You may want to rethink getting that master’s degree

What do you do?

It was a watercolor class*. Everybody had their heads down to their work. Brushes flourished, water splashed, and classmates attempted small talk.

Uhm, I work in IT.

The question goes around. I find I’m surrounded by artists: An illustrator to my left, an interior designer to my right, and a calligrapher right across me. They ask why would I be in IT when I like art so much. I can’t articulate it’s not like I dislike IT, so I just go with the obvious answer: It pays better.

The reverse scenario holds true as well. My IT colleagues are always surprised to find out my creative hobbies. That I paint, and that I write. They assume I would be chasing the arts full time if I didn’t need the money.

But why is that? Why are we conditioned to think that art and technology should be mutually exclusive? Why are we uncomfortable when people pursue seemingly unrelated fields?

Specialization, that’s why.

Specialization makes made sense.

It was in the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s when the concept of division of labor was introduced. We made huge technological leaps in a short amount of time, and our workers needed to catch up. No longer did we need intricate craftsmen (expensive and with long training periods) when we had machines to do the work for us.

We found we could divide the craftsmen’s tasks among unskilled but lesser paid workers, increase business productivity, and enjoy the capitalism we have today.

And we still do it.

I spend an average of 80% of my time in front of some form of a screen. Often times my mind wanders, and I feel guilty. I feel guilty for wanting to write. For wanting to paint. For not being the model worker. As if I’m doing something wrong.

And I’m not alone. Rarely do we meet people who are truly 100% into their day job 100% of the time. This makes me feel a bit better, because misery supposedly loves company.

But wait.

If we’re all feeling this way, isn’t it the system that’s wrong, not us?

The specialization we used to worship, it doesn’t make economic sense anymore. We’re no longer trying to optimize our productivity to match that of our machines.

What we have now is an excess of productivity. That’s what capitalism is all about.

What we have now is much more information and technology than there was 200 years ago, and yet few people trying to make sense of them–better yet, integrating them.

Data science, a topic I often bring up in this blog, is one such case. According to Forbes“The story of how data scientists became sexy is mostly the story of the coupling of the mature discipline of statistics with a very young one–computer science.”

And this is just one example. Now would be the polygamous mating season across fields.

Rise of the Polymaths

I say it’s time for a second Renaissance. Go back to the time when we celebrated generalists. Go back to when someone could be respected in the fields of both art and technology. Go back to when we could give birth to geniuses like Da Vinci.

The reason why Da Vinci is considered a genius? Not because he was necessarily an expert, but because he was novel. He pursued arts, math, architecture, mechanics, etc… all with gusto:

Leonardo Da Vinci’s to-do list: Wendy MacNaughton for NPR

I want to get away from the saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

Jack can be the master of SOME trades, and he’ll be the master of greater than the sum of those some. Because while we praise specialization (aren’t we always impressed by masters’ and doctorate degrees?), we have to admit it has its weakness: tunnel-vision.

It lacks the ability to see from a new perspective, to make new connections, to discover new approaches… things all possible with diversity.

It’s what Charlie Munger was talking (and walking!) about when he talked about mental models.

You have to learn all the big ideas in the key disciplines in a way that they’re in a mental latticework in your head and you automatically use them for the rest of your life. If you do that, I solemnly promise you that one day you’ll be walking down the street and you’ll look to your right and left and you’ll think “my heavenly days, I’m now one of the few competent people in my whole age cohort.” If you don’t do it, many of the brightest of you will live in the middle ranks or in the shallows.

 Charlie Munger

Intellectual polygamy is NOT promiscuity.

It’s about expanding your mental toolbox; grabbing from different domains as needed, being adaptable, being flexible.

We’re getting there, I think. There are buzzwords like multipotential and polymath. More and more celebrated people have multi-dash careers: Multilingual actor-scientists, author-YouTube star-record company owner, and of course the ubiquitous actor-singers. And the hottest job of 2016 is the marriage of statistics and computer science.

I don’t expect master’s and doctorate degrees to lose their luster any time soon–we have a need for them. After all, I wouldn’t trust my doctor if he didn’t spend years in med school!

I just ask that you don’t judge me for being an expert generalist.

More Reading

Master of many trades – An insightful essay on polymathy as written by a poet, writer and explorer.

Mental models – An introduction to mental models by the popular blog Farnam Street.

What are Mental Models – Mental models as discussed from the perspective of Charlie Munger.

*The class was on how to transform your watercolor art into temporary tattoos. After the class, they asked if I wanted to collaborate with their design team–of course I said yes! Weeks later and now my designs are available for purchase at Common Room PH.


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