“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~Unknown

Friday, October 26, 2012

Don't Waste Your Life on Blogs

It has been a while since my last post. I'm certain my hundreds (thousands?) of renaissance men followers were biting their nails in anticipation of my next post. Perhaps you were thinking I had given up on the idea. Perhaps you were thinking I had perished on my latest skydiving attempt. Perhaps I had fallen into a crevasse in my recent attempt at the summit of K2?

All true.

I have been living, my brothers. Something I encourage all of you to do, as well.

Life is short. An ancient truth that becomes clearer to me as the days pass by, ever more quickly.

Don't spend it staring at a computer. Don't spend it in tedium or negativity. The World awaits.

The multitude of accomplishments yet unconquered... remain... yearning to bend under your assault.

Tilt your lance square at the shield of your desires and knock them from their high horse, my friends.

Our days are limited for good reason: in order that each one remains precious. Don't waste them.

Move forward. Incessantly.


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What Good Are Generalists, Anyway?

The World has seen a steady increase in specialization over the past century. This is no secret. In fact, it has become much more 'normal' to specialize than to be a generalist in the modern world.  But, we wouldn't need to stretch too far back in history to find a time when almost all people were generalists to some degree. Not very long ago, most people needed to know how to build their own homes, to grow their own food, to hunt, to determine the mechanics of and build a windmill, to assess the advantageous biological traits that would pass on through breeding. Not long ago, reading literature and playing music were nearly the only form of everyday entertainment, and writing letters was nearly the only form of long-distance communication.

Of course, cars and airplanes had not been invented, much less computers, and plenty of people were dying every day from Small Pox, among other horrible diseases.  And, there was no such thing as Super String Theory. So, obviously we have made some progress, albeit in which direction remains to be seen.

Is hyper-specialization truly the future of humanity? Are we destined to become further and further specialized? Will we need to have 8 physicians present in the exam room, each reporting on something specific to inform us of the totality of our ailments? Perhaps it is so. And, perhaps it ought to be so. There are certainly many positive things that could be said about specialization.

None come to mind at the moment, but I'm sure there's something.

However, what say you for the generalist?  What say you for the man who refuses to specialize - for the man who cannot specialize? What say you for the man to whom specialization is anathema? Is the generalist a Quagga, never able to decide whether to be a horse or a zebra, bound for extinction? What good is a generalist, anyway?

The Creative Innovator 

Possibly the greatest trait of the generalist is his ability to innovate. Never was this truer than in the persona of Leonardo da Vinci, but there are many, many other examples of creatively innovative generalists throughout time (I welcome your favorite examples in the comments). A generalist draws upon all of his varied life experiences in every daily task.  When he is presented with a problem, it is likely that he has had some alternative life experience from which to draw in order to solve it creatively.  This is the proverbial 'thinking outside the box' paradigm. A generalist, by his very nature, seeks out multiple and varied life experiences in order to remain contented, and these varied experiences supply him with the ideas to cross-pollinate solutions into other areas of his life. I would submit, in fact, that most innovations spring from a generalistic well.  In many cases the generalist is probably the instigator of the innovative idea, whereupon the specialist is either contracted to hone, elaborate upon, or simply steals the idea outright.

It is almost necessary that a new, creative innovation originate with a generalist, or at least a generalistic thought. The reason it hadn't been thought of before is precisely because it took the unique life experience of that particular creative individual to bring his experience to bear upon the problem. It is the generalist who connects his past experiences in a way that no specialist could when the statement "I wish there was something that would make this be this way," or "I wish there was something that would do this" is issued. This statement, whether issued by the generalist within himself or by another person, sets a chain-reaction of memory and creativity alight within the generalist's mind. He connects the dots. He has used, seen, or done something similar in the past that just might work with a little modification in this situation. Completely unrelated to the original application perhaps, but definitely applicable with some minor, situation-specific modifications.

It is not absolutely necessary for the generalistic idea to spring from a generalist, mind you. Even the most specialized specialist will have life experience to create a few connecting dots here or there. However, a true generalist will necessarily have many more dots to connect, thereby increasing the chances that the innovation originates with him.    

