[Update 2 June 21, 2014 – I’ve come across data that refutes the validity of the MBTI system, so the reference to INFJ in this post isn’t as relevant anymore]
This post is essentially a written transcript of my Nerd Nite Presentation (delivered on April 17, 2014). The presentation was titled “I want to do EVERYTHING! (Life as a Polymath)”.
So, we start with a photo of Albert Einstein, and a quote of his:
I have no special talents,
I am only passionately curious
This quote has pretty much come to define my life, and I only discovered it last year.
So let’s start with a question. It’s a pretty common icebreaker when meeting new people. So, what do you do?
Well, this question kind of has two answers. What do you do to pay your bills, and what do you do for fun? For some people, these are the same thing, but not for everyone. And not for me, at least not yet. Presently, I pay my bills being an accountant.
But if you ask me what I do for fun that I’d like to get paid for, well then my answer is “a lot of things!”.
I’ve bounced around a lot of jobs in my life, I’ve done almost everything – call centers, factory work, restaurants, retail, temp work… I never found something that didn’t bore me eventually (or immediately).
Growing up I wanted to be a lot of typical things – an astronaut, a fire fighter, a police officer, an athlete (hockey player specifically). When I got into high school, my creativity started to blossom, and I got into some more nerdy things – web and graphic design (I made fansites for local bands), computer programming and video games, and music and audio production.
So, it seemed to make sense, I was really into design and technical stuff, so I should go to college to study design and become a designer. And so I went to school and studied design, but design school wasn’t quite what I expected, and I ended up really not enjoying it as much as I thought I would. Basically, I felt I lost a lot of creative freedom and that didn’t work for me. So I had to switch and chose to go into accounting, which was more practical and gave me back my creative freedom outside of work.
But since graduating and being out in the working world, my interests have continued to expand and evolve. For example, right now I’m interested in Engineering and Natural Sciences, Psychology and Neurology, Board Games and their design/mechanics, Writing and Journalism, Health and Fitness, and Public Speaking. There’s more, but that’s a sample.
There’s a guy who is on the same page as me. His name is Sean Aiken, star of the documentary “One Week Job”. He graduated college and still didn’t know what he wanted to do, so he got creative and went out and worked 52 different jobs in one year (a different job each week), to try and find his passion.
He is part of a movement that I only recently tapped into myself, but it’s exciting and I believe there’s a lot of potential out there to be tapped by everyone.
So, I have the same issue that a lot of nerds and geeks have, and that is that I’m pretty much either obsessed with a thing, or I don’t really care about it. But in my case, I keep getting obsessed with different things. Some things stick in my brain but a lot of things are just passing through.
But on the more existential level, I have the INFJ dilemma – “I am burdened with glorious purpose, but I have no idea what I’m supposed to do!”. For those that don’t know, INFJ comes from the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Test, based on the Psychology of Carl Jung. I won’t get into a lot of detail here, but I do think personality types are interesting and useful ins some ways (so long as you don’t put yourself into a box). I recommend taking the tests to get a bit better of an idea of what makes you tick and how to get the most out of yourself. But basically, I break down as Introverted (though more ambiverted now), intuitive, feeling and judging (not judgemental, that’s different!). I recharge when alone, I think more abstractly and intuitively, my feeling influence my decisions a little bit more than my thinking, and I prefer order and predictability (ie knowing what to expect) over a more free-flowing, options open approach (though I can deal with that too).
[I recently wrote a post about the struggles that many INFJs seem to have in choosing a career – “The Never-Ending Career/Major Dilemma” aka INFJ problems, aka Scanner problems“]
So, here are some questions to see if we’re on the same page:
- Have lots of seemingly unrelated interests?
- Have creative ideas all the time? (for a book, TV show, art project, website, business, cause, brand, etc)
- Have difficulty trying to choose between all your ideas, interests and projects?
- Start lots of projects but don’t always finish them before you get into something else?
- Love to learn about new subjects and ideas and then quickly move on to something else?
- Cringe at the thought of concentrating on just one job, project or hobby for the rest of your life?
If so, you may be a scanner. Or, if you prefer the more classical term, a “polymath”. Scanners are people who have a lot of different interests, love learning, and have a hard time picking projects to work on. There are many names for it, including:
Multipotentialite (or multipod)
If you want a visual metaphor, think of the game Hungry Hungry Hippos. That is my brain. And in case you are thinking, no, “Scanner” is not a fancy term for ADD. It’s different.
So, let’s talk about Polymaths for a second.
- A polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, “having learned much”) is a person whose expertise spans a wide range of different subject areas, and they use this wide variety of knowledge to solve specific problems.
- Some examples include: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, Benjamin Franklin and Noam Chomsky. (don’t let these big names scare you, let them inspire you and give you something to strive for!)
