Autodidactism is a word that you (or at least I) don't hear often. Ironically, do I hear people talk about it a lot, however. To put it simply, an autodidact learns on their own, rather than take coursework or study under a professor. I feel that the simple definition leaves something to be desired.
Learning is, for everyone, a process. A transition from emptiness to rough ideas, and from rough ideas, details emerge. In description, it is a lot like painting. The canvas of our minds are drawn upon, and then filled in to complete a picture of an idea.
Scholarship under a professor, or attending classes on a subject is sort of like paint-by-numbers. The picture is laid out for you, and your goal is to fill in the blanks with the information they present to you. If you are first learning to paint, this isn't undesirable. The structure of the pre-drawn painting guides you and gives you repetition that solidifies good habits. Do it for long enough, and it also constrains you.
Being an autodidact means using a blank canvas, and discovering the picture on your own. You draw the outline, then fill in the open spaces using your own research. How excellent the picture turns out is a direct reflection on your efforts, not the given coursework.
If you are to learn a subject thoroughly, great effort must be made. With the paint-by-numbers course, it's easy to see when you haven't filled in an area, but if you're painting on the fly, it can be much harder to tell that you are missing something.
It seems that no man (or woman) is an island. Until you reach very far in your career as an autodidact, you will be learning from the previous work of someone, whether the the author of a book or an artist on display in a museum. There is no shame in this, though, just as there is no shame in a formal education. Learning is the goal AND the process, so how it is best accomplished depends upon the person.
I am curious what methods you use to research new topics. As for me, I hear of something that interests me, and immediately do internet searches (or write down the subject if I am away from a computer), and go through the various internet sites (invariably wikipedia is included, despite the ill reputation it has among those who only prefer to read about so-called "facts"). I look for e-books, go to the library, and maybe stop by a bookstore or three. Sadly, that is where my progress typically ends. I don't have enough time to research, learn, and acquire every subject that interests me, so I bounce around a lot to various topics. My trip to the Mediterranean was actually the logical continuation of a large segment of my life's learning. I've been interested in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman history since I was in elementary school. Going there and being at the sites, experiencing things I've only seen in pictures before, was absolutely the next level of learning, and it renewed my interest in the subject ten-fold.
I am interested in learning more about how you learn, also. Please, share your methods. If you've never thought about your methods of learning before, take this time to do it. Others will read and gain from your experience, as will you from theirs. Improve yourself by sharing what you know.
I should also state that I started thinking about this post a week or so ago, when I read this blog entry, which absolutely fascinated me. Check it out when you get a chance.