Help Me Research My Next Book

I’m working on a new book about ultralearning, the style of aggressive self-education in the MIT Challenge and Year Without English, and I’d like your help.

One of my goals in the book is to feature stories and examples of excellent self-directed learning. To do that, I’m not only hunting down contemporary examples of people taking on interesting learning challenges like my own, but also historical examples of famous autodidacts.

The best stories and examples tend to be the less well-known, which presents me with a tricky position—the best examples to fill the book are necessarily going to be those I’m going to have the hardest time finding out about!

As a result, I’d like to enlist your help in suggesting people I should research further. In particular, if you know any examples of:

  • People who have engaged in learning challenges, or otherwise accomplished something impressive by virtue of being mostly self-taught.
  • Historical autodidacts or people who had unique strategies for their own self-education.

Luckily my research has already brought me into contact with many of these people and I’ve waded through a dozen or more biographies and profiles already. However, with your help I’m hoping I might get introduced to some people who I wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

To save some time, here’s a few historical autodidacts/impressive learners I’ve already researched or plan on researching in more detail:

Given the skew of this existing list, if you can recommend any impressive women autodidacts or from non-Western countries, that would definitely be a bonus. My goal is to cast as wide a net as possible so I don’t end up circling the same familiar examples.

In addition to these historical examples, I’m also open to suggestions of contemporary people who have accomplished things through their own self-directed learning. I won’t provide a list of those I’ve reviewed already for fear of spoiling too much of the book, but if you have any suggestions for that too, please write it below in the comments!

  • Charles F

    How do you distinguish between somebody who had a great system for learning things, and somebody who’s just a genius? It seems like there’s a big difference between you teaching yourself CS by sticking to a well-defined broadly-applicable method, and Srinivasa Ramanujan teaching himself math because his ability to do math bordered on being a superpower.

  • Bjarke Tan

    i am not sure if they are self thought but franz liszt(think i read some where he startet a research habit) and igor stravinsky might be interesting 🙂
    otherwise maybe issac newton and teddy roosevelt? 🙂
    looking forward to the new book 🙂
    this might be interesting https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_autodidacts 🙂

  • Bjarke Tan

    people who have researched how genius became geniuses seemed like they used some form of a system for example some of them are deep work and deliberate pratice in music it have also been common to have a mentor 🙂

  • Charles F

    The problem with looking at how geniuses became geniuses is in separating the method from the person.

    Considering Ramanujan again, he grew up impoverished in India, repeatedly failed in school in pretty much every subject but math, devoted all his energy to teaching himself math by borrowing books from local colleges, and eventually ran out of those and had no way to continue other by inventing new methods to solve previously unsolvable problems.

    If I raised a kid in a one-room apartment with an unstable food supply near a library, would they become one of the greatest mathematicians of the twenty first century? I think they probably would not. Ramanujan did deep work in mathematics, but he did deep work because he was a genius, not the other way around.

    Richard Feynman on the other hand famously claimed to have taken an IQ-test and gotten 126 [I think, citation needed]. Which is quite respectable, but well below the level of the average Nobel laureate in physics. Did he have a brilliant system for learning science, (I tend to think he did, his lectures and his take on cargo cult science and how to do better were some of the most worthwhile things I ever read) or an aptitude for physics that a general IQ-test couldn’t detect. (I tend to think this is part of it too, his memoirs show that he was attacking problems in reasonably sophisticated ways even as a child.)

    Geniuses will do deep work because they have the capacity for it, they will deliberately practice because the joy of working in the areas you have an affinity for is substantial, they will never want for mentors because interacting with and having the chance to help great thinkers is extremely rewarding and important to people who care about advancing their fields.

    I have no doubt there are people who rose beyond what you would expect because they either developed or happened upon a style of learning that gave them a competitive advantage. But without a way to tell the base level of talent of an individual and compare it to their level of accomplishment, it seems tough to separate the people who worked smarter from the ones who just were smarter.

  • Michael S

    You might want to look at Theodore Roosevelt. When he was 23 he published his first book, “The Naval War of 1812.” He started researching when he was 21, but when he began, he knew practically nothing about the topic of Naval ships or battles. He completed the book while finishing up at Harvard and starting at Columbia Law School. This is how the biographer Edmund Morris describes its reception:

    “Reviewers were almost unanimous in their praise of its scholarship, sweep, and originality. It was recognized on both sides of the Atlantic as “the last word on the subject,” and a classic of naval history. Within two years of publication it went through three editions, and became a textbook at several colleges. In 1886, by special regulation, at least one copy was ordered placed on board every U.S. Navy vessel. Eleven years later, when Great Britain was preparing her own official history of the Royal Navy, the editors paid Theodore the unprecedented compliment of asking him to write the section of that work dealing with the war of 1812.”

