Monthly Archives

May 2018

Douglas Hofstadter A living polymath

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Son of a Nobel prize winner and member of a family in which every generation surpass the previous one, Douglas Hofstadter shows talent in a vast amount of areas as the polymath geniuses from the past like Leonardo Da Vinci.

His knowledge includes but is not limited to: mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, formal logic, computer programming, artificial intelligence, music and graphic arts.

Excellence, Exploration, and Evolution | Story Musgrave | TEDxWakeForestU

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Excellence, Exploration, and Evolution: A Personal and Professional Life Driven by Imagination and Curiosity is a talk by Story Musgrave that you do not want to miss. As Musgrave explains, it takes the deepest form of curiosity to go where no man has gone ever before.

Story Musgrave was a NASA astronaut for over 30 years and flew on six spaceflights. He performed the first shuttle spacewalk on Challenger’s first flight, was a pilot on an astronomy mission, conducted two classified DOD missions, was the lead spacewalker on the Hubble Telescope repair mission and on his last flight, he operated an electronic chip manufacturing satellite on Columbia. Before becoming an astronaut, he worked as an electrician, a mathematician, a computer programmer, a mechanic, a pilot, and a surgeon. Musgrave served in Korea with the U.S. Marines where he was an aircraft electrician and engine mechanic. He started flying with the Marines and over the next 55 years accumulated 18,000 hours in over 160 aircraft. He is a parachutist with over 800 freefalls. Additionally, he has 7 graduate degrees in math, computers, chemistry, medicine, physiology, literature and psychology, and he has been awarded 20 honorary doctorates.

How to stay calm when you know you’ll be stressed – Ted

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You’re not at your best when you’re stressed. In fact, your brain has evolved over millennia to release cortisol in stressful situations, inhibiting rational, logical thinking but potentially helping you survive, say, being attacked by a lion. Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin thinks there’s a way to avoid making critical mistakes in stressful situations, when your thinking becomes clouded — the pre-mortem. “We all are going to fail now and then,” he says. “The idea is to think ahead to what those failures might be.”

The Expert Generalist: Why the Future Belongs to Polymaths – Medium

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Zat Rana| 01.03

Some of history’s greatest contributions have come from polymaths.

Aristotle practically invented half a dozen fields of study across philosophy. Galileo was as much a physicist as he was an engineer when he helped kick-start the scientific revolution. Da Vinci might have been even more famous as an inventor than an artist if his notebooks were ever published.

Even in the last 100 years, we have had people like John Von Neumann and Herbert Simon who have made breakthrough advances across fields as diverse as computer science, economics, and psychology.

That is, of course, not to detract from the specialists who have pushed our progress forward. In fact, until now, these specialists have far outnumbered the polymaths in both their historical ranks and their contributions.

After all, it takes a lot of time to master the depths of a specific field so that you can eventually add something that pushes it ahead. From this point of view, it makes sense that polymaths have been as scarce as they have been.

Still, it’s clear that whenever we have had giants like Aristotle, Galileo, and da Vinci, the contributions they made even in specialized fields may not have been made in the same way if they hadn’t attacked a problem with a diverse inventory of mental knowledge and understanding.

Polymaths see the world differently. They make connections that are otherwise ignored, and they have the advantage of a unique perspective.

In a world increasingly dominated by machines, I have a feeling that this approach in going to become increasingly valuable.

The Redundancy of Reality

One of the reasons Aristotle created so many sub-fields of philosophy and early forms of science is because these fields were so young back then.

They were branches of the same underlying tree trunk, and Aristotle had a deep enough understanding of what was contained in that trunk to then divide it into different parts and make his early contributions.

Even so, however, the questions he asked and the answers he provided are still up for debate, and he is still a highly influential figure in philosophy. He didn’t just collect all of the low-hanging fruit, but he went the full length in developing the path that lay ahead.

The lesson here extends beyond philosophy. Reality is categorized in our mind by words. That’s how specialization is born. We move from a general observation through our senses and then we divide this observation into specializations like philosophy, psychology, economics, and art.

The tree trunk is reality, and the branches are the different disciplines, which then become their own trunks of knowledge with branches.

