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.
This weekend the Guardian newspaper did a spread about places 50 travellers have enjoyed visiting. Mine was the cave of the swimmers in the Egyptian desert. Ever mindful of publicity opportunities I failed to have added the fact that this winter we are doing a month long desert trek using camels travelling the same route (probably the second or third group to do so ever) as 1873 explorer Gerhard Rohlfs. There are a six of us going with three bedouin. Room for one, maybe two at a pinch more. If interested go to theexplorerschool.com for more info or contact me via email@example.com
It's going to be a month, incredible and expensive(ish).
All this and heaven too is a fantastic memoir by the incredible Helena Edwards. I highly recommend her book because of its well placed truly perceptive comments placed within stories of great interest. You can buy it online from crucible publishing at the below website:
Helena knew Gurdjieff, JG Bennet and Idries Shah and what she has to say about them all is well worth reading.
Whether you love or hate writer and poet Charles Bukowski, it has to be admitted he had a sense of humour. On his gravestone he had inscribed, as advice to future writers, ‘Don’t Try’.
It was something he knew a lot about. He tried very hard in his 20s to get stories into print. He had two published and then gave up, worn down by all the rejections. After ten years of drinking and not writing he went back to poetry and at 49 wrote his first novel Post Office. Until he died 24 years later he wrote almost every night, and today there are 60 volumes of poetry, short stories, non-fiction and novels- most of it still in print. Most people would say he learnt to try very hard indeed.
But what Bukowski meant was: ‘do’ don’t ‘try to do’. I think of ‘trying’ as a kind of posture, encouraged at school and at home, by over eager teachers and parents. The kids who act and look keenest, while keeping a weather eye on the other kids so as not to appear as creeps, get ahead. They learn first and foremost how to appear to be ‘trying hard’. They get rewarded with attention for looking interested, for 'trying'. But life is about doing not trying.
What you need to do in writing is to construct a method where you don’t have to try, you just do. This might mean accepting you make lots of revisions so any one draft however bad, doesn’t get you down. Or it might mean planning the whole thing out so you can write it straight through almost on autopilot. Whatever it takes to eliminate that constipated unproductive sensation of ‘trying’.
Often a breakthrough comes when you’ve been working away and got seemingly nowhere. You then almost give up, but somehow don’t. Emotionally, you’re drained. The next day, without effort, you know how to fix everything. But instead of having to take it to the brink like this invent a method that works for you: trust that you will have breakthroughs and when you hit a wall keep up momentum but don’t ‘try’. When I hit a wall – which means I don’t know what to do next with a completed, but unsatisfactory, draft- I print it out, read through, make a list of corrections- and even if the corrections are tiny this process often reveals the deeper problems which I then instantly fix. But if I thought about those deep problems I’d get in a mess trying too hard. Laser printers are a marvelous invention.
Trying is keeping going with the brakes still on. It is keeping going without knowing where to go. It is keeping going when you are aiming at a result rather than a process. You are aiming at ‘having written a novel’ rather than writing it. You have to enjoy the process a little bit. You don’t have to love it but there must be some satisfaction sitting there at the keyboard.
You have to keep going but it is better to move sideways like a crab than to head butt a brick wall. Sooner or later you’ll find a break you can move through. Easily.
Jeremy Narby reports, in his excellent book The Cosmic Serpent, that amongst the Ashaninca Indians of the Amazon rainforest the worst insult to throw is “es pura teoria”- that’s pure theory. For them practica and tactica- practice and tactics are what count. They don’t talk of doing things; they do them.
In the West, especially in academia, but also within the bureaucratic entrails of any big organisation, including many businesses, they talk a lot about doing things and do little. In these places there exists an unstated reverence for theory. Theory is held in higher esteem than practice.
What interests me, though, is the way theory and practice have become divorced and treated as though they are part of two different enterprises.
It’s easy to see that mathematics, which can be used to describe a theory, usually rather well, has become interchangeable with theory. But maths is a tool, a language, that can be used in an abstract or a concrete way. Abstract patterns, made prettily with paint are not theories, they are paintings, or can be. Abstract maths, which produces a pretty pattern of numbers is also pleasing- to those who can understand such stuff but it is not ‘theory’.
Theory can only ever be theory, when it relates to something out there in the world. If it relates to nothing it is simply a pattern of some sort.
So theory and practice are always joined by their need for the world. The theoretician claims he is describing the world, or a process that would work in the world. The practical person is making it happen or testing some idea out in reality. Maybe because of some crazy idea that the man who has the idea is ‘better’ than the man who gets his hands dirty we have ended up with this competition between practical men and theorists. From my perspective, as someone with a fatal love of theory, I can say that theory attracts lazy people. Workers are more likely to go towards the practical.
