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A Preface to The Polymath
By Waqās Ahmed

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A mind that is stretched by new experiences can never go back to its old dimensions
– Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

Waqas Ahmed | The Polymath | Preface
Waqas Ahmed

 

My interest is in the pursuit of the optimal life. That is, in developing a mind and experiencing a life that is the richest it can be. So while this book proposes a new way of thinking, it also sets out a new way of being human, a new way of living – different from that which has been set out for you as ‘normal’ by forces that claim to know better. It calls for an extraction of the soul from the current paradigm, like an astral projection, and a visit to the realms of history and possibility. It must all begin by living the conscious, mindful life, by switching the mind on to think more often and more effectively – about the objects and their connections, the whole and the particular, the philosophical and the practical – so that you can become all you can be: the complete you.

I was not commissioned to write this. It was purely a personal intellectual odyssey until recently when I realised it became too important a thing not to share with the world. As such, work on it was woven between a range of experiences – physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and otherwise – each giving me a unique insight into the topic at hand.

After all, you are what you experience. Each and every thought, emotion and inflow of knowledge will either subtly or fundamentally impact your perspective on any given thing over time. This is not just intuitive speculation, but a neuroscientific fact. Your evolving nature manifests in your connectome – the complex, ever-changing circuitry unique to each brain. As such, I was both proactive and reactive in researching and writing this book. I didn’t ‘immerse’ myself in the subject, except for intermittent periods. Complete immersion would have risked the sort of narrow-minded specialization that this book ultimately seeks to challenge. Conscious of this, I allowed the knowledge from all other facets of my life over a five-year period to fuse, clash and connect with pre-existing material in my mind. Hence I remained open as to my approach, structure, content and conclusion, until the very end.

“Complete immersion would have risked the sort of narrow-minded specialization that this book ultimately seeks to challenge”

I saw the Butterfly Effect in action as each thought, idea or fact fundamentally altered the position and nature (or even existence) of previous ones. I came to understand the dynamic fluidity of ideas and opinions. I did not begin with a thesis and look to post-rationalise, as is the common method. Instead, from start to finish, this book was an exploratory adventure that, at any given point, revealed extraordinary – at times transformational – insights about the mind and the world.

The past five years have thus provided me with much more of ‘an education’ than my entire school-university life. It was during this period, in my late twenties, that I wrote most of this book. I was never unconscious of the immense responsibility that came with it being the first-ever book in the English language on the subject. The insights I include in these pages are thus from a wide range of experiential and intellectual sources; comprising the words of prophets, sages, scientists, historians, philosophers, artists, polymaths and – through scripture – God himself. Having a young, limited mind, I rely heavily on such wisdom – my endeavour was to curate, synthesise and communicate.

As they read through the book, some critics may be eager to identify my method of inquiry with something they’re familiar with so they ‘know where I’m coming from’ – is he a traditional postmodernist, or perhaps a Nietzschean perspectivist? Is he employing the philosophy of Daoist Zhuangzi or the Jainist Anekantavada? Is he from the school of Ibn Khaldun or Al Ghazali? The answer is simultaneously all of the above, and neither. Like postmodernism, my thought is not an easy beast to pin down, but unlike it, it acknowledges the possibility of Truth or Ultimate Reality and recognises the multiple ways of pursuing and experiencing it. In this way, I am not indirectly demeaning other cultures and worldviews by reducing them to mere mental constructs, as most postmodernists, orientalists and materialists do. Indeed if this book does anything of worth, it encourages people to see ideas (and indeed individuals) as hybrid, nuanced, multifaceted constructs in their own right rather than as automatic members of pre-existing categories.

“I was never unconscious of the immense responsibility that came with it being the first-ever book in the English language on the subject.”

For a true exploration of the topic, given its wondrous nuances, I knew it was as important to be a futurist as much as an historian, a mystic as much as a rationalist, a storyteller as much as a scholar, a doer as much as a thinker. I recruited whatever methods and tools I felt were necessary.

The raison d’etre of this book is as much the provocation of thought as it is a call to action. So I urge you, the reader, to immerse yourself in the world that the book seeks to create for you, to reflect seriously on its content, integrate it into your existing knowledge, assess its applicability and relevance to your own life, thereby storing it in the long-term memory, ready for use in future thinking. This is the process of internalisation, without which knowledge fails its most important role: to enrich the mind.

