Autodidactism is the self-directed art of learning. There is no formal schooling or classes involved. A self-learner is someone who takes the initiative to learn on their own, furthering their knowledge, skills, and expertise in a subject.
Autodidacts have existed throughout history and the ones alive today have shaped society in many ways, from scientific discoveries to innovations in entertainment.
5 (Very Successful) Famous Autodidacts
This blog post will list 5 famous autodidacts that are still alive today and have made a significant impact on the world of science, technology, and the arts.
#1 James Cameron
This Academy-Award-winning director took a strange path to fame. Born in Canada in 1954, he migrated to the United States at age 17. His family moved to Brea, California, where he enrolled in Fullerton College.
He had a plan to study physics and start an academic career, but life didn’t work out the way he expected. He didn’t stay in college long before dropping out, getting married, and becoming a truck driver.
James was blue-collar in his early adult life. He didn’t have a college education and, to our knowledge, lacked the training for any specialized field.
It wasn’t until he saw Star Wars in 1977 that his heart was stirred to direct. It inspired him so much that he began creating his own films and taught himself how to record, edit and direct films.
He went on to direct some of the most famous movies Hollywood has seen. Some of the movies that bear his name are Alien, The Terminator, Avatar, True Lies, and the Oscar-winning Titanic.
This modern Autodidact proves that you don’t need a formal education to pursue your dreams and become respected in your field.
#2 Elon Musk
The world’s most famous billionaire just happens to be an autodidact. Sure, he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Pennslyvania, but that was just a formality.
His Brilliance and autodidactism came to the surface when he decided he wanted to land a spacecraft on Mars.
Elon knew that he could learn all he needed to know about Rockets if he surrounded himself with the right people. He knew nothing about Rockets in 2001 and cold-called many aerospace experts, like Jim Cantrell.
Elon Musk began consuming textbook after textbook on everything related to aerospace, rockets, and space travel from this time forward. Jim Cantrell explains how Elon was the smartest person he ever encountered.
They had a shared interest in self-learning and began a friendship in which they frequently shared knowledge (and textbooks) on Rocket Propulsion, gas turbines, astrodynamics, and space launch systems.
Cantrell says that Elon would quote passages from the books verbatim, without notes. He had memorized much of what he had read.
He didn’t just memorize it though, he understood what he read. He was able to apply his self-acquired knowledge in conversations with the experts he surrounded himself with.
There is no mistake about it: Elon Musk taught himself Rocket Science.
#3 Yu Jianchun
Yu Jianchun is a migrant worker from China who has discovered a unique process to solve complicated math problems. He has no formal education and has been dubbed the real-life version of Matt Damon’s character in “Good Will Hunting.”
Yu came up with five formulas that Cai Tianxin, a math professor at Zhejiang University, found uniquely inspiring.
His work on Carmichael numbers was something he spent most of his free time doing, and it’s what led to him developing an interest in mathematics. His work has garnered him a lot of fame recently.
Yu said he makes his discoveries through intuition and trusts in the power of self-study. He says that most of his discoveries came to him during moments of inspiration. He would be able to understand complex formulas. He would write down the solutions before the inspiration lifted. When it lifted, he was left with the formulas that were, seemingly, given to him.
Yu sounds a lot like Nikola Tesla if you ask me! This modern Autodidact is one to keep an eye on.
#4 Johnny Depp
Did you know that one of the most talented actors out there, Johnny Depp, is an autodidact? At least when it comes to acting, he has never taken any formal acting classes.
This self-learner originally moved to California to become a musician. He ended up landing a job as a telemarketer selling ink pens. It wasn’t what he expected, but he is grateful for the experience. In interviews, he’s mentioned how he regards this telemarketing job as “his first acting job.”
His music career wasn’t a total flop, it managed to put him around the right people, and he was able to make the right connections. There is more to self-learning than just knowledge or skills–people skills are important for every Autodidact–as Johnny Depp can attest to.
It was his friend, Nicholas Cage, after all, that convinced him to give acting a shot. Johnny Depp taught himself how to act by watching his favorite actors and paying attention to their mannerisms, mimicking and learning himself.
He may have had a friend to coach him, but his learning was self-directed and acquired through self-study and lots of practice.
#5 Bill Gates
Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to build Microsoft. It’s a story that many of us are familiar with and not the reason we consider him to be an autodidact. Bill Gate’s self-learning started much earlier, in his childhood.
In Decoding Bill Gates (a Netflix documentary), he reveals how he formed the habit of reading and self-learning as a small child. When his parents would argue, or he was having other problems, he would lock himself in his room and read–for days at a time.
He described how he would become so immersed in his learning experience that he would forget to eat. This is interesting since there have been many studies recently on how fasting affects the brain and helps with cognitive function. I wonder if intermittent fasting was something he stumbled upon by accident?
Bill’s disciplined autodidactism gave him the tool he needed to learn the BASIC programming language in the ’60s–which ultimately led to founding Microsoft.
Sure, he was lucky to have access to a computer through his High School, but this was when not much was known about computing. There was much to be discovered and to learn programming Bill had to teach himself. There weren’t in-depth classes or tutorials available like there are today.
Bill Gate’s star shined the brightest during this time in the ’60s. He formed the right neural connections and habits in his childhood. He learned the art of “Self-learning” at an early age. It was what propelled his success when the right opportunity came along.
I hope some of these modern autodidacts inspire you. It’s not just about being self-taught but also learning on your own time and at your own pace. It’s finding what makes you come alive, creating a learning plan, and committing to accomplish what you set out to do.
These five modern learners have successfully used their autodidactism to accomplish incredible things.
You, like them, can shape history if you commit to a lifetime of self-learning and mastery in your chosen field(s).