possible, find a sympathetic audience—not your teen, for reasons discussed earlier—who can give you gentle but honest feedback.

Writers use beta-readers for this very reason when they plan to release new books. Much better to have someone tell you that your plot makes no sense in a gentle one-one email than a hundred readers leaving 1* reviews on Amazon and asking for their money back.

e) Commit. And be consistent.

Learning is a process. This means it’s never a one-and-done activity. Like laying bricks one by one is key to building a concrete wall, consistent, small goals have to be met regularly to see progress in learning.

Incorporate learning into your schedules at recurring intervals. Make your learning time non-negotiable. Put away the phone, and devote your attention to learning.

No amount of binge-watching can match the joy of authentic learning.


Lifelong learning is the ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge. Learning something new keeps us cognitively sharp, makes us interesting, boosts our self-confidence, and makes us want to get out of bed and embrace the day.

But more than anything else, learning keeps us grounded and humble by helping us realize how little we actually know.

The more I know, the less I know. Socrates

What are you going to learn today?

Recommended further reading

a) Surely, you’re joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman

(Note: If you are looking for rabbit holes to disappear into, I’d highly recommend reading the transcripts of Feynman’s oral history interviews hosted on the American Institute of Physics’ website.)

b) Ultralearning – Scott Young



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