Before polymathy pt II: “sweet,sad”… and right? Hell no!

This post will continue and give some temporary closure to the topic I opened up a few posts earlier. Due to a trip 9 time zones away I have been shamefully derelict in my posting here – in part because this behemoth was half done and giving me hell for too long. As anovice, I’m learning that ambitious posts shouldn’t be left hanging until you know you can follow up. Learning….

To recap:

Resisting specialization is to pit yourself against an inevitability, ingrained in the world as deeply as money.

Aiding and abetting this unwelcome proposition is a deeper one: perhaps specialization is intrinsic to how we are able to cope with the world.

‘There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittle the world down to a more manageable size’ Suzan Orlean from ‘The Orchid Thief’, from ‘Adaptation’.

These “sweet,sad insights” that Kaufman finds so compelling are a little awkward. They could imply I’ve been painting myself into an unenviable position – fight culture and human nature – and you can’t be loving those odds.

I’m still taking the odds, and here’s why.

I think on one front we’re being misled. We think that to go places in life it’s vital to be at the top of whatever you do, and doing so requires unswerving dedication. The trouble is that often what counts as an acceptable life goal is driven by what is pumped over our horizons, into our living rooms, and may have rather less to do with what would make us happy, if we were to take stock a little.

On the other front, we have the more intimate sentiment of Orleans statement. I think this is, to an extent, driven by cultural motivations of the sort I’d like to unpack and pull apart (Front A). The idea that if you take more than one road you won’t get far enough along any of them; a sense that destinations matter whilst journeys do not.

But it goes further than this, to the concept of imbuing life with your own essence by choosing a prism through which to view it, a perspective to make sense of the world of, a personal culture within which to value things rather than a multicultural position in which everything is equally well and good and so more or less meaningless. I confess to feeling a strong identity with this, whether it be romantic self-delusion or no. I am sure for myself that the world is so extraordinarily complicated that it is essential to ‘make yourself a world’ in some sense, fashion an umwelt as some kind of starting point for inquiry (which includes re-examination of the central premises when appropriate).

However, I don’t feel that such a personal culture need be so narrow to propel someone into the study of only one thing, or the pursuit of only one kind of excellence (or, closer to my point, content with the pursuit of several competencies). For me it could and should be an outlook, but an outlook that is nonetheless broad. If it is a monoculture it should be wide and reflective.

This needs ending here, for now – I’m going to return to this from time to time to try and flesh things piece by piece. I guess the sign-off point to make is why this position isn’t superficial and obvious. Surely, one might ask, being great at many things is obviously better than being great at one thing? If you can study two things and excel then this outperforms studying one; a trivial point. But I would argue that this, which is pretty much the standing definition of polymathy, is a wonderful ideal to keep in mind. But in the real world we should be equally happy to consider ourselves as adequate, and improving, in a number of areas, even if the girl from your year at a school is top-dog because she’s been pursuing one from day one. I’m not a polymath, but maybe I’ll get there. If not, no regrets: how can you regret casting wide as well as deep?

Note to self

If you insist on playing air drums using a leaky pen, just know that after your rousing 4-tom finish you’ll be opening your eyes to Splatterhouse done in a blue period. Frailty, thy name is water-insoluble!

Before polymathy pt I : Callings are for priests and white rappers, right?

This is the first part of a (probably) 2-post essay on life, whether it happens to you

while you’re busy making other plans and if so whether your plans should have outlined contingencies dealing with that eventuality, perhaps using some kind of worm-hole embedded in the cover-sheet.

I went to a very driven school, and at an early age it drilled into us that distinction could and should be ours. Pragmatic and results orientated, their advice was more “reach for the cash” than “reach for the stars”, with the expectations that we should firstly excel in our exam results, then translate that into real capital, status and regard. This unswerving emphasis was tempered by my family; my mum firmly believed that money did not buy you happiness, and that success in whatever domain made us happy was the right kind of success. Once you found your special purpose you were set.

Despite this rosier formulation (and I thank god I had the mother I did) I spent a large part of my school life, and beyond, filled with misgivings about my future. The thing was, I couldn’t find a special purpose. I didn’t have one thing I was good at, or one thing I loved. There was no use in waiting for one to reveal itself either: my problem was not a dearth of options but an excess leaving me with a paradox of choice.

I want to be clear here. I am not saying I was great at everything. Clearly untrue – at school I sucked at languages (embarrassing when you are mixed race from an obstensibly bilingual background), found visual art totally beyond me and was generally clumsy. I’m also not suggesting that the things I was good at I was great at. My ‘problem’ was being pretty good at a number of things, enjoying them all in various ways, without a particular calling to invest myself in one at the expense of the others. This was a pragmatic and a principled aversion. On the one hand, I couldn’t face doing maths for three continual years and then throw the rest of my life into it. On the other, I didn’t see why anyone should have to do so. Why is it such a good thing to specialize, I wondered- why throw away the nuanced perpective afforded by a wider background?

I call it a problem, and problem it is, in many senses. We all know that from school onwards we need to be showing visible and directional progress if we have a hope of doing anything in our lives. I remember being warned before starting my PhD that if I was not to continue in academia, possessing it would actually be a hindrance as it suggests a lack of direction. Doing something productive isn’t good enough – it needs to be the exact right thing. I think you can see a sense of this in the 1/4 life crisis that’s being documented over the last 3-4 years; while some of this is down to free-riding and a lot more to the unattractive shape of the job market (telemarketing or charity street team representing ‘opportunity’ in the 21st C), I’m certain that people who like me are without a calling find themselves firmly on the pointy bits of a dilemma of choice. And stay there.

The price of happiness

I was having a conversation about politics while in Sweden over the weekend when the topic of citizens salaries came up. I was asked whether this was taken seriously as an issue over in the UK. Not at all, I answered. No, its not considered plausible over here at the moment either, she expanded. I explained that I meant it is not considered plausible, it is not considered, has not entered the zeitgeist in any real way. Citizens salaries are as foreign as sil and saltlakrits.

This is one strand I want to explore over the next couple of months – I certainly don’t have the credentials to claim any authority in matters of macro-economy, but I have some enthusiasm for the topic and I’d like to push the boat out a little bit in terms of what is generally brought to this debate (right wing: large welfare state is intrinsically bad, with reduced independence and freedom; left wing: tendency to drift towards utopianism and rejection of local optima – ‘good enough’ solutions).

Today I just want to link to a beautiful post from a site I’ve never read before, but it hits on one of the key issues more eloquently than I ever could. It touches on themes long noted in the human decision-making literature, about the discrepancy in economic measures of utility and choices about how much things are worth to real people. The clearest example is that the value functions that you can plot to describe the reward got for a reward in resources are not straight but curved – the subjective worth of a resource tails off as the amount becomes greater. More than this, it deals with the battle between two American Dreams, both of which can plausibly be described as Global Dreams on this 21st C ball of mud. Better still, it’s not much longer than this plaudit here. Go check it out.

Where are you when I need you, pithy justification for existence?

I’ve bounced through various sites on the blo-gotohell-sphere for a while now; blogs have replaced Usenet and message-boarding as my preferred mode of venting and inescapable time drain. I’m going to push content of my preferred kind, try and bash this into something of my liking, cut it down to a size that fits me. So far, no comments facilities, and the same tired design, but as I see it style should follow content, while comments utterly depend on it. Hopefully the embryonic beginnings of some essays should pop up in the next week or two, supplemented by links to the hot-shots who could do this in their sleep, and occasional links to those who appear to actually be doing so.