Autodidacts Welcome!

Universities may teach blockchain but the crypto community will always embrace the self-taught. This story is part of CoinDesk's Education Week.

AccessTimeIconSep 26, 2022 at 7:28 p.m. UTC
Updated Apr 10, 2024 at 2:04 a.m. UTC
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If you hang around long enough in the crypto space you’ll soon hear the word “autodidact.” As defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary it means simply “a self-taught person.” The space is chock-full of autodidacts.

“Ninety-five percent of the people in the space are self-taught,” said Isaiah Jackson, an autodidact and author of “Bitcoin & Black America.” “They do their own research and they find their own sources.”

This article is part of Education Week. Read CoinDesk's ranking for the best universities for blockchain in 2022.

Just a few examples: Craig Wright is an autodidact, once described by Wired as “an almost obsessive autodidact and self-claimed double-Ph.D.” Nick Szabo is an autodidact, once telling Tim Ferriss that “my smartest teachers, mentors, peers these days are all on Twitter and blogs and they’re mostly autodidacts.” Vitalik Buterin is an autodidact who learned about bitcoin when he was still in high school, explaining that “I was definitely curious and read a bunch of books.”

Buterin was such a promising self-learner that in 2014 he received a grant from Peter Thiel, another crypto-friendly autodidact (among other things), who awards annual $100,000 grants that are, essentially, juicy prizes for autodidacts. Thiel neatly summed up the ethos of autodidactism, saying at the time: “We hope the 2014 Thiel Fellows inspire people of all ages as they demonstrate that intellectual curiosity, grit and determination are more important than credentials for improving civilization."

Why is there such a strong overlap between crypto and autodidacts? “It’s a natural filter,” said Erik Voorhees, a longtime bitcoin bull and the founder of ShapeShift. “Crypto couldn’t be learned in institutions until recently,” he said over email, so anyone who chose this path by definition did so with their own grit and hustle. Or as he put it more elegantly, they’re “self-motivated enough to enter an unexplored pasture with no shepherd.”

A classic autodidact story: Isaiah Jackson was a high school teacher in 2013. He heard about Bitcoin from a roommate, then he immediately read the white paper. He then read it “100 more times.” He lurked on websites like Reddit and Bitcoin Talk Forum. “There wasn’t a lot of information in 2013,” said Jackson. “You really had to search for info.”

Magdalena Gronowska learned the same way. “Most people got into this space through being self-taught,” said Gronowska, aka @Crypto_Mags. “Whether that’s through podcasts or tinkering or experimenting with the technology themselves.” Learning by doing: Setting up wallets, running their own nodes, sending and receiving tiny transactions just to see how it all works.

This brand of self-learning gumption, said Gronowska, even serves as its own kind of credential for employment. Gronowska cheekily calls this “Proof of Work,” meaning that people prove they’ve done their own self-education homework. “They [crypto companies] want to know that you actually understand it,” said Gronowska, who added that when she’s interviewing candidates for jobs, she’ll sometimes ask them to point to a Twitter thread they wrote about a crypto topic, or even a Medium post they felt compelled to write.

Those who are crypto-curious tend to also be just plain curious. The autodidactism can be sprawling. Vitalik Buterin taught himself to speak Chinese, Nick Szabo is both a cryptographer and legal scholar, and Isaiah Jackson is a history buff who’s now geeking-out on the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. “Anything that I wanted to learn, I always start with myself,” said Jackson. As a high school teacher he tried to impart that mindset to his students, telling them, “If you have a question, ask yourself first. You do realize you have a $1,000 computer in your pocket.”

Sometimes these interests feed directly into a broader understanding of crypto – such as Erik Voorhees devouring books on Austrian Economics – but sometimes they’re just for kicks. “I don’t feel like anything I do is very useful,” said Des Dickerson, the CEO of THNDRgames. She’s kind of joking but kind of not, saying that she gets obsessed with “weird things.”