This book has certainly given me a blueprint for what little there may be left of my future. Anyone that knows me can see that I live my life according to the thinking and lifestyle outlined in these pages; my work in various fields have both influenced and been influenced by the process of writing it. But this is no longer about me. Of much greater importance is your readiness to commence your journey to self-actualisation. And if this book contributes even an atom’s weight to that preparation, then all the credit is God’s and only the shortcomings are my own.

I’m well aware that after publishing this book I may often come back to it a different man, with different insights, at various points of my life. If I were to revisit this book having learnt Mandarin, lived with a Samoan clan, studied zoology, learnt to play the lute and competed in a triathlon, I’m sure my insights would be different, if not more evolved. At the point at which I have significantly more to add or amend, I may look at revising this work, or building on its ideas in a separate volume – or perhaps someone better qualified will do me the honour.

The sheer complexity of this subject implies that its investigation must be an ongoing pursuit rather than a mission accomplished. As Leonardo da Vinci said: ‘art is never finished, only abandoned’. In the same vein – while by no means with the same authority, nor for a moment considering this a work of art – I’m letting this go for now.

 

Waqās Ahmed

A Preface to The Polymath (Wiley 2019)

December 2018

The Creative Polymath:
By Edward de Bono

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Dr Edward de Bono – originator of ‘lateral thinking’

 

There is fundamental difference between ‘push’ and ‘pull’. Most people entering a profession or field are pulled along by the intrigue and complexity of that field. They enjoy being pulled further and further into the field and apply their thinking to learning the field and making improvements within the field.

The polymath has a different mindset. His or her mind is in a ‘pushing’ mode. That mind is driven by creativity and curiosity; and this can be applied in any field.

Leonardo da Vinci designed some flying machines which were probably never made and never flew. Today you might say that no one would attempt to do this without extensive knowledge of aeronautics. So, because of our advancing knowledge it is more difficult to be a polymath.

This may not be so. I was once talking to some Boeing aero engineers and they told me that seventy percent of plane crashes were caused by the inability of the pilot to increase the lift of the plane instantly. I thought about this and came up with an idea. This idea came from the provocation ‘Po: planes should land upside down’. If this were so then wings would give downward thrust. From this came the idea of having two extra small wings upside down. This would give a negative bias. If extra wings were needed these wings be rotated, flapped upwards or even jettisoned. The removal of the negative bias should give instant extra lift. I do not know if this idea would work and I am not an aero engineer but it is an interesting approach. So great knowledge in the field may not be needed.

In my medical profession I once had a patient with a rare but dreadful illness. Patients with this condition spent their whole lives flat in bed because if they stood up they collapsed. Everything had been tried including air force G-suits but nothing had worked. Because I had been doing research on kidney function I reckoned the kidneys were to blame. When the patient lay flat more blood returned to the heart which put out more blood. The kidneys reckoned there was too much blood and got rid of the salt and water. So the patient never had enough blood and collapsed. The cure was incredibly simple. When the patient went to bed at night the head of the bed was raised on six inch blocks. This slight incline meant that less blood returned to the heart so the kidneys did not get rid of salt and water. The patient could now live a completely normal life with no medication whatsoever. In this case it was the use of special knowledge which led to the idea.

“The polymath has a different mindset. His or her mind is in a ‘pushing’ mode. That mind is driven by creativity and curiosity; and this can be applied in any field.”

I once designed what may be the simplest game ever invented, the L-Game. It is played on a four by four board. Each player has an L shaped piece and there are two small pieces. The task is to move your L-piece and one of the neutral pieces, if you wish, to block you opponent from being able to move this L-piece. There can be as many as 28,000 possible moves. I once played Imelda Marcos on the presidential plane in the Philippines. She beat me and I was not being polite. This is an example of an idea in a field where I had no special knowledge or expertise.

Lateral Thinking may be the first deliberate creative thinking process in the history of humanity. It is based on the logic of patterning systems. It arose from my background in medicine and psychology. A workshop used just one of the lateral thinking tools one afternoon and generated 21,000 new ideas. It is no longer a matter of sitting and hoping for inspiration or brainstorming; you can formally and deliberately use the tools of lateral thinking.

