psychology of non-polymaths

The Curse of the Polymath

Photo of the Vitruvian Man

Photo of the Vitruvian Man

Most of the time, the Classically Educated Manifesto is a document which we are all proud of.  But, on occasion, we stop and look around the world and realize that modern human society is not really designed to cater to polymaths.

Generalists as a species have been out of favor even in places where they should thrive, such as multinational corporations, for twenty years or so.  But this is just a deepening of a trend that has been around for a century or more.

The case of companies can be quickly studied.  The reason generalists are useful for corporations is that, from a certain size onwards, companies need managers.  A manager’s job is twofold: to get results for their particular area of responsibility through the work of others, and to coordinate activity with other managers with a view toward optimizing shareholder value.

So, for instance, the company’s best programmer really can’t be promoted to management unless a) he has a grasp of human resources management, and b) an understanding of what the rest of the company is doing, from finance to marketing to production.  This is why people with MBAs tended to get those promotions.

Over the last few years, however, many companies have been ignoring this hard-learned truth and simply promoting the best-performing functional experts, people who really, really  know how their department works, causing much laughter among experienced managers who then get to watch the train wreck while munching popcorn.

There are many explanations for this phenomenon, starting with a sense that MBAs are elitist, and elitism goes against the inclusive culture of many new companies, especially in the tech arena, and continuing with the fact that a lot of HR people have gotten extremely conservative and only hire / promote technical experts within their fields in order to cover their own asses – they seem to have forgotten the immutable truth that a good manager can manage anything, even complex technical departments.  And it ends with the fact that companies aren’t getting any smarter.

While this is all very interesting, it doesn’t seem to cover the root problem, which is that as the world becomes more complex, obsession is beginning to trump… well, everything else.

Lewis Carroll portrait of Beatrice Hatch

Lewis Carroll portrait of Beatrice Hatch

So, you have people who live, breathe and dream computers, all day, every day.  Or any number of individuals who take their company work home with them and think about it to the exclusion of all else.

Even those people aim at balance tend to have one all-consuming hobby, whether it be rock climbing or model trains.  They then get together with people who have the same hobby.

So a person who works as an engineer at an airplane factory, and reads renaissance literature during his lunch break, practices amateur theater two nights a week and plays softball with friends over the weekend before his painting class and then gets together with friends from none of these activities is about as common as hen’s teeth.

It wasn’t always like this.  As recently as the Victorian and Edwardian ages, amateurs were making important contributions to both the arts and sciences (and probably even moreso to that ultimate mixture of the two: the soft “sciences”).

Lewis Carroll was a mathematician and a social critic who is best remembered for his children’s books (although a close reading of Alice will show that “children’s” is a bit of a misnomer).  He was an example of the gentleman polymath of his time.

And perhaps therein lies the problem.  The twentieth century was a century of democracy, and elitist concepts such as that of the gentleman with the leisure time to be an expert in various fields fell into disfavor – and distrust.  Even today, deep knowledge on too many subjects can get one branded as elitist extremely quickly. (If someone brands you as elitist, please let us know immediately, and we’ll offer you a place on our writing staff – unpaid, but proud to join a whole raft of elitists).

The loss of polymath pride since the turn of the 20th is a tragedy, perhaps, but even those Victorians and Edwardians were but a pale shadow of the true colossi of polymathy: the men of the renaissance.  Why, even today, the term “renaissance man” is used to refer to anyone who masters various disciplines.

Choosing one giant from among them would be an arduous task were it not for the unsurpassed genius of Leonardo, of course, but he was simply the giant among giants.  From Michelangelo to Galileo, they reveled in a society that celebrated breadth of genius far more than depth of expertise in a single subject.  They were even allowed to build huge buildings… although they were actually painters and astronomers (clearly, there were fewer lawyers back then, or the lawyers were also polymaths who got it).

That is what we have lost.  Today, the admiration that was once reserved for giants of the intellect is reserved for actors who often can’t count to ten and for surgeons who likely wouldn’t understand references to Humbert H. Humbert.  Guitar players for whom impressionism is a side effect of cocaine.  Geniuses in their fields, all, but limited in scope.