The Empathetic Humanist

Because of the Generalist's wandering and multipathic nature, he has created for himself the opportunity to 'see how the other half live', whomever they might be. The generalist has therefore developed an uncanny ability to 'fit in' among several different types of crowds. He can apply his life experience with individuals from all walks of life to any situation. He is chameleonic without straying into conformity. He can choose his words carefully based upon his experiential knowledge of how this particular audience will hear those words. More than that, he has actually been this audience at one point or another, which is why he has this ability. He has 'walked a mile in their shoes', so the saying goes, and is therefore able to relate empathetically to them.

Generalists have this ability to empathize where specialists do not because of their varied life experience with a multitude of people, places and things. Specialists tend to congregate amongst their own, and therefore have a much narrower world view. It can almost not be helped. These are the experiences that each has known throughout his life, but the Generalist has known many different and varied types of people, places, and things, where the Specialist has known relatively few by comparison. It could be said that the Specialist will end up knowing a certain type of person very well, but it is then also true that the Generalist will know people well.

This trait is useful in that generalists tend to be very good communicators. They tend to understand which words will play well with certain people and which words will not.  They also tend to know how to say things in a way that most people will understand. They can take in and understand a specialist's communication and break it down in a way that will be understood by many dissonantly-specialized people, as well as the common lay-person, which is becoming more and more important as our world becomes ever more hyper-specialized. Sticking within the communications realm, generalists tend to make very good marketers and/or salesmen because of their ability to understand how several different types of people will react to stimuli, an obvious benefit when one is trying to convince someone to buy or do something.

Generalists tend to know people well, and are therefore better than most at managing them. A generalist tends to understand what will motivate and/or dissuade a person from doing or not doing something.  Again, the Generalist has probably been in the same or very similar situation to the one in which the person they are managing is, and is therefore able to call upon his life experience to understand how that person will be motivated.  Because of this, a generalist even has the ability to be persuasive to the point of manipulation, albeit in a generally empathetic way. This tends to leave generalists in a good position to become Human Resource Managers or Behavioral Therapists, for instance.

The Climber

Generalists are not very good at specialization; it is actually repulsive to them in varying degrees. This is in some way what motivates the generalist more than most to 'climb the ladder'. There is only so much time that a generalist will tolerate the mail room, literally or figuratively. He will either move on or move up. Very often he will be moving up, rung by rung, until at some point he finds that he is at the top of the ladder.  The view can tend to be nice up there for a generalist.  CEOs and Executive Managers of companies big and small are, by necessity, generalists. They do not have time to specialize in every aspect of the organization in order to be effective, even if that was their desire.

However, most generalists have a great ability to see 'the big picture' more effectively than most, which suits them well in this position. Generalists can piece together many disparate parts of the puzzle in order to make decisions about the broad directions that need to be taken in any given organization. Although the generalist will necessarily not be a specialist in every aspect of the company or organization's operations, he will be somewhat proficient in many of the areas for which he is being briefed on a regular basis, allowing him to generally know enough of everything to make the good decisions that need to be made in a changing environment.

It should be noted that this trait is not only a useful one in the business world, but also with respect to leadership in general. Generalists, for instance, can make fantastic social and military leaders because of their ability to connect the dots and see the big picture that others might not see.

The Trustworthy Sage

History has always valued the 'Wise Man'. This is the guy you go to when you just need some general advice about something, and he usually has a pretty intelligent answer to offer. He is an educated man, but more than that he is a man with varied and useful experience. Even when he doesn't necessarily know the answer to the question, he can surmise a relatively good guess from his other varied and useful life experiences, as well as his education. And, if all else fails, he can at least suggest where to find the answer if he does not have it. This is a guy you can trust because he generally steers you in the right direction.

In many ways, the World needs more of these men.  Trust is a disappearing commodity, it seems, in our time, along with wisdom (sadly). Perhaps that seemed true in every time, and perhaps that is a cynical thought, but in a world where many of the 'educated' people know very little about anyone else, and where plenty of the education they do have is coming from sources such as 'reality' TV, it is hard not to become cynical. Think about men such as Thomas Jefferson and/or Benjamin Franklin. Where are these men in our time, and can their tempered voices rise above the cacophonous buzz of argumentative specialist 'experts' even if they do still exist?