What polymaths realize by studying the different branches is that many of them have the same foundation, and if this foundation is deeply understood then all they need to do is apply that ingrained knowledge to a different context rather than do the work of surface-level specialization.

For example, as a writer, if I want my work read, I need to know marketing.

I’ve been fortunate and done relatively well for myself in the time I’ve been active, and yet I don’t read marketing books, and nor do I spend all that much time trying to formally learn about it. Why is that?

Well, because I’ve always had a deep fascination with psychology, and to me, marketing is just psychology dressed up in a particular context. Psychology is the trunk, and it’s a trunk I’ve thought about a lot, and as a result, I can already see the patterns that most people think of as marketing tactics.

Reality is redundant, and when you learn widely, that becomes clearer and clearer. The more you explore, the more you can exploit these redundancies.

A Higher Rate of Learning

The big difference between the approaches of a polymath and a specialist is that the specialist picks a spot and then goes deep, whereas the polymath is on a lane that continuously gets wider.

These are obviously not mutually exclusive, and the ideal combination to me is one that relies on a strong understanding of the fundamentals of many disciplines with a specific domain or two in which you specialize.

That said, if we take just a specialist and a polymath separately, beyond just the benefit of the creative connections that are available from having studied broadly, the polymath also has a learning advantage.

Learning itself is a skill, and when you exercise that skill across domains, you get specialized as a learner in a way that someone who goes deep doesn’t.

You learn how to learn by continuously challenging yourself to grasp concepts of a broad variety. This ironically then allows you to specialize in something else faster if you so choose. This is an incredibly valuable advantage.

It explains how some of history’s polymaths were able to contribute in such a specialized way even though they were primarily focused on going broad.

Now, in a world where Artificial Narrow Intelligence systems are going to displace most routine, specialized work, it isn’t too much of stretch to assume that this skill of learning to learn across disciplines may just be the difference between those who reinvent themselves and those who don’t.

In fact, chances are that our current distinctions between disciplines will start to fade away and new ones will arise. Many of them will likely reside between areas that aren’t currently covered by specialization.

Traditionally, the idea of having a single career over the course of a life wasn’t unreasonable. The future, however, looks different. People will likely have multiple careers that differ significantly. Even if they don’t, we will see more and more project-based work, which will require similar skills.

In such a world, the learning ability of a polymath may just be the difference.

The Takeaway

At any point in history, most of our knowledge is contained outside of individual minds. It’s contained in the cultures that spring up around us.

A big part of today’s culture is the internet. It’s not only democratized knowledge, but it’s made it so accessible that those who are curious enough can’t help but embrace the approach of a polymath. As such, we’re going to see more and more people playing at the intersection of different disciplines.

While specialization will still have its place, the boundaries between the many aspects of reality are going to continue to be blurred, and those who can comfortably embrace such blurring will thrive.

Although this may appear to many as unfamiliar, the truth is that it’s actually a far more accurate representation of what is going on. We’ve just been conditioned to think otherwise.

As Leonardo da Vinci would remind himself,

“Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses — especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”

What makes the world interesting is the interaction between objects and not the objects in and of themselves. If we’re always restricting these interactions by creating boundaries, we’re also taking away from our comprehension.

Nothing exists independently of its surroundings and that fact doesn’t change just because we decide to be blind to it with narrowed disciplines.

In an evolving world, those who can see that will have the edge.

Is it really that bad to be a jack of all trades, rather than a master of one? – Vice

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Georgie Wright | 15.12.2015

With designers becoming the creative directors, business minds and faces of their brands, musicians making, producing and designing the cover art of their own albums, and Instagram stars becoming writers, vloggers and art directors, should we still…

“So what exactly do you want to do?” As a recent arts graduate and young “creative”/freelancer/human being, it feels like I’m asked this question daily. It’s loaded with the assumption that there’s one job, dream, a burning passion that gets you up in the morning and through bleak winters and away from weeklong wine and Netflix marathons. And I can never answer. Because I don’t have just one passion.

The truth is, I like lots of things. This may sound bleak, given the predominant theme across TED talks and public opinion is to chase that one dream, whatever it takes. But I want to explore, try, screw up and succeed at all of them. Well ok, I don’t want to screw them all up.

