Be Curious, Read Widely, Try New Things
or, a Polymath’s Manifesto
Some time ago people used to go to university to study across disciplines. They learned from the best in several fields and laid down links where links hadn’t been laid before. Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, and Nicolaus Copernicus were “Renaissance Men” - people dedicated to spending their life becoming proficient in a wide range of subjects, to embrace all knowledge, and develop their skills as fully as possible.
Somewhere along the line, things changed. If you’re European and had the privilege to go to university, you probably learned your subject, got a Bachelors, and then - if you studied humanities - started a job in an unrelated field. American schools - liberal arts colleges anyway - encourage a bit more cross subject pollination, but you’re just soaking up knowledge (let’s not kid ourselves, what else is school about?) and seeing links across courses is a different beast entirely.
I was trained in computer science, with very little attention to other subjects that might have interested me - it was only my own decision to pursue graphic and digital design that brought me to the field of user experience. Now that I’m here, I’ve been having a hard time staying in-subject. I want to learn how to visualize data, build an HTML5 game, build a physical board game, finish my ideation app, play with the Leap Motion, bake bread, rapid prototype projects, summarize articles to get to the point, get people together and talking in groups, understand how soil affects plants, read fantasy, sci-fi and a wide derth of non-fiction, and so much more.
When exploring these strands - I’ve stumbled across problems, and since I knew I could solve them, or figure out how, I wanted to. Rarely do I know how to from the start - I have an idea, I take to the Internet, and see what has already been done. When I know what is happening in the world, connecting strands of discovery and developments, I hope to detect trends, see what works - and understand why.
The amount of times I see people mystified by technology, without a basic understanding of how computers work, how the Internet works, or how the applications they use every day work can be disheartening. In everyday conversation people are glad to conjecture based on misinformation while the tools for dispelling that information are quite literally in their pockets.
Living in a world where the American Dream runs rampant, we’re often told we’re special, unique little snow flakes who can achieve anything if they but try - hard work and study are lauded as the virtues that will let you be anything. To those ends we try our best to specialize in the thing that we’ll describe as our job, and become afraid of doing something new, reaching across to others, across the room, across the city, or across the ocean.
In Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, Buckminster Fuller says:
Specialization tends to shut off the wide-band tuning searches and thus to preclude further discovery.
Don’t get me wrong- I do think specialization is a good thing. It’s how we - as a species - have gained so many of our technologies, philosophies, and knowledge. But those discoveries are built on the shoulders of giants, and without looking to other fields, without being inspired by others, without knowing how to do that, we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. And that’s not something we’re learning anymore.
I’ll certainly continue focusing on front-end development and UX design. I want to be great in those fields (after all, a Polymath is an expert). But to be great in those fields, I’m regularly going to have to learn from others and realize that if one thing is for sure, it’s that humanity’s constant discovery is not going to stop anytime soon.
This desire to try out new things or solve new problems lends itself to tackling more than I can chew off. Projects will fail because I didn’t plan them right. They’ll fall to the side because something more important has cropped up. Or I’ll start something and then realize that tool X does it better than I could. But everything I start produces lessons. And the more I start, the more I learn, because every new project lets me see things from a different perspective.
I want to continue learning. I’m not going to set aside an hour a day to learning something new - my days aren’t structured like that - but if I see a problem, read something exciting, or see a project I am interested in, I’ll make a note and plan to come back to it later.
A Polymath’s Manifesto
- Be Curious. If something doesn’t make sense, if something is bothering you, if you’ve read something new, if you saw someone do something you want to know more about - ask. Ask how something works, ask why it works, ask why people built it, ask how nature made it. Be clever in how and when you ask - know your own limitations, but don’t be afraid of pushing your own knowledge.
- Read Widely. Until we can directly download information into our brains, reading is the most efficient way of absorbing new content. It’s a pretty incredible process when you think about it, and it’s one we shouldn’t be squandering. Reading is important. It’s a shame our schools turn people against reading from such a young age.
- Try New Things. I transplanted my first ever tomato plant yesterday. What did I learn? Soaking the earth helped to handle and get it loose, but chances are that plant is going to die. I’m not going to give up though - I have several plants that still need to leave the house. Trying to grow tomatoes has been an exercise in patience, consistency, nurture, and love - and all it took was putting a seed in a pot. Trying new things means stepping out of your comfort zone and doing something new. If you fail at it the first time, do it again. Fail better.
Obviously, none of this is new:
Be curious, read widely, try new things. What people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.
Thank you Aaron Swartz.
I’ve started this collection because I want to learn people’s processes for solving across disciplines and how they reach out to others. Take some time to read what others have written, and post your own thoughts and techniques. Put more seeds in pots.
originally posted on Medium