Polymathy is Curiosity, Not Science
Being a pianist, translator, and content manager changed my perspective on life
When several years ago I came in for the final stage of a corporate journalist job interview at a global IT company, my manager-to-be looked quite perplexed.
Glancing from my musical education and solo concert portfolio to the 5-year-long translation/copywriting CV lying side by side on the table, she finally worded what seemed a clear enough logical conclusion,
“So… is music your hobby now?”
There must have been no sense to it from her point of view. Why do two things at once? More importantly, why do two things at once seriously? To add to the confusion, the concert and job dates intersected.
But to me, it was the question that felt like nonsense.
Being involved in two professional activities with sincere interest seemed nowhere near the extraordinary, no more than speaking two languages or exploring two cultures— rather, I thought of it as the basics, to begin with, and extend from there.
Half spitefully, half in earnest, my inner voice jested, ‘And what if it’s writing that’s her hobby?’
A blink of an eye before I had considered uttering that. Unfortunately, I stopped short. I was not yet prepared for such a turn of events as my imagination had hastily played out.
“My hobby? Not really,” I muttered.
Several days later I had the job — apparently, no one heard the muted shout of my gut voice. Yet it all left an unpleasant aftertaste concerning my own fears about the apprehension of those around me, an apprehension long existent but now finally worded.
Translation is betrayal
Polymathy has nothing to do with exact sciences, contrary to the instinctive allusion of the word. All it involves is much learning, for in reality the linguistic root is the union of the Greek poly meaning “much,” and manthánein meaning “to learn.”
Yes, indeed — linguistically speaking mathematics too is simply “that which is learned”. That is why, too, it is the mother of all learning.
However, polymathy may be even simpler than that. It may be translated as “much curiosity”. But don’t confuse ‘curiosity’ with ‘passion’, however keen modern personal growth theories are on the latter word.
Wherever one looks today, one finds a call to passion. Passion seems to be a magic ideology used in place of any long philosophy we might have heard earlier about achieving prominence in life.
We hear “passion” mentioned in every career advice article and are told that no endeavor will work unless we approach it with that trait.
What is meant by passion is surely fervent enthusiasm, one that can overturn mountains.
But the unexpected implication of such an approach is — if you don’t have this passion burning in you right now for whatever it is you’re doing, you’re doomed to never achieve anything. If you’re unclear about cultivating a passion for one single thing, ditto.
Once again, the trouble lies in translation. With all the excitement it brings some and disappointment it causes others, what we’re categorically missing is the original meaning of the word.
Surprisingly, ‘passion’ is not at all about fervent enthusiasm: it is by definition ‘fervent suffering’. The word comes from the Latin ‘passio’ which means… ‘suffer’, a term currently preserved only in Christianity in reference to the Passion of Christ.
Thus no, curiosity is not to be confused with passion in its modern sense. It is not obliged to spring from passion or cause passion. Curiosity promises no burning enthusiasm to its followers.
It may be cautious. It may give you quite a bit of suffering while leading you through the dark. And it may gift you no bouts of excitement in return — at first. But what it will definitely give you along each step is much learning.
A lesson in polymathy
When I speak about working as a content manager in the field of IT, being a writer and translator, and all the while a classical pianist with a concert portfolio, the greater majority of my friends don’t get any of it.
The musicians — even longtime friends — nod in a sympathizing manner implying, “here’s another one who’s switched professions in favor of mercantile interests.” The non-musicians bring up the “hobby” subject, clearly self-explanatory.
I am at a loss to fundamentally explain to any of those “friends” that even though financial independence is greatly important to me, as to all of us, I am in fact willing to make a lot fewer sacrifices than they for the sake of it.
For example, I’ve always worked only from home for the flexibility it gives me to devote time to music. An 8-hour office job is my nightmare, not to be offered with any salary package.
Even not considering the atmosphere itself, the amount of concentration in a carefully chosen environment rather than a distracting office space is enough to boost productive output and save time. The time my fingers daily crave to put to great use at a very different keyboard.
On the other side of the coin, being a musician per se and knowing nothing else in life would never give me the satisfaction I need of expressing myself in other subjects I am interested in, of fearlessly developing and expanding my intellectual potential. I would never even know this potential had life not given me a polymathy lesson of its own.
The lesson commenced in my early twenties and took about 7 years to sink in. At 18 years of age, the time when we normally choose our main profession, I shared the rigid mentality of the musician clan who think any deviation from the profession is profane — albeit, turning the same lofty calling into a sport-based competitive career was supposed to be fine.
That was a hypocrisy I’ve long struggled to overcome. Eventually, I saw that the solution was quite simple but one I had fought for a long time— it was not in the rigidity, it was in the flexibility.
By now, I’ve learned that there’s nothing mercantile, strange, or worse - shameful, about having several things one can do at a very high level. Even if there’s one thing you wouldn’t be able to live without while all others are an essential adornment — intellectual or creative — to your life.
It is, after all, not a coincidence that great minds from Leonardo da Vinci to Benjamin Franklin to Bertrand Russell cultivated “intellectual polygamy”.
For me, the single absolute, the heart of my being is music. But while the heart is the essence, one may hardly imagine living without a brain, a hand, a leg, or even a finger.
To develop polymathy — as well as learn multiple languages, live in different cultures, embark on distant travels — is to me all akin to developing the health of each part of the body.
The human heart, it is said, can encompass heaven itself. The human mind probes into the secrets of the universe and knows few limits. The hands and feet and inner organs allow us to move and breathe and live without effort, without us even noticing their importance.
It is only when they are ill that we notice. They hurt only when underdeveloped or abandoned to the vicissitudes of life.
So it is with everything we learn or mindfully absorb— intellectually, emotionally, creatively, every science, every art.
Much curiosity is much learning is much painless freedom of existence in any corner of this universe. Such freedom quite literally extends beyond earth.
All things considered, the curiosity behind polymathy may just be enough to teach one to conquer the world — if by the end of the philosophically enlightening journey we’ll still need to, of course.