The Modern Well-Rounded Man


1. Increasing division of labour and specialization as a coping mechanism with the complexity of the economic / social system.

1.1 Please everyone refer to James Burke’s Connections. You don’t need to watch this to get the point intellectually, but it is a wonderful way to get it viscerally.

2. Romantic/humanist ideal of University education / universal man / well-rounded man.

2.1 Embedded in current education system – “every person should know at least x, y, z”.

2.2 Embedded in social norms and values – we worship individuals with great accomplishments in very specific fields and attribute them equal levels of skill in others / become disappointed when they turn out not to be

There is a tension between 1 and 2. Understanding this was an important step in growing up (insert cynical witticism) for me.

If we are alike, you were born without the luck of having a single passion; you have a few, or you have none. In the absence of this single driver to determine your path, you go with the conventional wisdom and diversify – some weighted average. You try to be good at math but also at languages and the humanities; you engage in sports or physical activity; you become acquainted with the “classics” in whatever.

This is very good and much fun – you will be on your way towards becoming a well-rounded individual. But it will not make you Andrew Wiles nor Richard Feynman. Arguably,  you won’t become David Foster Wallace or Tobias Wolff or Marina Abramovic or any of the gold medalists of our hyper-diversified economy either. You will be on your way to becoming a productive, interesting and interested member of society – a man/woman of this time, amusing at dinner party conversations and generally “in the know”.

Which is great. These are both very good outcomes, but they are very different from each other. This is a choice which you must make early on, your answer to which will be amplified by path dependency and distorted by “luck”. But exogenous factors should not dictate your preferences – only your actions. This seems obvious until you remember that we are emotionally attached to certain exogenous factors such as intelligence.

So of course, you could be a genius and therefore not have to choose between 1 or 2. You could nurture this belief despite ever-mounting evidence to the contrary – essentially by disqualifying any objective measures of intelligence and/or staying away from the big ponds and bigger fish. Beyond being a waste of time, this attitude just distracts you from the essential question of what you think is a good life for you.

So, a piece of advice to myself and others who fit the mold:

Choose specialization or versatility consciously, and proceed accordingly.

Discard the fantasy of not having to choose – if you do turn out to be exceptional, it will be a nice surprise.

One comment

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