The Simple Makings Of Renaissance Men

Libe Walls on Unsplash

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review (March-April 2018) states:

“Questioning is an innate human ability that is subverted and systematically shut down”

I believe a journey of introspection begins with a simple question. On a ride back home, one of my friends asked me a question as I was pulling into the parking lot. He had looked at my visible enjoyment of driving throughout the ride. So, he asked me quite innocently “do you love cars?”

That question took me down an internal rabbit hole as I tried to figure out the list of things I was disinterested about? Honestly, I couldn’t find an answer. So, I replied “if there is anything I can learn because of my love for cars, then I love cars”. In other words, I am generally curious. This conversation may not seem particularly unique to most. It would seem like friendly banter. It was that except the fact that basic questions lead you to profound answers.

The quest to find answers to unanswered questions has created many a curious mind. Some of those curious minds who wandered deep into the labyrinth of life’s mysteries found some answers. When they shared their answers with the world, the world was able to see what they saw. Something that had escaped the worlds collective vision because it abandoned its search for answers early.

As I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein or Leonardo DaVinci, I cannot help but marvel at the ‘Renaisance Men’ (Polymaths) that common sense curiosity has spawned. I don’t have all the ingredients needed to create Renaisance men or women but I am happy to share what little I have learnt about these giants.

Perhaps, you may need to stand on the shoulders of these giants. Even better, your curiosity could make you one. In either case, I hope you keep searching for answers.

Reading Raised Me

Elon Musk says “he was brought up by books”. Patrick Collison, CEO of Stripe.com has this to say

I watch virtually no TV. All my screen time is computer time for me. When I’m not doing that I’m reading or talking to my friends who I got to know through computers.

Elon and Patrick are not anybody. In addition to juggling multi billion dollar businesses, these people are voracious readers. Their inquisitiveness and resultant quest to answer apparently unsolvable problems makes them contrarian.

When I hear my friends and colleagues say they don’t have time to read, I feel as though I am confronting a mental block that my words cannot overcome. At the end of a very stressful day, watching television almost seems natural. As natural as any other bad habit. Easy to indulge in but not adding substantial value.

Shedding Inhibitions

I have set in enough meetings, including board meetings, to realize that people are mortally afraid of asking basic questions to clarify their understanding. Partly because it’s not a life or death matter and partly because they can always ask the question outside the room.

I am always surprised as to the ease with which people can guide CEO’s as to a particular course of action without having managed similar situations before. Some of the best leaders I have known have walked the floor everyday, asked everyday questions, listened attentively to the answers and carried the voice of the employee to the boardroom. As a result, the outcome is a less risky, more inclusive and balanced decision.

As a young accountant, I remember not understanding financial statements because I could not understand the accounting entries for derivative transactions and their impact on the profit and loss account. So, I spent countless hours drinking coffee sitting with the product control group until I had a good understanding of the entries. My point is that it’s almost impossible to have a good macro solution or strategy without having understood the nuances at the grassroots level.

One of the biggest risks to individual, corporate or personal success is the hesitation and fear of asking basic questions as if society at large has imposed a yardstick for asking meaningful questions. If we are concerned all the time with what others think, there would seldom be any innovation. I am not saying don’t listen to others. Rather, by your own experience, try discerning good advice from bad. Be strong enough to take a position, stand by it and apologize for mistakes.

Leaving questions unanswered can mean the difference between greatness and mediocrity.

Persisting Despite All Odds

Many times, I lose sleep over questions. At times, I have been called over enthusiastic, idiotic and downright bullheaded. I guess I am all of these but I also feel my obstinacy has helped me understand the world better.

Trevor Noah, host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central was asked by Jerry Seinfeld once while sitting in a Ferrari on a show called Comedians in cars getting coffee: “what do you attribute your work ethic to?” . Trevor laughed and replied instantly: “to poverty”.

Being hungry for knowledge and generally curious can make for an impeccable work ethic. Of course, it can also be perceived as a great annoyance. Being smart about the way you get your answers is vital.

For a lot of Renaisance Men, their unanswered questions became an insatiable curiosity. Their search for answers left a legacy for generations to remember, cherish and aspire to.

I hope your search also leaves you someplace meaningful.

Writer @ The Intersection of Finance, Tech & Humanity. Stories of a Global Language: “Money”. Contributor @ Startup Grind, HackerNoon, HBR. Twitter@akothari_mba

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