Polymathics is what polymaths and polymathists do: learn lots of different things. It is not the depth of your learning that counts so much, but its breadth. There is a synergy in having multiple areas of competence, mastery and expertise- even if we can't agree exactly what constitutes each of these things- the more areas you cover the greater your ability to cross-fertilise knowledge to great effect.
This blog has 100s of articles covering a wide variety of subjects- polymathics, becoming smarter, the simple life, travel, self-help and writing being the main pillars of the project.
I also give occasional talks and consulting converstions on polymathics and a few other things.
Much of it spins off from the 10 books I have written, all available at Amazon among other places. The latest two being:
Click on the below to see it at amazon:
This is available for kindles only. It's a very short book and is designed for people who need a few good ways to breakout of feeling time and spirit poor.
The other one is:
Sunday Times (May 19 2013) say: "Robert Twigger's ambitious biography of the Nile is an unexpected triumph...a scintillatingly colourful account of a river and a region Twigger knows intimately...an elegiac moving book...hugely entertaining...probably the author's magnum opus"
For a different take on exploration and new expeditions go to theexplorerschool.com
"No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit." Helen Keller.
It has taken me a shockingly long time to work out that straight lines are poisonous and unnatural but very tempting. Very tempting indeed. Going round the houses is not only more interesting, it's often obligatory...in the end. The world is full of modern straight lines, which only serve to confuse us...after all if a skyscraper goes straight to the point why not us too? I'm so convinced of this now I like to plan every mission with a first step in the opposite direction...
What else? Oh yes, Aikido master Ueshiba sensei used to say that in his day a student had to steal a technique from the teacher, it wouldn't be given, let alone 'taught'...in other words he eschewed the direct approach which says students should be rammed head first into what they ought to know. Instead take the opposite line...hide it from them, make them desire it and hunt it down, steal it if necessary...
The engine of polymathics, why it works, is the synergy between different areas of knowledge. Synergy is the ‘extra energy’ that makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. It’s an idea that has been around since Aristotle.
If you have three or more areas of expertise there is an exponential rise in many allied areas of knowledge acquisition and deployment. You learn faster and act smarter.
Synergetic creativity- cross fertilising new ideas.
Synergy of understanding and learning.
Synergy of mastery.
The success of reductionist science meant that synergy tended to take a backseat until recently. Reductionists believe everything is just the sum of its parts. They don’t believe ‘extra energy’ can suddenly appear when certain parts are put together into a system. Reductionists believe that you can simplify any kind of complexity down to its key parts- and simply focus on these. But this method failed when it was applied to regulatory networks involving genes. In the last ten years, the incredible complexity of biological science meant that systems thinking had to be adopted to explain this cutting edge area. Systems thinking, in which synergy plays a part, was the preserve of business and engineering until then. But now it has entered mainstream science.
Systems thinking involves looking at a system in its entirety rather than breaking it down into bits. A stationary car is merely a collection of parts, but a car+driver is a system. If you want, say, to win a F1 race you think of the entire system of control and feedback involving the driver and the car he is driving. If you think solely in a reductionist way, looking at engine, gearbox, aerodynamics you’ll end up with a less than optimal solution. By thinking of the car+driver system we can come up with synergetic combinations that take into account all the driver’s relationships with different parts of the car. We can optimise these relationships and the driver’s skills with tyre and fuel combinations that particularly suit him.
In a way systems thinking is with us in everyday life when we consider the effect of an institution, say school, on an individual. We informally acknowledge the synergy of a ‘good school’, the subtle combination of ethos, morale, and competence that a good headteacher knows how to marshal.
Anyone who has done group exercise has probably experienced the synergy when the whole group tries hard and each individual gets a boost in stamina they would never get if training alone.
These examples perhaps indicate how slippery a concept synergy can be, and why reductionists are suspicious of it. This is summed up in the joke of the reductionist scientist who tears a butterfly apart, labels each part and when asked where the butterfly has gone answers, ‘what butterfly?’
Synergy is experienced as a new level, a sudden addition of energy, a quantum leap. It is not a liner progression, a steady rise.
