Autodidact: My kind of freak

At Foocamp this year, I saw a session on the board called the Autodidact Meetup. I wasn’t sure why I was drawn to attend, but it was the kind of powerful if inarticulate urge that I’ve learned to follow. What I found there was the first peer group I’ve ever had.

I know I’m smart. I spent a number of years collecting the credentials and signifiers of intelligence — grades, good test scores, praise and attaboys, a PhD. But as I’ve moved out from school into the wider world, I’ve become increasingly aware of the fact that what I’m good at doesn’t fit cleanly into the recognized roles and notions of expertise that hold in most organizations, from university departments to startups to large companies. I’ve done product management, but I’m not a product manager. I’ve written a fair amount of code, but I’m not a software engineer. I’ve performed basic research on the human visual system, but I’m not a neuroscientist. The list goes on.

Back to that session at Foocamp. Maybe it was fitting that we met in a tent, because (for me anyway) it certainly had the impact of a spiritual revival. One thing that quickly became clear about this group of people was that, while the label that drew us together into that space — autodidact — may have been the best single word to describe us, it was nevertheless totally inadequate in capturing the essence of our experience. Yes, we were all very good at learning about new areas — to the point where this meta-skill defined our brand of expertise — but there were so many other subjective qualities to the professional lives that we experienced as a result.

For one thing, many of us felt like perpetual outsiders, always existing at the fringes of groups defined by shared expertise or craft. Someone even called out the fact that “community infiltration” — meant in a positive sense — was a crucial skill. This is because autodidacticism, at least in the way we experience it, isn’t about learning for its own sake; we aren’t the kind of people who have a normal day job, and then get our real intellectual kicks by reading widely on our own time. Instead, our craft is centered on and driven by learning what we need to know in order to reach a goal. This goal-directedness is crucial, because the amount of material to master in unlimited; by restricting ourselves to the breadth and depth of understanding needed to meet the needs of our current project, we have a fighting chance at prioritizing. As one wise participant put it, the challenge is mastering new ideas, conceptual frameworks, and skillsets without freaking out from the overload.

I’ve struggled in the past with whether to call myself a “generalist” — a term that has passed in and out of fashion. But it always ended up seeming like a negative, highlighting the fact that I wasn’t as good at any one thing as those who devoted their careers to a specialization. “Autodidact” highlights the advantage: in a world full of big, hairy challenges, we need people who are unintimidated by ill-defined problems that span many areas. That fearlessness, along with the approach to back it up, is something to be proud of.

Another message that came through loud and clear from some of the older and wiser folks in the group was their deeply-felt obligation to recognize and guide other budding autodidacts. They were painfully aware of all the ways that our education and professional systems work to crush the independent, self-motivated spirit out of people who don’t find an appropriate shelter from the machine. And this is something that I’ve long felt — that I’ve been missing a mentor who could understand how my mind works, and help me to navigate the more regimented aspects of school, research, and work. I’ve lived a profoundly privileged existence, but I do feel like I’ve spent far more time and energy searching for my place in this world than if I had found a wiser predecessor to help clue me in.

At the very end of the session, one of the organizers raised his hand and casually asked, “So, who’s hypomanic?” Stunned, I immediately raised my hand and looked around to see that many of us, about half, also identified in this way. This is an extraordinary proportion to recognize the word, much less to accept the label.

I’ve been aware of my atypicality in this regard for quite a while — at least ten years. While it’s not a perfect description of my experience, one way to think about hypomania is as an attenuated form of the debilitating manias that occur in bipolar disorder. In my case, these alternate with some regularity with more depressed periods — though, again, these are less severe than the more serious bouts of depression that many endure. My relationship with these episodes has changed a lot over the years, moving back and forth between confusion, compulsive attachment, self-medication, defensiveness, and appreciation. It has been complicated, and I’m continuing to sort it out, recently with the help of an excellent therapist.

But the organizer who brought this up did so to make clear that he viewed his hypomania as an asset, a secret creative weapon of sorts. And this matches my experience as well: during these periods, I am overflowing with ideas and connections, sometimes to the point of bursting. While this state has its downsides, it can also lead to tremendous productivity and originality. Through all of my complex history in understanding my mental makeup, I have always valued this aspect of myself. And here I was, for the first time among some others who had had similar experiences and possibly treasured them, too — even in their ambivalence and equivocality. I’m still reeling from the encounter.

There were many fascinating aspects of Foocamp (direct brain interfaces! holodecks! Werewolf!), so why is this the part that I’m writing up? Because it goes straight to the ineffable nature of my experience in this world and the role that I can play in it. Because after finally meeting up with people like me, it’s clear that there are many more of us out there. And because many of those folks will never have a chance to develop and use their talents if the rest of us lucky enough to have found purchase don’t reach back out to lend a hand.

Thank you to all of the participants of the Autodidact Meetup session — you all did me a world of good. Because Foocamp is mostly off the record, and we discussed some sensitive issues, I haven’t named any of you; please feel free to reveal yourselves in comments or responses if you wish.