A polymath in an age of specialists

by Suw on May 8, 2004

“You need to be more focused, less mystified,” Hugh MacLeod said to me recently after a long conversation about the possibility of earning money from my blog. It's a message I've seen echoed around the web time and again. Every discussion about blogs becoming revenue streams for the writer, usually via ads, makes that same point: Be focused.
Old advice
'Pick one topic and stick to it' is a familiar refrain, one I first heard some 15 years ago.
At 18 I decided that it would be fun to take a year off and go over to stay with my relatives in Australia. I hopped on a plane the day before New Year's Eve 1989 and 28 hours later was partying in Sydney with my cousin Leonie and her then boyfriend Nigel. They were ten years older than me, and I held them in awe.
One evening a few months later we were sitting around, glass of wine in hand, talking about Nigel's degree. At 29, he was only just coming round to finishing it after having had to take time off to earn enough money to study, and after repeated changing his mind as to what he wanted to do. The lesson he had learnt from this, he told me, was that you have to be focused.
“Don't make the mistake I made,” he said. “Pick one thing that you're good at and stick to it.”
Those word struck cold fear into my heart because I knew I did not know what that 'one thing' was. I had signed up for a degree in Geology purely on the basis that is was quite a varied syllabus and I liked pretty rocks and gemstones. My entire future career was chosen because of a childhood memory of a bunch of illustrations of precious and semi-precious stones that I'd seen in my Dad's old Reader's Digest Atlas of the World.
It rapidly dawned on me at uni that I was not cut out to be a geologist. I hated traipsing up mountains, for one thing, and sadly much that is geologically interesting is to be found up mountains.
Finding the thing
So, if it wasn't geology, what was my one thing? I tried, with varying degrees of success and financial reward, a whole bunch of different things: publishing, stand-up comedy, music journalism, photography, being in a band (bass and vocals, if you're curious, and no, you will never have heard of us), lecturing on the history of British popular music since 1980, admin, web design, project management, teaching people Welsh, film making…
When I use the word 'career' I tend to use it in the sense of to 'move or swerve about wildly' rather than to indicate 'advancement through life, esp. in a profession'.
It's taken me this long to realise that if there is a 'one thing' that I love, it's writing, but that writing cannot and does not preclude a rapacious curiosity about almost everything. (Even football at a push.)
I am, I'm afraid, a polymath. Specialisation is simply not possible for me, because there are too many interesting things in the world for me to get distracted by. It's almost like a form of long-period ADD: Ooh! This music journalism lark is fun! Wait! Wanna make a movie? Ooh, I know, I know, I'll start my own business! Yeah baby!
Advising me to focus on one subject would be like asking a painter to only use one colour. Yes, it can be done, and I'm sure some people really get off on it, but for me it would be dull, tedious and not at all productive.
Polymaths vs. Specialists
So why be a specialist? Why are specialists so desirable?
There is an obvious answer: With so much information to be digested for any one given subject, one has to specialise in order to understand that topic thoroughly. There simply isn't time enough to thoroughly explore more than one area of knowledge. And if one wishes to be taken seriously, and to speak with authority on a subject, one must not only specialise but be seen to specialise.
The obvious answer, though, is misleading in more than one way. Firstly, it assumes that specialising increases understanding, but whilst a specialist has a deeper knowledge of a subject, unless they can also put that knowledge into context, they risk becoming blinkered. You can only put your knowledge into context by looking outside your specialisation, both at the topics abutting yours and those further away, i.e. you can only really become a good specialist by also incorporating a degree of polymathy into you work.
Secondly, there is the misconception that new ideas come simply from details knowledge of your field. In fact, most creativity comes from around the boundaries of a discipline where fields of expertise overlap, it comes from the edges of the known not the comfortable centre. These days that overlap seems to be achieved mainly by the coming together of specialists at those boundaries – a sort of collective polymathy. But however you do it, innovation requires polymathy.
