I, like many people, have struggled to maintain hope, in recent times. There are many reasons to feel a loss of hope, as there are things going on in the world that seem to have only one possible end-point. It isn’t a good end-point, either. I find it’s hard to maintain a sense of optimism when the indications appear to be so bleak. Our collective mental model is that, in the face of existential threats, it’s considered tantamount to criminal, if not highly antisocial, to turn your mind to creating things, instead of worrying about extinction or irreversible ruination.
What I know for certain, however, is that our best hope is to maintain our creativity. If we’re going to solve anything, we had better be capable of imaginative thinking. The other kind has lead to the problems we face and hasn’t provided solutions. Tradition has failed us.
That got me thinking, as it often does, about why some people are resolutely not creative, even though they have the capacity to be so. What is it about our culture that makes creativity something that so many shun as a complete waste of time? Why is it considered frivolous and something to be consigned to hobby-time? Why aren’t we all as creative as we can be, within the limits of being a fallible human prone to exhaustion, all the time? I don’t see the down-side.
This morning, I read an essay (link at the bottom of this piece) that seemed to say that there is, in fact, very little downside and that we’ve made errors in how we think about learning. Furthermore, it argues against over-specialisation. We speak of sociopathy and psychopathy, but there is another disease of the mind that we overlook – monopathy – the intense focus and specialisation on just one thing, to the exclusion of all other considerations.
Monopathy is something that arises from extreme monomathy, which is our default ideal. We, as a society, seem to think that some people are born to be certain specialists, because they have a gift for it, so we believe that the smartest people are those that specialise the most. This is to completely misunderstand how we learn. Even if we show early promise in a field, we can lose our advantage simply through indolence and failing to develop beyond our initial abilities. Also, we are all able to learn to be accomplished in any field we choose, so long as we are prepared to put in the work and effort.
There is a certain amount of dedication and devotion required to attain mastery, but you don’t have to exclude your interests in everything else. Indeed, it’s extremely unhealthy if you jettison all other intellectual, artistic and physical pursuits, simply to succeed at one thing. Interestingly, there is evidence that you can achieve higher levels of mastery in a single chosen field, if you also maintain multiple interests, in diverse fields of endeavour.
Polymathy is the antidote to monomathy. That’s quite a mouthful, but it’s true.
Here is a list of some reasons why it’s good to be a polymath:
1. Human beings are natural polymaths. We’re at our best when we turn our minds to many things. It’s how our curiosity works. I believe this is why boredom has survived natural selection, throughout aeons of evolution. Although we revere specialists, who doesn’t find the routine of doing even the most stimulating activities, repetitively and without relief, a complete bore eventually?
2. The more fields of knowledge you cover, the greater are your resources for improvisation. When you don’t have the necessary tools to hand and need to solve a problem, making the best of what you have requires that you know something about a lot of things. I’m always suspicious, in my working life, when programmers come and tell me that something that customers want to be done can’t be done. Usually, there is a competitor that has already done it, with some kind of programming, so what the programmer really means is that they don’t know how to do it, or how to do it within the constraints of the tools and technologies they already know. In other words, it points to a learning deficit. Had they known more, beyond their chosen specialisation, they wouldn’t tell you it was impossible, especially when experiment, in the real world, has already demonstrated the fallacy of their theory.
3. Narrow-minded people with one-track minds and expertise in a single area, but no other outside interests to speak of, often lack empathy and insight. They can’t see the wood for their own trees. They seem utterly incapable of seeing anything from a different perspective and frame of reference, other than their narrow specialty. Thus, to all economists, damage to the environment is incidental. To doctors, if it can’t be cured by the application of pharmacological compounds, it can’t be a real ailment, or else it cannot be cured. To law enforcement, drug abuse is a symptom of wickedness that can only be corrected through punishment, not a symptom of disconnectedness from humanity and despair, correctable by reconnecting them with people. Super-specialists do a lot of harm by using their specialist hammers, seeing every problem as a nail.
4. People who can’t see the absurdity of devoting their entire lives exclusively to a single speciality fail to see the absurdity in other areas of life too. Without humour, they have no insight into truth, in a wider sense. Being able to see absurdity is the motivation to change things for the better. Without this insight, you maintain the status quo, no matter how outrageously ridiculous it becomes. Polymaths, on the other hand, tend to have a better sense of proportion and balance. This is surely preferable to living with a permanent blind spot. Being able to laugh at folly makes bearing the stupidity bearable for long enough to fix it.
5. Super-specialists are boring people. Unless you can converse with them on their subject matter, which they know better than anybody else in the room, they can’t hold any conversation at all. So, your choice is to either listen to them pompously asserting their specialist knowledge in one narrow area, or having nothing in common with them to talk about. They dismiss their inability to converse on matters outside of their field as being disinterested in small talk, but try engaging them in matters you know a lot about and their ignorance will be readily revealed. It’s the very height of arrogance to label everything outside their chosen specialism as small talk and not worthy of discussion.
