How Can Polymaths Develop Discipline?

Here is an email I wrote not long ago. The name of the student has been changed.

This morning I finally gained clarity and insight from Friday’s conversations. Ever since I met Sarah I’ve recognized that she is a lot like I was when I was a child, and there are both tremendous opportunities and also risks. What I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter who you are, at some point in life everyone encounters situations that require developing discipline, perseverance, and patience. The world is well-suited for people who are super passionate about, say, violin, and they can start from the beginning and study and work hard to become an expert. But what about people who can do many things well, who are unwilling to focus on becoming an expert in one area at the expense of losing their other interests? Often people like this may be viewed as “flighty”, “easily bored”, and “undisciplined”, especially if they don’t understand the bigger picture. It’s taken me a lifetime to understand this bigger picture, which works in this way.

Sarah will need to define for herself what discipline, perseverance, and patience will look like for her. No one can force someone to do something they don’t want to do or like to do, and she may not be someone who will latch onto a single instrument for life. She may be more like my sister who learned 9 instruments. In that case, maybe discipline, perseverance, and patience in the music world for Sarah will entail mapping out the world of orchestration: main categories being strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, outliers like harp, and even custom instruments like saw (yes, I met someone who performed on a saw at Carnegie Hall). Maybe she decides every 1 - 2 years, she can either continue deepening her knowledge in the current instrument she is learning, or she will move on to the next major orchestration category for which she has no knowledge. Her overall goal might be to validate that she can develop competence in at least 1 - 2 instruments in every major category, and develop enough knowledge to understand the constraints of each category and be able to talk to other instrumentalists. For example, can she now talk to Wendy about playing bassoon and its constraints? Does she now have enough knowledge to inform a brand new composer about what to do and what not to do when composing for certain types of instruments?

Once she has developed an understanding of all the main categories, now focus on ensembles and which groups of instruments work well together, and which don’t. Include the outliers like harp, saw, etc. Evolve into learning about full orchestras. Study master orchestrators and arrangers like Ravel. The world easily supports the person motivated to become a world-class violinist, but doesn’t as easily support people who are “polymaths” in finding their way and determining for themselves how they will develop the character traits they will need in life. I think this is the route to help Sarah learn to do this.

While Frank isn’t quite like Sarah, his life can shed insights as well. When his company was acquired, the new company immediately assessed that Frank is the most senior person and they rely on him to help them. He loves programming and has spent his life doing software development. But the reason why he is so good is because roughly every two years, I notice he picks up a book and learns a new programming language. Maybe he has no choice and he needs it for work. But very often, he’ll identify that there is a whole class of programming language for which he is unfamiliar: procedural, object oriented, functional, strongly typed vs. loosely typed, massively parallel,  streaming, etc. And while every language has to do roughly the same things - store data, do something, pass data to somewhere else, these different categories end up breeding languages with sometimes wildly different dynamics, approaches, and solutions to problems. While he certainly hasn’t used all of those languages on the job, most if not all have broadened his perspective and enabled him to do some really creative and powerful problem solving within his existing domain. He’s built features of other languages into his own environment. Sarah will want to configure her life in a similar way, building in broad and often abstract beacons and milestones along the way that she can strive for in the absence of support in the traditional way other people get support.

Eileen Sauer