And it won’t change.  The 21st century will see a deepening of democracy globally, and one of the central tenets of democracy  is that equality is a right.  Most peoples of the world have chosen to interpret that as “no one is better than anyone else”, and if achievements show the contrary, then the person flaunting those achievements must be brought down a peg.

So polymathy, especially in “elitist” intellectual pursuits, will only get less popular as time passes and the world panders to the easily-bruised egos of the masses.  Polymaths will increasingly become dinosaur-like rebels flying in the face of social convention, the crazy old uncle no one ever talks about.

But that’s fine.  It’s more fun to offend than to conform.

Anything that requires  an exertion of sheer bloody-mindedness must, necessarily, be a good thing.

So onward the polymaths.

Ignorance as a Point of View

Astrology Cartoon

I was talking to an acquaintance recently, and was amazed and more than a little dismayed when she said “Astrology is a science, just like math.”  When I expressed my utter disbelief that anyone with even a smattering of education could possibly utter such a statement in the 21st century, she dismissed me as closed-minded and, safe in the knowledge that a majority of society would back her on that point, spoke about other things.

Never has, in my opinion, the modern iteration of ignorance been so eloquently expressed.

So, in order to learn about the people who share these modern times with us, let’s dissect the incident:

Astrology is a science

Well, one thing that astrology is NOT is a science.  To summarize centuries of development, science is a process by which hypothesis are tested via empirical data and then the theory is modified to fit the data.  As anyone objective can easily see, astrology works precisely opposite.  The results are given first (Scorpios kick babies, prefer to drink white wines and are only compatible with Gemini) and then the data is peered at through distorting lenses to make it seem like it fits.  It is much more akin to a religion than a science.  Wikipedia calls it a pseudoscience, because it attempts to clothe non-scientific methods within a scientific framework, but I think Wikipedia is being both generous and politically correct (can’t get funding if potential donors are offended).

Funny Fortune Cookie

So when discussing this, the defenders of astrology will say that testing is unnecessary because there are millennia of tradition behind it, and there’s no need to verify further. Er…  Yeah, that would also have worked when Columbus was yammering about the Earth not being flat.

So… why do people insist that it’s a science? Well, despite the growing trendiness of aggressive ignorance disguised as “a democratic right to different points of view”, there is still a feeling in society that science and logic are much more intellectually respectable than spiritualism.  So people lie to themselves (and attempt unsuccessfully to lie to intelligent observers) in order to feel respected as opposed to the alternative: feeling like ignorant cretins when faced with the raised eyebrow of a respected member of the peer group.  It’s better to dismiss logical arguments as “the limitations of people who think they’re educated” than to just admit that astrology is more of a fun, brain-dead way to spend time – like watching Dancing with the Stars – than anything approaching a science.

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 11.14.07 AM

Just like math

The discussion of whether mathematics is or isn’t a science probably would have gone over her head, but this article on the topic is simply awesome, especially the bit about Cicadas, so I just had to link it here.

Ok, so that’s the breakdown of her phrase, but the more disturbing bit is her sense of security that society would back her up.  In this case, I tend to agree with her.  That is a bit worrying, and it led me to asking myself why society seems to prefer to support certain ignorant theories and marginalize people who try to debunk them as elitists*

I think the answer is twofold.  In the first place, I’d like to offer the hypothesis that there’s a large correlation between the kind of people who think that astrology is a science and the the kind of people who watch a LOT of TV.  As is pretty evident to even casual viewers, TV content is not designed to stimulate the intellect, but rather to pander to more basic needs: low entertainment, fear-mongering and (particularly relevant in this case) the reinforcement of beliefs.  Now, to meet these needs, even the documentary channels have needed to adapt, as we’ve discussed before.  And if it’s on the Discovery Channel, then it must be true, right**?

