We live in a world on specialties. “What do you do?” or “what did you study?” is the opening line of thousands of conversations around the world.
We love to know what someone does in order to define them. “Oh, you’re a mathematician?” And in their heads, they start building an image of a certain style of specialist around you. Not very good at writing, no interest in art, bad at sport, high intellectual intelligence but low social intelligence.
The thing is, these stereotypes are often correct. But not because that is how we are naturally, but because our whole society is set up to self-fulfill those ideas. Ever since we are kids we are taught to specialise. As soon as you’re slightly better at one discipline, we’re encouraged to ignore all others and focus on what we’re good at.
Eventually, you become great at one thing because you have neglected the others. And then the learning stops. You leave school or university in your defined box and assume that it is how things are meant to be. You have learnt all you are going to learn.
But that hasn’t always been the case. If you conjure up any of the great names from history you will really struggle to define them as a specialist in a sole discipline.
Leonardo da Vinci. Was he an engineer? Inventor? Artist? Or scientist?
In one lifetime he painted the Mona Lisa, invented the parachute and made substantial discoveries in anatomy, civil engineering, optics, and hydrodynamics.
He lived in a time when the arts and sciences weren’t considered opposite and mutually exclusive but were seen to work in harmony together. Where the skills he learnt from art made him a better scientist, and the skills he learnt from science made him a better artist.
Leonardo da Vinci can be considered the ideal of what was called the renaissance man. Or sometimes referred to as a polymath (from the Greek meaning “having learned much”).
“A man can do all things if he will.” – Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472)
I love the idea of the polymath. Not just because I think a broader education is good for us, but because I love the audacity behind picking a subject that you are not very good at or have no experience with and saying “I will master that”.
When I started university I was very much in the mindset of a specialist. “I’m rubbish at languages and will never be able to learn another one. I am rubbish at sport so there is no point trying. I am rubbish at writing and no one will ever want to read anything I write”.
Now all those things that I once thought were beyond me, I am finally trying to learn:
Creative writing, table tennis, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Spanish, writing, history, programming, business, online marketing, philosophy.
I’m not arrogant enough to think I will become exceptional at these skills. But I am arrogant enough to think that I can learn them. I have the freedom of mind to try.
I have been audaciously trying to do things I really shouldn’t. I have failed a lot, but I have also got somewhere.
“Did you study business at university?” I am often asked. No, I didn’t. And here is the brilliant secret of our current digital age.
You don’t need a qualification and you don’t need permission to start mastering a new subject.
Unlike the old renaissance men, we don’t need to be rich aristocrats able to fork out for broad and never-ending education.
We live in a digital age where we have all the information we could ever need at our fingertips. We can be connected instantly with experts in every field imaginable and to an information catalog more complete than any library anywhere in history.
But not only that, we also have a medium where we can express our ideas and contribute to humanities total knowledge.
And all it costs is the price of a computer and a working internet connection.
I am very excited about the next 50 years. I believe we’ll start to see a big wave of these digital polymaths coming forward. People who have grown up with the internet and a largely self-educated. Audaciously mastering disciplines they shouldn’t, and combining subjects no-one previously thought were related.
I expect society will come on leaps and bounds. Much more than we did in the 20th century. And much more than we did in the renaissance.
In 1900 only about 20% of the world population was literate. Of them, only a tiny fraction could be considered higher educated. And of those almost none had a way to record and express their ideas or findings.
Now almost 3 billion people have access to the internet. This information and contribution resource that far exceeded anything our ancestors ever had.
When Leonardo da Vinci lived, there were probably only a few thousand people in the whole world who the opportunity to become great. Now we have 3 billion potential Leanardo Di’Vincis.
I have two purposes for this post. One, to encourage you to start delving into a subject that you previously thought was beyond you. And second to start using the internet as the great tool for learning that it is.
Want to get started with learning online? Here are some great free resources:
- Coursera – Online university courses provided for free by some of the top universities in the world. Normally the course material is free but if you want to get a certified qualification then you need to pay to have your work graded.
- EdX – Similar to Coursera. Slightly different catalogue of courses.
- Khan Academy – Free lower and high school education for everyone. If you’re like me and have totally forgotten the basics of the subjects you weren’t interested in. Or regret not paying more attention at school. Then this is a great resource for you. It is also being well used in areas where they have internet access but no or poor access to schooling.
- Wikipedia – A site that needs no introduction. The online encyclopaedia where you can look up almost anything. Come across a subject where you know more than the Wikipedia article does? Well just edit the page and help grow humanities collective knowledge.
- DuoLingo – A free iPhone and Android that is great for learning another language. I’m currently using it to help me learn Spanish.
- Lifehacker – A great site for learning slightly more unorthodox but practical skills. Want to learn how to fold a shirt quickly, organise a home bar, or access Netflix from another country? This is the site for you.
- YouTube – A great video streaming site for watching funny cat videos. But also a video library with millions of free educational videos. Want to learn something specific, just type it into YouTube and chances are you’ll find a tutorial video.
Additions by readers:
- Skoove – Learn to play the piano interactively. Plug in a keyboard to your computer and get lessons and feedback. Free basic lessons or $9.95 a month for the advanced.
- Painu – Similar to Skoove. Songs are free to play. The course costs $35.
If you know any other great resources, please let me know! I’m always looking for ways to help improve my learning.