🦊 Quick Brown Fox #20

Hey friends,

Welcome to the 20th edition of 🦊Quick Brown Fox! I spent most of the week working on a new essay I’m excited to share with you: The Polymath Within. I’ve been embracing the polymath lifestyle for quite a while, and have been eager to share some thoughts on this topic. Yet I found myself struggling once I got deep into writing it. The topic itself is quite broad, and there’s lots of areas that I needed to condense down to form a cohesive essay.

But the real issue was that it triggered my inner critics — I started to question myself as to whether I was qualified to write this essay, let alone call myself a polymath. After taking some time away from it (and getting some lovely support on Twitter), I powered through. It felt liberating to sit and observe my own critical thoughts from a distance, and even write about them. The more I’m able to build my awareness around my inner thoughts, the more resilient I feel.

Of course, I still feel like I could make a lot more edits and improvements to the essay. I always feel that way. But I have to stop and let it go at some point. I’ve come to believe that a big part of why we publish is to make room for what comes next. The more I think about this, the more I wonder if what I’m writing now is just the ‘surface level’. If every essay I write removes another layer of the onion, then what lies beneath? Guess we’ll just have to wait to find out :)

This is a preview of the essay — you can read the full version on my blog.

The Polymath Within

You may have heard the saying: “A jack of all trades is a master of none.”

It might surprise you to learn there’s an extended version: “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”

The longer version touts the potential benefits of being a generalist. The shorter version makes the opposite statement: Be a specialist, or be worthless.

Why is the shorter version so well-known, whereas most of us have never heard of the longer one? The cause is the structural incentives dictated by modern society.

Since the industrial era began, we have seen a proliferation of competition, and with it a growing demand for specialization. This developed from a desire to optimize the role of each worker on a factory assembly line. Unfortunately, this legacy of specialization has persisted even after many companies have stopped operating as factories.

One important criteria to optimize for specialization is having workers stay in the same role for prolonged periods of time. This is good for efficiency, and fantastic for the company’s stability. In exchange, the company provides employees with benefits as additional incentives to stay employed with them. These include retirement programs, healthcare, and the promise of long-term job security.

In some parts of the world, these benefits come at a heavy cost to an individual’s freedom. In the United States for example, if you’re employed with a company, you get healthcare. Otherwise, you’re out of luck. As a result, workers are often hesitant to switch jobs (let alone spend extended time without one) out of fear of losing their healthcare benefits. Another part of the problem is that the cost of healthcare in the U.S. is so high. A few days without healthcare and a single accident can push someone into financial ruin. As a result, many people stay at the same job year after year even if they’re unhappy.

The lack of freedom might be a worthy sacrifice to make in exchange for job security. But therein lies the problem. The truth is that many companies cannot guarantee the long-term stability they tout — it’s simply out of their hands. Many workers already face ambiguity with their job security due to the impending effects of automation. Now, with the tornado of change brought about by the COVID pandemic, the brittleness of even large corporations’ stability has become apparent.

So how do we survive these waves of change? Adaptability.

Workers need to be able to evolve themselves to the changing environment, and do so quickly in order to thrive. Workers will need to embrace a life of continued learning and self-evolution.

In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products – you will above all need to reinvent yourself again and again.
—Yuval Noah Harari

Luckily, we have a template for how to do just that — the polymath (a.k.a. ‘generalist’ or ‘jack-of-all-trades’). Polymaths engage in extended learning across disparate fields, and apply their learnings to connect ideas and solve problems in unique ways. By nature, they’re well suited to thrive in a constantly changing environment.

The key advantage that polymaths hold is their ability to develop mental models from different fields and apply them to solve problems in a unique way. This enables them to differentiate from their competition. Further, it creates opportunities for them to find truly meaningful and purpose by mixing their passions with their work.

. . .

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The Sound of Silence

I recently read Letter to a Hostage, a short memoir by the wonderful Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of my absolute favorite book, The Little Prince). He wrote it during his final years in Europe during the war. It’s filled with beautiful moments, but my favorite was his description of the unique power of silence in the Sahara:

The Sahara is just a uniform expanse of sand as far as the eye can see, or more precisely, since dunes are rare, a stony beach. The dominant state there is monotony. And yet there is an invisible network of routes, slopes and signs, a secret, living muscle structure, constructed by invisible powers. It is not monotonous at all. Everything is leading somewhere.

Even the silence there is unlike any other silence. It is the silence of peace when the tribes are reconciled, when the evening cool returns, as though you have moored up in some tranquil port, sails stowed. It is the silence of midday, when the sun suspends all thought and movement. It is a deceptive silence, when the North wind drops and insects appear, snatched like pollen from the oases of the interior and heralding the arrival of the sand-laden storm from the East.

It is the silence of conspiracy, which a distant tribe has told you is brewing. It is the silence of mystery, hatched in the Arabs’ cryptic councils. It is the strained silence, when the courier is late returning. A keen silence, when you hold your breath at night to hear. A melancholy silence, if you recall someone dear to you.

Photo Credit: Daniel Olah

Quick Links

  • Antiracism.club: This newsletter is fantastic: “Join the club to receive a weekly edition of thoughtfully curated programming designed specifically for non-black allies.” I loved the edition on zones of progress. You can support this wonderful and important work through their Patreon.

  • The Arctic Circle: A delightful stop-motion animation film: “An Arctic inhabitant is fascinated by the sudden appearance of a mysterious box.

  • Hiking 90 Miles Alone: I absolutely loved watching this beautiful hiking video shared with me by @shime_sh. The cinematography is stunning, and I find myself constantly imagining how difficult certain scenes must have been to film.

Until next time,