Polymath the Impostor

How an Interest in Everything Makes You Nothing


You watch an old man on The Daily Show talk about Millennials and feel as though any thesis he writes on the subject should be titled “Darn Kids: Your Lazy Bum Children Are Going to Be in Charge?!” It’s offensive that he should be the one to stand in as the Jane Goodall of those born between 1980 and 2000 since he remarks about a diverse group of people in broad strokes, about how they all live at home, about how their development has been arrested and locked up and sentenced. The older generation categorically condemning the the subsequent generation as weaker and softer is nothing new to you. But it seems like as long as men of this certain age are around (and still in control of the message), no generation can live up to a “greatest” one. All you can do is ignore the noise until they can be put in a home.

ADHD seems to be another one of those terms tossed onto Millennials, their disease mantle. While you don’t deny that ADHD is an actual thing, whether you believe it’s one condition or a melange of several conditions often confused for one another, you also get the feeling that this being an identifying characteristic of Millennials is a thinly-veiled insult. Millennials not only lack focus but they’re biologically predisposed to lack focus. Better yet, it’s diet, environment, the media, nurture that makes them this way. The static of your universe is what makes you so lost and rudderless.

You learn the term “polymath.” You see it in places as blowback to the ADHD slight and it, somehow, seems like a more positive (and, therefore, apt) title for what you do. You live in this world of information whenever you want it. You don’t focus yourself on one thing because you don’t have to. Your life is more than the single path of slowly gaining the expertise in one thing. You are more quickly gaining the expertise in many things simultaneously. You see the meters going up. The points are increasing. You can knit. You can grow vegetables. You can assemble an engine. You can talk about current events as expertly as you can discuss the discography of an obscure math-rock quartet from Helena, Montana.

At least that’s the dream of the polymath: your global connectivity makes it so you can love so many things at once with equal amounts of passion. Your perceived lack of focus is the new life cycle of interest. Everything happens faster and is exhausted faster. You attain a level of mastery that suits your level of desired investment, collecting serviceable levels of talent in skill as if knowledge of those skills are scout badges. If you can talk about taxidermy with fervor for two sentences longer than anyone you know, you’re living the dream.

But grass is always greener somewhere else. And just as the monomaths of the pre-Information-Era pined to be more worldly and more widely educated, the polymaths sometimes feel the pang of being a jack of all trades, master of none. The competition that comes with being this polymath of gaining as many skills and as much knowledge as humanly possible also comes with a measure of self-doubt. While attaining new experience and new levels of education, it becomes an arms race. You compete with the monomaths and the people who don’t buy into the “spread yourself thin” lifestyle.

Your day consists of watching television and movies to keep up with conversations, eating at new restaurants to know the newer place others haven’t discovered yet, reading articles about all manner of bleeding edges, life hacks, recipes, blogs, consuming the flow of information. This is in conjunction with eight hours of your job and a few more hours of the job you don’t get paid to do (the passion projects), and additional time spent with your family and friends (if you’ve somehow carved enough time in your schedule to make those). You envy the people that have been able to unify their interests and their occupations. You feel disadvantaged at their being able to condense their streams more than you’ve been able to do because you fear that, in order for you to do the same, you would have to surrender something. You would have to admit that you don’t know the latest on something. That is just something you won’t be willing to do easily. This is the death rattle of the ancients. Conceding that they don’t know it all is what the elderly pariahs sob into the air just before their betters kick the ice floes into the sea.

So while you maintain a balance of knowledge in many different areas, there is a constant fear of being shown up by a monomath, the nemesis that has shirked your rationale that a world devoured is a life lived in favor of knowing just one narrow field but everything in it. You watch the monomath excel next to you at work, silently judging you as you comparatively muddle your way through your job. The monomath works well as a cog while you require patience from the machine operators. You are temperamental when juxtaposed near the well-oiled, well-constructed parts suited for the machine. You feel you have been jammed into the gears so it can run but not as smoothly as if you’d been replaced by the monomath.

You feel like an impostor. Despite any praise you receive or even a whiff of dissatisfaction from those in charge of your paycheck, you feel doomed to be found out. Eventually, there will be a time when you are tested and you will fail. You feel your abilities are limited and you know yourself well enough to understand that you can’t possibly dedicate as much time to any craft as much as the monomath dedicates. You hear tell of how the monomath goes home and works on pet projects only related to what he does at work. You see his work and understand it’s advanced in a way you understand but haven’t quite reached. It’s a downward spiral that leads to no one being able to remedy your confidence until either you accomplish something that is irrefutable proof you understand what you’re doing (unlikely) or someone that isn’t invested in your feelings confesses you are good at what you do (fleeting if it happens). The self-doubting polymath will forever contend with not being an expert and the doubt feeds on being spread so thin.

What you considered to be the death rattle becomes the only reasonable thing left. Being a polymath has made you feel like a poseur, a liar, like nothing. So maybe you choose a few streams of information, focus on your talents, let skills you attained but never use wither away while you bolster the ones that truly interest you. Limit the streams of information to just a few subjects and let others take the lead in the things that matter less to you.

The ground feels colder under you and you can see the polymaths surviving on energy drinks and earnestness standing on the shore. The ice cracks between you but it’s not broken yet. Maybe the ice floe isn’t death. Maybe you float away to a place of enlightenment. There must be an island in this sea where those surrendering go to be happier, sleep better, feel less strained, and reminisce about the days when they were searching for themselves in literally every place. You’re not giving up. You’re just consolidating. It’s spring cleaning for your attention. The ice cracks a little more. You know so little about everything. Wouldn’t it be better to know a lot about a few things? Wouldn’t that improve your quality of life? Could you be less anxious about discovery as an impostor if you could fill in the blanks before anyone found out, even if that meant sacrificing some of your interests? “I can’t know everything!” you cry. The sound of your voice breaks the last of what connected you to the shore and they kick you away, shaking their heads. It’s a shame. But you smile back at them as the current washes you from their lives.

This is the aging of a Millennial. You can’t let the old man know that he’s right about some of what he’s saying because he got there the wrong way. He’s never been inside your head. He’s never tried to think like you do. You are a curiosity to him. You might as well take the stage after the Bearded Lady and before the Lizard Man. But, from your vantage on the float in the cold strait, you can see what’s truly happening on the shore, having lived as one of the villagers. Or maybe you never really understood. Maybe observing a generation of people is basically astrology and you’ve ascribed your quirks to the broad strokes in a painting of an arbitrary group by masters standing far, far away.

Hmm. Painting. That might be interesting to take up.

Image: “Second to None” by Ry Rocklen, 2011 at LACMA. Photo taken January 2014.