Every time I’m forced to reflect on my future career path (or lack thereof) one annoyingly catchy tagline always nags me: “jack of all trades, master of none.” Conventional wisdom holds that spreading yourself across a range of pursuits will result in only a superficial insight into each.

But in today’s world, where Kanye’s self-proclaimed creative genius manifests in music making and clothing designing and yeezy-inventing, Lena Dunham’s CV reads actress/writer/director/dance queen, and Michelle Obama can marry the importance of college education with rap as First Lady, does the “master of none” assumption still stack up?

With the advent of the Internet and the countless “self-made” successes it’s generated, there have never been more polymathic role models for young people to look towards. The internet provides a platform for anyone and everyone to create the career they haven’t had yet. Not only do you have the tools to learn anything at your fingertips, you have a full range of platforms to publish your work. And the multimedia nature of online content encourages crossover between industries – bloggers write books and vloggers have businesses. Even if you stick to one social media channel, you still need a diverse toolbox. YouTubers write, present, film and edit all their own work. Instagrammers in turn become art directors, stylists and photographers. And of course, in the oversaturated world of the internet, you better have a self-promotional strategy that exceeds the basics of marketing 101.

Yet cultivating a broad spectrum of interests and expertise is hardly a new phenomenon. Rewind a few hundred years and the Renaissance man reigned supreme. A notable example is Leonardo da Vinci, whose cumulative breakthroughs in the fields of both science and art puts the “master of none” label to shame. Universities (stemming from the Latin universitas, meaning whole) were originally established to give students a broad education across the arts, philosophy, science, mathematics – instead of the specialised pathways they’ve now come to champion. More recently, 20th century bohemians exhibited a similarly intrinsic intermingling of life and work – albeit with a predominantly artistic inclination. And their modern manifestation, “hipsters” (just swap out bohemian for hipster in this song and you’ll get the idea) conjure up images of beard-trimmed beanies pushing out everything from websites to apps to podcasts to zines from their local artisan office.

Despite the mockery that some of these groups often attract (and sometimes deserve), behind them is an underlying premise that not only is it ok to cultivate a multiplicity of interests and talents, but it is a well established – arguably even more effective – route to higher levels of creativity.

Prolific (and somewhat prodigious) polymath Tavi Gevinson has fired a well-aimed arrow at cynics of the scattergun approach. In an interview with Vogue, she cites an essay by Wayne Koestenbaum to justify her numerous bowstrings. “Your domain doesn’t have to be writing or acting or editing or curating… For me, my domain is me – and I just find the best medium for expressing that”. She talks about finding an alternative in any one subject and to refine it to a level of expertise that slots easily into a larger production workflow. She offers the scenario where you work on your point of view and voice, figure out what you’re about, what perspective you want to convey, and then find the medium that fits that message.

Grimes’ recent album Art Angels reflects a similarly holistic approach. She wrote, performed, produced, played and engineered most of the tracks. She also had a strong hand in the album’s visual side – creating the cover art, illustrating it, and then writing/directing/editing/colouring/art directing its first video. The result is a cohesive, unified body of work that captures her vision completely. Surely this is better than a perfectly honed mouthpiece spitting out whatever their overbearing puppeteer demands?

Of course, some occupations demand highly specialised knowledge. If you’re slicing open my stomach and pulling my intestines out onto a table to check for abnormalities, I’d like you to have twice your lifetime’s worth of study. And even within the creative industries, some areas demand years of training and practice – I’m pretty sure you can’t wing the stitching of miniscule clear beads into 3D lattice shapes on a pristine white bolero – ready for the unforgiving eye of fashion critics and a few hundred thousand Instagrams.

There’s also the fact that some people do have the one thing they love and want to do forever and ever until happily ever after the end! And to those of you I say – you are really very lucky- though being a master in the field doesn’t come without its own dangers, especially for creatives. 2015 has seen a disproportionate number of talents step off the thrones they’ve worked so hard to get to. Alexander Wang, Alber Elbaz, and Raf Simons have parted ways with Balenciaga, Lanvin and Dior respectively. And when explaining his departure, Simons revealingly stated that “it is a decision based entirely and equally on my desire to focus on other interests in my life, including my own brand, and the passions that drive me outside of my work”. It seems, even with the masters, blinkered single mindedness can be ungratifying or unsustainable.

