“Knowledge emerges only through . . . the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”
A few weeks ago, I wrote an essay that decried the inadequacies of our mass education systems and made a case for an autodidactic approach to learning. In that essay, I argued that if we do not take responsibility for teaching ourselves—if we are not actively curious, knowledge-seeking inquirers—we cannot hope to attain significant insight or understanding in any area of study. Of the above quote by Paulo Freire, I wrote:
“. . .“Knowledge” here refers to more than the rote memorization of facts. It may refer to deeper understanding, multiple frames of reference, transformative potential, the ability to see in unique ways and create unique things in the world. Regardless of the quality of one’s teachers, this sort of knowledge cannot be ascertained if one is not open and thirsty for it, prepared to interrogate ideas and explore new ways of thinking. In other words, one must be a self-propelling inquiry engine, a self-teacher, an autodidact.
To be autodidactic doesn’t mean that one cannot have teachers or collaborators. Far from it, other people are of immeasurable value. My argument, rather, is that autodidacticism is an attitude one brings to learning, an attitude which is essential to gaining substantive insight both within and beyond the confines of traditional educational institutions. This attitude consists of a willingness to question all of one’s assumptions and preconceived ideas, a strong desire to learn and to apply what is learned, and a fiery love for knowledge in and of itself.”
I further suggested that whether one wishes to adopt such an attitude is one’s own prerogative, but I submitted that “in the face of mounting global crises and a rapidly evolving world, we need as many flexible, thoughtful minds as possible to navigate the complexity and develop a human-friendly, Earth-conscious future.”
Ideally, though, I think one should become a voracious learner not merely because one feels some obligation to the world, but rather because one is human. Our propensity to wonder and probe distinguishes us from other earthly species. An insatiable thirst for knowledge about ourselves and our environment has arguably been the defining attribute of our species’ trajectory through time and space. Thus, to be fervently curious is to attune to the backbone of this whole human enterprise, to connect with that essential archaic impulse of Homo Sapiens: ‘What is all this stuff? Why is it here? What am I? Why are my shorts soaking wet?’.
If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’ve acquired such a curiosity. If not, perhaps this article will be one link in a chain of catalysts propelling you toward a life of inquiry (or a bit more curiosity). But what might such a life look like, particularly in an age of ubiquitous immersive digital media? Here are 11 ideas—some epoch-specific, some timeless—for an efficient and holistic approach to self-education.
1. Tackle what is beyond you.
In a poignant essay, writer and computer programmer Paul Graham wrote of a way to protect against wasting one’s time and reducing one’s options in life:
“The best protection is always to be working on hard problems. . . . Hard means worry: if you’re not worrying that something you’re making will come out badly, or that you won’t be able to understand something you’re studying, then it isn’t hard enough. There has to be suspense.”
By “worry”, Graham seems to refer to the inevitable fear that comes with attempting anything difficult or uncertain. Approaching a difficult book, enterprise, or creative project will almost certainly be somewhat intimidating, but Graham notes that overcoming this early fear brings a great sense of satisfaction. Furthermore, it’s simply true that, as with physical fitness, areas of mental fitness—reasoning, creativity, critical and divergent thinking, depth of understanding—can only be enhanced by imposing rigor.
2. Have several specific focus areas.
In the same essay I just referenced, Graham also makes a distinction between the curiosity of children and the curiosity of adults:
“Kids are curious, but the curiosity I mean has a different shape from kid curiosity. Kid curiosity is broad and shallow; they ask why at random about everything. In most adults this curiosity dries up entirely. It has to: you can’t get anything done if you’re always asking why about everything. But in ambitious adults, instead of drying up, curiosity becomes narrow and deep. The mud flat morphs into a well.”
I don’t entirely agree with Graham’s idea that “kid curiosity” is counterproductive. I think the ability to ask “why” about everything and to approach all things with wonder is decidedly valuable. However, I also think his distinction is important. Children tend not to delve deeply into a specific subject area, but for adult learners, attaining depth is often the key to intellectual excitement, prolonged fascination, and refinement of thought. I would argue that having three or more areas of deep study is beneficial, as a polymathic approach allows for cross-disciplinary thinking and seems to facilitate more free-flowing inquiry.
