Umberto Eco: The Productivity Patterns of a Polymath

Charles Chu
Jun 19, 2017 · 5 min read

An interviewer once asked Umberto Eco, “Do you ever not work?”

“No, it doesn’t happen.” he replied. Pausing for a moment, he added, “Oh, well, yes, there was a period of two days when I had my surgery.”

Umberto Eco was a modern polymath. He was fluent five languages, published dozens of books (ranging from academic monographs to bestselling novels), was an esteemed professor of semiotics (from Greek sēmeiotikos, meaning ‘of signs’), and owned two private libraries totalling over 50,000 books.

How did he fit it all into a lifetime?

A defeatist would say, “It’s simple. He was a genius. The rest of us will have to settle for enough food on the table and a handful of books a year.”

That, I think, is disrespectful.

Sure, Eco was smart. But let us not ignore his efforts. Waving all excellence away as “genius” or “talent” is easy — it saves us from having to put in any effort at all.

Instead, let us see what he has to teach us.

Dissecting a Polymath


Just how hard did Eco work?

Let us look to an essay from Umberto Eco’s , titled How to Spend Time. Eco describes how his life is organized over a year:

“In a normal year (not a leap year) there are 8,760 hours. Reckon eight hours’ sleep per night, one hour a day to get up, shave, and dress, add a half hour for undressing and setting the glass of water on the commode, and no more than two hours for meals, and we reach a total of 4,197.5 hours.”

The calculations continue, running through teaching duties, academic papers, advising, email, writing, travel, conferences, until…

“It all adds up to 8,121.5 hours. Subtracting them from the 8,760 hours in a year, I am left with 638.5 hours, in other words about 1 hour 40 minutes per day, which I can devote to sex, conversation with friends and family, funerals, medical care, shopping, sport, theater.”

Taking out sleep time, Eco’s life looks something like this:

“Okay,” you say, “That’s not so bad. A lot of people work for eight hours a day.”

Two points.

First, Eco’s time was spent doing real work. He did not stop every fifteen minutes to check his email, ‘invest’ in cryptocurrency, text his girlfriend what underwear he was wearing, post selfies to Facebook, or submit to any of the other distractions that assault us each day.

Second, these numbers Eco mentions are “assuming I do not write a book” (he wrote dozens). Eco also mentions he has “not calculated the time spent reading printed matter” (he read tens of thousands of books in his lifetime).

If we consider that Eco spent most of his commute and travel time reading, we can adjust our chart to look like this:

Pretty impressive, no? Eco easily worked four times as much as the average American.

But plenty of academics, creatives and entrepreneurs work just as hard. Is there anything else that made Eco special?

Is it really genius after all?

A Quick Time Slip

One Sunday, after afternoon tea, I hop through the wormhole in my bathroom cupboard (no one ever thinks to look there) and travel to the Italy of half a century ago.

After shaking off the travel sickness (wormholes always leave me feeling a bit stretched), I scour the streets of Milan until I find what I am looking for — a younger, less-wrinkled Umberto Eco.

I sneak up behind him (it is a simple matter, he is absorbed in a book), wrap my hands around his neck and, with a little hop, climb onto his back. There, hanging off of him like some hairless monkey, I accompany Eco for the next fifty years. Each day, I peer over his shoulder, observing him as he reads philosophy papers, writes his novels, smokes cigars, sips scotch, and yes, even as he soaps himself in the shower.

After fifty years, I know Umberto Eco better than anyone — more than his colleagues, his children, his wife. Yet, after fifty years, there is something I still do not know: what went on inside his head.

We can study Eco’s routines and habits; weigh his brain on a kitchen scale; scan the caffeine content, roast, and origin of his morning espresso; stab him with a syringe and sequence his genome; but, at the end of our “lifehacking” experiments, we barely learn anything at all.

Too much of a man is what happens inside his head.

How did Eco think? How did he see the world? The best we can do is extract little hints from the voluminous writings he left behind — for example, this quote from the :

“I always say that I am able to use the interstices. There is a lot of space between atom and atom and electron and electron, and if we reduced the matter of the universe by eliminating all the space in between, the entire universe would be compressed into a ball. Our lives are full of interstices. This morning you rang, but then you had to wait for the elevator, and several seconds elapsed before you showed up at the door. During those seconds, waiting for you, I was thinking of this new piece I’m writing. I can work in the water closet, in the train. While swimming I produce a lot of things, especially in the sea. Less so in the bathtub, but there too.”

Or we can look at this quote, from the same interview:

“I’ve spent my life examining my behavior and my ideas, and criticizing myself. I’m so severe that I would never tell you what my worst self-criticism is, not even for a million dollars.”

We cannot ever become Umberto Eco. There was only one, and there will only ever be one.

But here is a question you can ponder:

What do you think about in the elevator?

The Polymath Project

Figuring out how to live in a world we don't understand

Charles Chu

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The Polymath Project

Figuring out how to live in a world we don't understand