Now, it’s no surprise that professional accomplishment takes some sacrifice. But since when did success supersede sanity as a life goal? At the risk of sounding naively idealistic, isn’t the point not to just master life, but enjoy it? Which brings me back to my jack-of-all-trades justification. It may take longer to get ‘there’ (wherever there is) than if you narrow your options. But who’s to say choosing one thing means you’ll master it anyway? Or that mastering it ultimately brings fulfillment? My CV may read like a junk drawer filled with gems and rusty nails alike. But it’s interesting and fun and surprising and stimulating. So if we’re dwelling on well-worn clichés, let’s not forget that “variety is the spice of life”.

Let’s Bring The Polymath — and the Dabblers — Back – Wired

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Samuel Arbesman | 12.13.2013

I noticed recently that books with the phrase “The Last Man Who Knew Everything” all share in common that their subjects lived during the period close to the Scientific Revolution, roughly between 1550 to 1700. (The examples I own are about Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit priest born in 1602; Thomas Young, who studied topics such as optics and philology and was born in 1773; and Philadelphia area professor Joseph Leidy, who was born in 1823.)

It’s as if the Scientific Revolution – and the knowledge it spawned – killed the ability to Know Everything. Before then, it was not only possible to be a generalist or polymath (someone with a wide range of expertise) – but the weaving together of different disciplines was actually rather unexceptional. The Ancients discussed topics such as ethics, biology, and metaphysics alongside each other. The Babylonian Talmud discusses everything from astronomy and biology to morality and law, weaving them together into a single compendium.

So what changed? Scientific knowledge exploded in size, mainly due to the application of the scientific method to our surroundings. As that knowledge base and its domain experts grew exponentially, we began classifying and ordering all that we understood – from the classification taxonomy of Carl Linnaeus to manuals for categorizing mental disease. 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. We may have expanded what we as a society know – but it was at the price of no single individual being able to truly know it all.

Now, we obviously require specialized experts (as opposed to dilettantes) to solve specific problems; think about the field of medicine, for example. Yet the most exciting inventions occur at the boundaries of disciplines, among those who can bring different ideas from different fields together. As Robert Twigger noted, “Invention fights specialisation at every turn.”

In fact, some of the most exciting advancements in computing right now come from the field of deep learning – which itself draws from multiple fields: neuroscience, cognitive psychology, machine learning, natural language/ linguistics, computer vision, mathematics – to make the next step of AI possible. Companies such as Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft are all involved.

But frankly, this kind of interdisciplinary approach isn’t happening more broadly in corporations, let alone in academia. There are institutional barriers (nearly all training, and data, lives in silos) as well as cognitive and biological ones. Even though the information storage capacity in our brains is vast (multiple petabytes), we eventually bump up against what we can truly understand (what some call The End of Insight) – or we just can’t hold all the relevant knowledge in our heads.

Still, we needn’t despair. There are ways to foster a culture of interdisciplinarity in a fragmented world.

We Need to Focus on the Tools, Not the Fields

Several years ago, a team of scientists examined hundreds of millions of clicks on scientific papers in order to discern the “clickstream” – the path readers take from one page to the next.

This data revealed patterns of how people moved from one subject area to the next. For example, nursing connects medicine to the fields of psychology and education. Organic chemistry bridges physical chemistry and analytic chemistry; economics is tightly intertwined with sociology and law; and the field of music stands quite distinct.

Of course, these are oversimplifications. Music incorporates concepts from physics and psychology while economics draws heavily from mathematics. But it’s one way to explore the interconnected nature of ideas, and it reminds us that we need to identify the tools necessary to bridge different domains and place them into a connected framework.

Let’s take a simple analogy. What do the following things have in common: doing Sudoku, constructing crossword puzzles, conducting logistics for large companies, playing Super Mario Brothers?