Another unusual, but nevertheless good, example is that of an eastern waterpipe, the kind you see in a bazaar in Turkey or Egypt. It comprises a glass water chamber, a pipe to suck on, a container for tobacco and an air inlet into the chamber. All these components are connected, yet when you first connect them, the pipe usually doesn’t work. The reductionist mentality exhorts you to check each connection for an airleak. You do this and still nothing happens. At this point you might give up- as I did- until a friendly fellow customer showed me how to use pieces of aluminium foil to further seal each connection. But it still didn’t work. Then my new friend really got to work, fiddling with each connection, one after another, as if he were tuning an instrument. I mentioned this and he smiled, “there is either on or off with a water pipe, there is no in between”. He was right. I expected there would be a sort of long lead up of inefficient puffing until some optimum was reached, reductionist thinking tells us that will be so. But actually all the parts work together as a system. Each one can only leak so much or else the whole system fails. Each part has some bearing on whether the next part works. They all influence each other. And you can’t know which part is letting you down so you keep improving each one in turn until hey presto- it works perfectly. On or Off- a quantum leap.
A reductionist looks to simplify a problem to the ‘important elements’. In doing so he overlooks tiny but crucial things. It is often far better to try and ‘fix the system’ in its entirety than focus on the ‘main parts’, which may not actually be the seat of the real problem.
This set me thinking about many informal ways of fixing a whole system. With a computer you just keep switching it on and off. Reboot it in a different order. With an engine you can take the whole thing apart, clean each bit, find nothing wrong, put it back together again and like magic it works.
Tiny faults affect the working of other parts and cause systemic failure- in this case, negative synergy.
Positive synergy is the reverse, when all these small parts work together to create a macro effect, which each one of them alone is incapable of.
With polymathics this works on several levels. On the most basic level it provides raw material for cross-fertilising ideas. If you know about chickens and plastics you may come up with the new idea of a plastic chicken drinker (an idea which made inventor John Leeming a millionaire in the 1960s). Or you might cross boarding school fiction with the idea of magic and come up with Harry Potter. Or take a skateboard and use it on snow. Or if you have really diverse knowledge you might end up using spider’s webs to make a new material stronger than Kevlar (the link here was that spider’s web were also used as the cross-hairs in telescopic sights, and Kevlar is used for bullet proof jackets.)
The greater the diversity of your knowledge the more unusual the combinations you are likely to come up with. It’s no mystery why the heyday of Hollywood happened during the repeated migrations of Central European writers and directors to LA. These talented foreigners brought something new to the burgeoning art form of America. They had a more diverse knowledge base.
So on an obvious level if you want to be inventive stock your mind with a great variety of content. This is explicit knowledge, things you can read in books, as well as tacit knowledge (things you learn by doing and seeing). With the rise of youtube and instructional videos there’s almost nothing you can’t learn from staring at a computer and trying it out; martial arts has improved no end with the rise of internet video.
Somewhere between explicit and tacit knowledge exist rules of thumb, what is also known as implicit knowledge. Unlike explicit knowledge, implicit knowledge is rarely written down anywhere, yet it is used all the time. It lives in the informal sphere, the place where people talk about their jobs after hours, when the spotlight is off. Yesterday I got a new one from a doctor friend- ‘Believe the patient’, (apparently, over time doctors can develop an unhealthy distrust of the patient’s ability to tell him what is wrong. ‘Believe the patient’ is a rule of thumb for countering this tendency.)
Rules of thumb give a fast track into any new subject. And they can transfer across subjects areas. The rule of thumb that states ‘measure twice, cut once’ works as well for making slab pots in ceramics as it does for carpentry. The rule of thumb in solving maths problems ‘work backwards from the end you want’ also works when ‘solving’ a story problem in scriptwriting. You keep asking yourself ‘what set of circumstances will give this result’ and slowly move backwards until you get to the start of the story.
The second level of synergy concerns what Daniel Dennett calls “Intuition Pumps”, though it works just as well to think of them as “thinking pumps”. These are powerful mechanisms, analogies, ways of looking at a problem that enable thinking- problem solving and understanding- to a get a kickstart. They can range from a good label (Black Hole is a lot more suggestive than it’s original name Schwartzchild Radius Singularity) to a good story- ‘sour grapes’ is a good shorthand way at looking at all sorts of behaviour through the lens of the Aesop fable.