It seems people are listening to and taking advice more and more from the specialists. This is the kind of thing that leads one to the knowledge that eating salmon will both cure your heart disease and cancer, as well as kill you horrifically via mercury poisoning, all in the same week. Perhaps we should have just been listening to the wise man all along who said: "anything in moderation."

So, that's about everything that generalists are good for (not really; there's much more).

Here's one last thing, though: Generalists are much more fun than specialists. It's been scientifically proven.

Well, there you go, you've wasted another good fifteen minutes of your life when you could have been fishing or playing Angry Birds or something.

As usual, please don't hesitate to add to this with your comments, and if you find any of this interesting, don't hesitate to subscribe and/or spread it around.

And, just in case anyone was going to comment on this, let me save you the trouble: yes, you can substitute 'she' for 'he' in any of the above post.

Monday, June 20, 2011

How To Be A Renaissance Dad (Part II)

This is a follow-up to my previous post, which you can either scroll down to read, or read here.

So, now that you are a renaissance dad, and you are successfully juggling the child-rearing and your wandering/eclectic tendencies, managing to keep your children fed and clothed to a relatively successful degree, it is time to start thinking about doing your damnedest to raise your kids in a way that will produce the well-rounded character in them that you have come to believe is important for any individual to possess, but especially your own offspring. Now, parenting is difficult.  And, of course, there are things that will be out of your control altogether.  You cannot force your children to enjoy the same things you do, and in fact the harder you try to do that, the more they will probably resent the things that you like or want them to like.  So, this isn't going to be a lesson in teaching your children to be like you, as much as a lesson in teaching your children how to think like you, or more specifically, how to think broadly.  Obviously, this is slightly less obvious than telling them, "Think broadly, will you!".

I should also add that every child is different, and of course I do not presume to know every thing about every  one of them, so these are going to be somewhat general guidelines garnered from my own experiences and tangentially the experiences/mistakes of other parents whom I've known.

I'm sure many of you have heard the stories of the Tiger Mothers who spend lifetimes insisting that their children master the violin, and making sure that they do so by essentially holding their children hostage and forcing them to practice hours upon hours a day.  These Tiger Mothers also do not accept their children doing any worse than As in every subject, and in fact they are generally harshly disappointed if their children are not the top student in every class that they attend.  There are plenty of detractors from this type of parenting, and I must say I'm not a huge proponent of every aspect of it either, especially the degree and the tendency toward specialization; however, there is some merit to the overall concept of doing your best to make your child the best at everything they do.  Who wouldn't want that?

Here is the major caveat: the Tiger Mother philosophy seems to neglect at least some of the very important life skills attained through strictly social interactions. Your child needs social interaction with his peers in order to understand how to deal with the myriad 'types' of people he is bound to encounter throughout his life. Your child will be much more 'successful' in life if he is able to relate to all of his peers in a social, non-professional way. The reality is, he will be much more likely to get that promotion if he is not only very proficient in his field, but also able to crack a joke with the boss over a few beers than he will if he is an expert in his field, but awkwardly silent or worse when it comes to social interactions because he doesn't know how to relate to people on a personal level (because he's had his nose stuffed in a book his whole damn life and wasn't allowed to be in the school play). People are social animals.  Our evolution is based at least in part on dealing with each other socially. So, go ahead and let your kid be in the school play and go to prom. Let him learn how to kiss a girl. It's actually good for him (and her).

It should also be understood that just as you will never be the best at everything you do, no matter how hard you try, your children will also not be the best at everything they do.  That is just realism, however harsh it might be.  I'm sorry to all of the disappointed Tiger Mothers out there: your children are not the best at everything.  In fact, your devotion to pounding a certain set of skills into them has made them pathetically deficient in other areas (Dance comes to mind). There will always be someone better at this thing or that, especially when you consider that there are many, many people willing to specialize and dedicate a lifetime to a specific niche.  However, just as every renaissance man knows that being 'the best' is not as important as the journey that he took toward becoming 'very good' at many things, which is what made him into the fantastically well-rounded man that he is today, the renaissance dad should also know that it is equally important for his children to have that journey.

So, once again, I have compiled a list of guidelines to help the Renaissance Dad succeed where the Tiger Mother might not.

Or, in other words:

Why Renaissance Dads Are Superior

A Renaissance Dad Expects Perfection.

