Bird or Frog? Freeman Dyson on the Two Types of Thinkers

In his bestselling book The ONE Thing, Gary Keller writes:

“Success demands singleness of purpose. … It is those who concentrate on but one thing at a time who advance in this world.”

Catchy… But is it true?

Is focusing on one thing the only way to do something well? I, for one, am suspicious of such easy answers.

Personally, I’m a dabbler. I’ve never had much luck finding my “passion” or “purpose”; my track record is so bad that I’ve just about given up on setting long-term goals at all.

Does my lack of focus make me a failure, incapable of “advance in this world”?

I don’t think so.

Two Types of People

Maybe Keller is right — singleness of purpose can get you quite far. But I don’t think that’s the only way to skin the cat.

In his excellent How to Write a Thesis (as much a treatise on learning as it is a guide to Thesis-writing), Umberto Eco shares his own take on the successful:

“There are monochronic people and polychronic people. The monochronic succeed only if they work on one endeavor at a time. They cannot read while listening to music; they cannot interrupt a novel to begin another without losing the thread; at their worst, they are unable to have a conversation while they shave or put on their makeup.”

In stark contrast to the monochronic are what Eco calls “polychronic people”:

“The polychronic are the exact opposite. They succeed only if they cultivate many interests simultaneously; if they dedicate themselves to only one venture, they fall prey to boredom. The monochronic are more methodical but often have little imagination. The polychronic seem more creative, but they are often messy and fickle. In the end, if you explore the biographies of great thinkers and writers, you will find that there were both polychronic and monochronic among them.

Eco himself, who passed away last year at age 84, certainly numbers among these “great thinkers and writers.”

A modern renaissance man, Eco’s private library held over 30,000 books. He wrote novels, could lecture in five languages, knew Latin and classical Greek, and often bantered with students at the local taverns in Bologna, near the university where he taught.

But, Eco aside, who are these other “great thinkers and writers” that he mentions? Can we have some concrete examples?

For that, let us look turn to the world of mathematics…

Birds and Frogs

While Umberto Eco was most certainly a polychronic person, Freeman Dyson—mathematician, theoretical physicist and former Princeton professor — was the opposite.

He is what Umberto Eco would call “monochronic.”

Dyson uses a different label for himself, though. Instead of “polychronic” and “monochronic,” he categorizes mathematicians as birds and frogs:

“Some mathematicians are birds, others are frogs. Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon. They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time. I happen to be a frog, but many of my best friends are birds.”

Now, with that metaphor in mind, let us turn the clock back 400 years.

Descartes and Bacons

Dyson introduces two great philosophers, Bacon and Descartes:

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, two great philosophers, Francis Bacon in England and René Descartes in France, proclaimed the birth of modern science. Descartes was a bird, and Bacon was a frog. Each of them described his vision of the future. Their visions were very different. Bacon said, “All depends on keeping the eye steadily fixed on the facts of nature.” Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”
According to Bacon, scientists should travel over the earth collecting facts, until the accumulated facts reveal how Nature works. The scientists will then induce from the facts the laws that Nature obeys. According to Descartes, scientists should stay at home and deduce the laws of Nature by pure thought. In order to deduce the laws correctly, the scientists will need only the rules of logic and knowledge of the existence of God.

That’s all fine and good, but what excites me most is what Dyson writes next:

“For four hundred years since Bacon and Descartes led the way, science has raced ahead by following both paths simultaneously. Neither Baconian empiricism nor Cartesian dogmatism has the power to elucidate Nature’s secrets by itself, but both together have been amazingly successful. For four hundred years English scientists have tended to be Baconian and French scientists Cartesian. Faraday and Darwin and Rutherford were Baconians; Pascal and Laplace and Poincaré were Cartesians. Science was greatly enriched by the cross-fertilization of the two contrasting cultures.

No, it seems, “singleness of purpose” is NOT the only way to advance. The world needs both.

No Easy Answers

The full title of Keller’s book is The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results.

Sadly, results — especially those of the extraordinary variety — do not have simple truths behind them. Life ain’t that easy.

So if all the business books that people throw away (after reading the first 20 pages) fall into your lap and shout “Be a frog! Be a frog!” into your ear, take heart in Dyson’s words:

“…the deepest concepts in mathematics are those which link one world of ideas with another. In the seventeenth century Descartes linked the disparate worlds of algebra and geometry with his concept of coordinates, and Newton linked the worlds of geometry and dynamics with his concept of fluxions, nowadays called calculus. In the nineteenth century Boole linked the worlds of logic and algebra with his concept of symbolic logic, and Riemann linked the worlds of geometry and analysis with his concept of Riemann surfaces. Coordinates, fluxions, symbolic logic, and Riemann surfaces are all metaphors, extending the meanings of words from familiar to unfamiliar contexts.”

If you’re not meant to be a digger, perhaps you can be a connector instead.

There are birds and there are frogs, and the world needs both.


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