The notion of positive and negative feedback (vicious and virtuous cycles)- which derive from physics- are exceptionally useful tools for generating ideas, mechanisms, explanations and understanding. Negative feedback is what leads to equilibrium- if you chastise a child and he stops being annoying you have a negative feedback situation; if you chastise him and he gets annoyed too, making you more annoyed so you chastise him further etc etc you are stuck in a disequilibria, a positive feedback hell. There are countless situations from global warming to learning how to sing where feedback provides a useful thinking pump.
Fuzzy labelling is another great ‘thinking pump’. Instead of saying, for example, ‘all reductionist thinking is bad’, you can say ‘the bias towards reductionist thinking in our culture needs to be addressed’. It gets you out of an unnecessary straitjacket and leads you towards new ideas.
The third level is what I call heuristic overlap, things you learned while learning one subject area which can be used to learn elsewhere. I am studying ceramics right now (as my examples may show) and I’ve found I can apply techniques I learned in health massage to making clay behave (which also works for kneading bread). And the posture needed to force the air out of clay is similar to that needed for certain aikido locks.
The next level is where the synergy begins to really kick in: this is where you get ‘mastery transfer’ between subject domains.
Mastery, when you boil it right down, is about correctly locating yourself between two extremes. It is about fine tuning that position, developing a ‘feel’ for it, using whatever tools of visualisation, thought or experiment you can, to get a fix on where you should be. The extremes include:
Going full on v. circling, restraint
Taking it very seriously v. ignore it
Zoom in v. zoom out
Copy v. use own idea
Fundamentals v. surface effects
Follow it v. it’s a dead end
The last one is a crucial area of mastery. Starting novelists- and I include myself here when I started out- can spend YEARS going up a blind alley, writing a novel that a more experienced writer can see is going nowhere. The beginner polishes and polishes something that is effectively a dead end. Mastery at writing includes knowing whether something has ‘legs’ or should be abandoned straightaway. You develop an instinct for this, but knowing of its existence beforehand, because of an already existing mastery or micro-mastery, gives you a giant headstart.
The above are only a few of the possible ‘mastery poisitions’. The exciting thing is that when you approach a new area you already have these ready made templates to apply. I studied aikido and it taught me about what importance should be given to very basic ideas such as balance and stance. I learnt where to locate myself between the fundamentals of aikido and the ‘surface effects’ ie. throwing people and putting locks on them. So now when I start learning something new I look to position myself close to the equivalent very basic but important ideas. Often I find further shortcuts to the right position by reading off the cuff informal comments made by people about their subject, a mastery-transfer skill I picked up from reading biographies of sportsmen when I did aikido.
But there are even higher levels of synergy in polymathics!
But before we go there let’s take a quick look at NEGATIVE synergy regarding knowledge transfer- or inappropriate transfer. Maybe you’ve experienced hearing an engineer sound off about how to ‘fix’ society using mechanical concepts that show no real understanding of the complexities involved. Or an artist coming up with a vague plan about how to sell their artworks. Or a successful businessman thinking he can write poetry just because sycophantic people who are on his pay roll tell him so.
These all, on the surface, give the lie to polymathics. But the difference is one of identity. The engineer fixing society is, in his own mind, still an engineer. So is the businessman. Both imagine their success at one occupation gives them the right to extend their domain of operations. In a way they are so caught up with the identity of their expertise they redefine everything so that it comes within the domain of their expertise. So a social problem becomes an engineering problem. That is why they make fools of themselves. But if they adopted the polymathist identity they would be forced to reconsider the appropriateness of their transfers.
When the engineer tries to apply his knowledge inappropriately by calling everything ‘really an engineering problem’ he is basically announcing his fear of learning something new, his inflexibility in adopting a new perspective. He is both over confident and scared, a terrible combination in any circumstances…
But when someone adopts a polymathic perspective they accept that there is a huge range of expertise out there that they too can acquire. They don’t feel shut out by the expertise of others because they know how to acquire it rapidly and easily. They are quietly confident and fearless, a good combination in any circumstances…
They would see that the certain learning strategies or thinking pumps might be applicable in the new area, or might be cross fertilised with existing ideas in the new area. But because being a polymathist is a meta-identity this would not preclude gaining some level of expertise in the new area on its own terms. You would not wrongly assume that running a school was ‘really’ an engineering problem.