The second half of the answer has more to do with how society has evolved in the decades since the second world war.  After the war, society has become obsessed with safety in all forms, be it physical or psychological.  The many have, in their wisdom, decided that freedom is less important that safety (see: mandatory helmet laws, myriad).  Even feelings are to be preserved…  if someone hurts your feelings, they are in the wrong, and therefore “safe places” need to be created where they can’t do so.

As educated, intelligent people are a minority, their opinions are normally dismissed as elitist, which immediately equates them with such immoral bastards as the filthy rich*.  So, to protect themselves from feelings of inferiority, the mob has made astrology a socially accepted topic – and mocking astrology the province of evil, “limited” people who can’t see beyond what their senses tell me.  So, once again, we decide what is scientifically correct by democracy***.

Is it just me, or should an educated society work in precisely the opposite way?

*Please note that here at Classically Educated, we consider the word “elite” to be a compliment, definitely not an insult.  If you are reading this, and feel that being elite is bad, you probably landed on this site by mistake!  We also oppose the discrimination against rich people – in fact, we oppose discrimination against any minority… fortunately, dumb people are not a minority, so you’re good there.

**This footnote isn’t actually linked to anything in particular, but I just had to mention traditional remedies.  All I have to say about that is that most ancient societies had life spans of about thirty years.  I am certain you are intelligent enough to draw your own conclusions about traditional medicine from that fact, and I don’t have to give you any further subtle hints.

***Can we vote to repeal the law of gravity?  Hover cars sound way cool.

On Hunters, Farmers and ADD

11th Century Chinese Warrior

Earlier this morning, I was thinking how much easier (yes, easier) life was in the 11th century.  Essentially, if someone was irritating you, you rode out (or walked out, depending on your level of income) armed with as many instruments of mayhem as you could take with you, and resolved the issue.  I am not a particularly violent person, but sometimes, when modern life gets political, whiny and just plain moronic, I do envy those inhabitants of simpler times (although the lack of bidets is always “problematic”, as the PC crowd likes to say) when society wasn’t as apt to frown upon occasional major bloodshed in the course of friendly arguments.

And now, it seems that this may be linked to the fact that I am easily distracted.  Hmm…

Research into Attention Deficit Disorder has led to any number of avenues, most of them focused on getting hyperactive children to be able to focus and learn at the same rate as other kids (drugs, mainly). While your attitude towards this might vary, there is little question that the drugs make these children nice little zombies who can actually stay awake through boring history classes without distracting those around them who are more teachable and focused.

hunting a wooly mammoth

However, another current believes that there is little wrong with these children psychologically, but that their minds have a preponderance of hunter-type characteristics – a genetic remnant of less civilized past. As you can imagine, most elementary schools on the planet are not equipped to train children to hunt mammoths, something in which this kind of child would probably excel as they are generally better at improvisation and real-time problem-solving than they are at concentrating on something they don’t need at the moment. They aren’t necessarily bad students, but they are the type which will toss things together at the last moment. In modern life, they tend to be the brilliant thinkers who put the great ideas out there and let others take care of the details.

On the other hand, ”normal” children are those in which the ”farmer” brain type is dominant: meticulous, detail-oriented, planners. They are generally a teacher’s dream, and are the ones who can turn the great ideas into working systems, which they then enjoy refining and refining some more. They are the ones who will give us a working highway system, but also the ones that give us 65 mile-per-hour speed limits because their nature is to plough the furrow again and again, as far as they can. Most overdone social trends (see helmets on ski slopes) have to do with farmers going a little too far into the details, into places where people outside the extremely specialized clique can no longer communicate effectively with them. Most people have a little of both, with one side predominating, while some – very few – are able to balance both sides, and can be Farming Hunters or Hunting Farmers.

Of course, all of this is extremely relevant to the business world, on two fronts: marketing and recruiting. Marketing because it is important to remember that you can’t sell things to farmers the way you would to hunters, and recruiting because, for technical reasons I won’t go into here, it is important to have a good balance of both personality types on your sales force (and I assume you would want your accounting department to be composed exclusively of farmers). Internet entrepreneurs tend to be hunters (which explains why they break the mold, and also why their long-range planning is sometimes… questionable).

