This post is moreso for those who are new to the concept or beginning the process of achieving polymath status.
“Ask not who will teach you, but who will stop you from gaining knowledge and understanding?”
While for many individuals in the world, being a polymath (at least in the traditional sense) would be near impossible or simply undesirable, many of us certainly not only have the option, but crave new information and the ability to share it with others. To be an autodidact polymath is to be self-taught, and well-learned in many subjects.
Is it possible?
Polymaths, also considered “Renaissance people,” have existed for centuries, most notably during the Renaissance. As I specified earlier, acquiring education and information may be very difficult for some individuals, but for many of us who have attended public schooling and live in the United States or Europe, it is much more feasible. With the advent of education on the internet as well as public libraries, education is available at every turn for those of us who seek it. It would be very difficult for one to gain some tidbit of information, teach in it one location, and try to keep the information strictly between the teacher and students. Where there is someone eager to learn, somewhere else in the world is one who certifiably knows what you’re after and would be eager to teach you, often outside of a school setting. This seems especially true of those who teach dead languages. Albeit in this scenario, one might not consider it autodidactism.
The reasons behind a desire for information will inevitably vary from person to person. Personally, I am a generally curious individual always longing to know more about “how” and “why” things are the way they are. Aside from this, many topics I study play an important role in my everyday life, from things I might plan on doing, to spirituality -knowledge is a factor in all of it. Knowledge and understanding also affects how we handle situations and how we relate to others.
So, why not simply go to school for education? Well, you can. And most polymaths do or have gone to schools. However, the educational system emphasizes “preparing for a career” and therefore money-making more than it actually promotes a greater understanding of anything or genuine curiosity. There is also a plethora of information not typically taught in most public schools (the local schools in my area no longer teach evolution and have never taught sex ed, for example. Schools tend to only cover the basics of a limited number of topics, the bare minimum required to either get a job or get into college). Traditionally schooling may also be expensive. On top of these issues, information that is taught in public schools is not always correct and up-to-date. I have personally encountered many inadequate teachers who do not even have a basic understanding of what they teach, or cloud the learning environment with personal bias and opinions.
What to remember while learning:
- Source validity: This is usually obvious, but if you want to have any reliability, you should be sure to learn using a variety of resources, and thoroughly investigate these resources. This may include checking dates of when the information was published, who wrote/claimed what (and whether this person is reliable), whether this information has been used or taught elsewhere, whether anything is left unaddressed, and whether any logical fallacies are present. Because being an autodidact polymath can cover a wide variety of topics, the potential sources of information will differ greatly and so will how each is checked for validity.
- Experience: Depending on whatever it is you aim to learn or understand, it would help to apply the knowledge and therefore practice as you might in school. Hands-on experience can greatly increase your understanding of a topic. This may also be helpful with interactions with other people (for example, creating and solving a math problem, and presenting it to a mathematician to evaluate your work).
- Humility: It is okay to have difficulty grasping certain subjects, and to need guidance. Furthermore, admitting you are wrong (if you are) will only allow you to improve yourself. No one understands everything perfectly. Mistakes are inevitable.
- Keeping an open mind: It is improbable that anyone with a close-minded perspective when it comes to learning will truly be able to gain an adequate understanding of multiple topics. Keeping an open mind implies that you will be able to change your perspective when given new information. While doing research, you may learn that something you had been previously taught as fact is actually false. It also means accepting that knowledge is ever-increasing and things constantly change. What might have been “true” fifty years ago may not be “true” today.
Noteworthy autodidacts: Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Kidd, Keith Moon, Russel Crowe, Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, Steve Erwin, Hitler, Malcolm X, Wilbur Wright, Jean Prouve, Jacque Fresco, Kurt Cobain, Paul Gray, David Bowie, Gert Verhulst, Herman Melville, Nazir Naji, Gottfried Leibniz, Kato Lomb, Michael Faraday, Daniel Dennett, James Watt, and many more exist as well. Those italicized generally are or could be considered polymaths in addition to autodidacts. The list of those who are just polymaths is extensive as well.