    The entire biography is an outstanding read, that section is from volume 1 of 3: “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris.

  • Giseli

    About women, you could take a look at Melaine Klein, she was autodidact in psychoanalysis and was the first to study psychoanalysis in children. Another is Caroline Herschel, sister of William Herschel. And Frida Kahlo, that learned to draw and paint while sick at bed. I´m not sure if they used any specific methods to learning.

  • Nico Arete
  • Bjarke Tan

    What do you mean he did deep work because he was a genius? In the book cal newport doesn’t say anything about that those who already did deep work or those who just startet to do deep work was a genius to do deep work but rather it was because they organized/designed their life in a way to support deep work because without the support needed it can be difficult to successfully do deep work(due to that he says it’s a skill that need to be trained and probably also because of attention residue and in the case if we have limited willpower which he talks about in the book)
    what did you mean when you say they never want for mentors?
    Have you read books about the topics? 🙂

  • Joshua Waitzkin — highest rated chess player in the world from ages 8-18, began training in martial arts at 19 and four years later won back-to-back world championships in Tai Chi Chuan. His book ‘The Art of Learning’ is one of the only books I re-read on a regular basis. (still alive)

    I talk a little about him here: https://rulerstothesky.com/2016/08/09/its-not-always-about-the-message/

    Eric S. Raymond — trained mathematician, self-taught linguist/historian/author/philosopher/programmer who has become the leading open source advocate on Earth. He and I are talking about writing a book next year exploring an ‘autodidact’s toolkit’ of concepts which export to many fields.

    C.S. Pierce — a logician and philosopher widely believed to be the single most original mind to have been produced by America. He is tragically unknown.

    Srinivasa Ramanujan — possibly the best mathematician in history. At a young age he began teaching himself advanced mathematics and eventually re-invented much of the Western tradition entirely on his own. He sent his results to Hardy at Cambridge, who was nonplussed by an apparent stranger sending him stuff that everyone alread knew. When he realized these had been invented by a single person working alone he arranged to have Ramanujan brought to England. They worked together productively for about four years before Ramanujan got sick and died. Seventy years after his death people are still finding uses for the insights contained within the famous Ramanujan notebooks.

    More: https://rulerstothesky.com/2016/08/28/profundis-the-man-who-knew-infinity/

    This guy Nasos Papadopoulos recently came to my attention. He runs an FB group called “the Metalearn Movement”, with a newsletter containing information about how famous people went about learning hard things.

    With respect to Elon Musk, see: http://www.thebioneer.com/think-like-modern-day-polymath-world-changing-intellect-elon-musk-deconstructed/

    And of course my own STEMpunk Project is relevant: https://rulerstothesky.com/the-stempunk-project/

    I’m available for follow-up questioning if you’re interested.

  • Charles F

    It seems likely you’re using the term “deep work” to mean something specific that I was not familiar with. When I was reading/using the phrase, I meant work that involved becoming very familiar with the details of a specific area or several, and probably understanding connections between them. Somebody who is a genius will naturally be more capable of this and even do it almost automatically. Some of Ramanujan’s ideas apparently came from dreams where gods appeared before him and revealed mathematical truths. I’m lucky if I can get an idea about the source of a bug out of a dream.

    I’ve never read Cal Newport’s book, so I can’t talk with much confidence about his ideas, but just based on the summary, it sounds like deep work involves distraction-free focused efforts/thinking. This certainly sounds like something that could benefit mere mortals as well as geniuses, though intuitively it doesn’t seem like enough to let somebody like me reach the stratospheric heights of Euler/Gauss/Ramanujan.

    As for the part about mentors, if you look at researchers in academia or top performers in industry, one nearly universal pattern is that they care deeply about advancing their field and feel connected to people who share their passion. They talk about their successful proteges with equal parts pride and gratitude, and will go out of their way to help the high-achievers they come across become successful. Having good mentors will probably help anybody, but the geniuses will have people clamoring to take them under their wing.