So how does all of the above relate to this blog?

 

detail oriented

Simple. Polymaths seem to be Hunter-type personalities, while specialists, those men and women who are completely absorbed in one topic, seem to be farmers (remember that ADD research?), which is what makes academia so frustrating for so many.  The plodding, bureaucratic specialist is prevalent – and that means that the maverick needs to either learn to accept that or to ply his trade elsewhere.  That may be the reason that the less detail oriented personality types tend to find their way into business or the military as opposed to academia.  Hell, even in these fields, detail orientation is often praised, while big-picture thinking is suppressed.

Which begs the question: How much are we losing because of this?  Is over-specialization driving us to a dead end?  We at Classically Educated think so – which is why these posts are so eclectic…  But, ask around, you’ll find that most people disagree with us!

“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

election-crowd-wellington-new-zealand-1931-photographed-by-william-hall-raine

As most people concerned about the cultural decline of Western civilization continue to moan in despair* , I would like to take a moment to abandon my own complaining and look at one group, at least, that seems to be bucking the trend.  But before I get to the point, I need to digress again which, I suspect, is why many of you are reading this in the first place.

It used to be, there were places where you could meet the right people, even if you were far from home.

When railroads and a general lack of Europeans from different nations slaughtering each other on sight made travel a lot more pleasant, certain places came to be generally accepted as the ones one went to to meet acquaintances.  Perhaps for the Anglophones among us, the archetypal example is the Pump Room at Bath (below).  Anyone familiar with English novels of manners from the pre-Victorian period will have run into this (even casual readers are likely to have encountered it in Austen).

Pump Room Bath

Essentially, it got everyone who was anyone together in one place, without having to go to the trouble and expense of getting invited to the Royal Gala or whatever.

There are other places (notably certain hotels where one would meet for lunch), which took the anglophone through the Victorians and into the 20th century, but by then, the world had once again become a much smaller place, and culturally relevant people – even insular Englishmen – were no longer meeting exclusively in their own cities, or with people from their own countries.

By now, they were meeting in Paris.  More precisely, they were meeting in the Paris Cafés.  1871 is usually pointed to as the beginning of the Belle Époque.  From then until the first world war, Paris was the place to be seen at, and to meet your acquaintances, French, Dutch, Austrian or British.  There is a myth, an image flying around that this era was overrun with impecunious artists.  It is relatively true, but only tells a small part of the story.

Small, but what a story.  It must have been amazing to witness the birth of a new and major current in art every few weeks, driven not by the established masters but by a previously unknown artist from the countryside, or from Spain or somewhere equally unexpected.  The heady times among the currents and countercurrents in the avant-garde were balanced by almost equally exciting events in what was then considered high culture, from the World’s Fair, to Stravinksy.  Even the now reviled Paris Salon gave us iconic images.  Not all the great works were famously rejected, you know.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le Moulin de la Galette

But WWI brought it to a screeching halt.  Europe was not really in the mood for it all, and any mingling of nationalities would be best done on neutral ground, so the circus moved to Broadway.

Broadway in the twenties

Eventually, the in-crowds moved to Hollywood,  and then spent some time in Monte Carlo (always at least peripherally on this list), but it also lost some of its melting-pot feel.  The problem is that, as the world became smaller and smaller, the enclaves started catering to the super rich… and no one else.  I’m certain you’ll run into the right people if you snag paddock passes for the Monaco GP, but there aren’t many of them, and you might have to sell a yacht to afford them.  Any Dubai pool party classifies in the same category, too.

The day you sell a yacht is supposed to be the second best day of ownership after the day you buy it, but what about those who either prefer to keep their yachts or simply aren’t in that financial class?  What about the slightly less well-to-do global citizen, who wants to be surrounded by like-minded people, but has accidentally travelled thousands of miles from their usual base of operations?

The answer to that, after decades of traveling in a variety of budget levels is surprisingly heartwarming, and I first got an inkling of it when I bought a pass that saved me money on a variety of New York attractions.  The way it was set up was the clue: each ticket let you enter one of two attractions.  One of the options was something typically touristy, while the other option was generally a museum.  Strangely, the typical things you see on TV were usually mirrored by things that I really wanted to do.