Well, in content terms, not much. They appear to be a collection of tasks that are easy to understand but not master. And it turns out that they’re all hard in a specific way: They’re what are known in theoretical computer science as NP-complete problems. Knowing this means each of these problems can be converted into a version of the other – I can construct a Sudoku puzzle that, if solved, could potentially shed light on how Walmart should route its delivery trucks.

Specialization Polymaths And The Pareto Principle In A Convergence Economy – Tech Crunch

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Jake Chapman | 17.11.2015

Economists tell us that the history of human labor is one of continually increasing specialization. In the days of the hunter-gatherer, every member of the tribe would have been expected to command some degree of proficiency with each task.

As we progressed along the economic continuum from hunter-gatherer through agrarian and industrial and now into post-industrial economies, the labor force has become more fragmented, with workers having more and more specialized skill sets.

Historically, specialization has been a path to prosperity. Although specialization has certain economic advantages, in the era of technological convergence, well-educated generalists will be those who are the most valuable. It is time for a renaissance of the “Renaissance Man.”

The idea of the “Renaissance Man” or polymath came about during the Renaissance period, and is the idea that anyone who applies themselves can be exceptional at poetry, art, science, mathematics, athletics and any other field that catches their attention.

The Renaissance thinkers recognized both the potential of individuals as well as the enormous value to being well-rounded. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way the idea of someone who dabbled in many fields lost its cultural appeal and we began to praise those who sought deep subject matter expertise.

We now live in a world where distinctions between formerly separate industries are breaking down and the real opportunities for growth are where those industries intersect. Harnessing these 21st-century opportunities will require people who are “jacks of all trades, masters of none,” or, perhaps more accurately, master polymaths.

Being a polymath is not only an advantage in the modern economy, but it is extremely efficient. Many people are familiar with the Pareto Principle, or as it is more commonly known, the 80/20 rule. The 80/20 rule is a specific expression of the power law and says, in many instances, 80 percent of the outputs are the result of 20 percent of the inputs.

Researchers have found the Pareto Principle at work in many economic and natural realities, including wealth distributions, employee productivity, revenue from customers, app engagement and even in agricultural yields. The 80/20 rule is also divisible, meaning that where the 80/20 rule applies, it is also true that 20 percent of 20 percent of the inputs (4 percent) generate 80 percent of 80 percent of the outputs (64 percent), and so on.

While the 80/20 dynamic is powerful enough, it only gets more lopsided as it progresses. Consider, for instance, that with only three steps you arrive at 0.16 percent of inputs being responsible for an astonishing 41 percent of output. Figure 1 demonstrates how quickly the Pareto Principle results in astonishing force multiplication.

Input Output Ratio
20 80 4X
4 64 16X
0.8 51 64X
.16 41 256X
.03 33 1024X
.006 26 4096X

Figure 1

The implications of the 80/20 rule are powerful. For instance, many organizations could focus on satisfying the needs of only 20 percent of their customers and still maintain 80 percent of their revenue. Imagine what those businesses could then do with all the resources they’ve saved. As humans we are predisposed to linear thinking, which makes the implications of a power law distribution hard to internalize.

Figure 2 contrasts the relationship between effort and results in an 80/20 world with an imaginary world where every unit of input yielded the same marginal output. The area under the curve essentially represents the opportunity presented by applying the Pareto Principle. The simple takeaway: Stop beating your head against the wall on the far right side of the figure.

Figure 2
The 80/20 Rule In Learning

Where I think the Pareto Principle is at its most interesting is when thinking about our own growth potential as human beings. Imagine if you had 100 units of learning (like experience points in a role-playing game) to assign to various skills throughout your life. How should you spend those points? Do you spend all of them in one subject and try hard to become a true subject-matter expert? Or do you diversify your skill set, trying to make yourself into a well-rounded person?

These questions are some of the most fundamental questions we face as humans. Who do we want to be and what do we want to do with our lives? The Pareto Principle says that you will overwhelmingly get more bang for your buck if you spread those points around (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

Let’s assume that achieving mastery of a subject takes 20 years of dedicated training, and work backward from there applying the 80/20 rule (see Figure 4). In applying the 80/20 rule to developing ourselves, we see that 80 percent mastery might be achieved in 20 percent of the time.

