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Self-Taught, Self-Made: In Defense of Autodidacticism

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
creativity, featured

It used to be that the best way to get ahead professionally was to either know a lot of people, go to a really elite school or, preferably, both. Alumni networks ruled everything, and, your parents might have told you, the only way to succeed was to go to a good college, then get a good job. Period. But more and more, workers are going it alone — and making it.

They’re becoming more financially independent from employers by providing their own income, benefits, and even workspaces (hello, working from home), as well as by seeking out their own educational opportunities. Though rates of degrees from traditional schools are going up, so is debt — and with it, interest in education that doesn’t come with such a giant price-tag. Compounded with the relatively new expectation by employers that for workers to be both traditionally skilled and media literate, creative, and generally proficient at a lot of things, it seems that one of the smartest things to do to ensure job security  is to learn a lot, and learn it for cheap.

Enter the autodidact.

Defined simply as “a self-taught person,” the autodidact has long been hailed as a kind of creative unicorn, a super-human Swiss Army Knife-like genius who somehow manages to rise above a lack of formal instruction due to their own inquisitive nature. From Leonardo da Vinci to Frank Lloyd Wright to Bill Gates, multi-talented, prolific, by-the-bootstraps artists and creators have made huge contributions to human society. Educators strive to not only fill students with information, but also with a love of learning itself.

And yet, the idea of a person who’s educated themselves and pursues lifelong learning is still something of a rarity, and most forms of education actually aren’t focusing on this drive.

“In the US and other countries, students are never given the tools to scrutinize the educational standards and practices to which they are subjected,” writes Jordan Bates in an insightful piece for the Creativity Post. “It is rarely, if ever, articulated to students that our way of ‘educating’ and assessing is but one imperfect model; or that much of what we ‘know’ consists of our most current theories and preferred interpretations; or that everything they’re being taught is filtered through a cultural lens fraught with biases and agendas; or that in all likelihood what we do know about existence is one water molecule in a sprawling super-ocean of things that we do not know.”

Untitled drawing-2This disconnect persists into adulthood. Employers tend to weigh four-year degrees more heavily than alternative forms of education, but also admit that they wish those degrees were more meaningful. They want the the certification of education, but long for more soft skills and critical thinking to be taught within those institutions.

Taking notice of the desires of employers, colleges have even begun to include more emphasis on self-education and study, encouraging peer-to-peer educational opportunities, which have been found to spur more creative, productive hours of study.

But it still seems up to the worker to not only foster their own love of the pursuit of learning, but to pursue that learning in whichever ways they can. Which, to be fair, has gotten much easier. Despite hand-wringing about the state of publishing, books about creativity, self-education, and critical thinking are exploding off the shelves, both literal and digital, and opportunities to learn from self-made experts are getting easier and easier to find. Organizations like the Freelancers Union and various co-working spaces host workshops and talks regularly, where creative entrepreneurs are encouraged to not only deepen their skills in their main media, but also in an abundance of adjacent skills. Artists are learning bookkeeping and marketing, account executives have started picking up cameras, and everyone is lending their knowledge to everyone else.

Modern autodidactism isn’t just about learning more, it’s about acquiring more real, usable skills. It’s both a way to satisfy innate curiosity, and a way to get ahead professionally.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.