Once, though, polymathy was not so unusual. Scholars studied astronomy, biology, natural history, literature, art, whatever took their fancy. From Ptolemy to Leonardo da Vinci to Erasmus Darwin, the terminally curious felt free to explore the world around them without having a set of artificial boundaries foisted upon them.
Scholars then knew that there was inherent value in polymathy, but that attitude now seems to be the exception, rather than the rule. Specialisation is seen as far more desirable than polymathy. Indeed, most people don't seem to know what to do with a polymath when they come across one, searching for a way to squeeze them into their regimented and compartmentalised view of the world, trying to find them an appropriate pigeonhole instead of letting them flit from perch to perch within the dovecote.
Yet polymaths bring their important abilities to the table – the ability to see the big picture, to juxtapose previously incongruent ideas, to create new relationships between disparate data sets. These skills are essential to the development of everything from science and technology to literature to art, yet often the kinds of people best suited to such innovative roles are stifled by the pigeonholers rather than being encouraged to spread their wings and study a multiplicity of subjects.
When I was at school, I was reasonably good at everything, but not really talented at anything. I remember still a session with the school careers advisor, whose advice boiled down to 'Well, you can do anything you want really. I don't know why you think you need me'.
The fact that I had no direction was precisely why I needed a careers advisor. Perhaps I would have got to where I am now a little faster had I received better, more pertinent advice back then. Instead, I was shuffled into the sciences because not only was I capable of passing the exams, but I was also a girl and I made their stats look good.
Instead of having my polymathic tendencies encouraged, I was steered towards the sciences and a life of increasing specialisation. By the time I graduated from UWCC, having a BSc in geology was not enough. The industry wasn't hiring many graduates anymore and you really needed a doctorate to get a job. I contemplated doing a doctoral thesis for about a nanosecond before realising that studying just one thing for another three years would quite likely drive me off the edge of the cliff of sanity.
A polymath's blog
Now, getting back to my blog, I'm not saying that Chocolate and Vodka is some sort of hotbed for innovation or the synthesis of new ideas, but it is illustrative of how one can juxtapose seemingly unrelated posts and later on realise that there are not as unrelated as you thought.
Take the subjects of Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture and Duran Duran's gig and their inability to secure a record deal. At the very least they are apposite – both of them are in part about the way in which the creative industries have turned against the very creativity that they depend upon because their concepts of how to secure revenue are too narrow-minded.
(Lessig makes the case against over-zealous application of copyright law; Duran Duran's example illustrates how the music industry is fixated on young, malleable bands which will turn a quick buck and not demand anything expensive, like a reasonable contract.)
So if you think of it in terms of each field of expertise (or each post) being a node in a web (or blog), instead of encouraging polymaths to explore linkages, our culture prefers specialists who drill down into nodes. Specialisation implies knowledge which implies authority which is seen as the most desirable outcome. Implicit in polymathy are all the opposite qualities – ignorance, powerlessness and undesirability.
When you look at it like that, it's blindingly obvious why people advise me to specialise. Now, add into the mix the idea of advertising on one's blog. It gets even clearer, right?
Why advertisers love specialists, and why they are missing out because of it
Advertisers are obsessed with demographics. They want to know exactly who their ads are reaching. They want to know income, status, location, interests, buying habits, favourite colour, inside leg measurement… Are you an A, B, C1, C2, D or Eccentrica Galumbits, the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon Six?
Because accurate demographic data about blog readers is not usually available, the assumption is that the readers of a blog are defined in their interests by the topic of the blog and the interests of the blog author. This is the only assumption that advertisers can make about blog readers, and the only information, apart from traffic stats, that they can use to decide which blogs should carry their ads.
