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I write a weekly email to the ND students on my shift at the University of Bridgeport Health Science Center. If in the course of working with a patient a concept arises that appears to require more in-depth knowledge I often specify certain research articles for the students to read in preparation for the next shift. This is not typical of clinic shifts and my shift is thought to be among the more demanding. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, a place on the shift rotation is always in high demand.
Recently the discussion came round to two concepts related to both cancer and inflammation: endoplasmic reticulum stress (ER stress), which results in poorly manufactured proteins; and the subsequent unfolded protein response (UFR), which occurs as a result of the dangerous aspects these improperly folded proteins pose to the cell.
After providing the students with 6-7 key studies, I began to suspect that they might need some cheering-up. So I appended this little ditty to the email:
A polymath is someone who is interested in everything, and nothing else.'
A polymath (Greek πολυμαθής, polymathēs, "having learned much") is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. In less formal terms, a polymath (or polymathic person) may simply be someone who is very knowledgeable. Most ancient scientists were polymaths by today's standards.
How do YOU propose to become a polymath? What might you need or observe?
Firstly, and this might be obvious, there must occur a huge leap in self-confidence. If you are easily intimidated by learning new things, or think you are somehow less smart than others, becoming polymathic will not be easy.
The learning-intimidated state is overcome by taking the first few baby steps in developing a new appreciation of just what you are capable of being aware of. This might be as simple as arriving at the conclusion that, since you are (at the very least) in control of your own life, who else is better capable?
I once had to do an interview with
Well of course I got all bent out of shape. The guy is like one of the smartest people on the planet. etc. etc. etc. string theory, etc. etc. etc. skeptic, etc.etc. etc.
As I got more twisted and twisted, I went to dinner at an old friend's house. These people were once our next door neighbors and we've kept in touch over the years, despite (or perhaps because) we don't have very much in common. On hearing my lament, the husband listened and simplified the whole thing for me by identifying the one basic truism:
'He may be smart, but he don't know what you know.'
Anyway, we couldn't get a time that worked for both of us and the interview never took place, but I did learn something about myself.
2. Rush/ Don't rush.
How often do we use time to avoid something? To just get 'it' over? However, far from telling you to slow down, I'm suggesting that you rush with a purpose. Not just to 'get it over with ', but rather to 'just to get to the end of it.' Then, instead of just moving on, going back and revisit that notion that caught your eye. Getting to the end of something lets the brain 'pin the four corners' of the concept and set aside space for conceptualization and context.
This observation has an important metaphor about disease and health buried within it.
Health is often like a car speeding down the highway: scenery flying by, but just barely noticed. Windows up. AC on. Favorite tunes playing. The conversation centering on some arcane subject. However, the timing belt breaks. So now we are going zero miles per hour, perched aside a forlorn stretch of highway. Initially we can only think about getting out of here ASAP. But soon other senses intervene and we begin to mesh with this new reality. Perhaps a tall copse of Shepherd's Purse. The sound of a small stream heard but not seen. The alluring shade of a nearby tree.
Disease as metaphor, disease as teacher.
3. Quantity has a quality all of its own.
Think of it like this: if you were pouring a concrete floor, it would be rather silly to start in one corner, pour a one-foot-square area, wait for it to cure and dry, and then move on to the next square. Not only would it be inefficient, but the floor itself would have very little structural integrity.
What should we do instead?
We'd pour 'skim coats' over the entire area, perhaps in several layers, trying to cover as much of the entire area as possible. Now, if I were insecure about my 'footing', and had to make the choice between standing on a one by one-foot-square of concrete or the first layer of a thin skim coat covering the entire area I might opt for the apparent security of the fully-completed one-foot square (and indeed, most testing is done on a person's ability to make the 'most perfect' one-foot square). Trouble is, I'm on a square of concrete that doesn't allow me to move anywhere else.
That's the problem with developing polymathic knowledge: there is an initial 'awkward stage' that many people find troubling, especially if they are insecure, or have been led to believe that all things taught to them must have immediate 'meaning'. However, there is a fix for this and a few of you have already figured it out:
Wonder is often compared to the emotion of awe but unlike awe wonder inspires joy rather than fear or respect.
So you might say that wonder is curiosity tinged with the prospect of potential joy.
Thus we have two choices with this week's assignments. We can moan about the amount of reading on what (after all) is just a clinic shift; start with the first article, tediously plow through it in workmanlike fashion, and then move onto the next, and the next.
This will take hours.
Or we can isolate the key concepts (in this instance I've supplied them: molecular chaperones and the process of n-glycation) gain a cursory understanding of these concepts and then skim through the articles, 'wondrously' luxuriating in areas that catch our attention and/or fit our model of the big picture. Each iteration (or skim coat) deepens knowledge and allows for the creation of more and more interconnectedness.
So, as you might gather, far from being onerous, polymathic behavior is a labor-saving device.
I am author of a new book titled The New Polymath. It is full of examples of "compund innovation" - 3,5, 10 strands of infotech, healthtech, nanotech etc and about how enterprises are learning many of those technologies, polymath style. The focus of my book is polymath teams and enterprises, not individuals but on my book tour I am getting many questions "how do I personally become a polymath?" and I give them some of your answers - aim high, be curious, relish complexity, but deliver simplicity, the polymaths of old were also philosophers so don't forget ethics in tech etc...in addition I feed the need to tell them - don't beat yourself up if are a specialist and cannot diversify much. Even in the European Renaissance which had many polymaths, they were less than 5% of the population. Learn to become part of polymath teams - each a specialist in something different...don;t just hang around your exact types or in the same location all the time.
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