I was once talking to an ecology group in California. They told me that there was a problem with factories that put out their waste water into the river and people downstream suffered from the pollution. I suggested the provocation ‘Po: the factory should be downstream of itself’. This sounds ridiculous and absurd. But from the provocation came a very simple idea. If you build a factory on a river your input would have to be downstream on your output so you would be the first to get the pollution and have to clean it up. This has now become legislation in more than thirteen countries. This example illustrates that it is possible to have powerful ideas in a field where you are not an expert.

I was once speaking at an economics conference which was focusing on trouble in the Eurozone. Greece was going to need a bailout and so probably would Ireland and Portugal. With a common currency like the euro individual governments did not have many means of influencing the economy. Devaluation was not possible. Changes in interest rates were not possible. I suggested that the problem could be fixed with ‘fics’: these are functional internal currencies’. So there would be the local currency and then a spending currency. The exchange rate between the two would vary weekly depending on whether the government wanted to stimulate spending or the opposite. Then there would be a saving currency and an investment currency. I believe something of the sort will become inevitable. I am not an economist but it is possible to have basic ideas in the field.

I was once talking to some senior figures in the soccer world. It seemed to me that when a game ended in a draw, even after extra time the penalty shoot-out was not a good way to decide the game. The shoot-out did not reflect the game, there was a good deal of luck and having a good penalty shooter could be enough. I suggested that during the game each time the goal-keeper touched the ball the side would get one minus point. If there was still a draw after extra time then the side with the fewest minus points would win. This would reflect the game and also encourage shooting at goal.

Talking to the head of the Illy coffee family in Italy, I suggested that since women enjoyed bitter tastes more than men (which is why women like salads) they ought to make a very bitter coffee to be sold as ‘coffee for women’. They may make this one day.

The Six Thinking Hats method of exploring a subject is much more powerful than argument and takes one tenth of the time. It is also based on an understanding of the brain. It is now widely used in business at all levels and also in education. In New York one of my colleagues Grant Todd tried using it with juries in court. They reached unanimous decisions very quickly. The judges were so impressed that in at least two states the judge can ask that the jury be trained in the Six Hats.

Language is very poor at describing complex situations so I am working on codes which do so much better. Some years ago I wrote a book with codes in it. I am now working on a much simpler book.

I do not claim to be a polymath if that is a claim one can make about oneself. But I have listed a number of ideas in different fields (engineering, economics, sport, business, law and linguistics) to show that if you have a creative mind you can seek to develop ideas in almost any field. Some may be good and others less so. It is the ‘push’ of creativity that produces ideas. It is not a reaction to information.

“By exploring the historical significance and contemporary relevance of the Polymath, Waqas Ahmed’s book encourages this approach and underscores its necessity for our complex 21st century lives.”

In these days of increasing specialisation in every field it may seem strange to draw attention to polymaths. Yet the opposite is the case. The more specialisation there is the greater the need to cut across fields with new ideas. To be imprisoned in one field has its value but it is not sufficient. Moreover the energy and creative ‘push’ of the polymath can encourage people to look outside their chosen field to try new ideas in new fields. By exploring the historical significance and contemporary relevance of the Polymath, Waqas Ahmed’s book encourages this approach and underscores its necessity for our complex 21st century lives. Such thinking is needed today more than ever before, and it is for these reasons that I believe this book to be both important and timely.

The author, himself exceptionally well-read, well-travelled and multitalented, is well placed to tackle this subject in a way that is not only vastly educational, but also refreshingly inspirational.

The Polymath: A Prologue
By Professor Martin Kemp

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Marking 500 Years Since the Death of Leonardo Da Vinci

Martin Kemp Emeritus Professor of the History of Art, Oxford University

 

Leonardo, the uomo universale (universal man), is most people’s idea of a polymath.

Painting, sculpture, architecture, stage design, music, military and civil engineering, mathematics, statics, dynamics, optics, anatomy, geology, botany and zoology – most of them at a level that warrant mention in a history these subjects. Professionals in many of these fields, see Leonardo in themselves, claiming him for their discipline.