This assumption forms the basis of a model of blog specialisation: If you write a blog about mobile phones, you can safely assume that people who are interested in mobile phones will come to your blog, and that therefore it might be a good place to advertise mobile phone products.
I am not arguing that this model does not work, but I think it's flawed, because people who need mobile phone products do not visit only blogs about mobile phones. Mobile phone users are everywhere, online as well as off, and they have more interests than just which mobile phone they're going to get next.
The key is not so much in the content of your blog, but how the people reading it found it in the first place and what they were really looking for. Anil Dash touches on this in a post about targeted personal ads, but the same holds true for all ads.
For example, this blog gets a lot of visitors who have searched for the words 'chocolate' or 'vodka', or some combination of the two, despite the fact that I rarely blog about either. This makes my blog an obvious place to advertise both chocolate and vodka products. But if a potential advertiser looks only at my content, and not at the Google searches that people use to find my blog, they are going to miss that bit of information. They are failing to make the connection between what people were looking for (information on chocolate and/or vodka) and what they found (my blog) or might find (ads for chocolate and vodka products).
There's an opportunity here that the 'content = demographic' assumption misses.
A final argument against focusing Chocolate and Vodka
I could specialise, I suppose, if I really had to. I wouldn't enjoy it, and I don't think my readers would either. I don't know much about my readers, but I do know a little about where they come from, and it splits down like this (in no particular order):
1. Friends and family who want to know what I've been up to lately
2. Welsh learners who know me from my other sites/mailing lists
3. Fiction/script writers who know me via Zoetrope.com
4. Fellow bloggers/blog readers who have found me via links, trackbacks and other blog tools
5. People I know from IRC
6. People who have seen my profile on Orkut, LinkedIn, etc.
7. People who have found me via a keyword search
8. Everyone else
Although I go through phases with the blog, sometimes concentrating on metablogging, or writing, or myself, my content remains fairly varied and thus, hopefully, these disparate groups of people each can find something that strikes a chord once in a while.
I have been told that I write 'about random things in an interesting way', a compliment that warms my cockles quite completely, because that is what I try to do and what I enjoy doing. It also tells me that I have an audience not because I focus, but because I entertain.
If I focus, I fear that I may alienate people who don't share the same interest. As it is, people can skip posts they're not interested in, but remain fairly confident that they will later on come across something that will catch their eye and that it is therefore worth popping back tomorrow or next week.
There is no requirement for every visitor to my blog, or any blog, to read every post, or read it every day. Instead, we can cherry pick, reading just want interests us and ignoring the rest. That's exactly what people normally do with all media – TV, film, radio, newspapers, magazines. Blogs are no different. You don't have to consume everything, you can just take the bits you want and leave the rest.
The way forward
I must admit, I would like to make some money out of my blog. I put so much time into writing it and, although I would do that for nothing anyway, it would be cool to get a bit of a return on all this effort beyond the warm glow of a trackback or comment. I would not expect to make much, but every little bit helps. If my blog paid for just one bloggers' meet-up, well, that'd be cool.
When I come round to implementing advertising on my blog (I'm biding my time whilst my stats on the new host stabilise), I do hope that the fact that I don't specialise won't be a sticking point.
Instead of getting hung up on content, I'd like to see advertisers giving more attention to exactly how ads and blogs are married up. They need to look beyond the content and beyond the numbers into the realms of what the people reading my blog were really looking for.
We need a sort of Googlerati, a way to quickly and easily create a cosmos of key words and phrases for which a given blog gets a high ranking in Google. Using your url as a starting point, the app would go off and maybe grill your blog and then grill Google and come back with a list of search terms for which you rate highly.
Advertisers could then find out which blogs do well for the keywords they are interested in and bingo, you marry up the intentions and interests of the reader with the ads without having to make dodgy assumptions about content defining the demographic.