    As for books, I’ve clearly not read the same ones you have. I enjoy reading biographies/memoirs of influential people. And I do recommend Laszlo Polgar’s book How to Raise a Genius. Which was very interesting/unusual in that he decided in advance that the goal was chess skill, and succeeded in bringing up three chess masters (two grandmaster ratings, one master rating) in a row without selecting for ability in advance. So unless he was incredibly lucky, his methods seem promising for helping intelligent but not extraordinary people develop exceptional skill.

  • pacoramon

    Sophie Germain –French mathematician, physicist and philosopher. Self-taught latin and greek to be able to read the maths books in her father’s library. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophie_Germain

    Rita Levi-Montalcini –neurobiologist, build herself most of her own instruments through trial and error to achieve great discoveries in her field. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rita_Levi-Montalcini

    Lydia Ernestine Becker –suffragist and amateur scientist with interests in biology and astronomy. Self-taught botany, biology and astronomy; funded several reviews and the Ladies’ Literary Society in Manchester. Exchange letters with Charles Darwin on botany, and wrote several books on the topic. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lydia_Becker

    Mary Somerville (maiden name Fairfax) –polymath; self-taught mathematics, physics and astronomy after her husband’s death. She was Ada Lovelace tutor. First woman with Caroline Herschel entering the Royal Astronomical Society (England). See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Somerville

    Maria Gaetana Agnesi –mathematician, philosopher, polyglot. First woman to write a Mathematics handbook. Also recorded polyglot, speaking 7 languages at the age of 11 years old. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Gaetana_Agnesi

    And a lot of other women more…

  • Jeff

    This kid, Connor Grooms, taught himself spanish in a month: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RvhtpRnZWQ

  • Dubravko Antunović

    Srinivasa Ramanujan – math

  • Max

    Nassim Haramein is remarkable…

  • Nitin Puranik

    Although I have nothing to add to the discussion, I just wanted to let you, Scott, and the other commenters know that this blog post and the accompanying comment thread will be a goldmine of useful / inspiring resources for a long time to come. A priceless collection of links to fascinating people all in one post. Love it!

    Permanently going under my bookmarks.

  • Bjarke Tan

    what you said about deep work is very close to what it is 🙂
    it is distraction free focus(without having use the internet at all or as little as possible as it can lower your intensity of focus cal agures the higer your concentration is the more you can get done in less time so thats why its important if you do deep work not to use the internet but cal also agues that it is a skill so it is something you can be better at over time if you pratice it the way it requires)
    the idea is to focus with great intensity for a longer period of time without distractions on profesional cognitive demanding task
    for example when einstein came up with e=mc2 is an example of deep work
    i highly recommend reading the book for more details but it looks like many people who we call geniuses did this type of work few examples is richard feynman, cal young etc which cal show as examples in the book
    i think i might have read the same story that you mention in anderson erickson book peak performance so i am familier with it 🙂
    there is still a lot of experts who had mentors for example franz liszt and mozart both had their dads as mentors in early child hood and i know franz liszt also had mentors later on leonardo da vinci should also have a mentor but not for every thing he knew igore stavinsky also had mentors
    from what i have read there just doesn’t seem to be any limit to who can be an expert/genius in what they want to do but it just a matter of doing it smart (one example is for example doing what scott young and cal newport recommend in top performer)

  • Charles F

    The idea that there isn’t a limit to who can be a genius sounds like pure wishful thinking to me, but if it’s true it would be very interesting. Does Top Performer have a track record of producing geniuses? If anybody can be an genius, and Cal Newport can tell you how, do you know why he’s not a household name in the way, say, Elon Musk is?

    To be clear, I think he is obviously a rather successful computer scientist and has written some popular (probably high-quality) books. I’m not saying his strategies are bad, they’ve obviously worked well for him. I do think the issue is a matter of finding ways to come closer to your limited potential, and Top Performer has an incentive to sell itself by exaggerating how much potential people have. (That might even be a good strategy for the reader too, if it helps get them past their pessimism and work on improving their life where a more sober promise might lead them to stick with the status quo.)

