Sean McHugh | Eclectic Autodidact: So, what have we learned?


In the six years I've been writing this column, one of my main focuses has been on teaching myself new things. Indeed, it's what the column is named for (other than "What's the most comically pretentious title I can think of?"). I think it's time to take a look back and see how I've done and what, if anything, I still retain. Each of the major skills I have invested time in will be reviewed and given a score out of five Completely Arbitrary Units.

Biking — Of all the skills I've attempted to learn in the last six years, biking is the crowning achievement. When my first column rolled out, I could not ride a bike at all. Now I actively look forward to riding my bike whenever I can, and even make the nine-mile bike to work when conditions are right.

Granted, I don't bike in traffic when I can help it, and I'm still not entirely clear on how to get the most out of the gears. I remain convinced that 24 gears are far more than any human can really get anything out of. Still, this is an accomplishment I am justly proud of, to be competent at a skill that 90 percent of the 10-year-olds in America have mastered. Rating: Four out of five CAUs.

Cooking — I could, of course, cook prior to the year 0 AE, which is what I'll be using to signify the start of this column from here on out to save space (and might almost save as much space as I've wasted explaining the concept), but after going vegetarian in 1 BAE, I've explored new avenues from the old "meat-plus-fire" culinary school.

Every year, I try to master a new vegetable from the farmers market. In previous years I've made friends with kale and zucchini. This year, I think I finally got my head around asparagus. Cooking might be the most conducive skill to autodidacticism. You can read books and cooking blogs, and watch celebrity cooking shows and cobble them together into one plan that goes out the window once the oil starts sizzling and you realize that you only have onions instead of shallots. Rating: Five out of Five CAUs.

Guitar — In summer of 3 AE, I taught myself to play the guitar, and then I kind of didn't really do much with it again after that. I picked it up a time or two after that and got back in the following summer, but I don't think I've touched it at all so far this calendar year.

The concepts are still there, but unlike the flute, I never developed the muscle memory so each time I come back from an extended hiatus I have to stumble through the basic movements again. It's always an exercise laced with frustration as I discover again how my fingers seem to be the wrong shape and I just don't get chords. I'm also hesitant to take up the axe out when I do get in the mood, since I don't want to bother the other people in building, not that they ever return the courtesy. Rating: One out of Five CAUs.

Spanish — This is kind of a cheat, since it's hard to consider something self-taught if you went to class for it (I'm not including Microbiology or CPR, for example), but I wasn't taking Spanish classes as prerequisite for anything, so I'm going to count it. That, of course, just makes it more embarrassing that I'm not keeping up.

My problem is two-fold. In the first part, I never practice, largely because I don't have anyone else to practice with. In the second, I find that while grammatical structures come easily to me, I have trouble retaining vocabulary. This means that in conversation, it's easier for me to make myself understood than to understand others. It also means that if I can just get around to breaking out the stupid flash cards, I can pick up again. Rating: Dos de Cinco UCAs.

Altogether, that brings me to 12 out of 20, technically a passing grade by some scales. I could probably pull up those made-up numbers with some dedicated practice, but I'm probably not going to. Not because I don't want to, but because we live in the golden age of self-taught skills, and I'm more interested in jumping into something random and exciting. Maybe I'll finally learn juggling, or ice skating, or painting, or knife throwing, or any of the other things that can be safely learned with access to the internet and some free time.


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