I don’t know how many people practice autodidacticism, or self-education, or even if the notion of acting as one’s own teacher has widespread appeal. I do know that for some of us, though, it comes quite naturally and seems to be born of the need to satisfy a never-ending curiosity. Self-teaching is akin to breathing in that way: Some of us can’t stop learning. We can’t stop reading, researching, asking questions, and setting out on long and often arduous journeys to find the answers we’re looking for. The quest for knowledge opens new frontiers. And for some of us, the ability to consistently set our sights on those frontiers is a prerequisite for living. Without it, our spirits—our lust for life—would simply expire.
As for me, I’ve been teaching myself for as long as I can remember. I don’t know any other way to be. It seems that, no matter where I am in life, regardless of status or occupation, I must always have “a project” or two. I must always be looking ahead, working on something that feeds the incessant desire to learn and grow. Over the years, I have learned to value my informal education even more than my formal one. While the idea of being largely self-taught might not be attractive or feel natural to everyone, there are, I think, certain benefits we can all reap from taking charge of our education—from having “a project” or two. Here are some rewards of being an autodidact:
It teaches you to challenge yourself.
I am aware that everything I do on this blog is part of a larger autodidactic exercise. That’s what keeps me engaged. That’s what keeps me up late at night reading the likes of Nietzsche, May, Nin, Paz, Neruda, and others whose works I’ve mentioned here and who’ve graced my nightstand in recent months. But, I am also aware that there are much easier ways to find the answers I’m seeking through my readings, writings, and reflections here. I could find someone to guide me through the psychological processes involved in “making meaning,” or I could hire a life or career coach. But, all of those alternatives seem so unfulfilling. That is, perhaps, why I never considered them plausible solutions to my current problem. Even though, there are moments when all I want is for somebody to PLEASE TELL ME WHAT TO DO, I know that’s not why I’m here. I know that’s not the answer. The truth is, I would never want to rob myself of the pleasure of doing all the work. I’ve never been satisfied with being a pupil. I am much better accustomed to being my own teacher. And unless my learning is (at least somewhat) self-directed, or my challenges self-created, I find I am always left craving more.
Indeed, it is as if some of us also need to think about thinking. To reflect on the processes of learning as we are learning. Learning alone isn’t enough. It rather feels as if there is a whole other dimension of ourselves, of a task, or problem, that’s going to be left unexplored unless we’re allowed to engage with the matter the way we want to, or need to. To act as both student and teacher is to grow at once in multiple kinds of awareness.
It empowers you to respect your gifts.
When you teach yourself, you have the freedom to exercise your talents and explore your interests however you choose. You can work at your own pace, combine ideas in unconventional ways, and jump between fields and topics of interest at your own discretion. This can be a hugely emancipatory experience.
You can also observe a great deal about how you learn and how you excel in different environments. For example, I find that, when left to my own devices, the delineations between intellect and creativity are nearly non-existent. My creative exercises seem to be an important part of how I understand and process information. Indeed, the creative writing I publish on this blog serves the indispensable function of aiding me in thinking about topics of interest (even—or especially—poetry). If I had never acted as my own teacher, I probably wouldn’t know that about myself. Because I teach myself in an entirely different way than anyone else has ever taught me. It is a freedom I allow myself, and one I view as a means of honoring my own creative and intellectual gifts. By respecting them and giving them the outlet they need, even when I have to create that outlet myself.
It keeps you original.
Of the comments that I receive from readers of The Used Life, I have observed that one, in particular, keeps resurfacing, “Your writing voice is unique” (or some variation on that expression). Little do you know that each time one of you voices that sentiment, I smile. Thank you.
Those words make me happy because they tell me I’ve been able to use my voice effectively. Although I’ve been formally educated in all the “how to’s,” “do’s,” and “don’ts” of grammar and style, I have succeed in sounding like myself—in not sounding like I’ve spent a good portion of my life memorizing the rules. This pleases me to no end. While formal education has tremendous benefits, it can make us all think and sound the same, if we’re not careful. Knowing how to teach myself, I’ve found, has helped me be a far more discriminating learner in many situations. I know what questions to ask myself, and I am not afraid to reject information that I don’t think works for me (or that I think is garbage). I do not believe that my informal lessons—those I continually teach myself—are a valuable compliment to formal learning. I, rather, believe the converse is true. In the scheme of my life to this point, formal learning seems to have served as an indispensable compliment to my on-going informal education.