Sunday, August 4, 2013

Creatively pursuing the Renaissance Man mold

Disclaimer: The following post requires an above-average level of mental multi-tasking.

A friend of mine just posted a short essay titled "The Modern Well-Rounded Man".

He states - 

1. Increasing division of labour and specialization as a coping mechanism with the complexity of the economic / social system. 
1.1 Please everyone refer to James Burke’s Connections. You don’t need to watch this to get the point intellectually, but it is a wonderful way to get it viscerally.
2. Romantic/humanist ideal of University education / universal man / well-rounded man. 
2.1 Embedded in current education system – “every person should know at least x, y, z”.
2.2 Embedded in social norms and values – we worship individuals with great accomplishments in very specific fields and attribute them equal levels of skill in others / become disappointed when they turn out not to be
There is a tension between 1 and 2. Understanding this was an important step in growing up (insert cynical witticism) for me.

I would add the following (as a "required aside", more than a "direct complement", when considering the requisites for a successful and focused application of points 1 and 2):

3. The Individual Psyche
    3.1 In that singular forces that influence thought, behavior and personality greatly determine path outcomes

4. Productive Creativity
   4.1 As opposed to reproductive creativity, that acts on established discoveries through predetermined rules and norms 
   4.2 Which produces alternative thinking, that works to lessen the impact of the mental/educative limitations imposed on the individual through a regular, functioning society 
   4.3 Which circumvents the inertness found in traditional methods of critical thinking, by going beyond determining whether something is true or not, and looks to add insight through proactive thought rather than reactive response

Then, the author writes:

So of course, you could be a genius and therefore not have to choose between 1 or 2. You could nurture this belief despite ever-mounting evidence to the contrary – essentially by disqualifying any objective measures of intelligence and/or staying away from the big ponds and bigger fish. Beyond being a waste of time, this attitude just distracts you from the essential question of what you think is a good life for you. 
So, a piece of advice to myself and others who fit the mold
Choose specialization or versatility consciously, and proceed accordingly. 
Discard the fantasy of not having to choose – if you do turn out to be exceptional, it will be a nice surprise.

I agree with the advice wholeheartedly: Leonardo da Vinci, the proverbial polymath, seems to have chosen to follow the advice given by the author. 

I would like to think that Da Vinci consciously chose to be versatile and focus on the different subject areas he ultimately dominated. In doing so, he was efficient in creating value through his various pursuits - irrespective of the fact that most capable people will find it increasingly difficult to be able to take on so much so superbly (point 1 essentially eliminates this possibility).

There's only one way to go here: Up.

In digressing slightly from the main point (in choosing specialization or versatility consciously and discarding the fantasy of not having to choose between them), I would caution however, the following:

1. Refrain from squashing the childlike wonder (by substituting it with adult intellectual sobriety) that infects anyone and everyone who has ever gone beyond merely "functioning" and aspired to transcend, by pursuing multiple interests (Einstein with the violin and Feynman translating Mayan hieroglyphics)

2. Avoid insulation and extreme introspection, and invite broad participation and healthy debate: learn from others, not just from what they've written, but also from what they've debated with you in person.


3. Never become so arrogant as to think that there's nothing to learn from the less intellectually minded and less educated

Digressing even more:

The following video describes Richard Feynman's questioning brain in a beautiful way, and in a way, encompasses (through his words, tone, logic and overall demeanor) the beauty inherent in the arts and sciences: