Why I think I’m a polymath, and perhaps, you are, too

I have constantly taken up and given up jobs. Taken sabbaticals, taken short courses. But soon enough, getting worried about not having a respectable livelihood, of missing out on a fixed income, I have taken up anything that came along that seemed interesting at that time, went a little ahead and left that, too. My allegedly whimsical ways have exasperated my family and a lot of other people. I wouldn’t say they are wrong. As human beings we look for order, linearity, consistency and constancy in every aspect of our lives. Whereas my career graph has been jagged. Added to that I’m in my early thirties and I’m still not sure what my specialisation is.

Several of my past employers have also expressed displeasure towards my frequently changing employment profile. With them I have maintained, True, but I have always been in the world of writing. Hemming and hawing they have usually given me the job, with the disclaimer that as much as they don’t doubt my competence, they aren’t entirely sure that I would be sticking around for long. Nonetheless, I have always managed to convince or charm them with my assurances, as I sincerely believed that it would be the last job I was ever going to hold, that I was going to grow roots, be tethered into that place.

Predictably enough, for the employers that is, I would decide to quit the firm in anything between six months to a year and a half.

For roughly a year and half now, I have kept myself, I like to believe, gainfully unemployed. I read, write (this blog, while also leaving paper trails elsewhere that are unaccounted for), research on different topics, watch stuff and do a whole lot of thinking. On occasions I take up freelance writing jobs, but most of them are dull and uninteresting. I have been living partly off my savings that covers my personal expenses — travel, shopping, haircuts and entertainment — and partly off my parents, particularly for food and shelter. Except for the LIC and an annual medical insurance premiums, I have stopped my all other SIPs, and haven’t indulged in high expenditure, aside from this big one at the beginning of the year: a trip to Japan. I have been avoiding most types of social interactions, events and eating out wherein high expenditure is anticipated. I have started eating at home a lot more. Rounding up friends and cooking together and spending more time at my place or theirs has become my idea of spending a great weekend. I meditate and exercise regularly. My anxiety is under control. As far as I am concerned, my health and relationships have improved.

I have slowed down… Everybody appreciates slowing down, but nobody wants to join me in doing that.

Overall, I am in quite a privileged position. And I don’t take that for granted. Unemployment has been going well for me thus far, even though this sort of situation doesn’t come with too many advantages.

Right off the bat, your earning is halted, leaving you with a constant worry that you’re inching towards penury. Your self-worth is fast corroding. If you can manage not to succumb to this dragging down and actually reach a state of equanimity, where neither shame nor blame can touch you, then you sure have self-actualised. But most of us can’t attain that state. As much as it is frustrating to deal with society’s judgemental views and reviews of yourself, you have to appreciate that you are because of them. And that realisation is kind of humbling. Oddly, staying integrated with people and their joys and woes is my anchor.

However, if there was one benefit of staying unemployed then it is this: it can, if you let it, put you at the vantage point of a detached observer. One look around me and I find that, like me, most of the folks, even those employed, are dissatisfied with their work and life in general. They will tell you that they are not living up to their highest potentials. Why is this?

Most of us are born with brilliant, beautiful, multi-faceted minds. Even bodies lacking in whatever abilities have tremendous potentials. For instance: growing up I showed natural aptitude in drawing, dancing, swimming, playing sports, athletics, singing, acting, writing and even quizzing. Looking back I feel I identified with that troubled teenager Max Fischer, from the movie Rushmore, who aced at everything except in academics — in which, by the way, I was pretty good at up until age 12. After that my connection with academics broke and got lost forever.

