The Perks of Being A Renaissance Man

As a kid our school teacher used to encourage us to build a variety of hobbies. He used to say, “Sometimes hobbies take you further than your studies and professions. Cultivate them.”

This is very counterintuitive when compared to common wisdom. Having varied and scattered interests has a bad rapport in pop culture. People who try out different things, maintain different hobbies, pick up new activities, and dabble with new domains are usually labelled as jack of all trades, master of none. It cannot be further from the truth.

Many of the most impactful individuals—both contemporary and historical—have had a range of interests and hobbies. Rabindranth Tagore had reshaped Bengali literature and music, as well as Indian art with Contextual Modernism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a poet, a writer, a music composer, and a painter. Interestingly, Tagore took up drawing and painting when he was in his sixties.

Rabindranath Tagore

Satyajit Ray, one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century was a writer and an illustrator apart from being a director. Jagdish Chandra Bose, who pioneered the investigation of radio and microwave optics, was a biologist, physicist, botanist and a science fiction writer. Isaac Asimov was a professor of biochemistry who was known for his works of science fiction.

Charles Babbage, the father of he computer, was a mathematician, philosopher, inventor, and mechanical engineer. Ben Franklin was an author, publisher, printer, politician, scientist, and inventor. Marie Curie managed to win Nobel Prizes in two different fields: physics and chemistry, and is known for her works in radioactivity.

Elon Musk is the man behind SpaceX, Tesla, The Boring Company, Neuralink, OpenAI, and many more ventures. And the father of all polymaths, Leonardo da Vinci’s areas of interest included invention, drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, palaeontology, and cartography.

What’s going on here?

These famous people may be well known for one or two things, but they don’t have the temperament of a specialist. They have a wide range of skills and knowledge that give them tremendous leverage in wicked domains. And all of them are successful players of the wicked domain called life.

In wicked domains, we have to constantly deal with challenges we haven’t faced before. We need to use all the wisdom in the world, but we miss out on a lot of useful wisdom if we are too narrow in our areas of interest. Therefore having range is not just important, it’s an absolute necessity in the wicked domain.

Having breadth of training results in breadth of transfer as well. Transfer is our ability to take certain knowledge and skills from one area, and apply them to a problem or situation we have never faced before. For example, COVID-19 is a problem no one has seen before, and hence one needs a broad array of skill and knowledge in terms of disease control, economics, logistics, healthcare, mass psychology, PR, etc., to deal with the situation. And a government’s gotta find a balance between keeping people healthy, keeping them sane, and also keep the economy running during the pandemic. It’s an extremely wicked problem to solve, and unlike the questions asked in school exams, no one knows for sure if it’s actually solvable.

Your ability to solve wicked problems is predicted by the variety of situations you’ve faced, and the wide array of knowledge you’ve gained from that. As you experience more variety, you go on forming these broader mental models which you can then wield flexibly in new and unknown situations.

“Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form. You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience both vicarious and direct on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.”

— Charlie Munger

To increase your range of knowledge you need practice. Real practice, not just theory. Simply reading and thinking about fields doesn’t give you the required knowledge. Reading about marketing is not equal to putting it in practice. You have to put in the work, and then reflect on it—that’s how you gain self-knowledge. It’s long and arduous, and there’s no shortcut.

While varied experience gives you an edge in wicked domains, it has interestingly been observed that kind domain experts often become more confident but not more accurate in their judgments and assessments as they accumulate more specialised knowledge. In fact some actually get worse in terms of accuracy. How many of you have met that obnoxious academic who either uses either their position, or their degree, or their publications, or a combination of all three to defend themselves?

It’s because they start looking at the world from a single lens. This is often not enough. For example, you can’t just look at the human body in terms of nutrition alone. Nutrition is important, but it’s just one point of view to understand the human body. You have to study the human body from the point of view of exercise, sleep, psychology, endocrinology, neuroscience, and countless other domains to form a well-rounded idea about it. Otherwise you’ll be like the doctor who blames bad calories for every disease.

Take Elon Musk for example. Musk has combined an understanding of programming, engineering, physics, manufacturing, design, and business to create several multibillion-dollar companies in completely different fields.

A young Elon Musk

Steve Jobs combined design with hardware and software while building the first Macintosh computer. “When we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me,” he said in his famous Stanford Commencement Speech. “If I had never dropped in on that single [calligraphy] course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.”

Behavioural Economics didn’t exist before Daniel Kahneman combined the study of psychology and economics through his research. Similarly, people have studied biology and sociology for hundreds of years, but no one had ever studied them together and synthesised them into a new discipline until researcher E. O. Wilson pioneered the field of sociobiology in the 1970s.

In Range, David Epstein gives the example of Claude Shannon, who launched the Information Age thanks to a philosophy course he took at the University of Michigan.

In it, he was exposed to the work of self-taught nineteenth-century English logician George Boole, who assigned a value of 1 to true statements and 0 to false statements and showed that logic problems could be solved like math equations. It resulted in absolutely nothing of practical importance until seventy years after Boole passed away, when Shannon did a summer internship at AT&T’s Bell Labs research facility. There he recognised that he could combine telephone call-routing technology with Boole’s logic system to encode and transmit any type of information electronically. It was the fundamental insight on which computers rely. “It just happened that no one else was familiar with both those fields at the same time,” Shannon said.
Claude Shannon, the father of Information Theory

Published several years later as a monograph, Charles Darwin’s theory of atoll formation marked his first significant contribution to science, and it has largely stood the test of time. Darwin “had to think like a naturalist, a marine biologist, and a geologist all at once. He had to understand the life cycle of coral colonies, and observe the tiny evidence of organic sculpture on the rocks of the Keeling Islands; he had to think on the immense time scales of volcanic mountains rising and falling into the sea… To understand the idea in its full complexity required a kind of probing intelligence, willing to think across those different disciplines and scales,” writes Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come from.