3. View everything as a chance to learn and expand.
Whereas traditional approaches to education see learning as reserved for classrooms, lectures, and textbooks, an expansive, autodidactic perspective will seek insight from these, as well as a vast array of other sources—visual art, relationships, nature, introspection, meditation, music, travel, dreams, novels, leisure, the f***ing Internet, etc. etc.
Rather than viewed as something boring or laborious, learning can be seen, especially nowadays, as a sort of intellectual play or even a form of entertainment. Consider the richly sensory and interactive learning opportunities now available (to many of us)—stirring and thought-provoking films, mathematics video games, penetrating documentaries, insightful music, incisive podcasts, Codecademy, TED Talks, mind-broadening subreddits, philosophical comics, Crash Course. These examples reside at a Venn-diagram-esque intersection of entertainment and learning. At no prior point in human history have sources of learning been so diverse, customizable, and arguably, fun.
4. Utilize the best online resources.
Already suggested but worth repeating with more emphasis: the Internet is a proverbial smörgåsbord of learning—an intellectual Thanksgiving dinner with far more variety, versatility, and searchability than any prior library of knowledge. No Excuse List is the most comprehensive list I’ve found of free online courses, tools, and resources for most anything you could conceive of learning on the web.
5. Find networks of learners and mentors.
It is a common myth that brilliant minds work in isolation to create artistic masterpieces or world-changing inventions. This is rarely true; collaboration and feedback networks are important aspects of learning or building most anything. And although in-person communities are, in some respects, irreplaceable, the Internet allows for exceptionally efficient and specific networks less affected by spatiotemporal constraints.
There are subreddit communities for most every area of study. There are innumerable other niche forums and communities (e.g. Hacker News for tech or High Existence for counterculture). Most online classes or educational resources have corresponding discussion boards. There are countless blog communities and bloggers who are happy to try to help you if you just email them (or me). Recognize this and reach out! And lastly, don’t underestimate the motivational and ideational dividends of regular communication with curious people who are actively learning and thinking.
6. Use Evernote.
Evernote is one of the most versatile web and mobile (syncs to all devices) applications I’ve ever encountered. I use it constantly—to take notes on what I’m studying, to save passages from reading material, to jot down ideas for writing or creative projects, to record random life happenings, dreams, or musings, and more. I currently have 27 separate Evernote notebooks. Writing things down allows you to clarify, organize, and extend your thinking. It also allows you to remember and understand on a deeper level. So, write! And let Evernote help you.
7. Use Pocket.
Pocket is another indispensable application for online learning. It allows you to save anything you want to view later—articles, videos, courses, etc.—to one place and provides a sleek interface to view all of your saved content. It syncs to all devices and integrates seamlessly with Chrome and other browsers. Having a small library of fascinating articles instantly available on my phone or PC results in more reading and never forgetting an important article or essay.
8. Meticulously search for the right books.
Life is too short to read shitty books. With millions out there, choosing good books is arguably important as reading itself. I usually get book recommendations directly from friends or from various forums. I also find books via Goodreads. Before reading a book, I typically also use Goodreads to check ratings and reviews. For books that I recommend, check out the Refine The Mind Library or my shelves on Goodreads.
9. Share and teach.
Obvious statement: sharing work is imperative in any discipline. Sharing means receiving feedback, moving forward with projects, gaining connections, and holding yourself accountable for continuing your work (the stakes increase when others are in on it). And to find if you truly understand something, try explaining it clearly to someone else, either verbally or in writing. On the Internet, sharing and teaching looks like this: contributing to open source projects, starting a blog to publish work, writing for other blogs or publications in whatever niche you’re focusing on, and establishing circles of peers in the same niche with whom to share and critique work.
