I have a laptop that is now nine years old. It’s covered in stickers on the back, ranging from the stickers that once adorned the side of my helmet when I played defensive end for Loughborough University American Football team all the way through to a pair that came with the HEL brake lines currently fitted to my motorbike. There are GoPro and Urban FreeFlow stickers, a Great Britain numberplate sticker and even a tag from Crossfit Lario, a gym I visited last summer when travelling. How does this relate to balance, I hear you ask?
I recently undertook a mini-project to try and clean up said laptop, to allow it to limp along for a year or so more of use. I’m currently using it to write as we speak. When undertaking this clean-up, the very first bookmark that came to mind was a particular article from the blog The Art of Manliness entitled “How to Be a Renaissance Man“.
This article is dear to my heart, as it discusses a concept I believe in wholeheartedly. That is the power of generalisation. And not only the power but also its value in modern society. It brings instantly to mind a famous quote by Robert Heinlein;
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
How many of the above list do you feel that you can tick off? For me, it is nowhere near enough. And the above is not exclusive, merely an off-the-cuff example.
In the referenced Art of Manliness article, one of the paragraphs Brett McKay opens with is as follows.
A gentleman should have a firm handle on not just one or two, but every aspect of his humanity, working to strengthen himself in every way possible. If he is blessed with the gift of intelligence, his academic pursuits should not be chased to the expense of his physical health. Similarly, a creative personality should not lead a man to isolate himself and ignore the social aspect of his being. Excellence in one of these areas does not take attention away from the pursuit of the others but rather serves only to increase competence in complimentary areas, giving man a greater understanding of himself and the world around him.”
In both employment and in wider life, specialism is more and more often encouraged. It is commonly seen as the only route to conventional career success, outside of the unknown (and inherently risky) option of entrepreneurship. And I believe that in one’s career or in life, this does not have to be the case.
There is immense value in developing as diverse a skill-set as possible. These different disciplines are far more inter-related than they may appear at first glance. An excellent example is the commonality that lies between maths, coding and foreign language acquisition, which may seem to have very little in common. All of the above are languages in their own right. They are systems that allow interpretation of the world. Yet far too often an individual with a gift at mathematics may vilify their own ability in learning Spanish, not seeing the similarities.
And this is just within the intellectual domain. The connection between the mind and the body has long been researched. The ability of the brain to do its best work is inextricably linked with the health of the body that carries it. How often can you see in the media the brightest of minds within the intellectual spheres neglect the physical domain, due to such deep focus on their area of speciality?
There are multiple dimensions to every human being. Inside each of us, there is the capacity for intellectual, physical and creative output across the spheres of career, sporting activity, arts, music, languages, travel, literature, technology, design, intellectual vocational pursuits and any other imaginable field. So why would we neglect any of these, knowing innately that they will all be mutually empowering?
Because we are readily told that specialisation is a requirement of the times. Even using the terminology “Renaissance” man (as opposed to the timelessly-equivalent description of polymath) links the skills of a generalist with a time as far removed from the present as 14th century Italy. The desire for polymathic status should not have waned in the individual in the last 700 years. Who wouldn’t want to be in such esteemed company as Leonardo Da Vinci and Galileo Galilei?
I will reluctantly concede that a great deal of the most famous people of our time are specialists. There is great value in a specific core skill. But I wish only to propose the thought that being a jack-of-all-trades does not explicitly mean that one would be a master of none! It is entirely possible to be a jack-of-all-trades, master of many. Those peripheral pursuits that may start only as hobbies can and may well take on a life of their own, which can complement your goals and dreams in more ways than you could ever imagine. So pick up that guitar, paint that picture, learn that language or read that book. You almost certainly will not regret it.