Polymathic synergy is not about having ‘instant’ expertise in another area by widening the domain of one’s single area of expertise. It is about transfering tried and effective methods of LEARNING in alliance with more conventional knowledge acquisition in order to gain new areas of expertise.
Good. Dealt with. Now back to higher levels of synergy.
The higher synergy is in the switching between viewpoints. When I’m writing I sometimes get stuck. On one novel this lasted years (I did other stuff in the meantime). What finally got me unstuck was when I gave up wearing the novelist’s identity and (since I needed to earn some money) told myself- ‘right you’re a businessman now, start a business and earn some money’. Which is what I did. But an amazing side benefit was that almost miraculously I could see where the problem was with my novel. Wearing the ‘businessman’s’ hat made me decisive and more objective. I could transfer these skills to writing novels and solve my problem.
Being stuck, rigid, unable to move is what stops progress. Sometimes we ‘throw money at it’ or use excessive force, half knowing we’re going to break the thing before we start. We go ‘head on’ and often meet massive opposition. Military strategies that emphasise a straight charge usually fail. A feint and a surprising flank attack work much better. This is what a change of viewpoint does for you. But you can only change viewpoints if you have another. As a polymathist, of course, you do.
Most things are easy or impossible, not difficult.
I read this the other day, a comment left on facebook by an old pal. It set me thinking. At first I wanted to agree. I could see it meant either, whenever we attempt something new, there's an obvious procedure to follow which will result in success, or there isn't- in which case we give up, move on to something easy, clear, not a waste of one’s valuable time.
One definition of ‘impossible’ becomes 'not worth the effort'. Impossible things become synonymous with wasting a lot of time.
In fact it resonated with something I've learnt the hard way- how to spot a deadend without having to go right to the end to see for oneself. Being able to spot deadends- novel ideas that just won't fly- is a very useful kind of mastery. Often you find, say when writing a story, it's either great straightaway or never really gets going no matter how much flogging you do. So saying something is either impossible or easy could be another way of saying that most promise is in the premise.
No one wants to waste time. If we are having to do a lot of new things on a regular basis then we might need a way of weeding out what is a good or not so good way to spend our time. When a new thing presents itself with a bolted on procedure so we can see what it entails we think ‘oh goody, it’s easy’ or, if it has no obvious procedure we think ‘impossible! Next!’
As we get older we get to hate ‘wasting time’. But we actually still spend hours watching TV, drinking, eating, socialising, pottering. What we mean by ‘wasted time’ is there is no payback for us, no pleasure. We get greedy. My friend’s son spent hours and hours learning how to do football tricks. Tricks that looked impossible to me. It didn’t look like fun either, constantly doing them wrong until he finally cracked a trick. He no longer does those tricks. Was that time wasted? Of course not. Time spent learning anything is rewiring the brain, building connections. In a sense, any time we spend NOT learning is time wasted.
To be able to call the shots, pronounce on whether something is impossible or not also implies we have some choice over which missions we accept and which we reject. If you HAVE to do something then it may seem impossible at first. But you keep at it and eventually work out how to do it. In some situations, like an expedition there is a lot of seemingly impossible stuff to overcome, but you HAVE to do it and you find it is, after all, merely difficult; but an expedition doesn’t last forever.
When we get back to real life we gradually make things easier for ourselves, and shift towards things that are ‘easy’ in as much as they are non-challenging.
In fact as we get older the fear of what is difficult, the dislike of the ambiguity of not knowing, the humiliating experience of being a new boy or even a class dunce, the feeling of being all at sea- these are increasingly unwelcome experiences. So we are tempted to label anything that suggests these things as impossible. Which means we can safely ignore them without impugning our ability to learn.
I think putting up with the ambiguity of not really knowing exactly what is going on becomes less tolerable as we get older. People who are good at learning languages have a higher tolerance for this ambiguity than people who aren’t. or else they know how to deflect unwanted attention when they screw up. Or they make a game of it. Otherwise clever folk are too serious in this respect. I know several very clever people whose prediliction for being in control means that, abroad they only speak English. They can’t bear to lose face, and face having their accent mocked by a Parisian waiter or a Croatian bus conductor.
The ambiguous feeling of being a ‘bit at sea’, like your first day at school, merely requires us to observe and see what happens. Mostly we try and assert ourselves though, remind others we’re important too. So it isn’t about being in control, it’s about using control as a way of saying ‘look at me, I’m important too’.
If we sense we are going to be a bit lost for a while we learn to call this option ‘impossible’, safe to ignore, whereas it is actually merely rather hard, hard because the experience of ‘being small’ and not very important is a hard one for some to bear when you’ve got used to the magnificent feeling of being very important.
‘Difficult’, to any schoolchild, means a slightly different sort of ‘hard’; hard to do, hard to grasp, hard work to learn. It means hours of effort. It means brainache. For some, maths is easy, but for many it is hard. But not impossible.
One also has to consider the fact that what constitutes 'difficult' changes over time. What was difficult aged 10 or 20 might seem pretty easy now. And also the reverse of course - crawling through narrow spaces springs to mind. But more importantly our sense of 'difficult' can change when we adopt a different outlook. Yesterday my phone line stopped working but the broadband didn't. Normally I would consign fixing this to the impossible category. The line tested as OK so the fault was probably in the wiring...maybe. Because I have been writing about polymathy I thought I ought to investigate. Now the problem was borderline difficult/impossible. Phone wires come in thick confusing bundles, but then I looked on the net and found an explanation; and of course for a normal line you need only two wires. Now it was just difficult. I rummaged under the stairs and found these- together with an unused extension cable. One comment on a thread suggested electrical effects in extensions could affect the phone line. I disconnected it and sure enough fixed the phone. A day earlier it had seemed impossible, then, with the head change to polymath, merely difficult. And in the telling it sounds all too easy.
I have been rather good recently at shying away from tasks that involve serious learning- such as languages and new skills. I began to feel a growing reluctance to make my brain suffer, to make it recall new stuff. Everything we currently know about brain plasticity tells us we should engage with the difficult. Even if we are tempted to call it impossible at first or even second glance.
Take a look at what you think is impossible and see if it isn’t after all, merely difficult. And with a great deal of effort might actually be accomplishable. So that later, when people ask, you’ll be able to say ‘It was pretty easy actually’.
The shortest distance between two points is never a straight line. It could be a spiral, a slow spiral around one point and then a loop into the other. Or a zig zagging path (I got this from my friend Tahir Shah who really introduced me to the whole idea of indirect paths to achieving something). The more I observed my own failures, setbacks, turnarounds, and successes, the more I saw there was NO correlation between directness of route and success, or rather, there was: a negative correlation. The direct approach was the more likely to either fail or take twice as long.
Twice as long- how often does an 'expert' estimate, be it for a building job or paint job, take twice as long? Or for computing work- say four times as long? And treble the price? The world of business prides itself on its direct approaches, its planning, its careful just-in-time delivery systems. These work- but at some hidden human cost. Look at the bored people working in Lidl. In the real world- meaning the one where we live with consequences rather than cleverly pass them on- we know that things kind of bumble or spurt forward and sometimes work and sometime fail and no one can ever quite be convincing about why one does and another doesn't.
As a child I was pretty direct. If I wanted something I went out and got it. No, even that isn't true. I wanted this girl to be my girlfriend but then a much higher status girl let it be known that she fancied me. I dropped the first girl straightaway. Traded up. The warped path to success.
I wanted to be a writer. Tried for years. Nine in fact. Then I gave up trying and spent all my time instead doing martial arts. That gave me the material for my first and, to date, most successful book. I went backwards to go forwards. Pretty much every book and article I've written hasn't been a 'straight shot'. Most of them involved doing something first, bunking off from writing. But I often have to con myself to do this. Tell myself I'm only taking a short time off from my 'vocation'. But then every time I do, I get great material. I turn away from writing and get better results. But I don't learn from this. My first novel was a direct shot at the target...at first. But then it got derailed, abandoned, picked up again and ultimately 'fixed' and published...seven years later. The slow way is the straight way.
