Creative Rebellion Essays: the polymath’s dilemma

The Polymath’s Dilemma — photo by JC Caldwell

The term Renaissance is derived from French renaissance, from re- ‘back, again’ and naissance ‘birth’ (from Latin nascentia, from nasci ‘be born’). The Renaissance is, of course, the period of transition in Europe from the Middle Ages (5th to 15th centuries) to Modernity. The Age of Reason and Enlightenment ran from about the 17th and 18th centuries. What these periods had in common was a movement away from a controlled information society in which one did not question authority or religious doctrine towards a period of inquiry and thinking.

This changed everything. Seismically.

Science, art, technology, medicine, philosophy, and political structures changed, evolved and improved, for the most part, the human condition.

At the core of this change were creative disruptors, ranging from Michaelangelo to Machiavelli to Copernicus to Galileo to Erasmus to Shakespeare, with Leonardo da Vinci as arguably the most well-known. What these people had in common was the diversity of their thinking, which was wide-ranging and deep. These were no dilettantes. They were polymaths.

Our current education and corporate environments tend to focus on specialization and assume that if you are good at one thing, that you couldn’t possibly be as good at a multiplicity of subjects. This argument was especially put forth by Malcolm Gladwell’s famous dictum (often taken out of context) that you have to put in 10,000 hours to become expert at anything.

“There is a lot of confusion about the 10,000 rule that I talk about in Outliers. It doesn’t apply to sports. And practice isn’t a SUFFICIENT condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I’ll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest. Unfortunately, sometimes complex ideas get oversimplified in translation.”

Malcolm Gladwell (quoted in Business Insider via Reddit’s AMA)

And while it is true that putting your time into any one subject is important (I’m not convinced it has to be exactly 10k hours) but that doesn’t preclude you from becoming expert, or at least knowledgeable, in multiple arenas. Especially if you are naturally inclined that way.

I would argue that in this day and age it’s more important than ever to be well-rounded in multiple arenas of knowledge. In order to remain relevant in an ever-changing world of technological advancement, it’s important to be in a near constant state of learning. Times are different from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

Nowadays, most of the jobs of the past decade didn’t exist in the previous decade. I often joke that the great thing about what I do for a living is that I’m always learning and the challenging thing is that I’m always having to learn. I don’t mind as I’ve been lucky enough to have spent most of my career in digital technology and design but it’s a nonstop tsunami of information at times.

However, throughout my professional career, I’ve had to change jobs and disciplines nonstop. My general tenure at a company is around five years compared to my father, who spent his entire career as a university professor. At one time you could be questioned during a job interview about the perceived frequency of moving from company to company (the assumption being that you aren’t consistent) ; nowadays it’s often the opposite, often being asked why you stayed at a company for as long as you did.

The polymath’s dilemma is that the ability to address multiple arenas well is often considered impossible. The implicit message is that you can’t possibly be that good at so many things as most people have assumed a limited stance of human potential. However, being a polymath is why so many people are good at the perceived “one thing” they are known for. Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Elon Musk are all renowned book readers and it’s precisely through the knowledge they accumulated through reading that they were able to draw from great wells of knowledge to maximize their own human potential and become as influential and successful as they are. I would argue that Oprah and Elon are both polymaths — Oprah is an actress, talk show host, philanthropist, media executive and businesswoman and Elon has, well, Tesla, SpaceX, Solar City, Starlink, OpenAI, The Boring Company and Neurallink to just name a few.

Another argument for the polymath mindset is that the more you apply knowledge, logic, analytical thinking, and a cultural worldview, the less likely you will be taken in by solely emotion-based arguments in politics or beliefs. You will investigate the validity of something you saw online before sharing it; you will know that just because it complies with your inherent bias doesn’t mean it’s true, no matter how right it sounds. Consider the source of the statement or claim. Is it a trusted source? Do other trusted sources trust it? For that matter, you should investigate for yourself what I wrote about in this essay as well. As for validating the source, you can see a bit about me on Linkedin as well as my thoughts in my book, The Art of Creative Rebellion.

SO I WOULD POSIT THAT DUE TO THE CONSTANT CHANGE IN TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY, IT’S IMPORTANT TO BE A POLYMATH. KEEP LEARNING. AND THE EASIEST WAY TO BECOME A POLYMATH IS TO BE CURIOUS.

Stay open and investigate everything that interests you. Again you don’t have to be an expert at everything but curiosity will naturally take you down paths of knowledge and you will find yourself digesting information, turning it into knowledge before it finally settles into your system as wisdom.

Social media provides information in small, fast, often forgettable bites.

Books, long-form media and writing provide deeper vaults of knowledge that slow you down and allow for contemplation rather than reaction.

BE CURIOUS. SLOW DOWN. GO DEEP. READ WIDELY. LEARN A SECOND LANGUAGE. FOLLOW YOUR INTELLECTUAL PASSIONS.

Be a polymath.

John

What I’m watching:

The Umbrella Academy, Season 2 — my family and I loved season 1 (watch it now if you haven’t seen it) and we are currently binging season 2. I think it’s pretty amazing that the source graphic novel was created by Gerard Way, known also as the lead singer of the rock band My Chemical Romance. Ha! Another example of a polymath able to do multiple things well.

Unforgiven (Japan) — this remake (許されざる者, Yurusarezaru Mono) of the classic Clint Eastwood film Unforgiven is absolutely brilliant. By Lee Sang-il (a Korean-Japanese director), this film follows the structure of the original film with the amazing Ken Watanabe in the Eastwood role. Set 11 years after the protagonist (Watanabe) escapes to Hokkaido from his past as a samurai in the 1869 Meiji revolution (he was on the losing side of the Shogun), he is drawn out of his life as a farmer to become a killer once again. It feels like Lee Sang-il reflected his own personal experience as a Korean-Japanese through the story of the Ainu (the indiginous people of Japan) who are marginalized in this remake. Check it out.

The Mandalorian — Yep, I’m late to watching this great show. Loved it. Incredible production that kept within the canon of the Star Wars series so well. It felt like an homage to Clint Eastwood’s “Man with no name” in the Sergio Leone “Dollars Trilogy.” Also, there’s a definite homage to Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub with the Mandalorian taking care of a baby Yoda.

What I’m reading:

Bodies Of Work — by Lauren P. Della Monica. This coffee table art book covers contemporary figurative art. Since the abstraction came on the scene, figuration has often struggled to be considered as “serious.” But I’ve always been a fan of figurative work — I believe Jenny Saville is brilliant and the influence of Francis Bacon on her work is clear. I personally work in both figurative and abstraction and feel that there is legitimacy in both.

Brick magazine issue 9Thundercat, the extraordinary bassist, graces the cover of the latest issue of this British magazine. Thunder is a family friend and my stepson’s face is tattooed on his right bicep, which can be seen on the cover. It’s beautifully printed and designed.

Please visit my website to sign up for my blog/newsletter as well as downloading the first chapter from my book, The Art of Creative Rebellion.

If you like what you are reading, please order The Art of Creative Rebellion, in stores. On Audiobook and Kindle.

Follow me:

Twitter: @titaniumsky

Instagram: @theartofcreativerebellion

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