Polymathematics In One Breath
What is Polymathematics?
I, like many people, genuinely love doing multiple things. I want to spend my life doing the multiple things I genuinely love.
I’ve found it is easy to say you are interested in many things or that you don’t want to be put in a box, but much harder to actively do many things. The first task is finding the things you genuinely love doing. I think we all have a list but most people don’t find it. I bucket mine as: music, writing, and invention. For help finding your list of genuine interests, these two posts are the clearest expression of my approach: 1) The Lily pad Approach to Purpose and 2) What I Ought to Be Doing: Planting and Growing. A good question I’ve found for this is: if you couldn’t tell anyone about it, would you still do it? It’s ok to do certain things that don’t satisfy that question, but for me, the things that do are the things I want to focus on over my lifetime. Your list can grow and shrink, but the truer your list is, the less likely it will.
Once you accept that there is more than one “thing” you genuinely love doing (and find the authentic list of these things *don’t skip that step!!*), the next question is how do you do multiple things well.
Polymathematics is my ongoing answer to that question. It is a practice. It is a verb. It is acceptance of multiple genuine interests and refusal to “niche down” in the face of algorithmic, social, and economic incentives. It’s also about finding other people playing this game. It is also just a fun name for a very normal thing, I try not to be too serious about it.
Here is the shortest distillation of the best strategy I’ve discovered by thinking about this and practicing polymathematics so far: Make cool stuff + find other people making cool stuff and talk to them / help them.
“Make” is important, because it is easy to be curious about many things (well, even that is tricky and must be cultivated / re-discovered…) but hard to actively pursue them all. I find it vital to focus on actually generating “stuff”, meaning trying to get to some finish line you set yourself. I’ve found that I tend to experience heightened hard to pin down anxiety when I make less stuff in the areas that matter most to me. “Cool” is important too because it is a reminder to make things you personally find exciting, cool, and interesting. That is the built-in mechanism for actually working on stuff you like and therefore being able to do it for a long time (see step one). “Stuff” is a reminder that it is up to you to define the output for your creativity.
Finding other people making cool stuff is hugely beneficial for helping you cultivate your taste, bolstering your ambition, finding friends, finding 1000 true fans, challenging your ideas, learning from others, cultivating new ideas, reassuring yourself, and innumerable other things. The “talk to them” part is encouragement not to simply observe from the sidelines but actively engage. The “help them” part keeps an orientation towards win-win / non-zero-sum games.
Here are some other things I’ve found helpful: Have a lifelong project, write, document your projects and share them online, reflect on how you learn things best, find the commonalities in the particular set of things you genuinely love doing, set yourself “Rough Drafts” for the year or quarter to make your ambition measurable, block periods for each “thing” rather than seamlessly switch between them day to day (this needs a post of its own), ask good questions, find people doing cool things and support them and share good work in the areas you are interested in.
A little more on writing because it has been the trim tab for my process of polymathematics. Writing helps keep you honest, helps you stay encouraged, helps you organize your work across many areas, helps track your progress and shifting focus, and helps other people understand your work (and thereby helps them “Make cool stuff and find other people making cool stuff and talk to them / help them (you)”).
Once you start practicing polymathematics, you realize there are all sorts of compounding benefits to it. Here are a few: ideas come more often, skills transfer from one domain to the next, the world becomes more interesting, you become resistant to burn out, your self-esteem improves and your concept of self becomes clearer, you find like-minded friends, you become more hirable, you make more things, you find more cool projects, you become better at conversation, and on and on.
Lastly, don’t give up. Doing all of the things you genuinely love doing seems like it wouldn’t be hard but it is. This is for many reasons (that I am discovering and writing about here) but one of the strongest sources of discouragement can be that specialists tend to find traditional success faster than generalists. Simply put, by dividing your focus across many areas, you are choosing a “slower” route to traditional success (read: status and money). Resist that discouragement with the comfort you have from knowing that you are aligned with your genuine curiosities and love for multitudes. Many people are not so lucky. I also personally believe that in the long run all specialists become generalists eventually. They have to, otherwise they’d go mad. It will work out. Just keep making cool things, sharing them, and finding others doing the same.
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