But now I’m trying an experiment. I’ll report back on how it goes. Now I am deliberately, at long last, attempting the winding, looping, spiraling, zig-zagging path to any desired goal. If I want something I’m going to force myself first and foremost to think of the most convoluted way of going about it. Then I might do a slightly less indirect route. I will, for sure, stop worrying that time committed to something else is somehow time ‘uncommitted’ to writing. Writing is, after all, just a habit that sometimes pays off.
Is it possible to be more specific? Wouldn’t that be rather too direct? The English make a fetish of the opposite. Even orientals can sometimes find them too ‘oriental’. Though more and more I see directness is in the ascendant- when people are in a rush, or corralled by greed. I’ve been there myself many times. Holding doors open is not done out of politeness, it’s a stratagem for seeing what else might happen…
The charge of the Light Brigade was the result of a series of errors- astonishing directness, inescapable failure. Heroism is the triumph of courage over impossibility. Or an attempt at it.
Battles are often won by the indirect approach. Strategist Liddell Hart made much of this. And whilst it is true that Colonel H. Jones charged straight up a hill to get at the Argentines dug in during the Falklands war, there is a case that this rather insane head on attack was ‘indirect’, because, though it initially failed, his example spurred his men on to finally succeed.
Of course it is hard to really say. It always is. Which is yet more proof if you like that the shortest distance between two points is never via a straight line.
Straight lines are not to be found in nature. Look at the cracked mud of a field recently in the sun. The three and four junction vertices fork out like lightning, another non-straight phenomenon, very jagged in fact. Water is curved as it lies in a glass- surface tension. Trees branch, even very straight trees waver at the top. There are no poles growing. Straight things, slabs of fallen slate, are fragile and small in comparison with things that are not straight. Mountains. Gorges. Waterfalls.
We accept the convenience of a straight edge. It makes building easier- once you have straight planks from the B&Q. But if you start with trees then building is easier using bent and curved timber. Benders- by their very name- announce a curved kind of dwelling. I know someone who has happily lived in one for twenty years.
Look at bicycle tracks recorded on a muddy track- more mud- there is always a wobble, a sort of slow ‘S’. Bullets describe a trajectory- seen as a weakness- or a strength when it comes to the high parabola of the howitzer, getting inside an enemy’s defences. The lob, the serve, the free kick- all are immeasurably improved by exaggerating their natural curvature. He threw a curve ball- a sure sign of success.
I think we have to look at the motion of bees, flies, wasps, birds- pendant, undulatory, wavering, fast, undecided, iterative. I watched the birds massing on the south coast before beginning their long migration to Africa. They flew inland! Out of sight, then, in twos and threes they wheeled about, spiraling out further and further, gaining momentum or confidence over the sea it was hard to say. They travel with unerring inaccuracy- in the short term- but always arrive.
I walked in the Borneo jungle with jungle dwelling Lundaiya tribesmen. They loathed my compass, and laughed at it. We walked instead along ridges, always aiming to get higher, always on paths. We’d walk double the distance on a path rather than take a short cut. My guide told me: “a short cut is a way to a short life”.
Teaching creativity is a relatively new thing. Brainstorming grew out of ad companies in the 1950s and lateral thinking was developed in the 1960s. What happened before then? Did Edison or Tesla see any need to teach creativity- or even impart their own ideas on the subject? Did Proust or Picasso? Was it that creativity was seen as the province of the genius or the artist or the inventor, a talent they had that no ordinary person could hope to understand?
I think the reverse. That a creative response was so normal that no one thought it needed isolating and encouraging…until corporations discovered that dominating the world with a few brands made more money than having lots of things appearing on a local scale, different and various the world over.
Reducing the work of a company to making lots of one thing- such as a Model T Ford, reduces the creativity required along the production process. No one working a till in Macdonalds is thinking how to improve a big mac.
But when you force conformity onto people they notice something is wrong. They feel constrained and underutilised. Being creative is a normal part of being human- whether it’s problem solving, improving, or coming up with new products. But strip that away and people hanker after a chance to be ‘creative’. They attend courses on being creative as a reaction to its disappearance rather than as a real method to become ‘more creative’. The ‘creativity’ movement is therefore a symptom rather than a cure.
Teaching creativity gets some results- at first. People learn to use what they know, combine it in new ways. Then they quickly run up against a problem. They don’t have wide range of knowledge to drawn upon.
