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Polymathic Synergy


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.

There is:

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.



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