  • Bjarke Tan

    the reason i think he isn’t famous or at the same level as elon musk is is because the level of expertise we call geniuses doesn’t come up out of no where it also takes a lot of time to get this good but i am sure if you know for example the top performer course in an out you should be a genius if you continue to use the system it would take 10 or 20 years there have been some research that it takes 10000 hours of deliberate pratice to become an expert in something and if you look at elon musks history he didn’t start of as big(if i rember right he sold some computer game for $500) as he is now but it toke him a lot of time and doing the things that would get him where he is now it might be wishfull thinking that anyone can become a genius but so far i haven’t seen any convincing evidence or enough data to support the opposite but the evidence so far does seem to point in this direction one example could for example be that people thought people where born with some kind of talent but the research shows that what really makes them good is because they did deliberate pratice(i think the books: the talent code, talent is overated and peak performance discuss this idea) and that it actually might be dangurours to think that you need to be born with some kind of talent to be good at something as it limit your own ability to get good(talent wasn’t important but deliberate pratice was)

  • Rahul BR

    Andy Grove: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Grove
    Richard Branson

  • Terri

    Amy Beach, American composer

  • Mike Swickey

    Scott, This subject can’t be discussed, in depth, without bringing in one of the British ‘Angry Young Men,’ the late Colin Wilson. Though he despised being lumped in with the other AYM, Wilson was a self-educated genius. He wrote the classic philosophical work, ‘The Outsider’ at age 24. He wrote his first philosophical novel, ‘Ritual In The Dark,’ during the same time as The Outsider. One of my favorite novels, and I’ve read my share, is Wilson’s ‘Necessary Doubt.’ He authored several books of philosophy as part of what is known as the “Outsider Cycle.” He went on to become a great intellectual in the areas of metaphysics, the paranormal, crime, and more of his philosophical works – in fiction and non-fiction. An autodidact polymath, Colin Wilson left us a very complete autobiography in 2004 with ‘Dreaming To Some Purpose.’ Oh, did I mention he was a respected science fiction author as well? After 152 books, the fascinating career of Colin Wilson came to an end, only at his death, at age 82 in December of 2013.

    Keep up the good work!
    All the best,
    Mike Swickey

  • Saphia

    Fatima al-Fihri. Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya Al-Qurashiya was an ArabMuslim woman who is credited for founding The University of Al Quaraouiyine in Fes, Morocco in 859CE

  • David Dulin

    Hi Scott,
    Here a few suggestions:
    Dr. Paul Farmer: An Attending and Chief Physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (connected to Harvard), Harvard Professor, and Co-Founder of the renowned non-profit Partners in Health. Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains, which highlights Dr. Farmer’s development as a leader in the international development sector, goes into detail about how Dr. Farmer uniquely combined the studies of anthropology, medicine, and public health to provide quality healthcare in some of the worst environments (Cange, Peruvian Slums, Russian prisons). I found Dr. Farmer’s ability to ace Harvard Medical exams while rarely attending class incredible. He was able to do so by employing a cool flash card system and gaining thousands of hours of deliberate practice through his work Haiti (which he performed while getting his medical degree).

    Beryl Markham: Aviator, writer, horsetrainer, and adventurer. Her book West with the Night highlights her hands-on approach to learning.

    Nassim Taleb: Writer, scholar, statistician, and former risk trader, his book Anti-Fragile goes into the importance he places on life-long learning and the method he used to teach himself advanced stats/data analytics.

    Others that may be worth exploring: Antoine Saint-Exupery, JB Straubel (Elon Musk’s right hand), and Evan Williams.

    Good luck with the book!

  • Charles F

    At this point I think the difference in views is mainly coming from base intuitions. I’ve read a lot of those same sources (about the talent myth, grit, growth mindset, etc.) as well as arguments against those same ideas, and I just find the arguments against more compelling. If Top Performer or similar successors do someday manage to hit upon a system that produces a crop of amazing geniuses, I hope I’ll notice and change my mind, even if it’s too late for me to get on board and get my 10k hours in and I end up with a sense of sour grapes.

    I would like to mention that the innate talent mindset is not the only one that can be dangerous, albeit in a different way. If I believe that everything really does come down to hard work, deliberate practice, and a positive outlook, then I have no excuse for not being Elon Musk or Norman Borlaug. That’s a terrifying amount of responsibility. If I could do great things but don’t, I’m responsible for all the suffering I could have prevented or progress I could have made in whatever area. On the other hand, if, as I believe, I’m a reasonably competent person doing what I can and always trying to do a bit better, I can at least stay sane and keep doing good things if not great ones. It’s possible to go too far towards either fatalism or heroic responsibility, but nether extreme is safe.

    And lastly, asking for Cal Newport to be Elon Musk wasn’t very fair of me. It’s true he hasn’t had as much time, and could even possibly be doing better work in a less visible area. So it will take a long time before it’s fair to ask about a new system.