Anonymous May 8, 2004 at 6:53 pm

Pretty much all the specialists I have ever know have been REALLY boring.

Anonymous May 9, 2004 at 6:57 am

What you forget, though, is the same reason it doesn't really work for a travel agency to have “sex, cock, hot black bodies” in their meta tags. When people are looking for chocolate, and they come across a blog instead, they recognize they're not gonna' get off before the mouse finishes clicking.
I agree (and painfully identify with) your faith in polymathy, but I'm not sure how strongly it ties into advertising.

Anonymous May 11, 2004 at 10:14 am

Trav: Yes, I take your point. Since you commented, I've been keeping an eye on visits from people who come here by mistake, and they are indeed very short. However, I do wonder if I had a fast-loading chocolate/vodka-based ad somewhere prominent, whether they would ever click on it. I guess the only way to find out would be to try it.

Anonymous May 14, 2004 at 11:12 pm

A belief that micro-specialization was a requirement for further study was one of the main things that made me stop after getting a BA in my twenties. I thought I needed a blinding flash, a burning bush and the conviction that I could cleave to one tiny focused topic till death do us part. Lacking that, I was paralyzed.
Since then I've learned that there are niches for polymaths. The early years of the web were a pretty good time for someone who knew a little about a lot of things, for instance.
What I haven't seen for myself but suspect must be true is that even in the oxygen-deprived heights of academia there must be opportunities to be a whole person. Some subjects — the history of technology, say — can't even be attempted without a curiosity that cuts across disciplines.
Now, how to turn this insight into a few decisions about what I want to be when I grow up — given that that should have happened about 20 years ago…

Anonymous May 16, 2004 at 12:39 pm

There are niches wide enough to fit a polymath in, it's true. They're hard to find, though, and often self-carved, from what I've seen.
Your mention of the web, though, reminds me of a sort of strange pro-specialisation rant I often think but have yet to blog: Every time I see an ad for a web designer, it specifies that the designer “should have knowledge of Photoshop, Illustrator, Corel, Fireworks, HTML, XML, ASP, PHP, JavaScript, Java…” or somesuch weird combination. Frankly, I don't know what sort of planet these recruiters are living on.
This might well be a massive overgeneralisation, but both studios I've worked in had team of designers and a team of developers and each team had a different skillset. Not one of the designers could code much beyond HTML and possibly a bit of JavaScript. Not one of the coders could design, although they could take our designs and chop 'em up just right. I was one of those who could to design and HTML, but it struck me then that however polymathic my mind was, the sort of mind that is good at concepts and visuals and ideas is not very good at the hard, cold logic of programming. ASP? PHP? Java? Forget it.
Of course, there is bound to be someone who is an exception to this, but it pisses me off that employers these days believe that coders-who-design are actually designers. Usually, they're not. Usually, the shite they come up with as a 'design' makes me weep. Ok, I'm not a Goddess of Golden Pixel, but I have some appreciation of balance and colour and form and style and all those other things that go into good design.
These demands for designers who are programmers stems, patently, from the budgetary squeeze that HR departments are under. After the bust, suddenly no one wants to pay for two people when they can only pay for one, so either as a designer you learn these alien programming skills or, and I suspect this happens more readily, programmers get design jobs.
For once, my polymathy fails me.
However, that's fine. I don't want to be programmer. When I was nine we got a ZX80 and I learnt how to program it in Basic. It was easy. Ten years later, when I was at uni, I walked the programming module. It was really easy. If I'd been a programmer at heart then I would have developed those skills – I had plenty of opportunity. Obviously, programming was not close to my heart.
Instead, I view my polymathy as the perfect preparation for my *cough*career*cough* as writer. After all, it's all grist to the mill, and who knows when I might need to call upon a knowledge of graptolites, language learning techniques or social networking for some crucial plot point or feature for some Sunday magazine?