6. There is a bias, in society, that equates credibility with narrow specialisation. You must be a doctor of something or other for people to be prepared to listen to you. Some of the biggest cranks I’ve ever encountered had PhDs. Their unshakeable belief in the infallibility of all their pronouncements turns out to be risible, in practice. They know not what they know not. One of the most incisive analyses of disease due to pesticide exposure I’ve ever read was written by a software engineer. There are engineers that propose better economic theories than economists do. Artists often understand human psychology better than trained psychologists. Credible people have good ideas. Specialisation guarantees neither.
7. Over-specialisation may be efficient, in the economic sense and it is the engine of Capitalism, but it leads to mental mutilation. Extreme division of labour is mind-numbing. What could possibly debase a human being’s worth more than considering them to be a replaceable, interchangeable cog in a big machine? What, for that matter, dictates that efficiency is the highest good for humanity? Isn’t human thriving and well-being at least as important, if not far more? Why should we buy efficiency at such a terrible cost to humanity? What good is efficiency if it inflicts misery and boredom? What is its true value to us, if it kills curiosity and freedom of thought?
8. Because we are in thrall to economic efficiency, we’ve designed a world in which only the single-minded can thrive. We all doctor our CVs to pretend that we wanted nothing more, in life, than the tunnel-visioned pursuit of the career path we happen to be following at the moment. It’s a lie, of course. Behind every quantity surveyor is a youth that once wanted to be a rock star. Every surgeon hides a suppressed author. Every lawyer you engage had dreams of being somebody more creative. We wanted to dance and sing, or sculpt and paint, but we had to get a “real” job to make a living. So, we pretend that choice was the one we ultimately wanted most; so that we get on, fit in, get promoted and get paid. We spend our monomathic lives realising other people’s monopathic dreams.
9. If you ask people about their regrets, it’s often not about the bad things they’ve done, but the good things they’ve done for the wrong people. At least if you do a lot of good things, in a lot of fields, you minimise the risk of having your best offerings purloined by those that turn out to have been undeserving or unworthy of your efforts.
10. In the fifteenth century, there was no LinkedIn, so little social pressure to paint the impression of a one track career path. Polymaths were considered to be people that had learnt much. People aspired to be learned people. The perfected man was a manifold master of intellectual, artistic, physical and philosophical pursuits. Today, it’s hard to find people that think working with their hands is consonant with a high level of book learning. Those that pontificate rarely have the physical skills to do what they presume to tell others how to do. We’ve divorced theory from practice.
11. We can’t all be geniuses, but we can all be polymaths. You don’t have to be outstanding, to have a go. If you apply yourself to multiple fields and attain competency in all of them, if not mastery, you’re still more competent, in the round, than somebody that has attained mastery in one specialism, but has no ability or accomplishments whatsoever in anything else. I despair at physics professors that cannot assemble flat pack furniture, or correctly install a light bulb.
12. New ideas, discoveries, innovations and new art rarely come from narrow specialists. Mostly, they’re the result of cross-fertilisation of ideas from unrelated fields. The Macintosh computer had a lovely what-you-see-is-what-you-get display because Steve Jobs studied typography. Science thinks science progresses because it is clean, logical, rational, linear and unemotional, but the great discoveries came from a much messier origin than that. In fact, the most outstanding discoveries were pretty haphazard, owing their emergence to funding peculiarities, egos and inspired intuition. What could be less logical, rational or linear than seeing visions, or performing pure thought experiments in your imagination? Where are the measurements and lab instruments? Of course, those come later. Tesla envisioned poly-phase power transmission due to a hallucinatory image of the sun’s energy swirling around it. Einstein imagined what would happen in a train travelling at the speed of light.
13. Programmers struggle with product sense, because they are too interested in coding and not interested enough in solving problems for people. They can see what their code does, but have little connection with what users are trying to do with their code. Consequently, they happily produce horrible user experiences, on the grounds that their code is clean.
14. Everything is actually a remix. The cross fertilisation of ideas and fields gives rise to what we call originality. Artistic originality is, in fact, the result of applying our own taste to selecting aspects of different fields and putting them together in a new way. It’s combinatorial. We’re just producing new permutations. Even original art that seems to come out of nowhere has influences. The wider you draw your influences, the more novel the original art seems to be.
15. Invention works this way too. The ability to come up with new inventions requires knowing things outside your field. It’s a good thing to do. Reading outside your field, or making an attempt to become competent at a new field, extends the range of ideas you are exposed to. The further afield your knowledge extends, the greater your potential capacity for innovation.
