Polymath or Dilettante?
If you know me well, you’ll know that I’ve struggled with this for a long time. In addition to my passions for programming, writing, and science research, I’ve also had stints in animation, painting, yarn art, digital graphics, music, baking, politics, public speaking, photography, blogging, videography — not to say that any of these interests have tapered.
It’s not a phenomenon I notice often in people, at least not on the surface, primarily because society exemplifies the one-trick pony. Rather, they glorify the idea of the specialist and create a system that encourages this type of behavior. After all, it’s only by cultivating people who are solely invested in one area that we are able to advance work in our various fields — whether it is business, medicine, law, science, or otherwise. For every innovator with a vision, there are hundreds and even thousands of workers who toil to bring this vision to life. For these workers, being part of a larger system — specializing in their one job — is enough. Or at least it seems so.
After all, the educational system employed in most countries in the world is simple enough. You start off in primary school, work your way up to secondary school, then choose a concentration in higher education if you intent to pursue a more specialized career. Afterwards, you delve even deeper into this concentration, eventually finding your niche or else breaking off from academia and joining the workforce using your specific set of skills to the greatest degree. If you end up disliking your path, you return to school to start your degree all over again.
This is the way things have worked for decades, centuries, and it’s because it’s so intuitive that even on the surface — without having to look into the anthropological, social psychological, or even economic side of the equation — things seem to work out. The other way — the path of the dilettante — is far less intuitive, and as a result it’s scarier for most people to think about, let along live through.
Nonetheless, being a dilettante isn’t necessarily something that should come with the negative connotation that it has. Sure, we don’t hear often of people with success in multiple fields, but perhaps that’s because of how we only ever want to hear of success in singular fields. Comparing examples of famous personalities in the past who have succeeded by either being excellent at many fields or singularly excellent at one is useless because of how easy it is to simple bring up more examples for one than the other.
We aren’t all expected to be prodigies, just as we aren’t all expected to be incredible at everything we do. Nonetheless, not enough attention is given to the individual who chooses to start a restaurant while making a film while designing websites for clients. Not enough people praise the woman who works as a photographer and writer, who gives international talks on parenting and still finds time to sell crafts on Etsy. There aren’t shows and books written about the activist who makes homemade yogurt to sell at their local farmers market and teaches underprivileged children in the slums on weekends.
Or perhaps there is, but it is overshadowed by the fact that they are still being targeted for their excellence in one or two fields.
We are bombarded with stories of self-starting entrepreneurs, talented actors, award-winning athletes, genius researchers, and a slew of other singularly successful individuals. People like Arnold Schwarzenegger are of a rare populace, one that somehow manages to juggle so many pursuits on top of maintaining an enduring career.
People who try to pursue multiple paths almost always end up as dabblers — dilettantes, Jack of All Trades — and never as polymaths or Renaissance Men — or pursuing one path and becoming ultimately unsatisfied later in life. The idea of the midlife crisis, the potency of switching careers, the number people returning to school after years in their respective industries — one only has to wonder whether it’s due to a culture that alienates those who have many passions from the people who are able to find one thing to dedicate their lives to.
One thing is for certain. Polymaths haven’t disappeared from the world. Just because our areas of knowledge have expanded doesn’t mean it’s impossible to still expand significantly on research, or even to create new innovations in fields not yet discovered. The fact that thermoelectricity, DNA nanocrystallography, and quantum biology have cropped up in the last few years are only a few signs of how we’ve hardly reached the limits of what there is to know and learn.
It’s frustrating to have labels constantly plastered onto you. There are enough stereotype in existence with race, gender, orientation, and whatever other normative concepts you can have to make yourself easier to understand. When we place our passions into a box, becoming an individual and growing into who you are becomes so much more difficult. Being able to pursue multiple passions in one lifetime shouldn’t be a product of privilege — education and opportunities, in an ideal world, would not be denied to anyone. Unfortunately, the sad reality reveals that the opposite is true, and that at least for the moment, polymaths will have to mask their interests under a veil of normalcy.
Note: This post was originally published on May 10, 2016. I’ve been migrating over a few articles from my old blogs.