Monday, 4 March 2013

Why Everyone Should Be A Polymath

I’m in the park, dressed in black, taking pictures of the city by night and congratulating myself on my creativity.  A jogger pauses to pity the sad sack so gripped by despair she’s photographing darkness itself, before taking the executive decision to give me as wide a berth as possible.

My efforts stem from a weekly photo challenge I found online, something I’m doing as part of my on-going quest to be a Renaissance Woman (in the sense of having broad interests and skills, as opposed to the more historical measurement of marrying well and popping out lots of sons).   

If you want to scrape a living in the arts in 2013, you have to be willing to turn your hand to multiple areas.  For instance, journalists increasingly have to be able to write copy for print and online, create multimedia content, and use social media to find and break stories – in addition to traditional skills like grammar, shorthand and door knocking.  And in my experience, if you’re a freelancer and want to eat, you’ll need to know how to source copywriting work and be on the books of a temp agency to boot.

The idea that it’s positive to be accomplished at several things is not new.  We surely all remember from Pride and Prejudice how women can only get on in life with ‘a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages,’ whilst Wikipedia’s bumper list of polymaths demonstrates that multifaceted humans have been around for thousands of years. Polymathery has always existed, and in a world of ever-increasing multitasking it is only becoming more prevalent.

As a general rule, I deem this A Good Thing.  Wide-ranging interests lead to cross pollination of ideas, which means more creativity.  More of that, please!  Still, you can’t do everything all of the time.  The danger with trying is that when you’re genuinely interested in several areas, you can be tempted to flit between projects without concluding any.  Let’s be clear: it’s never OK to give up on something half way, unless your arms have fallen off.  Creative work needs to be dragged kicking and screaming to a conclusion and revised within an inch of its life, and nobody else is going to put that work in for you. 

And that’s the real rub with becoming a true polymath.  You need to put in serious hours to get good at something, so gaining expertise on several things at once could take decades.  You may want to focus on one thing for a prolonged period, spending your twenties on becoming a novelist, your thirties as a director, and your forties on that astrophysics PhD.  My preferred method is to become a generalist first, splitting my hours between blogging, fiction writing, photography and my work on string theory to evolve my knowledge base over time. 

Both roads are long, but the walk will be worth it – just look at Da Vinci.  See you at the finish line...

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