The Polymath Manifesto: Why you should do many things at once
It’s a regular Saturday morning. I’m at some old guy’s house participating in a fitness class.
But the guy teaching is no regular fifty-year-old Aussie. For one, he’s bald. But more relevant in the context of this article, he can do some pretty sick things like handstands and very heavy lifts, the kind of things most young people can’t even do. He’s basically very physically aware and capable.
I part with my hard-earned money every Saturday morning to hear his advice, advice that becomes increasingly enigmatic every week. I hear things that make me uncomfortable. They make me feel like I’m doing things wrong, and most of the time I am. But that’s the exact feeling I want to feel every Saturday morning, because it’s a sure recipe for growth.
But one piece of advice I hear this one Saturday morning strikes a chord. The aim of the class that day is to explore a few simple movements, and one of them is a simple pelvis roll performed while lying on the back with the knees balanced above the ankles. It doesn’t matter what the movement is, but when we’re attempting it, he suggests things we can try that might lead us to discover something about ourselves.
As we try this pelvis roll, he asks us how we can accomplish the movement and involve as many body parts as possible. He says that a movement usually ends when something in the system stops. He references a video all of us have seen of his son doing some pretty challenging shit. (There’s really no other way to describe it, just watch the linked video.) According to him, to achieve such complex movement, his son was constantly moving in all parts of his body, a concept he referred to as ‘flow’.
Basically, he was saying that in order to keep moving, everything had to be moving. When one thing stops, everything stops.
Move everything and break things
I’m a guy who knows what he’s trying to do. I have a rough idea of the way I want to impact this world, and I’m doing things on a daily basis that, by my judgement, will help me achieve that impact as efficiently as possible. But I’ve always noticed things going wrong. To some extent, that’s normal, but I’ve noticed a pattern.
Since I’ve started working on intellectually challenging things, I’ve been going through cycles of productivity followed by emotional/ existential turmoil. And it finally makes sense. It makes sense that even with a sustained time investment, my main projects halt quite regularly. As I focus on one thing, I only do one thing, ignoring the rest. As I work, I invest more in intellectual pursuits and neglect the emotional upkeep. Then I spend so much time fixing the collateral damage that my work loses momentum by the time I get back to it. It only happens because things stop when I’m doing something else.
My troubles are caused by leaving things behind as I move forward. Those things I leave end up dragging me backwards when I get far enough, no matter how far I go and how fast. As I have thought before, I don’t think this is what the old guy means when he says these things, but I think I’m onto something here. This concept of flow, of moving everything at the same time to move as a whole, mesmerizes me.
The Value of Variety and Balance
I think the best way to keep everything moving is to spend a significant amount of time just searching for stopped parts in the system. Which areas are you not moving in your life? The first step is detection, and the next step is to mobilize.
For me, mobilizing means knowing about as many different things as possible. My emphasis is on a wider surface, not a deeper pond. To me, working on a diverse selection of things in your life means you’re more likely to move forward in more areas. And the movement in all those areas will ease the movement of the whole.
In practice, it means I’m doing some pretty weird things I never thought I would do for a while/ ever. Like digital art. And all this writing. And playing the guitar. And learning sales. And reading philosophy. And cooking with avocados. All things I have either no previous interest or no knowledge about, or both. All things that make me uncomfortable to some degree.
The even weirder thing about doing all these weird things? I find out I’m actually pretty decent at them. So far, the more things I try, the more I find out I can do. At this point, I can’t sanely say I am good at any one thing I do. Instead, I’m good at doing the set of all of them.
Whoever you are and whatever you’re doing, I sincerely believe you would benefit from trying to move as many things forward in your life as possible. Diversify and expand your skills. Focus is important in the short term, but one piece of advice you don’t hear often is this: sometimes, you just have to give up what you’re doing for half a day to watch YouTube videos about how to grow tomatoes.
Take some time off to just follow the rabbit trail your mind takes you on. You’ve had many random stray thoughts. Next time, pick one and explore it. Repeat this process often enough, and you might just end up at the place you’ve been focusing so hard on getting to.