  • Bjarke Tan

    Great points 🙂 the idea that it would be terrifying haven’t came to my mind before you mention it i think its probably because i have really been interested/fascinated in it for a while but if it turns out anyone can be a genius it doesn’t really mean you have to or are forced to be one you should only do it if it turns out that is what you really want to be in the end that’s really whats worth working hard for in my opinion 🙂

  • Deepti

    Dorothy Vaughan, who self-taught herself FORTRAN in Hidden Figures (and most likely in real life too): https://www.nasa.gov/content/dorothy-vaughan-biography

  • euhiueb

    Don’t read too much shit, read more philosophers from around the world, listen to classical music.
    I remind you that “the real difference between men is in energy”;
    Look for energy in petrol, water, electricity, gaz and food.
    Do you use them frequntly ?
    I remind you that energy efficiency= ….. fill in the formula with “energy absorbed” and “efficient, intelligent outcome, results”.
    BTW has writing appeared after agriculture in antiquity in Mesopotamia?

  • igiggihooh

    food electricity gas petrol, you could read about them, you would read also about economy by doing so. moreover, you could read about history of agriculture. I think agriculture has also something to do with economy but I am not sure.

  • euhiueb

    you could do like me, you could try read about logic on wiki.
    I tell you what the history teacher said : that in dictatorship, so in autoritary or totalitary regimes, what subjects remained in the curriculum ? subjects like maths and music of course and what subjects were removed ? histpry and philosophy ? why ? because, history and philosophy are the subjects that allow anybody to think. I remind myself of that everyday before I begin a day of work.
    you could do like me and learn through wikipedia about logic, first, perhaps later larger philsoophies and also history. Both are the most important.
    you could do like me ask yourself what much energy you consume if you wanna discover who you really are.
    you could do like me, read about yoga because yoga is such a futurist sport and physical activity, as opposed to basketball from massachussets.
    you could do like me , read more about energies than about religion, because energy is probably a greater problem in the XXIth century than beliefs are going to be.
    Most important sleep, as Brainpickings says.
    You could ask yourself by what period you begin, normally, you must already the periods of history according to energy breakthroughs that are called revolutions by some (industrial revolutions).
    you could do like me, reviews your fundamentals about these things, because you are not sure you will be able to remind yourself all that, or because this is very important.
    You coul read about Marie Curie because she is a heroin.
    Do you need anything else.
    Are you vaccinate ?
    What whole grains do you prefer between rice, cuscus grain, bulgur , oat, and polenta (polenta is not a whole grain perhaps).
    Do you life rice ? If you dislike rice, what whole grain could you eat instead ?
    Do you eat lentils, chick pea, beans , read beans ?

  • euhiueb

    I like Al Kharizmi. I am working on a project where I want to turn things that reflect reality into algorithms. And a question of mine is whether the matter of my final work will be made of FORMAL or NATURAL language. I am struggling with that at the moment. This is my main concern about my project right now.
    There is one who says write your algorithm in natural language other who says write it with FORMAL language. I don’t know which noe is correct. I don’t know if my project is later on to write a algorithm script and whether my project is to write it with formal or natural language. And that will mean I will have to differentiate between formal and natural language. I don’t know how I will do that.
    For example weird question how could I write the algorithm of decolonisation in the world in formal language ? One of my concerns now.

  • knights

    Auxilium meum mihi Research quaerere Librorum
    Im ‘opus in a libro ultra super doctrina et modus se agere, in educatione et Annus MIT provocare sine Anglis, et ego youd’ amo auxilium tuum.

    Una mihi proposita est in libro historiarum feature of praeclara exempla et per se ordinatur doctrina. Ad hoc faciam, ego me non solum persequitur nostrae aetatis exempla eorum qui illis in doctrina interesting challenges sicut mea, sed etiam exempla historici clarissimi De didacts Auto.

    Optimis historiae exemplis tendere minus nota, quae in me quod optimum praebet exemplum replere locum fore necessario liber sum illi temporis futura maxime circa inventionem?

    Propter quod et ego youd ‘amo ut scriberet permissum consilium populum tuum auxilium aestimamus in me adhuc investiganda sunt. Maxime si aliqua exempla ex scitis:

  • SwanLake

    so Swami Vivekananda said :: “You are what our thoughts have made us so take care about what you think, words are secondary, thoughts live, they travel far”. What does to read Eastern philosophy mean. I don’t even know how to materialize my own thoughts to be able to care about them. as I should according to the philosophy.
    useless to say, if my thoughts are the cause for how bad I eat, it will be useless to check out the wikipedia for yoghurt or for bread.
    but it will help more, in order to determine in what form my thoughts take “shape,” the Thought article on Wikipedia.