One of these weird things is “urban snail farming,” as Dickerson explained that she loves to eat escargot but in the United States, “the escargot is [crap].” She was curious to find out the reasons why, then she did a deep dive into the international shipping and transport of snails, and then she even acquired her own snails on the back market to develop her own urban snail farm. (“Don’t come for me, government!” Dickerson said with a laugh.)

Dickerson said she went “so hardcore into this” that she even approached a Michelin-starred restaurant, who invited her to source their snails. Then the coronavirus pandemic happened, she moved, and in the process all her snails died. The point of this little vignette is that Dickerson, like so many crypto autodidacts, is a self-starter who easily gets addicted to learning and questioning and even experimenting. “I get very addicted to things,” she said. “That’s why I don’t do drugs.”

Or consider the autodidacts who believe so strongly in self-teaching – and also in crypto – that they instill this practice in their children, even when traveling around the world as nomads. “As a father, homeschooling allowed me a much closer view of my children’s educational development. I knew what they were learning and could be an active agent in their learning process,” writes Daniel Prince in “Choose Life: The Tools, Tricks, and Hacks of Long-Term Family Travellers, Worldschoolers and Digital Nomads.”

Prince has four kids that he home-schools while he hops around the globe, and he’s also a bitcoin bull who runs a bitcoin podcast. He views home-schooling and bitcoin as linked: They’re both ways of empowering yourself without relying on a centralized (and potentially compromised) institution. “Homeschoolers are bitcoiners that just don't know it yet,” he once tweeted. “And vice versa.”

But for all the virtues of self-learning, is autodidactism itself a kind of privilege? Can you spend hours nerding-out on self-custody wallets and Lightning nodes if you’re a working mom, say, who’s trying to make ends meet? Jackson understands the criticism, but he views the self-education of bitcoin as a way to address privilege and reduce income inequality. “If you get into the space and you think that it’s important, you will find the time to learn about it,” he said. “Thirty minutes in the morning listening to a podcast when you’re working out, or when you’re getting ready, that can help tremendously, and it adds up over time.”

Questions of privilege aside, now the space is at something of an inflection point. As Voorhees pointed out, for most of crypto’s history the only way to truly learn was to teach yourself. This is changing. Universities are now incorporating blockchain and crypto into formalized programs (See: Best Universities for Blockchain 2022) and for the autodidacts this is a source of some ambivalence.

Jackson acknowledges that crypto’s new home in the education system is just a natural reflection of the space’s maturity. It happened in tech, too. “Now it’s regular for somebody to say, ‘I’ve majored in Computer Science,’” he said. “Whereas if you said that in 1992, it didn’t exist. You’d just say, ‘I know what I’m doing because I’ve tinkered around with computers.’” He believes that “once it enters the school system, it’ll just be a formalized way for businesses to have a pipeline of students.”

Then again, Jackson likes that even if you earn that formal degree in crypto, “that doesn’t guarantee a job. It’s still about, what can you do? You still have to show an impetus to be self-taught.” Gronowska agrees, believing, “It’s not enough to take a course.” And she’s skeptical of the potential biases that could seep into a formalized blockchain education. “Imagine if Greenpeace were to write a course on crypto, or if [the World Economic Forum] were to write a course on crypto,” she said. “I’d rather see the [crypto] industry coming up with their own courses, because they might be a bit more objective.”

Voorhees shares those concerns. “Crypto has been a frontier industry, laughed at or ridiculed by most traditional institutions,” he said, which meant that he had no choice but to be self-taught. “Perhaps there’s an important lesson that anything you’re taught in school is already not cutting edge or innovative. You can learn the status quo from institutions, but nothing radical.”

Ultimately, Voorhees connects self-education with the underlying ethos of bitcoin and decentralization itself. “There are technical skills related to blockchains and cryptography which can absolutely be taught in schools,” he said. “But the soul of this industry is one of rebellion against state-capture of money, and the drive toward rebellion must come from within.”


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Jeff  Wilser

Jeff Wilser is the author of 7 books including Alexander Hamilton's Guide to Life, The Book of Joe: The Life, Wit, and (Sometimes Accidental) Wisdom of Joe Biden, and an Amazon Best Book of the Month in both Non-Fiction and Humor.