Intuitively this feels right. If someone were to spend .16 percent of 20 years (12 days) in focused study on a subject, they should be able to achieve cocktail-party mastery of that subject. Similarly, someone who spends .80 percent of 20 years, or about two months, in focused study on a subject should still be deemed a novice, but could be ready to begin a career in the field. A great example of this is the ability for laymen to enter coding boot camps and graduate months later prepared to enter the job market as software developers.
Category Input Output Time to Mastery of a Subject Equivalent
Master

100 percent

99 percent 20 years Expert in a field, unique insights.
Journeyman 20 percent 80 percent 48 months Journeyman in a field with some unique insight.
Apprentice 4 percent 64 percent 10 months Mastery of basic concepts in a field.
Beginner 0.80 percent 51 percent 2 months Working understanding of broad concepts and field underpinnings.
Layman 0.16 percent 41 percent 12 days Cocktail-party conversational in a field. Can ask smart questions.

Figure 4

While the numbers in Figure 3 align fairly closely to my own observations, I don’t want to imply that these numbers are in any way a precise representation of the world. While the Pareto Principle is most often 80/20, there are plenty of 70/30 or 90/10 examples, as well. The point is, since learning follows a Pareto distribution, no matter which numbers you plug in, there is value to diversifying your skill set.

Why We Need More Polymaths In Tech

The most exciting things happening in technology are happening where fields converge. The barriers between medical, nanotech, synthetic biology, automotive, agriculture, food and other startups are quickly deteriorating. Startups used to clearly fall into one vertical, but increasingly that is not the case. Synthetic biology companies like Synbiota are actually software companies, and food companies like Hampton Creek are actually synthetic biology companies.

To build the cross-disciplinary companies of the future, we need a pool of cross-disciplinary expert polymaths from which to draw. Self-driving cars don’t just need automotive engineers, they need people who understand software, traffic engineering, the psychology of drivers and regulatory processes.

There are two ways to assemble teams for building cross-disciplinary companies. You can either hire a few polymaths, or you can hire a large team of crack subject-matter experts. Unfortunately, the latter strategy has two huge limitations.

First, the strategy of assembling a group of disparate subject-matter experts to build a cross-disciplinary company invites organizational morass. Without sufficient polymaths to function as the glue between these experts it is very hard for these kinds of teams to pull in the same direction.

Second, and more importantly, the cost in time and money to assemble a large team of diverse subject-matter experts is exponentially higher than hiring a team of polymaths. These high costs will make it much more difficult for entrepreneurs to be the driver of the cross-disciplinary companies of the future. As cross-disciplinary companies make up a larger and larger portion of innovation, innovation will become the sole province of corporate R&D departments (see self-driving cars).

If we want entrepreneurs — and not corporate R&D — to continue to be the largest driver of the U.S. economy, we need a renaissance of the “Renaissance (Wo)Man.”

Applying The Pareto Principle To Your Life

There are four very practical implications of the Pareto Principle for how we live our lives.

Diversify your learning. If you give up on the idea of mastering any single topic (20 years) in the short to medium term, you could instead reach Journeyman level in 3 subjects (12 years), Apprentice level in 6 subjects (5 years) and beginner level in 18 subjects (3 years). To reiterate, beginner level is still equivalent to 2 months of concerted study.

In the modern world, where a very common job might require someone to be a social-media expert, public speaker, writer and data analyst, the polymath wins and the deep subject-matter expert is relegated to a back corner to be used as a resource for others. As an investor, if I were going to pick the perfect team, it would be a group of rock-star polymaths with a single subject matter expert as a resource.

It’s never too late. One particularly empowering implication of the Pareto Principle is that it is never too late to get a new start in life. Someone who has spent 30 years meandering through the world can dedicate themselves to new areas of study and within a relatively short span of time can reach levels of proficiency not terribly far off from others who have dedicated their life to the same subject.

As an example, someone could pick up cybersecurity as a specialty, spend 4 years on the subject (roughly hitting the magic 10,000 hours) and have 80 percent the proficiency of a lifelong expert. This is even truer in technology fields; because they evolve so quickly, old leanings are rendered obsolete.