Yes, of course I know that I just told you that your child will not be 'the best' at everything.  However, this is no excuse to telegraph that hard-core realism to them.  Your children do not yet know that they cannot be the best at whatever they do.  They should be made to believe that they can be the best, even if that means that you need to express some (tempered and constructive) disappointment in their less-than-perfect accomplishments from time to time.  There are far too many children being praised for far too little these days.  Do not praise your child for being mediocre or even 'sort-of' good.  Do express disappointment if your child does not succeed at something.  Do let them know that you expect the best from them.  Do put in the work required to help them be excellent (i.e. helping with violin practice and math homework). 

I realize this seems somewhat antithetical to the modern approach, and I can certainly see why some parents would want to 'just let their children be', so to speak (that is certainly the easiest way to parent in the short term), but childhood, especially early childhood, is no time for freedom.  No child wants to work.  It is a parent's job to make them work.  No child wants to spend an hour practicing violin or doing math homework, but that is why they make parents.  Your child will never be 'very good' at anything, other than perhaps pushing your buttons, unless you always expect perfection from them and teach them the value of work.  But don't forget the most important part: always give them copious amounts of praise when they do succeed or do something excellent.  This is the key that will unlock their desire to continue succeeding and doing excellent things.

A Renaissance Dad Teaches What Schools Don't. 

This rule has a many layers. On the surface, there is of course the fact that most (American public) schools do a relatively poor job educating children in almost every discipline these days.  Notably, kids are being left more and more ignorant in the math and science fields, and music and arts education is practically non-existent in modern public schools; whereas, physical education (sports) and English education (for native speakers) seem to remain somewhat strong. It is your job to determine in which areas your child's school is doing an adequate or better job, and then determine where to fill in the gaps, and fill them in you must.

I'm sure I don't need to tell anyone the importance of a good education in math and science, but the arts, it seems from the amount of education dollars spent, have come to be viewed as 'unnecessary' in modern childhood development.  This is true even though numerous, long-term studies have shown that an education in the arts will improve a child's overall education in all disciplines. So, it is up to you, Dad, to fill in the gaps that the schools are leaving.  Encourage your child to be artistic. Spend extra time with them as needed to help them be proficient with math and the sciences. Don't let the school be your child's only instructor, especially if it is failing to instruct adequately.  

A secondary layer to this rule is teaching your children things that schools can't and never have been able to teach, and for which you are really the perfect instructor.  There are so many things in this category that are important, it will be difficult to list them all, but here are a few: fishing, hunting, awareness and appreciation of nature, gardening, automotive maintenance, construction/repair, basic mechanics, how to pass a soccer ball, stoicism in the face of pain, etc, etc, etc... This is essentially just being a good dad, but of course you need to take the time to do so. The good part about this is that it is often quite enjoyable.

A Renaissance Dad Teaches By Example. 

Educating your child will never be successful unless you can back your words up with action. Kids are smart.  They will see through hypocrisy when they are less than one year old.  They understand what conviction looks like at a very early age. If you are telling your children to be excellent, but you are doing little yourself to continually strive for excellence without someone telling you to do so, your kids will understand that hard work is only important enough to get you off their backs, and once they don't have anyone 'pushing' them, they are free to settle.  

Now, if you are a true renaissance man, this will not be a problem for you.  You will constantly be seeking improvement in your own life.  You will continually be striving for excellence in everything you do, and perpetually learning about new and interesting things.  Your lust for knowledge will be transparent, and it will be contagious.  Let your children see you read.  Let them see you practice things until you become good at them.  Show them that attaining excellence is not easy, and is actually hard work (even for you).  

Also, show them that you are proud of your own achievements when you do achieve a goal.  Tell them of your accomplishments and what it took to earn them. This will free them to be proud of themselves when they succeed, which will be the internal engine that drives them toward excellence when you are not around.

A Renaissance Dad Teaches How To Learn, Not What To Learn. 

I would venture a guess that every dad harbors some hope that his children will grow to love the same things he does.  In reality, this is seldom the case.  In fact, it is probably more often the case that his children will be somewhat resistant to the specific dreams and aspirations that he had.  This is not a bad thing. Allow your children some flexibility to choose their own interests, and they will follow them with greater devotion than if they had had them thrust upon them by you. 

