A few days ago I was reading – again – the book “Antifragile”, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. To me, one of the greatest minds today. I highly recommend you to read it.

He is an empiricist and an autodidact. He derives knowledge therefore, through what he observes and experiences.

In one of the chapters in this book he talks about how important is to be generate your own body of knowledge, or why is so important to be an autodidact.

It felt so true. Even though I received a formal education, (a law degree from a renowned University and all), the things I truly know about, aren’t those that came from sitting and listening in the classroom.

The difference between knowledge and information

When we pay a course to learn something, we are learning “a side” of someone’s story. The story of one or few persons than later a bunch of people adhered to, to form and “school of thought”. That is only information.

Every generation seems to choose a school of thought and defend it until all its members die. Then the new generation has the opportunity to choose another one.

The person who created that first story, and the resulting “school of thought”, probably delve on the totality of whatever he was observing. And he decided to explain it or resolve in a single, particular way. For him that was knowledge he created. It was relevant to his experience.

But when we sit in a classroom and we accept his ideas, we are only consuming information. We haven’t proven it, or experienced it. It isn’t relevant to us. Only to pass the examination.

We get blinded, thinking that person’s theory or explanation is “all there is to know” about the subject. We believe we know everything, when we only got a single, unverified point of view.

Missing the original autodidacts

In history we see that some of the very greatest minds were autodidacts. They went out there and learn as much as they could from direct observation. Because after learning what the establishment was saying, they saw gaps. Reality and our explanations – theories -, have more gaps than anyone is willing to accept.

These people were the great autodidacts. And we still have them. Have you noticed that most amazing breakthroughs in fuels are done by individuals in their garages?

They are primed to have this breakthroughs because they have a great advantage: They know how much they really know, but they know more what they don’t know.

These people don’t go through the usual “recognized” funnels of education. Autodidacts are driven by hunger for knowledge and understanding. They don’t need titles, they need space to do experiments.

The Weaknesses of Formal Education

When we go through formal education, we usually want to receive very specific information in highly formatted ways.

We want to learn “how to do something”, get a paper certifying you can do “that something”, and hopefully get a job doing “that something” the paper says you can do.

Not much love for knowledge there. No passion.

In school, we learn the latest trends. We aren’t shown all the perspectives, just the one that is recognized as the “truth” at that moment. The chances of that one and only perspective being “the good one” are very, very slim.

Autodidacts immerse themselves in whatever they are trying to learn. They are learning for the sake of it, not to gain any economical or social advantage.

Since they aren’t in a rush, they read everything. They ask questions. They observe everything from their unique perspective, – social, environmental, biological, economical, etc,-. Conditions that make their learning experience unique and true to their senses.

They end up generating knowledge that is true and relevant to themselves and their environment. They were involved in every step of the process. Most likely starting with non or very few assumptions.

Knowledge must benefit its own environment

Those who learn in traditional ways, read and memorize a single perspective. A single experience out of all the possible ways of explaining or interacting with reality. Not only that, they learn from someone whose perspective has little or nothing to do with their own.

Eskimos’ knowledge on how to hunt seals have very little relevance to a man living in the mountains of Peru.

The autodidact, researching a myriad of different ways of approaching, explaining and understanding a problem or scenario, must process internally all possible information and come build his own knowledge from here. He won’t have the “benefit” of a teacher or lecturer telling him what to believe at last.

The average Joe on the street wants to be told once and for all by his friend, his teacher, a scientist or a magazine the ultimate truth. Because he yearns to believe. He doesn’t mind skipping the whole process of knowledge creation and acquisition.

  • He wants another mind to “sink their teeth” on the problem, digest the whole thing and give him a simple answer to believe.

  • That such an answer is only a perspective, is unimportant.

  • That it may be wrong? Unimportant too.

  • That the explanation bares little resemblance with reality, why should I care if no one else does?.

  • That every empirical observation disregards the answer’s truth and validity, doesn’t matter.

The average Joe goes through life believing he knows and he is ready to fight until his keyboard bleeds to defend “his” truth. The truth he chose to believe but can’t even explain nor apply.

But nothing matters since he saved his neurons from the hard work. More importantly, he transferred responsibility to someone else.

If tomorrow another scientist or another institute tells him the last theory he believed is wrong, he has someone to blame.

Then, after ten years of listening a multiplicity of opinions and theories, usually contradicting one another, he can cynically say, “you can’t believe anything anyway”.

When in doubt, disbelief

And that is in fact the truth. Even he doesn’t truly understand the importance or the meaning of what he is saying.

Yes, we shouldn’t believe anything. We should create our own knowledge.

The cynical stays there, disappointed and heartbroken. He lives his life without any order or center because he now realizes he can’t believe anyone. Being a victim is very satisfactory and it takes away any trace of accountability.

