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?

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