But really there is no such thing as an absence of theory. Even Thomas Edison, who scorned mathematicians, and claimed all his work was trial and error, used theory. For his lightbulb he took an idea developed by Joseph Swan (a glass bulb containing a carbon filament) and just kept coming up with different solutions until he had a long lasting lightbulb. Edison had some grasp of the relationship between current and resistance otherwise he would have wasted vast amounts of time producing ideas that never had a chance. This relationship is called Ohm’s law, and is a theory about how the world works that is used by electrical engineers all the time. Also, each time he tried a new test, he was testing a new idea, a new configuration. So even a man who scorned theory had a ‘theoretical’ element in his work. Maybe not high theory, but it was there. But it was subordinate to the whole enterprise – which was about making a light bulb that lasted for more than a few minutes.
What I’m working towards is the fact that practice is the highest form theory can take. It’s useful to avoid any theory that is detached from some practical application. It’s like being immersed in failure too much. It’s like putting the cart before the horse. The project is conceived and then you come up with as much theory as you need to get things done and no more.
Because over dependence on theory does your head in. Engineers joke- "there's no problem too difficult a theoretician can't solve it." In other words, theory people live in a fantasy world. Sanity is a walk in the other direction, towards the 'realer' world with all its insoluble problems, jokes, setbacks and miracles.
'The rational approach tends to minimise what it does not understand...it starts from the idea that everything is explainable and that mystery is in some sense the enemy. This means that it prefers pejorative, and even wrong, answers to admitting its own lack of understanding.'
Was Bruce Lee any good at martial arts? Ask anyone who punches, chops, kicks or throws as a hobby or even a living and the answer will be one of incredulity- isn’t it obvious? Of course he was good, he was amazing! Now you can see how people might get confused- all the cat squeaks, the ambiguous scratches on his body from the tiger claw of Han, the general kung fooey hysteria which still envelops martial arts from the Orient. And then there was his death at 32, very James Dean, just before the release of Enter the Dragon. So how do you know? How does a non-martial artist tell how good Bruce was?
Born in 1940 in Hong Kong into a family of well respected actors, Bruce Lee was in child movies from the age of 3 and by the time he left Hong Kong for America, when he was 18, he’d been in over a dozen feature films. If his aim had been to just be an actor, he could have stayed put. But acting was always just a vehicle for Lee to promote his fascination with martial arts, which initially was Wing chun kung fu, taught to him by the famous master Ip (or Yip) Man. But Bruce also boxed- becoming schools champion of Hong Kong and danced- winning the regional Cha-cha championships too. He also got into street fights, since one of the teaching ideas of Ip Man was that martial arts skills should be tested in real fights. Lee was suspended from school several times for applying this.
Lee had a half-German grandparent, and had been taunted as a youth for being part foreign. He decided to leave Hong Kong to attend college in Seattle. Here he found that the kung fu he knew, though good, had its limitations. It was a turning point . Wing Chun with its fast moves and low kicks wasn’t enough. He began to assimilate moves from Japanese and Korean arts taking everything that suited his style and physique and rejecting that which didn’t work for him. Usually this is a disaster- the equivalent of mixing curry with steak and chips- but in the hands of a master chef you also have the possibility of fusion cuisine of the highest order. This was what Bruce Lee called Jeet Kune Do- his own system that featured kicks, throws and any weapons he felt like using. In 1966 Bruce Lee appeared in the TV series The Green Hornet and this was a big hit in Hong Kong. He returned a hero to make the five feature films that made him world famous, and revealed just how good he really was.
Basically there are three ways to tell. Firstly, performing strings of complex moves is easy- look at Keanu Reeves in the Matrix- looks good but it’s all piffle. It’s harder to make a single move look good and even trickier to perform minor activities like walking, talking to others, even putting the salt down on the table. If it has pizzazz, clarity, springiness and above all timing then it’s a good sign. Bruce Lee (and Steve Mcqueen, one of his martial arts students) has all this in spades. Watch a Stallone movie- his timing is terrible. He acts in almost total isolation.
Next, you can tell how good someone is by their students. Apart from his Hollywood clientele Bruce Lee taught fighters such as Dan Inosanto and Taky Kimura, both of whom command great respect worldwide. Ever met anyone boasting of being taught by Jean Claude Van Damme?
Third- what’s it like being on the receiving end of their technique? There’s a sequence in Enter the Dragon during the outdoor tournament section when Bruce Lee kicks an opponent out of the ring. This guy is catapaulted back into the crowd. What you don’t see is the man behind who’s arm is broken by the sheer momentum of Lee’s kick at one remove. On another occasion when Lee was on Hong Kong TV, he was surprised by a test, set by the presenter, which was to push over a Tai Chi master, notoriously good at rooting themselves to the spot. In a flash the Tai Chi master has disappeared. What happened is too fast for the camera to catch. Finally the camera pans down to the master out cold on the floor. “I don’t push,” says Lee, “I punch.”
Was Bruce Lee any good? Of course he was!