How to Become a Self-Made Scholar

Illustration of a man reading a book

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What makes a scholar?

Many of us may possess this archaic image of a scholar as someone sipping on a cup of tea, wearing a smoking jacket, listening to JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations in the background and reading Ludwig Wittgenstein.

But not everyone who reads Wittgenstein can immediately fall into the category of being a scholar. It takes a lot more than reciting Søren Kierkegaard while playing backgammon to become a scholarly person.

From acquiring certain skills to embracing the concept of self-education, many attributes go along with being a scholar. Sure, you can wear a sweater vest and carry around a copy of Arthur Schopenhauer’s Wisdom of Life. Or, at the very least, you can challenge your biases, open your mind to new concepts, and stimulate your little grey cells with the Tao Te Ching, an economics textbook and Ken Burns documentaries on jazz and baseball.

We have compiled an extensive guide on how to become a scholar today.

1. Become an avid reader

One of the greatest pleasures in life is grabbing a cup of coffee, laying down on the sofa, and submerging yourself into a book. Whether it is a clever whodunnit mystery or a 900-page volume on existentialism, reading is a lost art form that more people are beginning to embrace once again.

A crucial function of transforming into a self-made scholar is to read as much as you can. Reading allows you to imbibe as much information as possible on a wide variety of subjects. It also helps you explore different ideas, expand your vocabulary and perhaps turn you into one of those people who has a William Shakespeare quote handy for any occasion.

Let’s make reading great again!

2. Study new topics

As the years go by, we become too comfortable over the familiar. Once we reach a certain age, we only concentrate on topics we know or care about in this life. Is this the best way to go through life? Not at all.

Being a scholar is about self-education and taking the time to study a broad array of topics. From computer programming to language learning to quantum mechanics, your mind is a vessel that needs to be steered through as many courses as you can.

By studying a broad array of new topics, you can unlock numerous benefits. For instance, you will become more adaptable, ensuring your mind is healthy and increasing your likability factor (this is important for scholars since it is easier to convey ideas or convince others when you maintain lateral thinking).

It’s essential for scholars to be well-rounded individuals. Many people are experts in one specific area but being conversant and astute in a laundry list of subjects requires more dedication, grey cells and desire.

A self-made scholar is an autodidact, willing to manage their time effectively by reading up on anything within reach.

So, how do you study new topics anyway? Here are a few recommendations:

  • Sign up for in-person continuing education classes
  • Find the best books on these subjects
  • Join an online or in-person group that is interested in this same topic
  • Enrol in online courses

Do you need some inspiration? Here are some of the most popular courses you could sign up for on Coursera:

3. Learn about opposing views

The mark of an authentic scholar is studying the other side of the issue, no matter how much you oppose it. For example, in economics, there are several schools of thought, including Keynesian, Marxian and Austrian. Suppose you are looking to either engage in thoughtful discussion or become more aware of how other economic orthodoxies tackle problems. In that case, you attempt to become disciplined in all of these differing practices.

The same principle applies to many other areas of life.

Indeed, we all have confirmation bias, and despite our brains being complex and powerful devices, they maintain limitations when we explore the world with a specific lens. It is a habit difficult to shake off, but it is doable when you take the time to study opposing viewpoints and then weigh each concept’s merits. This is what the experts call critical thinking.

Is it possible to be objective anymore? Is life subjective? Is objectivity even subjective?

OK, I might be getting a bit too philosophical. Still, the point stands: If you wish to be a self-taught scholar, it is imperative to either eliminate or reduce your bias. Essentially, the goal should be to approach anything in life as a blank slate. Hard? Yes. Impossible? Not quite. 

Here are some tips:

  • If you reach a conclusion, consider other alternatives as well
  • Accumulate as much information as possible before espousing views
  • Utilise a variety of sources when studying fields that may come with subjective values rather than objective findings
  • Have discussions with people who share differing opinions on the subject. Remember, iron sharpens iron

Having the ability to respect others’ opposing views is another element of being a scholar. By being static in your thinking and how you shape opinions, you will miss out on new ideas and unique thoughts.

4. Embark on new experiences

For far too long, you have been comfortable going about your day-to-day existence: waking up in the morning, brushing your teeth, getting into fights on Twitter, heading to work, returning home, and parking your body on the sofa to binge your favourite show. Is this life? Hardly.