It may sound hard, but it isn’t as hard as you think. It’s perfectly possible to be good at more than one thing in your life, or to be good at multiple things simultaneously. In fact, I would argue it’s easier than people think. Because expertise in one domain may help fuel excellence in another.

That’s what I’ve found in my own life. I am a designer who is also an entrepreneur. I started writing initially as a way of documenting whatever I am reading until I absolutely fell in love with the process. I’m also a hobby coder and take great interest in reading history. I’ve always been fascinated with learning and human creativity, therefore education is one of my areas of passion. These areas of interest kindle many business ideas—some of which I end up pursuing.

You might think these areas compete for my attention or distract me from fully achieving mastery in any one of them. I would be lying if I said it’s not difficult to manage them all. However, I compensate for that difficulty with the additional gains and breakthroughs I receive by having access to different modes of thinking, different fields of study, and different types of experiences.

As Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience put it: “To him who observes them from afar, it appears as though they are scattering and dissipating their energies, while in reality they are channelling and strengthening them.”

Having varied knowledge in multiple fields helps you create an atypical combination of two or more skills into a worldclass skillset. Being a generalist gives you the opportunity to carve yourself out a niche that only you can have. Scott Adams, the guy behind Dilbert, believed he could draw but he was no artist. Similarly, he was funny, but not as funny as a comedian. He also happened to have a business background. But when he combined all three: art, humour, and business, he suddenly had something very unique and rare.

Scott Adams

The best way to get started becoming a polymath is to start running little personal experiments. Some new experience in a new field can give you a keyhole view into a new curiosity. Then you can seek to learn more about it if it picks your interest.

This would also be the best time for you to talk to people in the field, or find ways to learn more about it—all the while reflecting on each personal experiment to determine whether this new field is a better fit for your interests and abilities.

Once in a while you’ll find something that you love so much that you would want to take it up seriously—perhaps as a profession or a business. I’ve personally known people who have changed careers by transitioning into newer domains—sometimes multiple times in a row—in search of a more fulfilling life.

A very close friend of mine started out as a mechanical engineer. After a couple of years he figured out that engineering wasn’t his cup of tea and decided to get into business. He got an MBA from a reputed college (one of the IIMs) in India. In less than 2 years after his MBA he realised that business wasn’t a good fit for him either. After giving it some thought he figured that he loves maths so maybe he should try something in that domain. After reading about it, he decided that didn’t have much interest in becoming a mathematician, but wanted to try becoming a data scientist instead. It involves maths and has real world applications. So he quit his job and started grinding it out.

He started learning machine learning from scratch. He finally got a job at a startup after 8 months of struggle. Unfortunately this startup went bankrupt within a year. He was out of job again but it did give him a lot of real world experience. This was leverage. He got another job at a startup after month, and thankfully this company has been doing well for the past couple of years.

Most people would call that fickle mindedness. Changing jobs and entire domains every couple of years. Others would say it was a wastage of time and effort in getting those degrees only to throw them away in pursuit of something entirely different. To be honest, in a world that is constantly changing, you cannot afford to have fixed plans. You’ve got one life, and it only makes sense to try things out before settling down with something. We don’t have any clear picture of a job until we do it ourselves anyway, so why commit in advance and let your degree judge you!

In my opinion, it’s better to flirt with lots of jobs before settling down. To continue being an engineer in spite of disliking it just because you have put years into a job or a degree is a clear case of sunk cost fallacy. Being bound to a plan you had made early on is just premature optimisation. Don’t let these biases distract you from pursuing something meaningful.

So what if you are 40 and still unsure about what you want to do with your life? Most people are like you. They just know how to pretend and fit it. I don’t blame them, but if you feel like you need to change something—maybe your job, your hobby, your field of interest, trying running your own little experiments. Start small, try a couple of things, and see what works. Who knows, maybe you’ll discover something beautiful!

“Match quality” is a term economists use to describe the degree of fit between the work someone does and who they are—their abilities and proclivities. Find your own match quality.

Any job that can be coded into a machine won’t exist in the future. A lot of jobs are already gone. More jobs will be gone in the near future. Therefore trying out new things isn’t fickle mindedness. It’s smart. In an environment of accelerating change, having fixed plans is soon gonna be a thing of the past.

Being flexible and adaptive helps, and all of us are going to have to become polymaths to thrive. Being multi-hyphenated will always give us leverage. In a wicked world, being a generalist is the norm, because specialists and kind domain experts don’t survive here. In short, it’s a good strategy for us to be a Renaissance Man—one who has many talents and areas of knowledge—if we want to thrive in this wicked domain called life.

Life is hard, and whoever says it’s not is trying to sell you something. Life is gonna throw a lot of yorkers (or curveballs) no matter how strong or how smart we are. It may not be what we expect, so we’ll have to learn to adapt and evolve fast. Having range, having varied knowledge helps.

The more things we open ourselves to, the more we experience, the better philosophers we’ll be. The better leaders, teammates, and the individuals we’ll be. Life is full of opportunities and we are full of possibilities. Let’s run after all of our passions and interests. One never knows which one is a good fit until we try them. It’s okay to try a bunch of good things in search of a great thing.

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