Level the playing field. For people who learn more slowly than others, they can apply the Pareto Principle to level the playing field. While others spin their wheels trying to gain the last bits of insight in a single field, learners who play the game can quickly accumulate a broad set of skills and insights to help them succeed in life. Once you get past a certain baseline IQ, there is very little correlation between IQ and success.

Learn with intention. Finally, it is important to learn with intention. Many people stumble from place to place in life, simply letting their careers develop organically. This is a terrible “strategy,” as our culture is predisposed toward increasing specialization over time. If you don’t take the reigns of your own destiny, you will increasingly be pigeonholed in your career and in your life.

People plan out their weekends, they plan out their lunches, they plan out their children’s sports schedules — but rarely do they plan out their own lives. Take a few hours; write down where you are today and where you want to be in 5 or 10 years, then map out how to make it happen. I bet it will involve learning quite a few new skills.

If you’ve ever wondered why professors are often unable to connect the dots between their own fields and the real world, or are often socially inept, it is because they have sacrificed a great deal of their potential understanding of the world so that they can gain a relatively minor (but significant) deeper understanding of their one or two chosen topics.

By contrast, the one characteristic that commonly unites the movers and shakers of the world is an insatiable need to consume content on wildly varying topics. Those who consciously or unconsciously apply the 80/20 rule to their own development emerge as business, political and social leaders. These are the people whose vision is seemingly prescient, and who can bring together disparate groups behind a common cause. These are the people who will build the American economy for the foreseeable future.

A new discovery for science and art: the cultural divide is all in the mind – The Gaurdian

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Vanessa Thorpe | 24.11.2012

Lucy Prebble’s latest play and a Barbican season on science and art show the barrier between the ‘two cultures’ is crumbling

This autumn a group of neuroscientists, medical students, doctors and psychiatrists got together at the University of Warwick to work out what we now know about the way the brain works. But they were not hunched over a pile of Cat scans, academic theses and medical notes. Instead they were looking at the theatrical work of Samuel Beckett. The great Irish playwright, some argued, understood and demonstrated patterns of human thought and emotion at a level of sophistication scientists have yet to reach.

With the success this month of The Effect, Lucy Prebble’s play about the effect of chemicals on the brain, and the announcement of a new season of performance and debate about art and neuroscience at the Barbican in 2013, it looks as if the long struggle to break down barriers between science and creativity has entered a new phase. Not only is it conceded that scientific discoveries are fertile artistic territory, but scientists are being increasingly open about the value of the arts when fresh perspectives are required.

“Our common sense is often our worst enemy,” said Marcus du Sautoy, the Oxford maths professor who will be appearing in the Barbican season. “After all, the discovery of anti-matter was only made because of the imagination of those scientists who said maybe there is something there when they kept coming up with all these strange negative solutions to their calculations.”

Audiences at The Effect, the National Theatre production starring Billie Piper and Jonjo O’Neill as participants in a trial for a new drug, are being treated to a nightly debate about the nature of love and how we can be sure of what we are feeling. Prebble, the playwright who made her name with Enron, takes as her starting point the medical testing of an antidepressant and launches into a wider discussion about the nature of perception and the value of sadness and depression as life experiences. As the human guinea pigs take bigger doses they start to fall in love, but they also have to question whether their emotions are merely a byproduct of dopamine.

Medical discoveries, even mistaken ones, have inspired poets and playwrights since the beginning of the written word, from the influential notion that four “humours” (choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic) determined character, to the more metaphorical use made of medicine by poets such as John Donne. So while Shakespeare had his “canker in the bud”, voguish words such as palsy, purge, apoplexy, ague and balm were used by Donne repeatedly to make his work sound cutting-edge.

With the arrival of the theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung two centuries later came a whole new territory for writers, painters and poets to play in: the scientific analysis of the mind. Artist Salvador Dalí was endlessly excited by Freud’s work on dreams, while film-makers such as Alfred Hitchcock, who made the thrillers Spellbound and Marnie in response to Freud, were directly influenced by the clinical doctrines of psychiatry and psychology. Others, such as Beckett and Harold Pinter, took a more surreal approach to distilling the neurotic preoccupations of the characters they put on stage.