Self-made scholars are willing to expand their horizons and become active participants in this thing called life. A yoga class, a trip to a foreign country, a ticket to the opera or a film festival – there are so many ways to add to your interests and overall life experience.

This, in return, will make you a well-rounded individual with more informed opinions and perceptions of the world around them.

5. Make learning a priority

Let’s be honest: we are stuck in our ways; we are too tired, and we are too comfortable with our routines.

It might be time to shake things up. But how? Make self-learning a top priority. Is this easier said than done? Absolutely. It is incredibly tempting to not practice the piano or catch up on the latest developments in aerospace engineering and instead watch some good old professional wrestling.

When so many things are competing for your time and energy, how do you prioritise learning? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Schedule in time to concentrate on learning a new subject
  • Swap aimless browsing on your socials with an insightful online article or a podcast instead
  • Discuss with others what you have learned

Everywhere you go, you should always have the desire to learn something new, something interesting and something that will add to your treasure chest of information. Indeed, information is a valuable commodity, and the more you possess it, the greater the worth it becomes.

And, yes, lifelong learning is a real thing!

6. Ask questions

Is there such a thing as asking a dumb question? Not at all. We need to ask questions to understand our world, no matter how trivial or intricate. It is important to never be put off by not knowing something, even if it is perceived as common knowledge.

 This is how we grow as both scholars and human beings. Indeed, asking questions is a critical component of becoming a self-made scholar because it enables you to explore and understand a plethora of subjects.

But why is asking questions pertinent to your journey to self-education? Critical thinking. Critical thinking is crucial to objective analysis and evaluation that allows you to form a detailed opinion. Raising your level of critical thinking can also enhance your rationality, scepticism and unbiased analysis. These are the hallmarks of being a scholar.

7. Write down your thoughts

It may have been quite some time since you last wrote an essay. Much of our academic careers are spent writing essays; from the existential crisis of One Fish, Two Fish to the demise of Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign. But it’s time to grab your digital sword and slay subjects that you have invested time thinking about and researching.

Sure, this isn’t for a grade or extra credit, but essay composition is a great tactic of tapping into your inner scholar.

Fundamentally, writing can spur a myriad of benefits for your intellectual development and scholarly existence as it:

  • structures your thinking
  • creates empathy by writing for an audience and their point of view
  • teaches you the art of influence and creativity
  • assists you in journeying for new ideas
  • maintains mental performance as self-expression is considered to have a therapeutic impact

Writing can be challenging, but it can allow you to explore questions, solutions and ideas. An essay can essentially serve as a conversation with yourself on a subject that has plagued your mind.

8. Be willing to change your mind

Ask yourself an honest question: Would you be willing to change your mind if presented with solid evidence that counters your views?

At a time when our opinions have defined who we are, it might not be so easy.

That said, as a scholar, you need to be ready, able and willing to adapt your viewpoint and opinions based on the evidence. Here’s how:

  • Ask yourself how you’ve come to have the thoughts and views you possess
  • Ask why somebody would share a different view
  • Contemplate on everything you have learned and conduct further research on the subject

9. Develop original notions

A common problem for scholars is that once they have attained all this knowledge, from Eastern Philosophy to 19th-century French poetry, it can be easy to plagiarise.

But plagiarism is not something that scholars adopt. Instead, once you have mastered the art of being a scholar, you need to focus on developing your own ideas and thoughts, beyond what you have learned.

You must embrace ingenuity, innovation and individuality. Sure, other great minds came before you, but that is no excuse to refrain from carving out your own path.

But in an ocean of knowledge, how can you continue to be original? Here are some recommendations:

  • Travel to attain new experiences that will spur originality
  • Engage in conversation with real people in real life
  • Write a lot, draft quickly, rewrite slowly and repeat
  • Do not recycle ideas that have been discussed ad nauseam for hundreds of years; instead, find your own way around them and develop your own theories about them

Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching, wrote: ‘A scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar.’ This Taoism adage was written in 500 BCE, but it still rings true today.

It is crucial for scholars to routinely challenge their own beliefs, expand their knowledge and, most important of all, maximise their brainpower.

Once you have embraced these strategies, confidently say that you are a scholar.

Do you have any other useful tips to help others become self-taught scholars? Share them with us in the comments section below.


This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 6 June 2014.