It is entirely appropriate that the cover of Waqās Ahmed’s The Polymath should be Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, the outstretched figure inscribed in a square and circle, based on the The Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius. It is Leonardo’s visual hymn to the essential oneness of human beings, the world and the cosmos. It is often used opportunistically in advertising and elsewhere to endow something routine with apparent profundity. Here, however, it is central to Ahmed’s endeavour.

Given how we now classify and compartmentalise intellectual and practical pursuits, we tend to see Leonardo’s diversity. He saw unity. The unity was that of the fundamental organisation of the physical world, which fell under the embrace of “the principles of mathematics, that is to say number and measure – termed arithmetic and geometry, which deal with discontinuous and continuous qualities with the utmost truth”. Behind the myriad diversity of forms in nature lay a set of coherent and consistent laws about how form fitted function in the context of natural law. These universal laws could be extrapolated from behaviours of light, the motion of solids and fluids, the mechanics of the human body and from every phenomenon that involved action, either as a process or as a result. As an example, he saw the vortex motion of water as expressive of the same rules as the curling of hair. We now assign the former to dynamics, the latter to statics. He saw across boundaries that we now use to separate branches of knowledge. My personal discovery of Leonardo’s unity is recounted in my recent Living with Leonardo, which tells of a personal journey that began with a degree in science and culminated in the world’s most expensive work of art, the Saviour of the Cosmos.

“It is entirely appropriate that the cover of Waqās Ahmed’s The Polymath should be Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man”

Leonardo’s mathematical polymathy was of a particular kind, but I do think it likely that most polymaths see more unity in their diversity than we can readily discern. They are better at seeing relationships, analogies, commonalities, affinities, relevancies, underlying causalities, structural unities. It is of course difficult in our modern world for an artist to work as a professional engineer – something that was accepted in the Renaissance, even if uncommon. Any polymath today cannot but be aware of the jealously guarded professional boundaries that need be crossed. Institutional structures, erected most diligently in the 19th century, leave no doubt where these boundaries are. They are designed to keep outsiders out and insiders in. Massive bodies of professional knowledge certify the status the specialists, supported by forests of jargon and barricades of acronyms. The high demands of modern disciplines are real but they are also serve as protective ramparts against everyone who does not belong.

Maestro di Molti by Waqas Ahmed

Polymathy in modern societies runs the risk of shallowness and amateurism. We are aware of the stigma that a polymath is a “jack of all trades and a master of none”. But there is an older expanded version, “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but often better than a master of one”. So many of the great innovations in the arts and sciences arose when outside wisdom was brought to bear on a discipline that had become complacent in its own criteria. Biology in the era of DNA was reformed by the arrival of physicists and chemists. Copernicus’s 16th-century revolution was driven as much by concepts of beauty as innovatory observation. In 1905 Einstein wrote with eloquent brevity about a vision of space, time and energy, founded upon radical intuition, rather than undertaking a comprehensive review of what was right and wrong in modern astronomy and physics as then constituted. He was an insider who managed to stand outside.

“So many of the great innovations in the arts and sciences arose when outside wisdom was brought to bear on a discipline that had become complacent in its own criteria.”

There is of course a danger in conquesting someone else’s territory without due respect and humility. I see this with Leonardo studies. Modern professionals in, say, engineering, assume they can solve the problem of understanding Leonardo through their privileged and narrowly focussed knowledge, transposing Leonardo into the modern world as “a man ahead of his time”. The result is distortion. There has been something similar when the artist David Hockney claimed that painters has long used optical devices to assist their depiction of nature – an idea with which I have much sympathy. This opened the door to experts in modern optics, not least in lenses, who had with scant interest in the nature of early optical instruments and what the business of picture-making was like at the time. In characterising the past, we need to be alert to the arrogance of the present.

“Behind the myriad diversity of forms in nature lay a set of coherent and consistent laws about how form fitted function in the context of natural law.”

True polymathy involves a unique and improbable blend of incorrigible ambition, undeterability, imagination, openness and humility. It cannot be the same as it was in Leonardo’s day. However the principle of seeing something as if it were something else – seeing it as belonging in other than in its normal conceptual place – is more vital now than ever if we are to nurture the cultures of mutual understanding that are necessary for the survival of the human race.

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”.