It is not the depth of your knowledge that affects creativity, it is the width of the range. However that knowledge must be your ‘own’ in some sense. A mere passing acquaintance is not enough.
If you look at the background of 19th century inventors and innovators and entrepreneurs it was polymathic. Many started by doing humble skilled labour and only gradually moved into more technologically advanced areas. They could almost all make things with their hands. Hiram Maxim and Thomas Edison were makers as much as thinkers.
Being able to make something is a special kind of knowledge- tacit knowledge in as much as it not just ‘content’, something written down. For ‘head people’, those who naturally take to content acquisition through reading, the act of learning how to make things, and getting better at it, provides much more powerful learning heuristics for any kind of future knowledge acquisition. It means you aren’t scared by the prospect of having to master a new field.
James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia theory (who has just, aged 90+ published a fascinating autobiography ‘Homage to Gaia’), was also an independent scientist and inventor with many patents to his name. In a way he was a throwback to the 19th century model of the innovator. Instead of starting with a degree, he ended up at university after working for some years in a photographic lab. In the lab he became skilled at manipulating chemicals and performing difficult chemical processes with great precision. When he finally studied chemistry at university he was accused of ‘cheating’, because the lecturer was so used to the sloppy efforts of unskilled undergraduates that he couldn’t believe in the perfect results, which Lovelock achieved. Lovelock was also able to make his own glassware and used a watchmaker’s lathe to turn small metal components he needed. This kind of skill allows one to visualise without hindrance all kinds of improvements. Though there are dress designers who cannot draw, there are none who cannot sew. Likewise it helps if you want to innovate in the physical world that you know how things are made- and making them is the only real way to learn. Yet making things is not on the curriculum unless you are ‘less able’.
But it is everyone who needs grounding in these skills. It is the mulch, the fertiliser, the fertile soil of real innovation in problem solving and product design and even creative writing. Making things provides new insights into how to learn. It breaks you out of the world of ‘content’. And when you make something, you own that knowledge.
You need a bedrock of material that is your own. In the movie Limitless the main character takes a drug that enables him to use everything he has ever learnt or ever seen. He’s seen kung-fu movies so when he’s in a fight he’s suddenly a kung-fu master. He’s able to piece together all that he’s heard about various companies and use that to make money on the stock market. It has a rather weak ending (and the dulling prospect of a TV series to follow) but the idea is good; wouldn’t it be nice to be able to use everything we know?
But the nub of it hinges on what we mean by ‘know’. If, as in the movie, it just means ‘having heard of it casually’ then obviously we don’t really ‘know’ it in any useful sense. If, however, we’ve made it ‘our own’ in some way or another then we can say we know it. Mathematician Geoffrey Chaitin makes the valid point that having read lots of proofs and learnt them is not the same as doing your own proof. His view is that by doing your own proof you own that bit of maths. I sat down the other day and worked out my own version of a proof for pythagorus’s theorem, one of the most basic tasks in maths, just to test this idea. It felt different, I had shifted from mere reading and consuming to really using some creative part of my brain. I firmly believe that maths should be taught using biographical and historical details about how each discovery came about and encouraging kids to emulate this- calculus as it evolved over time is a lot easier to make sense of (if you are not that mathematically inclined) than in the hyper arid and abstract version it appears in modern maths textbooks.
Back to Limitless- the movie was a pleasant fantasy in that it conflated what we are acquainted with, with what we know. Polymathics seeks to expand the zone of what we know to such a level that one becomes, in a sense, limitless. In the movie the character could focus and learn rapidly- these are both skills that polymathists have developed. In order to be polymathic you need to have some learning heuristics that make learning easy and predictable and rapid. Specialists are sometimes specialists out of a kind of pessimism- they are fearful that they can’t learn anything else fast enough or well enough. If you are confident that you can learn pretty much anything rapidly and easily then you are more likely to be adventurous and open to learning new things.
The wider the range of things you really know, the more ammunition you have when you need a creative solution. If you don’t have this background knowledge, all the brainstorming in the world will just turn up mediocre results.
It is my contention that valuable, but ultimately limited, results can be achieved by teaching people creative techniques. What we really need to teach is the desire to be polymathic. With a well stocked brain the real creativity will follow.