Max Fischer giphy
Jason Shwartzman as Max Fischer in Rushmore (1998); source: Giphy

The answer to why we are dissatisfied at work can be multiple and complex, but a primary one, the more I think of it, is our schooling. The root cause of my disillusionment with all my previous jobs is essentially that. My schooling and higher education (with a couple of college degrees) have been frustratingly inadequate. Isn’t that sad? Taken together the whole gamut of primary and secondary education was supposed to have developed us physically, intellectually, emotionally as well as spiritually. Fourteen years of schooling should’ve been enough to prepare us for life, to equip us with practical knowledge in the vocation of our choice. Every child is not cut out for intellectual pursuits. Similarly, every subject doesn’t require university degrees to be mastered in. The problem clearly then is that our schools don’t prioritise all subjects and all types of intelligence equally.

Even elite schools attempt to take care of the intellectual side of the mind alone. There is prestige only in becoming engineers, doctors, scientists, if you can handle science that is; or economists, lawyers, journalists and chartered accountants, for those who can handle humanities better than science. Imagine a country being run by only these seven types of professionals.

As a society we teach our boys as well as girls to “harden up”, which means that our emotional needs are to be neglected, denied, blocked out or judged as fake. Being struck physically, spoken harshly to, incessantly comparing one child with another, shaming their minds and bodies are viewed not as some kind of abuse but teaching kids life skills. Mental illnesses, sexual anxieties, sleep and eating disorders are all brushed under the carpet. Because when you’re 13 or 14 we want to see your performance, results, measured by grades and marks and certificates and trophies. How kind you have been to an old person, a friend, a family member, a younger sibling, a homeless person or a street dog are insignificant.

I look at the school system as a huge, ancient factory with rusty machines that aims at mass producing human minds. Higher studies mean specialisation, which does the damage of constricting instead of widening the scope of knowledge. That is why our education system needs to adopt multidisciplinary techniques of teaching that fosters polymath minds. According to Wikipedia: polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, “having learned much”) is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.

We are too invested in making experts out of our children, expecting them to excel at only one or few tasks. Industrialised education produces highly efficient workerbees. And in the whole bargain it ends up crushing the child’s individuality, their humanity. So counterintuitive has our education system been that it fails to consider the employment needs of the current job market. Any company worth its salt is on the lookout for workers who display the potential to become business leaders in the future, who can be don different hats, like a true Renaissance Man. The need of the generation is a wholesome polymathic understanding of human problems. And if we had to standardise anything, it should be a system of multidisciplinary learning, which trains our children to draw from different knowledge sources.

Even more importantly, a polymath should learn to avoid the perfectionist trap. Just as this wonderful essay points out:

Polymaths such as Da Vinci, Goethe and Benjamin Franklin were such high achievers that we might feel a bit reluctant to use the word ‘polymath’ to describe our own humble attempts to become multi-talented. We can’t all be geniuses. But we do all still indulge in polymathic activity; it’s part of what makes us human.

… many of us can be prodigious at different skills at different time and phases of life. Key to having a well-balanced life is to giving our best to the task we are dealing with at that moment, in a mindful, effortless manner, instead of trying to get everything perfect. Let things be messy, erroneous. All art, all inventions are, after all, trial and error.

There’s one more thing I have been actively participating in. And that is parenting. Indeed, I am co-parenting along with my sister in bringing up my six-year-old nephew. It has been most challenging, demanding and joyous thing in my life. I discovered that, like everything worth doing, parenting also involves polymath engagement: nursing, teaching, psychological counselling, being a playmate, cheerleader, guide, coach, agony aunt as well as a detached observer. I am conscious of the fact that children pick up on your vibe easier than you think. They follow your actions, habits, tone and gestures more keenly than what they are instructed to do. In fact, parenting involves less doing and more being.

As I have re-entered the world of children I feel more able to make up for the lost time and wasted potentials in my childhood, which I hope will come to fruition someday. Every day is a new learning and every day I notice growth. Something inside me must be unravelling too. At this point I feel interested in everything and nothing in particular. It is like keeping a soft-focus on all things equally.

I am gainfully employed in becoming a good Aunt nowadays, who needs to learn to think like a child and keep it alive in her.

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