- Our modern age reveres the specialist, but humans are natural polymaths.
Historically, polymathism was much more common:
- “[Before the scientific revolution] The weaving together of different disciplines was actually rather unexceptional. The Ancients discussed topics such as ethics, biology and metaphysics alongside each other”
- “[As scientific knowledge grew] We made sense of our world by dividing information into manageable portions and distinct areas of proficiency”
- “But as people began to specialize, knowledge became fragmented. We chose to know more and more about less and less”
And then there’s another term/concept – the autodidact aka “self-directed learner”. Autodidacts don’t need to go take a class or read a textbook, they will find a way to learn what they want to learn, one way or another. And of course, a person can become an autodidact at any point in their lives.
So, if you identify with these things, you might be thinking “so, now what?”. Well, I only discovered I was a scanner last year, but in just 10 months it has really sparked and inspired me, given me more focus and motivation. It doesn’t get rid of the doubters, it doesn’t mean you’re suddenly going to have an easy time choosing what you want to do, but there is a whole community and world of resources out there to help you at least.
I was going to talk about learning styles, because I was like many who thought “if you know your learning style, you can learn much more effectively!”. But then I researched it, and science suggests that learning styles don’t really factor in like you would think. We all have a preferred method of experiencing things and taking in new information, but if we rely solely on this preferred method, we don’t actually learn any better than if we combine multiple approaches. “There is no credible evidence that learning styles exist”, says one article. This is because our learning is in part, content dependent. Some content can’t be easily absorbed in one particular way (for example, trying to verbally explain a map, you can get a rough sense, but it doesn’t compare to actually looking at it yourself)
So, the best approach to learning is multiple approaches.
Dr. Temple Grandin has a great TED Talk (loosely, and among other things) about this, titled “The world needs all kinds of minds”:
Dr. Grandin is famous for a few things, one of them being that she is Autistic. She has written about Autism, and I have read one of her latest books, “The Autistic Brain”, which is really fascinating, and I highly recommend it. It talks about both Autism and Neurotypical thinking, and also talks about different thinking styles. The book covers a range of subjects including psychology, neurology, genetics and sociology.
So, science says learn in multiple ways, and I have a short case study to share. A couple of years ago, I decided to tackle one of the items on my bucket list. I wanted to learn a second language. But being a scanner, I wasn’t content to just pick one and start learning it, so I started learning all the languages I was interested in. All 12 of them. But before long, it was obvious this wasn’t working. So I had to pick one, and I happened to be enjoying Spanish the most, so I dug into that one. I found a slew of free or semi-free resources, covering pretty much every learning type you could want, and in just a few months I was able to make rapid progress. Unfortunately, I haven’t kept up with it (it is a big time investment), but I know that if and when I want to go back and learn again, the resources are there and I can get back up to speed very quickly.
So, to quickly review, my goals for this presentation were to raise awareness of the concepts of being a polymath and an autodidact, because I don’t think a lot of people know of them, and once you do, I think it just opens up your awareness and potential, which is a positive thing. I wanted to promote the idea that specialization isn’t your only option. And I wanted to share some tips and resources I have found that have helped me and could help you.
So, if you ask me what I actually do, besides my day job? Well, I am involved in several projects right now that keep my scanner brain busy and satisfied:
- I produce a podcast called “Noise in my Head” where I interview people about what they do and share what I learn with the world through the internet.
- I run a curation website called Curiosity Crossroads, where I curate interesting or useful information and resources that I find. I have an entire page on the site dedicated to resources.
- I help to host and moderate a monthly discussion group for The Center for Inquiry, called Cafe Skeptique.
- I write articles on Medium.com and other sites.
- I write music, which is available under creative commons on BandCamp and SoundCloud.
- I am a hobbyist photographer and have material up on Flickr.
- I have a YouTube page, which doesn’t have a lot on it yet, but I hope to add more eventually.
At the end of the day though, I think my ultimate goal is just to promote learning and curiosity, both of which have really enriched my life, and I want to see others prosper similarly. “Some men just want to watch the world learn”, as the saying goes.
-Aeon Magazine “Anyone Can Learn To Be A Polymath”
-Wired “Let’s Bring the Polymath – and the Dabblers – Back”
-More Intelligent Life “The Last Days of the Polymath”
-Science 2.0 “Science is Re-Discovering the Polymath”
-Tim Ferriss’ Blog “Top 5 Reasons to be a Jack of all Trades”
–“Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” – from the Journal “Psychological Science”
-Change Magazine “The Myth of Learning”
-Anne Murphy Paul “Forget Learning Styles, Here’s Something Better”
-SlideShare (Dr. Jolly Holden) “The Learning Styles Revelation”