Polymath or Just Unfocused?

I have been accused (?) informed (?) on a few occasions that I am a polymath—that I have a very broad range of knowledge and skills and am competent in several fields. I have some doubts about that, myself, but the polite response is to thank the speaker and change the topic.

For starters, I’m not as skilled as people think. Second, I don’t know as much as people think – I have a bird-bath knowledge base. It is quite broad. It is also quite shallow once you get away from “my” field. Third, the combination of the first two means I can give the impression of competence as long as I’m not asked to actually do X or expand on Y. That doesn’t make me a polymath. It makes me unfocused. I’m rather like a shotgun, but less useful in the real world.

What it also shows is that I have never learned to rein in my curiosity and focus. I will happily squander an hour of archive time browsing geology and other out-of-field journals. My bookshelves groan under volumes ranging from fiction and fantasy to history (environmental, military, political, social, religious, European, Asian, US, Russian, yes), geology, natural history, civil engineering, archaeology and anthropology (not always in English). My Amazon purchases must make the “also-bot”‘s processors smoke trying to find a pattern other than “interesting.”

Yes, I can cook, clean, bury grow plants, fly and mend airplanes, mend clothes, clean small game (have not had the opportunity to clean larger game but I know the theory), do basic carpentry and use hand tools and some power tools without burning the house down. And? That’s what you do if you want to keep your house from falling down on your head, or your clothes from being more hole than clothes.

I’m well-rounded, not a polymath. What is worrisome is that we, as a general social whole, have reached the point where being well-rounded seems rare. I first realized that something was odd when the Old Guard at my college had a collective cow because so many current students (mid 1990s) wanted a basic home-ec course with cooking 101, how to balance a checkbook, and stain-removal sorts of skills. Horror! Vapors! Swoon! That’s not what real women want!! Well, these 18-22 year old women wanted it. I shrugged, rolled my eyes, and kept cooking curries and mending seams.

Rant on: (I swear, do clothing manufacturers not think that real people might put a bit of stress on garments when they put them on, or might pull what looks like a bit of leftover thread? Knot your flippin’ ends, people!) End rant.

You see, I have tools. My parents, teachers, and mentors did not give me skills or knowledge per se. They gave me the tools to acquire, mend, learn what needed to be done, and kept me from killing myself. I suspect the younger set has been so protected, and their parents as well, that they don’t know how to approach tools, physical or mental, let alone use them without being spooked. And without the exposure to tools, without an un-leashed curiosity, they don’t go snooping and nibbling and exploring. It’s not safe to go exploring, you see. You never know quite what you might end up doing. Like, oh, studying abroad, or cooking strange things, or learning how to build furniture and repair sheet rock, or write books and speak in strange tongues.


12 thoughts on “Polymath or Just Unfocused?

  1. I can amaze people with my off hand knowledge of obscure topics… as long as they don’t ask me to expand on that knowledge.

    • I’ve been banned from Trivial Pursuit games on occasion. I have a fly-paper mind. The little useless-but-interesting bits stick, the big ideas just lumber past and are never seen again.

  2. I like your metaphor of “bird-bath knowledge base,” as it is the first time I’ve seen a good phrase for it. Many people don’t even manage that these days, and I have to wonder if you’re right, and its because they’re overprotected. College doesn’t help much, either – while general studies requirements do ensure some breadth, it isn’t usually even “bird-bath” depth – more like a few tiny puddles scattered about. Graduate education often deepens only a rather area. In my personal experience, clueless-outside-their-field academics are quite plentiful; I don’t know if I’d say they’re a majority, but they’re definitely prevalent. YMMV, of course, but I think that compared to that form of specialization, a “bird-bath knowledge base” is far more useful – and helpful for seeing the broader picture and the interconnections between things.

    • I’ve met one truly helpless academic (not his fault. He’s descended from academics on both sides and has some wiring quirks as well. He was born to be an archivist/historian.) I’ve met three hyper-competent, widely-read academics within history, one of whom was retired and had done “interesting things” with the British military during WWII and shortly after. The rest did tend to be lost outside their specialties, although environmental historians as an aggregate tend to be better grounded* because of the need to pull in material from the sciences and engineering. Women’s Studies seemed to be the most focus-locked, probably because they spend so much time in theory and not as much in the archives.

      *Pun mostly unintended.

      • There were a lot of academics at a cousin’s wedding. One was a woman who appeared to be in her mid thirties; she carried an oversized bag, wandered about the wedding reception rather aimlessly, often sat down and knitted for intervals, and talked to no one. That was just weird. There were a couple of clueless big city academics, who’d never really lived outside a big city, never had a real job, and moved from one big city to the next for education and academic career. (Sadly, a person from the State Department managed to out-clueless the academics, but that’s a story for another time.)

        Your mention of “grounded” reminds me that I always found the archaeology and paleoanthropology faculty a lot more down-to-earth than the cultural anthropologists. I always suspected it was the need to utilize the physical sciences and technology that made the difference. Whether it is due to digging in the dirt, as well, I cannot say.

  3. My dad taught me all sorts of weird things as a kid, everything from using a cross-cut saw (at age 6!) to slaughtering a hog. I’ve tuned a car, replaced ball joints (Fun, fun. Not), driven a tractor, learned to plow behind a mule (very carefully), run a trap line, built fish traps, dug (and filled in) an outhouse — all kinds of things in great demand these days. When I joined the Air Force, my job demanded I learn things like celestial navigation, spherical trig, mapmaking, map reading, and just about everything I could about a potential or actual enemy. I’ve “buried” most of that knowledge because of my chronic pain problem, but it wouldn’t take much to re-awaken it. My knowledge, like yours, is similar to the local people describing the South Platte — a mile wide and an inch deep (the rest of that is, it’s too thick to drink, too wet to plow).

    • Ah yes, the South Platte. I spent a lot of my childhood driving along it (Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, Indian wars, pioneers . . .) because my parents were/are history buffs.

  4. I think you just burned my new blog to the ground. Haha but anyway, yes, I totally get it. May be I should be The Unfocused Asian and not The Asian Polymath… I like to romanticize things, what can I say 😉

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