A while back, one of my Facebook friends posted a comment lamenting the dearth of autodidacts in the world. Mmmmm I thought. What the hell is an autodidact? So I looked it up.

An autodidact is “a person who has learned a subject without the benefit of a teacher or formal education; a self-taught person.” (Dictionary.com)

Wikipedia offers this about the subject: “Autodidacticism (also autodidactism) or self-education (also self-learning and self-teaching) is the education without the guidance of masters (such as teachers and professors) or institutions. Generally, an autodidact is an individual who chooses the subject they will study, their studying material and the studying rhythm and time. An autodidact may or may not have formal education, and their study may be either a complement or an alternative to it. Many notable contributions have been made by autodidacts. Influential autodidacts include Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino and Srinivasa Ramanujan.”

The latter implies the choosing of a specific field or area of study, but I believe autodidacticism has a larger meaning. An autodidact is one who pursues self-education beyond his formal education. One who actively seeks out new knowledge, who is continuously increasing his knowledge. One with an abiding curiousity about the world who wants to know more. This knowledge need not be specialized. I believe one can be an autodidactic generalist. I also believe the true autodidact never stops learning.

The key is an active curious mind.

In the past year I’ve read three books by Eric Hoffer. Hoffer is, perhaps, the quintessential autodidact. Born in the Bronx to German parents, he was able to read in both English and German by age five. But his mother fell down a staircase with Eric in her arms when he was five. The fall hurt them both. His mother died two years later and Eric went blind. When he was fifteen, his eyesight inexplicably returned. Fearing he might lose it again, he became a voracious reader.

When his father died Eric took a bus to Los Angeles where he lived on skid road for ten years, reading and working odd jobs. He became a migrant farm worker traveling around California with a library card for every small town he came across. The Essays by Michel de Montaigne, which he read while snowed in one winter, made a lasting impression on him.

In 1943 he became a longshoreman in San Francisco. He continued to read and to write. Following up on two unpublished novels, he wrote his masterpiece, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, published in 1951. That led to eleven more books, a part-time job as a research professor at the University of California, and a syndicated newspaper column. The longshoreman philosopher, as he became known, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Reagan in 1983.

But recently I came across a paid Facebook post that intrigued me. It promoted a list of all the books the writer had read that year. I clicked on it and was surprised to find a very long and varied list, a few of which I had read but most which I had not. The variety of topics was amazing.

The writer is an Ottawa resident used to work for Canada’s intelligence community. But he wanted to improve his decision making ability so he went back to university to get his MBA. That, he discovered, did not work out so well. “After three weeks it became clear that business school wasn’t going to help me make better decisions,” he writes.

But he did not give up. He became an autodidact – educating himself. “If I wasn’t learning at school, I would learn on my own,” he wrote. “All that time I was spending on homework became the time to explore how the world really works. I became a wisdom seeker.”

And he started his blog to keep track of what he was learning. Because he worked for a secret government agency, he gave the blog a code name and wrote anonymously. He was reading about the decision making prowess of famed investor Warren Buffett and so he called his website 68131 – the zip code of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway company. He thought it was obscure enough no one would read his personal growth diary. But Buffett fans found him. He soon had hundreds of subscribers. When it reached 5000, he changed the name to Farnam Street which is what it is called today. That is also the street where B-H has its headquarters in Omaha.

And the writer quit the spy game and turned his attention full time to blogging. He revealed his name – Shane Parrish. About his blog he writes, “What you see on this site is a chronology of a pursuit of worldly wisdom that continues to this day. Farnam Street has become an online intellectual hub that helps you make better decisions and avoid stupidity. While it started out with just me, now there is a team of people helping.

“If you want to go to bed each night smarter than when you woke up, this is the place for you. We cover topics like human misjudgment, decision making, strategy, and philosophy.

“I’m not smart enough to figure all of this out myself. So we try to master the best of what other people have already figured out. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? The best way to do this is to read a lot. And so I make friends with the eminent dead. Along the way, I share what I’m learning.”

The page that got me interested was on the Best Books of 2016 (as picked by Farnam Street’s readers). I had only read one (Superforecasting). That page led me to an even better one – the books Parrish read in 2016 (and 2015 and 2014). Called What We’re Reading, it lists all the books with some notes. It includes 70 books for 2016. Not sure if all were read by Parrish or if they include books read by his staff. My 30 books for 2016 seem paltry by comparison. Also my list is two thirds fiction where Parrish’s is mostly non-fiction.

The listing includes older books he is reading for the first time or re-reading. And two I had read – To Kill a Mockingbird and The Sovereign Individual. But the real bonus in reading this list was the ideas it gave me for further reading. Here are some of the books listed which I hope to check out next year.

  • Seveneves by Neal Stevenson – sci-fi novel
  • The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo – non-fiction sub-titled Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It. It suggests a paradigm shift to embrace complexity and unpredictability.
  • Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Hartford – intrigues me because I was in a mentoring group that, among other things, taught that messiness contributes to failure. This book says the opposite, that “clean workspaces are not an indication of high productivity”. As an inveterate slob, I want to read this book!
  • Henry Clay Frick by Samuel Agnew Schreiner – it’s a biography of the relatively unknown but quintessential robber-barron. “He was an apostle of greed, making no apologies for the wealth he acquired through luck, ruthless tactics, risk taking, and sheer brilliance.”
  • Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States and the World by Graham Allison – about the architect of modern Singapore and his views. Having visited Singapore in the last year, I think this would be a fascinating book.
  • An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi – a fun book on logic
  • The Evolution of Money by David Orrel – history of money from ancient Mesopotamia to today’s bitcoin.
  • Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama by Sam Leith – all about great oratory
  • The Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto – on how to produce clear, crisp, compelling writing.
  • Necessary But Not Sufficient by Eliyahu M. Goldratt et al – “Necessary conditions must be satisfied to obtain something, whereas sufficient ones guarantee you will obtain it.”
  • The Poverty of Historicism by Karl Popper – long been on my to read list (I thoroughly enjoyed The Open Society and Its Enemies), maybe I’ll now actually read it!
  • When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – I have seen this recommended elsewhere as well. “This beautifully written memoir, by a young neurosurgeon diagnosed with terminal cancer, attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living? If you read this and you’re not feeling something you’re probably a robot.”
And two from previous years:

 

  • The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith – a philosophical detective novel (I enjoyed Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder a few years ago so I may well like this one!)
  • Hunger: A Novel by Knut Hamsun – the description is intriguing. “This book, which has been called, “one of the most disturbing novels in existence,” is a chilling first-person narrative about the conflict between self-preservation and death. The narrator is starving. He wants to write to earn some money so that he can eat. Lacking food, however, he cannot write because he is starving.”
In any event, if there were a King of Autodidacts award, I’d give it to Shane Parrish. His website, Farnam Street, is nothing short of brilliant.
My next post will be an annotated list of the 30 books I read this year. (Maybe 31 as I may read one more before then.)