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Tuesday
Mar162010

polymathy and motivation

A recent slew of experimental evidence has upset the comfortable notion that talent is what you need to become expert at anything. We now know it is the hours you put in that are really the crucial factor. It seems that 10,000 hours of application to be precise. Though a certain level of innate talent helps you to get started on the path to being a musician, artist or chess grandmaster- after that it mainly about how motivated you are to keep practicing and learning.

Talent helps motivation because of all the positive feedback you keep getting in the form of praise. It also helps because you can do hard things more easily than the less talented. But in the end this is talent’s undoing: when the going gets really tough the initially talented have just not got the stamina to keep going. The less talented have learnt they have to ‘eat bitter’ to get good at anything and they take the rising curve of difficulty in mastering an art in their stride.

Youthful soccer players are much more likely to succeed if they are born in the early part of the school year rather than the later. The older children are more physically developed and dominate their younger classmates. Initial success at an early stage motivates them to carry on.

The Hungarian educator Laszlo Polgar homeschooled his three daughters in chess for up to six hours a day. Instead of rebelling, as one might expect, one became an international master and the other two became grandmasters- the strongest chess playing siblings in history irrespective of their sex. The youngest, Judit Polgar is ranked currently as 51st best player in the world, but she has been ranked as high as eighth.

It is very clear that early success and massive encouragement from parents feeds motivation. But in the end it is self-motivation that is needed. And real self-motivation comes not from kicking yourself to try harder but by putting yourself in the best possible environment to succeed.

How does that connect to polymathy? To want to master not one but several subjects requires motivation both common and unusual. Common, because most of us want to be good at more than one narrow specialty and unusual because we are unable or unwilling to put ourselves in the best possible environment to succeed in acquiring new skills.

Take writing for example. To succeed you need a distraction-free environment free to you for at least one and a half hours a day. Doesn’t have to be silent but it does have to be distraction free. And you have to pursue this skill a minimum of four days a week. Any less and you are not going to build up enough momentum to succeed. Language learning may require the same amount of dedication. For the study of martial arts I only began to make progress when I practiced a minimum of four hours a day four and half days a week.

But why attempt to be a polymath? Why not just try and be good or even very good at just one thing?

First being crap at lots of things doesn’t mean, if you forego them, that you’ll be good at the one thing you choose.

Focusing on one thing exclusively may not be optimal. Writers need something to write about. Pure ambition to write leads to sterile literary type novels short on meaningful content.

To have polymathic ambitions you must believe it is possible, that it is desirable and that it doesn’t interfere with your life, in fact that it enhances your life.

Polymathy helps general motivation because it supplies more than one pole to your life. When something goes wrong you can turn to another interest. All your eggs are not in one basket. Crucially you don’t lose momentum. You simply switch tracks.

Having something interesting in your life is a like a light that illuminates everything else.

Increasing the number of lights increases the chances of being well lit.

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