Anonymous May 18, 2004 at 11:05 pm

There is a business nearby my home, I pass it every day on the way to and from work; the sign above it advertises the services of a polymath. The sign is focused on tutoring–for SATs and other such tests–but gives me no more information. Since the first day I saw that sign I've been curious as to what a polymath was, but I could never remember it long enough to actually learn more.
Funny that, because now I realize I am one.
I absolutely loved your article. It neatly summed up everything from my early school experiences all the way to my present day job. It stunned me: I've known for a very long time that I tended towards generalism, but I've seen in the last several years that people want specialists. It's been quite a struggle for me.
After reading this article, I'm finally starting to see the value in being a polymath. I've been avoiding this nature of mine for far too long, which has only succeeded in harming me further. Your article was brilliant, enlightening, and very well written.
Thank you.

Anonymous May 28, 2004 at 9:41 am

Hi Suw!
I totally, thoroughly, completely, agree with your point of view.
I'm afraid I'm a polymath too 🙂
we should do something for people in our condition…
Anyway, wise people used to tell me you don't actually focus and “stick” forever to a subject… but rather learn to do one thing very well, so then you'll be able to transfer that experience to everything else.
From this POV, we've got a great advantage: we can choose where to start, since we like almost everything 😛
Yet, we got a little disadvantage, that is not being able to enjoy something for too long…
Nobody's perfect 🙂

Anonymous October 15, 2004 at 4:44 pm

From an “aged” polymath — as one ages (I am a ripe old 52) the problems of polymathy grow if one has not “settled” (and I mean that literally and figuratively) into a career with some “legs”. With a degree in communications I moved from teaching, to Human Resources, back to Training, and finally into sales to support a growing family.
Now I must decide whether to continue throughout the rest of my working career to be in sales or to approach something more fulfilling. Not having stuck to “just one thing” I am at a disadvantage as I approach the second half of my life. It also tends to poke at my anxiety — I hope not to spend my “golden years” saying “welcom to Walmart”.

Anonymous October 20, 2005 at 9:52 pm

Hmm, a fair few rock-doctors move onto other things. In Western Australia it might have something to do with getting on an aircraft and flying for three hours to get to work (and spending 5 days living there away from your family). But it's interesting, perhaps there are some careers that are best to 'start' in, and others that are best occupied by folk who've come from 'elsewhere'. It's always struck me as 'disturbing' that someone could become a psychologist in their mid-twenties by studying 'straight through' without having a chance to accumulate 'life experiences'. But the point of my comment, is that many a specialist is a polymath that doesn't know it (yet).. One of my favourite anarchic pastimes is to bring magazines into workplaces – primarily New Scientist and leave them lying about. Sooner or later some issue will come up in discussion around the photocopier (they're generally more cerebral than the ones in the teamroom – which I attribute to the proximity of the gossip magazines there – or the ozone around the machine..), and I'll hand over the New Scientist saying “theres something in here about that” and they'll go off and read it and inadvertently while looking for whatever it was, they'll find some story about sexual attraction amongst peruvian snails, or possibly one the endless articles on the thousand ways the world will end very shortly. The beauty of New Scientist and the other 'collective ideas' magazines is that they 'lure' the reader into fields they don't entirely expect (much as a non-specialised blog can) . Folk who read 'specialist magazines, or visit web sites for information get pretty much what they're looking for – more stuff about their specialisation. The other beauty of the magazine and the blog is that they are ongoing, once lured, once hooked, the hapless victim's specialisation starts to erode, and we create (just possibly) another person living 'on the boundary” where the capacity for 'interesting things happening” is much greater. Perhaps the polymath is a lonely figure and much undervalued by traditional employers, but that just tells me we need to redouble our efforts to subvert the specialist compartmentalisation model by recruiting more specialists over to our side, and get that breeding program started….

Anonymous June 7, 2006 at 8:30 am

Blogwalk was fun, if tiring. Some good conversations begun that will continue.