The work of the neurologist Oliver Sacks, in his 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, prompted Michael Nyman to compose a chamber opera and inspired Peter Brook to adapt it for the stage in France in 1993.

And the relationship between psychiatry and the theatre has remained fruitful. In 1996 Stephen Poliakoff’s play Sweet Panic premiered in London. Revived more recently in the West End, it tells of a children’s psychiatrist whose life unravels as she examines three children who are suffering variations of contemporary neuroses. Bryony Lavery’s award-winning 1998 play Frozen looks at a doctor’s attempt to unravel the motivations of a child killer.

More recently still, greater understanding of conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome and autism have fed into literature and drama. This month the producers of the stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time announced it will transfer from the National Theatre to the West End after a sell-out run. It tells of a 15-year-old maths genius with Asperger’s and how he sets out to solve the mystery behind the death of a neighbour’s dog.

The Barbican’s new season, Wonder: Art & Science on the Brain, a collaboration with the Wellcome Trust, will put the relationship between the arts and neuroscience literally under the spotlight. Among the main attractions are an audio-visual lecture and “episodic concert” on the theme of consciousness with Du Sautoy, and a talk from the comedian Ruby Wax which gives an insight into her struggles with fame and depression.

Running from March to April 2013, the season will also feature films about neuroscience and mental health and a “theatrical 19th-century Parisian salon debating the big topics of 21st-century thought” for which participants will be kitted out in appropriate historic dress.

Launching the season, Nicholas Kenyon, the Barbican’s managing director, spoke of the enduring “two cultures of art and science” problem. The collaboration with the trust will, he hopes, allow “the riches of creativity and perception” to be seen afresh.

The very nature of the season has already broken down some barriers. The idea came out of a realisation that the decision of the British Neuroscience Association to hold a festival at the Barbican could be made mutually beneficial.

“We really wanted to give the public a sense of what is going on in the building as well as give the scientists a sense they are in an arts centre,” said Sean Gregory, the Barbican’s director of creative learning.

Perhaps one of the most outward-looking elements, Gregory believes, will be this year’s Barbican Box project, put together with the innovative theatre company Complicite due to the long-held interest in neuroscience of Simon McBurney, its artistic director. A battered suitcase, full of clues about a particular scientist and their discoveries, will be delivered to schools in surrounding London boroughs.

Du Sautoy, who has worked with McBurney in the past, said he is delighted to be part of a season aimed at bringing the “two cultures” together. “I have always been of the view that it is a false dichotomy, and one that is pretty much built-in by our education system unfortunately,” he said this weekend. “Scientists and writers and artists are often homing in on the same structures. When Keats wrote ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’ I wonder whether the truth is that we call things beautiful because we recognise something useful in their structures.”

The professor admits there can be pitfalls to blurring the boundaries: for instance, when artists misrepresent science to create drama. But he argues that there is something “deep-rooted” driving both to attempt to understand the world. “Sometimes you find artists coming across structures that scientists are also finding. The composer Olivier Messiaen worked with 12-row tones without knowing science was looking at the same thing.”

Du Sautoy will be performing at the Barbican alongside James Holden, an electronic musician and DJ as well as an Oxford maths graduate. He will be using a specially commissioned soundtrack “to engender a higher state of consciousness in the audience”.

“It is what I have been interested in for the last 10 years,” said Holden, who has worked on the similarities between rhythmic musical traditions from Steve Reich to Tibetan drumming. “It is as likely to work as not that audience members will fall into a trance, but you never know.”

The Wellcome Trust was keen to become involved with the project because it would allow scientists and artists “to engage on an equal footing”, according to Dr Daniel Glaser, the trust’s head of special public engagement projects.

“Science is part of culture, but scientists are sometimes not very good about being reflexive, or reflective for that matter. They are not as good as artists usually are at talking about what they do, so it will be good to see them interacting.”

By the end of the Barbican season we may find that we intuitively knew more about the human brain than we ever thought we did. If not, then at least Beckett’s exhortation to artists to “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” is compatible with the scientists’ empirical creed of trial and error.