I probably missed out on a lot of people very different from myself by choosing the museums.  But I did enjoy them.  And most of the people I generally have things in common with have spent a disproportionate amount of their time in major cities at the Met, MoMA, the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Prado or the National gallery, and considerably less at the photogenic large buildings / famous actor’s former homes / scenic countryside than others who visited the same places.  Art museums seem to be the one place where you’re likely to run into the polymath and global citizen today.  Even the ones who prefer hiking and hitchhiking aren’t going to miss the city’s big museum(s).  The fact that the great cultural artifacts of humanity also attract much smaller crowds than Graceland is only a secondary consideration to the kind of people this blog is aimed at.

Most of them can tell me which wall this…

757px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project

is hanging on.

Which, when you stop to think about it, is kind of nice.

*and yes, I know, we urgently need a nice knock-down, drag-out fight about the relative merits of high culture as opposed to popular culture on this blog – the very nature of this space cries out for that particular battle.

On Words, as they Relate to Worldview

I once had an online conversation with a writer who really, really doesn’t like me.  We were arguing about something and he responded, that writers should be careful of the words and phrases they use, as they need to be precise.

He was objecting to my use of the phrase “knee-jerk” to describe a decision that he claimed had been taken after consulting everyone involved.  While the original discussion that engendered his comment was never enough to really get my juices flowing, his statement about the importance of precise language stuck with me (you may draw your own conclusions regarding what interests me from the preceding sentence).

Of course, it’s probably a good thing for prose intended for publication to be quickly and easily understandable by the widest audience possible.  But is it really that important outside of the confines of a book?  Even within those confines, I’d argue that a certain amount of transcending the rules is acceptable, so you can imagine that precision in daily language is something that I really don’t think is all that important.

xkcd.com recently summed up my view of this:

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 2.06.02 PM

Link to the original comic here.

Sums it up, doesn’t it?  It just seems to me that if people understand what you’re talking about, it’s fine.  I have worked with a large number of accountants and engineers in my time and, as you can imagine, many of them disagree vehemently with this point of view.  And yes, I’ve seen a strong correlation between people who need everything to be in neat little labelled boxes and people who think this way – but that’s not the point today.  I really want to focus on the language implications, because these are the ones that have more to do – in my opinion – with being a global citizen.

How often do you find yourself involved in a conversation with someone in which language barriers mean that you have to pay attention to the context of what the person is saying in order to be able to understand a particular word?  If you move in the circles I do – and I assume that anyone reading this probably does – you often find yourself trying to understand some heavily accented English, or even trying to make yourself understood by reviving those old French lessons.  When you are in the latter position, my structured adversary is probably not the kind of person you want listening to you.

Experience teaches one to relax this requirement for others, and eventually brings one to understand that it isn’t all that important. I think what irritated me most about the original discussion was that he wasn’t focusing on the message but on the language, which has in human history led to a whole bunch of stupid (including the once-relevant PC parrots) , and is something I can never understand.

So I have more questions than answers for you.  Was he doing it on purpose to bug me?  I doubt it – he seemed genuinely mad at me for using the phrase.  But it was clear from the context that it was just a place holder for “making an insufficiently reasoned decision and the wrong one, to boot”, which leads me to the conclusion that he chose to interpret it that way, and to take umbrage.

In this particular case, it’s his problem…  But what does he need to get over something like this?

Essentially, the best way to get past this is actually to be truly global in your outlook.  A big-picture approach is required, and you really can’t get that from books or from your peers, and you can’t really get that if your main contact with the larger world is online, with people you’ve never met.

So, you ask, where is my nemesis from?

If you guessed he’s an American who doesn’t move too far from his home in the midwest, you get full marks.  No bonus points this time, because we all know it was just too easy.  Of course, this is unfair to many midwesterners who actually have outgrown the limitations of their geography, but such is life when space forces one to generalize…

Anyway, I promised eclectic, and eclectic this blog will be.  Art, travel and guest bloggers are coming now that we’ve goteen some of the philosphy and our first list out of the way…

Stay tuned.

