Momma said life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get — Forrest Gump
There was a time when things were more predictable. A growing world economy, stable jobs, steady incomes and the promise of a good life. The times are changing for the better and for the worse. A world trying to recover from financial crises is plunged headlong into the vortex of rapid technological disruption. As machines continue to advance along the learning curve using more sophisticated neural nets and availability of exabytes of data (experience in the context of machines), we need to keep pace with these incredulous changes. There has never been a time to be more curious and not just about one subject but about how various subjects and systems align to keep the world spinning on its axis. In simple terms, this article argues that there is a need to be a polymath or a person of wide ranging knowledge and learning somewhat like Forrest Gump-gathering different skills with a singular goal of succeeding at life.
Forrest Gump, to me personally, represented many lives rolled into one. I must admit the movie makes his accomplishments easier to achieve than in real life. In the interest of time, it also hides the extensive practice needed to achieve proficiency let alone to excel.
At the same time, Forrest also represents all that an be achieved if we do just ONE thing : quit hiding behind excuses.
I am also not proposing a ‘jack of all trades and a master of none’. Rather, more of curiosity that leads to developing the most important skill of all — learning how to learn. Virtually anything. Elon Musk is described by many as an example of ‘learning transferability’. He received acclaim as the founder of PayPal — a financial services company. Today, he leads companies in autonomous travel, space exploration and Artificial Intelligence.
Walter Isaacson is a prolific writer. I discovered his writing first through his biography of Steve Jobs. Today, I have read parts of his biography of Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein.
Einstein, before I even read Walter’s account of his life, was a scientist that influenced me a lot. Growing up, he was a a child used to sitting on a lake alone and brooding. His true curiosity about the world around him was unlocked when his father brought him a magnetic compass. Einstein then began questioning the world around him.
Most polymaths that I know of including Einstein were simply curious about the world around them. Ben Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci would marvel at the mundane and question every thing the world had to offer.
The most practical application of curiosity today, from boardrooms to classrooms, is the ability to ask the right question. It is harder than you think. In order to ask the right question, you have to distill knowledge from many different vantage points to figure out the shortest route to your answer. You also have to consider the setting, the speaker and the unintended consequences of asking your question. This is a lot of context for machines to digest at least for now. Think about the time you misread someone’s facial expressions and you will realize machines have still a ways to go.
Today, it is just not important to know coding or creating datasets but also to interpret the results to find the shortest route to the problem you are solving for. Artificial Intelligence (AI), in its current form ie machine learning is automating routine tasks such as facial recognition. It’s not the capabilities that humans have to worry about but what they can be utilized for.
As Forrest Gump says “stupid is as stupid goes”
Lastly, I leave you with one of the best speeches I have heard and I am sure many of you may also have but there is no harm in listening to it once again- Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement speech:
The finishing lines of this speech have been written by one of the most famous polymaths of today Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog and writer of these words:
Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish
A Multidisciplinary Approach
If your daily reading diet has to consist of 3 magazines/newspapers, I would recommend the Harvard Business Review (HBR), the MIT Technology Review and the Economist.
HBR to develop a generalist attitude towards life or the ability to look at how different pieces fit together. Whether it is running a small company as a CEO, managing finances or planning for education, a problem solver approach is very beneficial. A general manager is able to quickly make sense of how things work irrespective of the industry or problem he is trying to solve.
The MIT Technology Review because we live in a world defined, redefined and created by technology.
Thirdly, The Economist to stay on top of current affairs.
The MIT Technology Review hosts an annual event called EmTech. EmTech highlights key inventions in the field of technology. This year, I watched Andrew Ng, an expert in the field of AI who has worked with Google and Baidu, provide an understanding of the current state of AI:
MIT Technology Review Events Videos - The State of AI
Andrew Ng shares what it takes to create an "AI-first company."
Andrew said that as an approximation, supervised learning (a type of machine learning) is being used to automate tasks that take an average human less than 1 second to perform ie speech and gave recognition. However, what fascinated me was Andrew’s understanding of the application of AI to the world of business. Every time he would conclude a finding by underscoring its implications for business.
This approach truly highlights the need to take a multidisciplinary approach to problems and alludes to the future of education I discussed before.
As Mrs Gump says “Well, we are all different, Mr Hancock”
A multidisciplinary approach is what is needed to combine diverse inputs into what’s best for business.
The future of work is very different from the one we live in today. The rise of the gig economy or “work as a service” is sweeping the globe. Temporary work found using online platforms such as freelancer.com is fueling a “pay as you go” paradigm for employment.
In such an uncertain world, multiple lines of income are needed to sustain a healthy lifestyle.
The rise of influencers and micro influencers demonstrates the power of the individual as a brand that can be monetized.
Therefore, creativity is of paramount importance today. In the world of business, using machines and data to design unique business models and revenue strategies will be critical. Again, a need for out of the box, creative thinking.
As Forrest says “I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floatin’ around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both”
I don’t know if everyone will have a job or a gig but maybe it’s both.
The Rise of Polymaths
Everyone is used to saying “Just Google It” and Google has now become a verb. However, Googling something is not the same as knowing or understanding. Google organizes data and points you in the right direction but how do you make out something is wrong unless you know it is.
Acquiring knowledge aids in exercising the muscles of the human mind. Can you imagine just lying on a machine in a gym and the machine just moves your body automatically so that you don’t have to learn the right stance, posture and weights to use? It’s the same thing with the brain.
If all education can be gained by just googling it, every internet addict would be a genius.
Many polymaths such as Nick Szab0 (creator of Bitgold and Smart contracts), Stewart Brand, Elon Musk are voracious readers and creators. They don’t just Google it.
The future of work will be on the job, experiential learning for which understanding how various components of a project or a business fit together is key.
A liberal arts education combined with a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) background is invaluable in creating machine learning algorithms and then making them more human.
In short, polymaths will be indispensable and in high demand.
Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it — Albert Einstein
Stay curious, creative and a lifelong polymath. Godspeed.