Anonymous January 20, 2007 at 11:28 pm

Thank you for writing this blog-you have brought me enlightenment! About an hour ago I heard the word “polymath” on a documentary about Thomas Harrisson – the barefoot anthropologist. As he was into lots of different things (as I am) I decided to look the word up and I now know after reading various pages I am a polymath and not a person with traits of aspergers syndrome as I previously thought. There are many similarities between the two. However, I know I don't have the syndrome because unlike someone with Aspergers, I do understand facial gestures and am able to empathise with other people, but like an aspergian, I have always been into many different things and told “I should concentrate on one at a time”. Impossible. I think is everything is interesting if you know how to look at it and I intend to look at everything. Great Blog. Thanks.

Anonymous February 21, 2007 at 4:33 am

Hi; I'm 59 and still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. I am, in fact, a generalist, and was lucky enough to get a job that needed generalists and stuck with it till I retired. However, I will not claim to be a polymath, since I believe that a polymath is a person who knows a great deal about a lot of different things, which I do, but the older I get, the more I realize that I know very little, even in the areas where I know a great deal. One thing, among many, that I agree with you about is that generalists have a VERY hard time finding a rewarding job that doen't get overwhelmingly boring after a couple years.
Thank you very much for introducing this blog to the world.

Anonymous February 26, 2007 at 3:05 pm

Ah, but there is one refuge for us polymath-misfits: being an entrepreneur! You HAVE to have a working knowledge of marketing (and thus practical customer psychology), finance (even if it's just a shoe-box), whatever the skill-set you need to make the product you're selling, basic business law, and a long list of other skills.
By the way, I take great encouragement from “Pareto' Law” applied to knowledge. Pareto's Law is the '20% of your customers account for 80% of your sales', etc. How about this: 20% of a doctor's knowledge covers 80% of the presenting cases. Now to hang out your shingle and actually treat people you need to have much better than 80% knowledge. On the other hand, for us polymaths, it suggests that if we learn that 20%, we would have 80% competency in the field, which is not enough to be a card-carrying practitioner, but more than enough to know the jargon and issues of that field and intelligently link them to other fields where we also have that 20%/80% knowledge.

Anonymous June 5, 2007 at 1:38 am

You are spot on – polymath and pareto is exactly what you need to be a good entrepreneur. A practical example of how this is true:
I started commerce at uni – didn't really like it – changed to law – didn't really like it – changed to mining engineering – kind of liked it and decided it was time to finish something, so finished it and became a mining engineer. Finished commerce and law part time while working as an engineer – law in particular was much more interesting while working in the real world. Then got bored with technical engineering work.
Long story short after some drifting and travel I started and have been running my own company for the last 3 years that buys and sells ore deposits. Engineering lets me understand whether a deposit is any good technically, commerce lets me figure out how much it's worth, and law helps me negotiate the details of the transaction. But despite my degrees I'm not a qualified accountant, nor a qualified lawyer, nor a certified engineer. I understand 80% of what is going on in each of those areas, and for the bits I don't get I bring in a specialist consultant – ie a law firm, an accountant or a technical mining consultant.
If I didn't have a general background in all three disciplines but, say, specialised in only one of them, it would be prohibitively expensive to hire specialists to cover 100% of the remaining 2 fields. Alternatively, if I waited until I understood 100% of all three fields, I would never have got started.

Anonymous June 12, 2007 at 2:49 pm

You have a point here, John, these are enigmas even for me. I don't think there is an equitable method to select quality people for practicing their job accordingly. It's very difficult and just few reach these aims in time. This is a risk and i don't think we can do something about it.

Anonymous July 9, 2007 at 6:11 pm

Anonymous wrote: “I am, in fact, a generalist, and was lucky enough to get a job that needed generalists […] ”
Dang it, why don't you TELL US WHAT IT WAS. Some of us are here only because we're desperately scanning the net for clues about what sort of jobs will let us retain the remaining vestiges of our sanity 🙂
(The only job ads I've ever seen where they were actually looking for generalists were for “human resources generalists”, a job title about which I actually _know_ nothing, but strongly suspect it to be a euphemism for “one individual who can do the job of a whole department for a single salary, at least until s/he collapses”.)

