The One Key to Success

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“My alma mater was books, a good library…”

— Malcolm X

Recently, I had to complete one of those internal online courses for my employer. If you work for a large organization, there are usually at least ten that need to be done as part of the onboarding process when you start. Then, there are a few more that need to be completed each year, most of them focused on HR and safety issues.

When you finish them all, your profile includes something like this:

That’s not there by accident. But how many people really do click through and choose electives they don’t need to for a job they already have?

While it’s true that there are evil corporations that want nothing more than faceless automatons that only care about work, it’s also true that all employers — even the evil ones — want people that are highly skilled and willing and able to continue learning. Hiring, firing, and training people is expensive and time-consuming and inefficient. No one wants an long-tenured employee that does nothing but reminisce about how great it was back before there were computers and you could smoke and drink in the office. Having a workforce that is not only fluid but also continuously improving is a huge asset to an organization of any size.

There are certain attributes that virtually all successful people have in common, such as the fact that they are active readers that ask smart questions, but above all they never stop learning.

They are, in some form or another, autodidacts.

“Only the autodidacts are free.”

— Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Some people are complete autodidacts, such as Frederick Douglass and Publilius Syrus. Both began their lives as slaves and were given no formal training or education and thus needed to teach themselves. Abraham Lincoln taught himself English prose from reading the Bible and Shakespeare, and learned logic through reading law. He was the “consummate autodidact.”

However, some or even a lot of schooling does not prevent one from being an autodidact. In fact, just the opposite. The best schools teach you how to learn, and that is the most important part of all this.

Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, and Leonardo da Vinci were schooled in one thing but took it upon themselves to learn a host of other skills. Da Vinci was the ultimate polymath. He, like other Renaissance artists, had learned to be an artist through the Guild system, but he was also an architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, botanist, and writer, all of which he taught himself. Likewise, many of our greatest filmmakers — Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Spielberg among them — are self-taught.

In truth, autodidacticism is everlasting and can be found anywhere:

There have been autodidacts of every type: the father of our country (George Washington) and quite a few barons of industry (Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller); autodidacts interested in getting there (Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart) and those who created the music to carry us along (John Philip Sousa, Aaron Copland); novelists (Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens); playwrights (Noel Coward, Clare Boothe Luce, William Saroyan, Tom Stoppard); film makers (D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Irving Thalberg), and autodidacts interested in all that and marriage, too (Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon).

There are no standardized tests. No entrance essays. No interviews. No tuition fees, no tax dollars, and no student loans.

Learning independently is the greatest — and cheapest — education in the world.

“Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years I read everything in the library. I read everything. I took out 10 books a week so I had a couple of hundred books a year I read, on literature, poetry, plays, and I read all the great short stories, hundreds of them. I graduated from the library when I was 28 years old. That library educated me, not the college.”

— Ray Bradbury

At some point, it’s time to finally leave your formal education behind.

Perhaps it is after high school or college. Maybe it’s before finishing with a degree. Maybe it’s upon graduating with a master’s degree or other professional degree (law; medicine; etc.). Or how about the approximately two percent of Americans will go all the way and ultimately be bestowed with a doctorate?

All of them will leave campus as a student eventually. But that should’t be the end of their learning and education. It can’t be.

The term “continuing education” has a certain connotation in our culture, but the reality is that learning isn’t important only in reaching a certain level, but staying there. Lawyers need to keep up with how the law changes and what precedents are set; physicians need to be aware of advancements in medicine and medical technology; artists, musicians, writers, engineers — whatever the profession, ideas are constantly being changed or improved upon and the tools used are repeatedly being updated, so not knowing how those things work will leave one behind with no chance to ever catch up. The internet allows us to be autodidacts in our way and we’re not only crazy, but derelict in our duty, if we fail to take advantage.

The most successful people are not necessarily the smartest, but most often the most curious. They hear about a concept in a meeting and vow to study it until they know all about it.

Bill Gates, who famously dropped out of Harvard, has said that “reading is still the main way that I both learn new things and test my understanding.” Likewise, when asked if he still has his personal library, Nike founder Phil Knight replied, “Of course the library still exists. I’m always learning.”

Billionaires. Conquerors of business. Captains of industries. Autodidacts.


Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. Check out more of his writing at MediumHis work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business InsiderThe CauldronMedium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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