Understanding Everyone Else (hint, you won’t manage it, but they’ll appreciate the effort)

So, there you are, sitting around a table at a party, or talking to people at work, or even in a pickup bar.  There comes a point where you realize that the people around you are talking about the same things every day, all day (if this happens to you in pickup bars, you seriously need to consider doing something else with your free time) – and the things they say seem to consist mainly of stuff that only a game show studio audience (or mammals of similar intellect) could possibly find interesting.

It’s kind of hard to know how to react in these cases.  Let’s be honest with ourselves for a second: what we actually want to do is to tell them that they should look into purchasing a brain, or getting out and seeing a little more of life.

Try to resist that temptation.  The people you offend may not be worth much as companions, but they can make your life miserable in trivial ways as long as you have to have contact with them.  Not worth the aggravation.

A better strategy would be to try to understand the people around you.  Why, exactly do they insist on talking about Pharrell Williams’ hat (deduct 100 points if you knew who Pharrell Williams is without clicking the link)?

Simple: the people around you have negligible inner lives.  Their idea of heaven is waiting for 6 o’clock to roll by and then going home to watch TV.  On weekends, they get hammered and have sex with strangers who never call them back.

OK, we admit that there’s some merit in this last bit, but still…

Try to see it – or at least analyze it – from their point of view.  It is likely that most people reading this blog will have had structures shattered at an early age for some reason or another; many of those reasons will have to do with travel, but other motives are likely present, too.  That means, essentially, that you will be more flexible to understand other points of view (you may not agree with them, of course, but that’s another discussion entirely).

But imagine that you are not you.  Imagine that you grew up in a small town somewhere – not necessarily in the US, but anywhere.  You went to school there, you spent your childhood summers fishing in the lake with your friends, and your high school summers making out on the shores of that same lake.  You know exactly what’s right, what’s wrong and how the world works.

It doesn’t even have to be a particularly small town.  Hell, I’ve seen this in people who live in ten-million-strong cities.  Many people seem to need to make the world around them as small as possible, even when the evidence is shouting at them that it’s a reasonably big place.

The above doesn’t paint the whole picture.  In that simplified model we are leaving out parents, and the guy at the general store, and the local newspaper.

Oh, and religion.  Don’t forget about religion.

While it’s sometimes fine for young people to wonder if there might be more to life than what they know, it takes a particularly strong personality to face down a bunch of people he loves and admires who are also armed with millennia of experience in the art of telling people what to think, how to think it and even when to think it.  “Normal”, under these conditions, becomes a very limited set of characteristics.

You, of course, are different.  You know that there is more out there, that being flexible, open-minded and learning about everything is a wonderful way of life.  You want to share it, want to expand the minds of people with small horizons, and you get really frustrated at unnecessary mental blocks.  Even slightly structured people can get on your nerves.

So what do you do?  If you’re like me, you can’t resist tweaking them.  You will make little comments based on the exact opposite of their assumptions or (and I don’t recommend this, as it’s a time sink of epic proportions on the comments front) write a guest blog post about how they are wrong about everything on a site with major traffic, in a nicely dismissive tone.  Yes, the temptation to make them jump is very strong… and the situation is made worse by the fact that the reactions are often extremely entertaining as well.

But my advice is to resist the temptation (do as I say, not as I do, and all that).  The reason has nothing to do with getting along with others and playing nice and everything to do with the fact that it’s a waste of time.  Anyone who’s gotten to adulthood with an excessively rigid set of values isn’t going to change, and the fun of watching them grow angry grows old after a while (OK, some people are extremely funny when angered, but even so).  Plus, there’s the added benefit of people liking you more if you do resist.

So, now that you at least have a slightly better understanding of where everyone else has their heads at, I’m certain you will be much more pleasant to be around.

Oh, who am I kidding?  Just send me the anecdotes when you do tweak them.  I’ll laugh at most and probably ask you for permission to post the better ones here.