16. Something like 85% of corporate leaders say that innovation is crucial for their company to survive and grow, yet only about 5% of this same group say their company is good at innovation. What other business metric would be allowed to be so crucial, yet have the firm perform so badly against it, over the long term? It couldn’t happen with something like free cash flow, could it? I shake my head when they try to install a process for innovation which doesn’t allow people to follow their curiosity into whichever field it leads. They can’t see what tap dancing might have to do with running software in the cloud. Their own desire to maintain a monopathic company culture kills their ability to innovate.
17. Human nature and human progress are polymathic at root. Life itself is filled with variety; you need many skills to be able to live it. In traditional cultures, everyone can do a little of everything. Though one man might be the best hunter, archer or trapper, he doesn’t do only that. That would be a tremendous waste of human potential, yet this is precisely what our modern culture achieves, each and every day, on a massive scale. We have rampant underemployment because we try to fit every person into a pre-defined role, rather than allowing them to engage with whatever they are capable of doing.
18. Polymaths live with permanent imposter syndrome, because they are imposters. They didn’t get to be practitioners on merit. Nobody does. There is no meritocracy that elects the most suitable person for the specialisation to the position. Everybody gets to the top by sheer graft. Anybody that learns anything new spends their first moments struggling with it, like an amateur, until through continuous application and successive failure, they accomplish some kind of learning in it. Unlike monomaths, however, polymaths relish the discomfort and challenge. Monomaths want their feelings of being an imposter to go away for good. Polymaths know that they feel out of their depth because they are learning to swim.
19. We think we can only learn when we are young and that only naturals, with a gift for something, can succeed at it. This is a closed mindset. The opposite, the growth mindset, holds that you can learn all your life and that the more consistently you learn new things, the greater your capacity for cognitive health in old age. Right now, I am in the process of learning many new things. I feel this is the basis for reinvention. If you put the hours into any field that interests you, it’s possible to master it. Even casual attempts to learn new things can build competence in it.
20. The part of your brain that facilitates learning responds to a novel situation, shock or intense focus. If you do something new, scary or repetitive, you can build ability. That’s why exposing yourself to learning things you previously knew nothing about exercises your brain in a neurologically measurable way. Shocks, like getting fired or the death of a close family member, can stimulate periods of intense learning. Putting the hours into practising is a good way to become good at what you start out being very bad at. Continuous application of these stimuli is the key. If you don’t use your ability to learn, you definitely lose it, as the part of your brain involved eventually atrophies. They have the data to prove this.
21. Stepping up casual learning (say an hour a day, three days a week) to a more intensive course (five hours a day, five days a week, for example) changes your brain so that the gains are dramatic and permanent. If you work at it, you can get it. This means you have to become a little more monomathic, for a period, but you should apply this technique polymathically. Do this for a number of different pursuits, at different times, serially.
22. Monopathy, or over-specialisation, plays out in only one way, because your brain literally loses the ability to learn. Eventually, you retreat into defending what you have already learnt, because you become unable to make new neural connections. The acetylcholine in your nucleus basilis dries up. You get set in your ways. Consequently, you become defensive and territorial about your knowledge and attack people that challenge it. Ancient professors or programmers that cling to dead languages or obsolete product concepts spend their time trying to expel intruders into their hard-won area of expertise. Polymaths feel no such compulsion to defend their turf. Their identity is built on multiple mastery, not on their ability to remain dominant in their own particular, self-staked-out patch of the knowledge universe.
23. Studying the performing arts (music, dance, acting) has been shown to enhance one’s ability to learn anything else. Far from being worthless pass-times, they hold the key to unlocking our ability to learn. The performing arts provide high levels of motivation to focus and concentrate on improvement. These aspects of learning, once exercised, are directly applicable, when learning other things. You don’t lose the motivation to focus and concentrate on improving, even if you stop engaging in the performing arts.
24. I’ve personally observed that guitar players that get into playing the role of a guitar player, like an actor would, who learn to dance with their instrument and their audience, play better guitar than guitar players that don’t. This has to do with building confidence, but also with recognising that playing music is a fundamentally physical activity. The application of grace and poise to that activity yields better music.
25. We should teach polymathics, encouraging people to follow their curiosity, read widely, and to participate actively and physically. Teach that it’s desirable to derive a sense of identity from mastery of many fields. Combining artistic elements with the scientific and grounding those in manual craft skills will pay dividends. Taking the physicality, or aesthetics or repeatable evidence out of the equation leads to an impoverished result.
26. Thanks to neuroscience, we now know more about how learning takes place than ever before. There are teachable techniques for learning rapidly and many of these techniques are transferable from field to field. A focus on teaching creativity techniques could be very valuable, since creativity is all about crossing unrelated things to obtain some new hybrid. Polymathics isn’t training for innovation or invention alone, since it would also build better judgement and insight in all areas of our lives. What argument is there against teaching polymathics?
27. The solutions to the problems caused by monopaths are not going to come from monopaths. It’s the polymaths that are going to have to sort out the mess. Fortunately, they are uniquely well-equipped to do so.