Anonymous July 9, 2007 at 6:48 pm

'Every time I see an ad for a web designer, it specifies that the designer “should have knowledge of Photoshop, Illustrator, Corel, Fireworks, HTML, XML, ASP, PHP, JavaScript, Java…” or somesuch weird combination. Frankly, I don't know what sort of planet these recruiters are living on.'
Simple – that translates as “Our current software was thrown together in a blind panic by a random succession of folks all using The Heavily-Advertised Web Solution Of The Moment (TM). The successful candidate will need to understand this whole mess, because we're already a year behind, and the backers are getting antsy”.
In other words, run away while you still can.

Anonymous July 24, 2007 at 6:13 am

Cheers to polymaths!!!
I believe myself to be, for better or for worse, one who is consistently fascinated with much more than just one specified field. I make films, but even within that field there lies multiple fields;photography, direction, writing, music, etc. I cannot focus on only one because there is just to damn much to learn and become immersed in!
Check out myspace.com/randallkaplan if you're interested.

Anonymous July 25, 2007 at 6:48 am

Hi,I'm not sure whether anyone'll ever read this comment of mine seeing as how this is a pretty old article,but I just had to say that I feel what the writer's saying. I'm a college student who's interested in everything, ranging from music to economics to science to writing to acting. I'll very probably be applying for medicine in university next year but it's partly to please my parents and partly because no course offered at uni appeals to the polymath side of me. That's why I loved this article.It makes me feel better about myself, instead of hating myself for being unable to focus on one thing. To all polymaths out there, this is for you.

Anonymous August 4, 2007 at 2:59 am

Anonymous said:
“However, I will not claim to be a polymath, since I believe that a polymath is a person who knows a great deal about a lot of different things, which I do, but the older I get, the more I realize that I know very little, even in the areas where I know a great deal.”
I believe he/she made a very valid point here. I cannot say I am a polymath either because I don't feel I've mastered several different fields or specializations. I like to use philomath to describe myself because it denotes a lover of learning. As far as I can tell, this is the only description I'll ever be able to honestly apply to myself. There's just so much to learn!!! It's great to see all these other polymaths/philomaths. We should start an organization or cult or something. 🙂

Anonymous August 18, 2007 at 8:57 am

My first advise for you would be to never study something to please anyone but yourself. This is your life, not your parents and you are the only one to suffer the consequences of not following your own heart. Possibly living through a few years of their disappoinment is worth not suffering the rest of your life doing something you don't love. There are already too many miserable people on the planet, walking through life comatose, punching their time clocks at their crappy job, waiting to go home so they can bitch about their crappy job, and getting up the next morining to do it all again.
I always thought my problem was not following through. If I could make money just coming up with ideas, I'd be a millionaire. There are just not enough hours in the day to pursue all the things I am intersted in, but it does not keep me from trying. I'm only 39 and I've been an aerobics instructor, a news director, a retail manager, a security systems technician, to name a few jobs working for other people. I've owned 4 successful businesses and currently have a architectural design company, and real estate investment company, I teach high school drafting, I am currently going to school to pursue an engineering degree, and I'm already brainstorming my next business venture. Yes, I am insane and I love it.
That being said, someone previously asked what kind of jobs are there where we can put being a polymath to use. have found that architecture is the one area where I feel I can utilize all my life experiences and the more I continue to learn (about anything) the better I get at it without actually specializing. You can be an architectect and do okay, but the truly great ones have a vast knowledge of many subjects areas. It involves art, science, math, design, history, psychology, sociology, business, law, on and on. It is a great balance of left and right brain activity, creativity and logic, working as a team and independently, dealing with the public but not necessarily every day. There are a variety of jobs you can do related to it, not just an architect. And if you decide it's not for you, at least you have some practical knowledge for when you buy, build, or invest in a house or other structure.

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