10 Successful People You Didn’t Know Were Autodidacts
Most of us have been taught to see a college education as an absolute must right from our childhood. We have never even toyed with the idea of not going to college. If one doesn’t go to college how will they get good jobs? How will they learn?
Autodidactism is not a very common practice anywhere in the world.
An autodidact is basically a self-taught person; a person who teaches him/herself about a subject in which he/she has had little or no formal education. This concept is not immediately appealing. Self learning is incredibly hard to do. You have no structure, no incentives, no motivations, no consequences. On the other hand, you have complete control over what you learn or when you learn and you are not boggled down with test and assignments that you might perceive as a waste of time. But the idea is not very popular even today.
However, if you look at history, autodidacts have contributed a lot to society. A number of people that have excelled in various fields have been self-taught. Let’s look at a few wholly or partially self-taught personalities:
Leonardo da Vinci
The famous Renaissance Man, universally accepted as a genius was an Italian polymath; he was a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer and writer. Phew!
Although he was trained in the arts by Andrea del Verrocchio, he can be considered an autodidact in connection to his work in aviation, architecture, engineering. He had only received an informal education in Latin, geometry and mathematics. Yet his contributions are known worldwide today.
Jimi Hendrix is widely considered as one of the greatest electric guitarist in the history of popular music. In 1957, Hendrix was helping his father with a side-job when he found a ukulele with only one string in some garbage they was removing. The lady it belonged to allowed him to keep it. Learning by ear, he played single notes on it. He then bought an acoustic guitar for $5 and later an electric guitar, both of which he taught himself to play. The same guy went on to be described as “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The creator of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and other still famous characters, Walt Disney, may be an icon in the field of animation but the co-founder of the Walt Disney Media Empire, taught himself the art of cartooning with the help of correspondence schools. 22 Academy Awards, 7 Emmy awards and worldwide fame; not bad for an autodidact!
Kató Lomb was one of the first simultaneous interpreters in the world. Her native language was Hungarian. And according to her, she earned money altogether from sixteen languages: Bulgarian, Chinese, Danish, French, English, German, Italian, Hebrew, Polish, Latin, Romanian, Japanese, Spanish, Russian, Slovak, Ukrainian. And guess what? She mostly taught herself these languages. She found coursebooks for learning languages boring. So in order to learn, she read novels she found interesting in a language completely unknown to her. She gleaned the basics of the language, its grammar and vocabulary through these novels.
Indian mathematical genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan has made extraordinary contributions to analytical theory of numbers, elliptic functions, continued fractions, and infinite series. But he did this with almost no formal training in pure mathematics. Living in India with no access to the larger mathematical community, which was centred in Europe at the time, Ramanujan developed his own mathematical research in isolation. As a result, he rediscovered known theorems in addition to producing new work.
The 16th President of the United States, who led the country through its Civil War, and who played a huge role in the abolishment of slavery was a self-taught lawyer. He had less than a year of formal schooling from several itinerant teachers. He was an avid reader and he is said to have walked for miles in pursuit of books, and to have set out to thoroughly understand everything he read.
Faraday, an English chemist and physicist who made huge contributions to the field of electromagnetism and electrochemistry, received little formal education and knew little of higher mathematics. During his seven-year apprenticeship at a local bookbinder and bookseller, he read many books by writers like Isaac Watts, Jane Marcet etc. that helped him learn. At the end of his apprenticeship, he also attended lectures by the eminent English chemist Humphry Davy of the Royal Institution and Royal Society, and John Tatum, founder of the City Philosophical Society. This self learner is now regarded as one of the most influential scientists in history.
Academy Award-winning actor Russell Crowe worked quite a few acting gigs in order to save up to go to the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney. He asked the then head of technical support at NIDA for advice. He was told that he’d just be wasting three years over there learning what he already knew and that there was nothing there to teach him. So he continued to act, and now is known the world over.
The American fantasy, science fiction, horror and mystery fiction writer was also an autodidact. His self learning is best explained through his own words, “Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”
Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the most influential architects and was recognised by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time”. He designed more than 1,000 projects, and completed more than 500. He, however, never finished his college education and was mostly self-taught.
Honourary mentions: These are not all of course.If we talk of writers, a crazy number of them are largely self-taught. Such as, H.P. Lovecraft, Terry Pratchett, Ernest Hemingway, Rabindranath Tagore, Herman Melville, Jorge Luis Borges, José Saramango.
Many successful filmmakers also did not attend or dropped out of college and/or film school. These include Luis Buñuel, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, John Huston, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Dario Argento,Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson.
In conclusion, if history is any indicator, autodidacticism has always been around, and has given us many, many people whose work is influential and important in a number of ways. And most of them did this, in the pre-internet era! With the resources available to us today, such as, online courses, educational websites, message boards, ebooks etc. it is a very viable and valid option. Maybe we should all expect a new generation of successful autodidacts in the coming years or consider self-learning as an option for ourselves.
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