  • Vignesh Saikrishna Mallya

    Hii Scott . Have you heard about Loy Machedo ?

  • Katarína

    Try this blog – it is about autodidacts and geniuses – https://awakethegeniuswithin.blogspot.sk/
    From Slovakia – Adam František Kollár – https://adamfrantisekkollar.blogspot.sk
    Adam František Kollár was born on April 15, 1718 in Terchová. He was known as an exceptional polyglot. He spoke Slovak, Czech, Serbian, Polish, Rusin, Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Slovenian, Croatian,
    Bulgarian, Hungarian, German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Turkish, Chinese, Persian, Arabic, Italian, Romanian, French, Dutch, and English.
    As an erudite specialist in state church law for some time he lived in the center of absolutist state power at the Vienna Castle. It is possible that he negotiated between Maria Terézia and the Roman Curia for the
    independence of the Mukachev bishopric.
    This was why Kollár began to write book The origin and continuous use of legislative power of the Hungarian kings in religious matters, which caused such an uproar in Hungary that the ruling class had been negotiating on his book and eventually wrote it on the index of forbidden books and destroyed it.
    He was censored and forbidden and his biographical details were excluded from Slovak history for a long time.
    Good luck in the writing of your book

  • Bjarke Tan

    I highly recommend reading the books i have mentioned or at least summarize or reviews of them as i am sure they can provide a more full understanding of why it seems like everyone could be a top performer/genius if I remember right in one of the books or at least an other book on the topic there is a place where they keep making people really good at something and the author try to figure out how(it should be daniel coyle if i remember right) 🙂
    https://youtu.be/bYFjtjsysiM (I recommend listening to the whole interview) 🙂

  • Scott Young

    This is a challenge of the research, and unfortunately the answer is that there isn’t a difference. I’m not a innate-talent denialist, but the problem with these things is how they are defined. Someone is defined as a genius, usually through their intellectual achievements and/or precocity. By this very definition, it would include people who had unreplicable talents and those who had unique methods/attitudes/approaches. I think there’s different methodologies that can help sort out the answers to this question, but none are bulletproof. Some I’m looking at are:

    1. What evidence do we have that they used different methods? It’s probably likely that Ramanujan did have a different system for learning, otherwise how could he have learned math faster than most (it can’t be magic). However, without evidence that this system was ever made explicit either to him or to his biographers, we’re going to be in the dark on what might have enabled his success.

    2. Do the methods used have corroborating evidence from more robust experiments? If a person is using a method or trick that should work well, given what we know from the empirical literature, that makes the biographical example something that supports it anecdotally while somewhat avoiding this chicken-and-egg problem.

    3. Does this person’s own history support the idea that the method was useful? This is a lot harder, because details of learning methods are often incredibly sparse. However, if we know that a person struggled with X until using method Y, that can also suggest that method Y had a positive effect on the problem. Clear-cut cases of this are rare, but over many people patterns can emerge.

  • Scott Young

    Great examples. I have Waitzkin’s book, but I’ll dig deeper into the others.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks, I’ll look into this. The challenge with historical examples of female autodidacts is that the discrimination of woman and traditional gender roles put up impressive barriers that made the filter a lot tighter for coming through the system. More contemporary examples are a bit easier, but it’s hard to avoid the masculine and Euro-centric bias when doing a surface review.

  • Islam El-Rougy

    I have been benefiting form your blog for a while now and I think it’s about time to pay back as I think I can add the non-western factor to your selected group as I am an Egyptian Muslim.

    I will suggest some figures from the Islamic golden age:
    1- Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi
    2- Jabir ibn Hayyan
    3- Al-Biruni
    4- Omar Khayyam
    5-Ibn al-Nafis
    6- Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi
    7- Al-Jahiz

    I will also suggest two contemporary figures:
    1-Ahmed Zewail, Nobel Laureate in chemistry
    2- Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel Laureate in literature

  • e frowning

    Look into talking with Samy Kamkar. He’s a security researcher who’s completely self taught. He dropped out of high school at sixteen to write video game exploits and by 19 owned his own tech company. He’s continued his work in the security field and now does everything from software exploits (cookie manipulation) to hardware exploits (taking control of swarms of drones).