For instance, if you want your child to play violin, don't just tell them they will be learning the violin. Rather, suggest to them that they should learn to play music and ask them which instrument appeals to them. Maybe suggest the violin, and even let them play with your violin to see if it clicks for them. But, if they happen to decide they want to play the Tuba instead, don't insist on the violin; go with the Tuba. You will spend much less time pulling your disappearing hair out if you allow them to choose their own interests rather than forcing your interests upon them.  

Now, once they choose Tuba, you will need to teach them how to learn Tuba. This includes teaching them that anything worth learning is going entail a lot of work.  Once they have expressed an interest, don't allow them to quit on their interests or themselves.  As was mentioned previously, kids do not want to work inherently.  They do not yet understand the rewards that hard work gains. This is something that they will learn once they have achieved something as a result of their own hard work. If they are allowed to quit the things that they start, they will never know this sense of achievement, and will therefore not be driven to accomplish great things. 

In other words, they will never learn to love playing the Tuba until they understand the rewards, accomplished through unyielding practice, that Tuba virtuosity holds. Don't let them tell you that they all of a sudden want to play the violin after two months of playing the Tuba. This is a trick to appeal to your vanity, violin-playing renaissance man. Make them stick to the things they have chosen until they have succeeded, lest they become 'dabblers'.  

Also, think about how you learn new things, and teach your children the importance of how to learn. As a renaissance man, you excel at learning new things. What do you do when you want to learn something new? You read copious amounts of information about it, get some schooling in the subject, seek out experts to teach you, practice, research, practice, practice. Show them how to learn. Don't just teach them what you know. Teach them how you know it. This will enable them to learn new things well for a lifetime.

A Renaissance Dad Realizes That Happiness Is Success. 

I've hit upon this theme a number of times in previous posts, and I probably can't stress the importance of this general philosophy enough. This rule runs strictly against the grain of the Tiger Mother philosophy at a fundamental level. Too often, people gauge their own success by how big of a house or boat they have. Essentially, the paycheck is the barometer of success. I would submit, and I am certainly not the first nor only one to do so, that this measure of success is specious at best. 

Money cannot buy happiness. It is cliché, but nevertheless, it is also true. This is not to say that money is not important. Having a certain amount of money (i.e. not living in poverty) certainly makes life less miserable. However, no amount of money will give you the indescribable, tingling satisfaction of actually accomplishing something that you have worked very hard to achieve, and that you loved achieving. If you happened to make money doing that, then you were doubly blessed. However, if you didn't make a whole lot of money doing that, then you were still blessed because you still have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished a dream or life goal. Alternatively, If you did something you did not enjoy for a long period of time, simply because it afforded you some good pay, you have failed at some fundamental life purpose, and you will feel that in the end.

I have found that many, many people will delay or forfeit their true dreams and aspirations for the sake of earning a 'good living'. Perhaps renaissance men understand better than anyone how impossible an existence this is. Living in this way will take years from your life in the form of stress and general unhappiness or, at the very least, malaise. As a renaissance dad, you must encourage and instill the value of chasing and accomplishing one's dreams into your children. If you can accomplish this, you will have succeeded in cultivating happy people, which is something of which this World can never have too much.  

Obviously, teaching your children the importance of how to responsibly handle what money they have is important. But, much more important is teaching them to be content with whatever monetary wealth they might have. It is an increasingly rare trait. In America, we are afforded the basic human right to pursue our own happiness. It is immortalized in our Constitution. Nevertheless, we are constantly pressured and funneled into roles that are chosen for us or into which we have fallen by accident, which do not provide us happiness, and which we accept because of the monetary comforts. We are also constantly bombarded with commercial messages that seek to convince us that we will not be happy unless we can buy the latest and greatest things. On a fundamental level, we all know this to be untrue, even if we are duped from time to time. Do not make the unforgivable mistake of funneling your children into medical school simply because you believe financial success will make them happy. If they truly love medicine, fine, but allow and encourage them to follow their own dreams, even if it means they will not be financially wealthy, and they will reward you (and the World) with their own passion, excellence, and happiness, which in-turn enriches us all.

As usual, I encourage your comments, additions, and/or arguments.