He could very easily go and create his own experiences, from his own perspective and create a considerable amount of answers – knowledge -, but hey, we aren’t at the point in history where people want to do that. Playing games mindlessly on our smartphones is way more fun than using our minds for what they are for.

And that is the point that truly distinguishes the autodidact from his counterparts, the autodidact takes responsibility.

He sees an ocean of noise, information and points of view, and sees them as opportunities to generate knowledge through experience.

The cynical will always ask, how can the autodidact, – an average person without a title and a white coat – generate real, valuable knowledge? And the answers are plenty, powerful and simple.

The advantages of self-created knowledge

  • The autodidact accepts responsibility. He can’t blame anyone except himself for whatever conclusions he arrives to. If he harms himself or finds amazing positive outcomes, it is due to his own work, trust, intuition and experience. He isn’t delegating responsibility to have someone to blame later on.

  • The autodidact has no bias. She doesn’t get grants, no one is investing on her to prove or disprove any tendency or perspective. Without an agenda and conflict of interests, she arrives to whatever conclusions her intuition, experimentation and experience takes her. The exact opposite of researchers and academics.

  • The autodidact has learnt through empirical method. He or she sets experiments that they can control, where reason and ingenuity are primed instead of expensive, over the top, experiments and wild assumptions. This is the way that most knowledge and wisdom sprang from.

We look up to those philosophers of the past, whose ideas are as relevant today as they were hundreds or thousands of years ago, and we forget they had no titles. They never went through formal education and, sad for them, never got to wear white coats.

  • The autodidact generates knowledge without economical gains or academia recognition. The person who has incessant thirst for answers and knowledge is rarely, if ever, driven by economic dreams. Quenching his curiosity is the reward. Using his discerning skills, his rationality and his intuition makes him joyous.

To clarify, making money out of the body of knowledge he creates doesn’t diminish the validity of his work. Something that cynics like to point out as if it took away credibility.

Most people forget that there are truly honorable ways of making a living for oneself, without making others believe that producing PowerPoint presentations and crunching information in Excel is a life saving activity.

  • The autodidact has generated knowledge relevant to himself and the environment he is living in. Even the best of knowledge is dependent on environment. Knowing how to hunt whales may prove invaluable for an Eskimo but has very little to no use for a tribe in the mountains of Peru.

  • The autodidact creates wisdom for himself and his surroundings. At the end of the day, she is trying to make sense of her environment and conditions for her own gain. These benefits can extend to others, but primarily knowledge and wisdom are individualistic in nature.

Even when they set themselves to alleviate a social problem or pain, they do it to alleviate their own pain when seeing a troublesome situation. While this sounds egotistical, it isn’t. For a group or community to thrive, each individual has to thrive too. No exceptions.

  • The autodidact is rarely an intellectual, he is a doer. They don’t waste time theorizing and writing why they are right, before even starting. The autodidact embarks himself in experimentation and result analysis and comparison.

There is no pressure to cheat on his results. Answers must be felt and measured, in comparison to themselves and other similar events, situations and experiments, but are NOT measured against a hypothesis.

We all do this to some extent, but if our whole academic recognition – and funds -, are dependent on our experiment proving a hypothesis, the chances of cognitive biases are high, too high for knowledge’s sake.

Be your own scientist

What is the application of all this? We must explore, discover, and test our own answers.

Not answers that satisfy our ego, or corroborate how many data and information we remember (bias). We should create answers that satisfy specific problems, challenges and questions we have today.

The realm of research is completely up to us. Whether is about the best food for one self. The Best ways of exercising for my own body. The optimal intake of water per day, etc.

I am always floored when people ask me “exactly” how much water to drink per day. That is how dependent we have grown from others. As if listening to our own bodies, and adjusting amounts daily until we feel best, was something that could only be done in a lab. Nonsense!

We must take charge wherever we are at. We must stop waiting to be drip-fed another scientific article misinterpreted by the media for economic gains. We must do our own research, learn about ourselves, take action. Become adults.

The same goes to everything else in life. What is my passion? Today’s typical question. How can anyone tell us what our passion is?

Are you depressed? Ask questions, dig deep, learn to be uncomfortable, love the challenge. Read, watch videos, talk to others, find those who can help you. Try and dismiss.

Are you overweight? In chronic pain? Perhaps following the dietary recommendations that have made millions fat, isn’t smart after all. Why not experiment on monthly basis until you can find the sweet spot in your nutrition?

Just be truthful to yourself. Trying things for half a day is just pretending to try things. Try by immersing yourself truly. Dedicate days, weeks, months and years to fulfill your curiosity and hunger.

Stop being a zombie! That is where joyful living is. That is where the meaning of life is. That is where passions hide. Stop waiting to die by distracting yourself with irrelevance. Live, truly live.

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