10. Reorient yourself toward social media.
When used mindlessly, social media can easily become a trivial, time-sucking black hole of bullshit. However, if we’re able to limit the time that we spend on Facebook, Twitter, etc., and re-imagine the time that we do spend on those sites, we can have a totally different experience. For example, I use Facebook almost exclusively for meaningful chat discussions or for sharing articles and essays that I find fascinating. I also ‘unfollow’ about 95% of my friends, choosing to follow only my closest loved ones and people who share thought-provoking content. I also ‘follow’ numerous publications, like Aeon Magazine, Jacobin Magazine, The New Yorker, and more, effectively transforming my feed into a stream of high-quality journalism and food for thought.
11. Establish a lifestyle of learning.
The most liberated (free to learn however, whenever) autodidacts are those who are able to establish a lifestyle and livelihood of near-constant learning. That is, people who are constantly researching, thinking, and producing things—professors, entrepreneurs, writers, artists, scientists, etc. The catch is that of course not everyone can attain such a position, nor are all of the people in these professions able to inquire broadly or to work specifically on what they’d like to be working on. Some are, though.
Personally, I hold (for many reasons, not only for greater freedom) a rather spartan mentality toward material possessions and a frugal attitude by Western standards. This makes me less reliant on money, opening up time, resources, and possibilities for an atypical lifestyle. Though I’m still considering pursuing work in academia, the non-profit sector, and other brick-and-mortar institutions, I will ideally attain, at some point, sufficient financial freedom as an entrepreneur to cease traditional work for lengthy periods of time, live in a tiny house or cabin or Earthship, and work on my own projects. Really, I’d do that.
For the past year, I’ve worked at a school in South Korea and have been fortunate enough to have about 3-4 hours of free time every day at work and have used this time to read, write, work on my blog, have meaningful conversations, and start learning to program. Sometimes I f*** around or take a nap, too; I’m not superhuman. The point is that some jobs actually pay you to do nothing for part of the day. Take advantage of that time. And if you’re not in such a situation, develop strong learning habits outside of work. Whatever your situation, it should ideally become second-nature to be learning or exploring in some way each day.
So, Go Learn and Stuff
Some of this might have struck you as pretty intense or even foreboding. My intention was not to make learning out to be a do-or-die endeavor. This list can be seen as describing a rather extreme dedication to inquiry and the life of the mind. However, I hope that if nothing else, you’ve taken away a few ideas of how to approach life a bit more openly and inquisitively. So, you know, let’s go forth, ask more questions, and let a few more possibilities swirl around in our head-spaces. And let’s not to forget to enjoy ourselves in the process.
“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”
Richard P. Feynman
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About Jordan Bates
Jordan Bates is a Lover of God, healer, mentor of leaders, writer, and music maker. The best way to keep up with his work is to join nearly 7,000 people who read his Substack newsletter.
A comment on Facebook from Kathleen Monaco: “I just wanted add my thoughts on the kid curiosity topic. I do think they are digging deep. Often, I think kids are deeper then many adults because their perspective isn’t locked, you know? You can see them often hyper-focus on something and everything always comes back to that. They are trying to figure it out. It’s as deep as they can go at the time, it’s just that their experience is different than that of an adult. But adults are the same way, they just think they are different. Each adult has… Read more »
Kathleen, thanks for commenting. 🙂 You make some good and necessary points, and you identified a place where I was too ambiguous. I think what I was trying to get at was just that kids don’t tend to have specializations like adults do. Yes, kids can think deeply and imaginatively about a given problem, but the vast majority of kids (this also depends on how young of kids we’re talking about; wasn’t clear on that) don’t have a broad grasp of, say, 19th century Russian literature or software engineering or the fundamentals of carpentry or music theory or critical pedagogy.… Read more »
Note to self: must stop reading “11 ways to …” lists and actually read one of those book things.
[…] As a more concrete example of Internet-power, consider the sorta-recent Facebook scandal in which it came to light that the company had intentionally manipulated the emotions of some 600,000 users. It didn’t do this directly, by creating a blog post or video or something like that, but indirectly, by mediating the content that appeared on users’ feeds so as to display more emotionally provocative items. This is one of the more egregious examples in recent memory of a web-giant flexing its muscles, but it happens more subtly all the time. Facebook’s algorithms constantly monitor your activity on the site and tailor your newsfeed accordingly,… Read more »
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