  • Terrell Shaka

    claude shannon, “father of information theory” I’ve read somewhere that he has extraordinary technique and ability in simplifying seemingly intractable problems in maths, computer science, and engineering.

  • Oh, and Alexander Arguelles. He’s a super-hyperpolyglot, sitting on something like 50 languages, and he has written exhaustively about techniques like the Scriptorium and Shadowing that have powered these accomplishments.

    He’s important because he shows no signs of having been any kind of linguistic genius, like Timothy Doner. He was almost entirely monoglottal until his early twenties, and didn’t begin *really* studying languages until he was about our age.

    It’s just the consistent, unyielding application of solid study habits to good material.

  • Elliot Butler-Anjo

    Oliver Heaviside, Edwin H. Land, and Henry Hazlitt.

  • Vassiliy Rotin

    Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was a Russian and Soviet rocket scientist and pioneer of the astronautic theory. He was not admitted to elementary schools because of his hearing problem, so he was self-taught. As a reclusive home-schooled child, he passed much of his time by reading books and became interested in mathematics and physics. As a teenager, he began to contemplate the possibility of space travel.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konstantin_Tsiolkovsky

  • that one guy

    Kató Lomb – female, Hungarian, autodidact, one of the first simultaneous interpreters in the world.

  • Contemporary person: Jacob Barnett might be worth looking at. He’s a prodigy, currently teaching and studying for his PhD at the Perimeter Institute for Advanced Theoretical Physics. He completed his Master’s thesis at age 15. His upbringing is described in a book, The Spark (confession: I haven’t read it). He gave a TEDX at age 13 that describes his way of thinking about his work.

  • Anatoli

    You know that’s the best marketing of your book. All people here (in comments) will surely buy it, including myself.

    Some of the unknown ones to westerners (in addition to all those that have been mentioned here):

    -Mikhail Lomonosov (Polymath, Russia)
    -Mikhail Sholokhov (Writer, Russia)
    -Feodor Chaliapin (Opera Singer, Russia)
    -Joseph Brodsky (Poet, Russia/USA)
    -Ivan Kulibin (Mechanic/Inventor, Russia)

    Not sure if you came across this: https://marakbysoufiane.wordpress.com/2015/01/26/autodidact-autosuccess/

    – Leonardo da Vinci (Great Polymaths)
    – Alfred Nobel (Nobel Price)
    – Leon Foucault (Speed of light)

    Electricity
    – George Ohm (Ohm’s law)
    – André-Marie Ampère (Ampere’s theorem)
    – Thomas Edison (Electric bulb)
    – Micheal Faraday (Faraday’s law)
    – Nikola Tesla (Induction motor)
    – Olivier Heaviside (Complexe numbers in electricity)
    – Philo Farnsworth (Image dissector)
    – Charles Wheatstone (Wheatstone bridge)

    Mechanicsada lovelace
    – James Watt
    – Henry Ford (Ford Motor Company)
    – Willbur and Orville Wright (First powered fly)
    – Graham Bell (Cell phone)
    – John Harrison (Marin Chronometer)
    – Soichiro Honda (Honda motors)
    – Charles Babbage (Difference engine)
    – Louis Renault
    – Ada Lovelace (Description of the Analytic Machine ‘ancestor of the computer)

    Information technology
    – Bill Gate (Co-founfer Microsoft)
    – Paul Allen (Co-founder Microsoft)alan cox
    – Mark Zucherbeg (Facebook)
    – Steve Jobs (Co- founder Apple)
    – Steve Wozniack (Co-founder Apple)
    – Larry Ellison (Oracle Corporation)
    – Marcelo Tosatti (Linux)
    – Bruell Smith (Macintosh)
    – Alan Cox (Linux)

    Biology,Chimestry and Medecine:agnes
    – Charles Darwin (Theory of evolution)
    – Agnes Pockels
    – Antonie Van Lewenhoek (Discovered Spermatozoid)
    – Ambroise Paré

    Mathematics
    – George Boole (Boolean Algebra)
    – Frederich Engel (Engel’s Theorem)
    – Gottfried Leibniz
    – George Green
    – John Forbes Nashtadao ando
    – Srinivasa Ramanujan

    Architecture
    – Tadao Andô
    – Gustave Eiffel (Eiffel’s Tower)
    – Peter Behrens
    – Jean Prouvé
    – Michel-Ange

AS SEEN IN