tehgeekmeister’s blog

May 11, 2009

the naive autodidact algorithm (or the stupidest way to teach yourself that will work)

Filed under: Uncategorized — tehgeekmeister @ 10:44 am

I have been trying to teach myself things all my life.  Something I’ve often done, out of impatience or lack of humility, is to overlook prerequisites.  I’ll be reading something, run across a term I don’t understand and think “well I’m smart, i can just skip looking that up.”

THAT’S WRONG.  I don’t care how smart you are, or how cool you think you are.  You can’t skip it.  No one can.

I suspect that this is the main reason people don’t think they can teach themselves anything they choose, that they don’t know where to start, that they will run into many concepts they don’t understand.  This shouldn’t surprise you: isn’t the point to run into things you don’t understand, and then learn them?  Nonetheless, it is a problem; if you can’t understand most of the concepts or terms in some text, you won’t be able to learn much from it directly.  Indirectly, however, you can use it as a source to find out what you need to know.

Here’s an example that most of you can probably relate to, even if silly and artificial: say you wanted to learn algebra (suppress those bad memories!) of the highschool variety, but you didn’t even know arithmetic yet.  You’d look at whatever resource you were using, a textbook, a wikipedia article, what have you, and you’d see all these symbols you didn’t understand.  The key is to look at these unknown symbols as a tool you can use to find out what you need to know instead of an obstacle preventing you from learning any algebra.  So you’d see some plus signs, some fractions, letters, and numbers.  Each one you find you don’t understand, you put on a list to look up later.

Most of these are things you won’t be able to look up directly.  For example, google ignores symbols and punctuation.  There aren’t many good resources, currently, for this process.  you’ll mainly have to ask people.  More about this in a later post.  For now, the point is just to find resources, look through them, and collect a list of what you don’t know.  When you go to look up each of these things, you’ll encounter more things you don’t understand.  Repeat this until you’ve found everything you need to learn in order to get back to where you wanted to start.  Then start learning them.

I call this the naive autodidact algorithm (or the stupidest way to teach yourself that will work).  It will definitely work; that should be obvious to anyone.  But it will also be painfully slow.  I’ll write about how we can improve on this later.

One last thing: I have no illusions of already being a polished writer.  I’m not.  But part of the whole purpose of this approach and mindset I’m sharing is to not be afraid to fail, to accept criticism, and to improve based on it.  I’ll be looking over my own work and trying to improve myself, but if you see ways I could improve, feel free to share.  This is a learning process for me, too.  I’m teaching myself how to teach you to teach yourself anything.  =]

(I apologize for this being posted late: I had some personal drama and no internet until recently, but I swear it was all written on time!)


  1. One of the basic ways you can improve your writing is to use correct capitalization. You appear to be writing for two purposes: (1) to document for yourself what you have learned through this process, and (2) to allow others to learn from your experience. For the first, capitalization isn’t necessary, but for the second, it aids readers immensely when you conform to writing norms. Subconsciously prose written without capitalization loses respect–ideally, good content is good content regardless of presentation, but that doesn’t hold in practice. I am, personally, very interested in what you have to say, because I have a hard time learning things thoroughly on my own, but tend to pick up on things quite quickly in a classroom setting; however, I almost quit reading this article after the first paragraph, and I will probably continually have to struggle to continue reading future articles regardless of the fact that you have already proven yourself a skilled thinker.

    Comment by Bryan — May 11, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

  2. i just skipped the whole article, this is awesome.

    /me on his way to read it truely.

    ps: slow reading ftw.

    Comment by steez — May 11, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

  3. Bryan: That’s a fair point, and makes sense. Post edited, and thank you for your input. Let me know if you spot anything else, because I hate writing I have to struggle through when there’s obviously solid content behind it.

    Comment by tehgeekmeister — May 11, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

  4. It’s definitely nice of you to write about your learning experiences. I’ve encountered these problems myself and therefore am really looking forward to follow-ups.

    Comment by Felix — May 11, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

  5. I have a different opinion about skipping : I do it routinely, in some way. The way I do it it by skipping temporarily : I just go on reading what I’m interested in, even with holes, so I get a good enough idea of the material at hand. It’s only then that I’ll plug the holes, all of them, with a more complete idea of both what I lack and what it is used for.

    The problem of not skipping is that since you get to something else to plug the first hole, you’ll end up plugging it, going back to the original text, find a new hole, go back to the very same external resource as for the first hole, etc… this going back and forth repeatedly doesn’t help getting the big picture in either material! Of course, depending of the size of the holes, I sometimes have to do original-helper-original — but that’s all.

    Comment by Snark — May 11, 2009 @ 9:53 pm

  6. Felix: Thanks! I’m glad to hear others are interested in this. =]

    Snark: You’re right, that is a perfectly valid approach. An important one. Getting the big picture is important, but you also need to plug all those holes later, and then review the original material again. What I do is to collect those things I need to study later using instapaper or my GTD app, Things. The key is to collect what you need to review later, and make sure you do it.

    Comment by tehgeekmeister — May 12, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

  7. […] Filed under: Uncategorized — tehgeekmeister @ 3:21 am One deceptively slight change to the naive autodidact algorithm can make a huge difference.  It’s actually not a radically different algorithm, but the […]

    Pingback by one slight change makes a big difference « tehgeekmeister’s blog — May 13, 2009 @ 3:21 am

  8. Your opinion quite represents Empiricism and you critizise Rationalism. I think you need both to learn productive. Some need more context and can’t learn information from declarations good, some can’t get the information out the context and need more declarations good.

    Comment by jo — May 13, 2009 @ 5:19 am

  9. jo: I am no proponent or critic of either. You should always use the tools and methods that work best for you. I’m merely providing some options. Also, bear in mind that I called this “the stupidest way to teach yourself that will work.” =P

    Comment by tehgeekmeister — May 13, 2009 @ 10:01 am

  10. Hi there just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The text iin your article seem to be running off the
    screen in Opera. I’m not sure if this is a format issue or something to do with browser compatibility but I thought I’d ppost to
    let you know. The design look great though! Hope yoou get
    the problem solved soon. Thanks

    Comment by Leandro — July 31, 2019 @ 2:45 pm

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