After an introduction and the required small talk, at the first sign of an awkward pause in the budding conversation, we often find ourselves being asked what we do. This exposes a pervasive problem in our culture.
The problem with production
Our culture is one of manufacturing production. For the past few hundred years, our concepts and thinking about production have revolved around manufacturing.
Not too many years ago, the United States had manufacturing jobs. Working stiffs would don their blue collars each morning and head in to the factory, take up their station and create quality products to be shipped around the globe.
Each of these jobs were highly specialized; on an assembly line, each person has one job, and does the same thing repeatedly day in and day out. Just as the parts they were attaching were interchangeable, the workers were too. This thinking produced an efficient system with consistent quality and a replaceable workforce.
Even after our manufacturing economy collapsed the culture–and the conventional wisdom about producing things–remained the same. It was natural then, that when we started building software on an enterprise scale, the industry emulated that model.
The idea was to build an assembly line; gather specifications, produce a visual design, generate a data model, engage a team to implement the user interface, and so on.
As individual contributors, we have tried to fit into this model. We pick the position on the assembly line that most interests us–or maybe that we’re the best at, or that comes easiest–and behave in most respects just as the factory workers did in the past.
We subscribed to the culture.
And so, when asked what we do, most of fall back on the our business cards. Maybe you think you’re a graphic designer, or a software engineer, or whatever. We do it because it’s easy, it’s rehearsed, and most of us don’t think too much about it; it’s a part of our culture. We accept that what we do defines us–at least to some degree–in the eyes of others.
This kind of thinking is flawed. What works for assembling physical objects out of mass-produced replaceable parts doesn’t work for software. Every software project is a bespoke effort; a work of craft, of art, not production-line manufacturing. We, as those craftsmen need to think of ourselves and our art in a different way–to see the whole board, not just our piece, or the next move.
In “Time Enough for Love”, Robert Heinlein said this:
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
He’s largely correct: we are not insects, and don’t need to be specialists.
Specialist? No. Generalist? Also no. WAT?
So, what’s the alternative to specialization?
Specialization yields a deep knowledge in one area. When reaching for alternatives, our first instinct is to find the opposite–a generalist: shallow knowledge in a broad range of topics, but that’s incorrect. While the dictionary definition of a generalist is similar to that of polymath, the word has attached baggage. When someone says 'generalist', I hear 'dilettante'. I hear 'not serious'.
There’s another thing we can aspire to be: a polymath. An expert in multiple disciplines with a significant knowledge in many others, and unfamiliarity with very few. A person of encyclopedic learning.
In the parlance of our time, “Do all the things.”
While there are many motivations and circumstances that can yield this type of knowledge, we can boil them down into two basic pathways: intentional and opportunistic learning.
Before we get to historical examples, I’d like to talk a little bit about how and why this subject interests me.
I was born in that a part the country doesn’t provide a lot of opportunity for the people who live there. If you want income, you take whatever open position is available. Additionally, people who spend their youth in that part of the country tend to start working at what elsewhere might be a tender age.
At this point, I’ve been employed veriously for ~30 years.
At the University, I bounced around from program to program trying to learn all I could from as many departments as possible, delaying a choice of career for as long as I could, all the while taking on many–sometimes orthogonal–jobs.
In the words of Alton Brown (culinary Jesus, polymath), there's nothing I hate more than not knowing everything.
Even after settling on Computer Science and entering the industry, I switched roles constantly.
Combined with the work I did before college and as second jobs, it adds up to quite the resume.
Most of these jobs, positions, and careers have a common feature; they’ve allowed me to surface an answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this talk. When asked what I do, I can say "I solve problems."
Rewiring a bathroom, setting up an call center to take pressure off an overworked administrative staff, designing a floor plan for an incubator, resolving personality conflicts within a development team, developing an internal marketing plan for a Fortune 50 company–these are problems that I know how to solve. I also sometimes write software.
Initially, my varying courses of study were pushed on me by circumstance; once I was able to direct my own study, I continued the trend.
At present, I don’t feel qualified to claim the title of ‘polymath’, but it will continue to be an aspirational goal.
Many people have historically qualified as polymaths; we’ll talk about two in particular that illustrate the differences between intentional and opportunistic learning.
da Vinci, intentional polymath
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was born into what might be considered humble circumstances. His mother was a peasant, his father a public servant, a notary. He was, however fortunate to be born into a time and place that enabled and encouraged his curiosity and imagination.
Florence, an independent city-state on the Italian penninsula, was in the midst of the Renaissance. The Black Death had killed a third of its population in the previous century, yielding a period of unusual political stability. A rediscovery of ancient texts combined with a proliferation of humanist philosophy to cast off the shackles of Church dogma. The printing press made literature and learning more widely available than was previously imaginable. Perhaps most importantly, the powerful Medici banking family had made patronage of the arts and sciences incredibly fashionable among the prominent members of the court. These circumstances would lead the intellectuals and artists of the time through the foundation of modern scientific thought and a cultural explosion whose echoes are still felt today.
da Vinci was apprenticed to Andrea del Verroccio at 14. In Verroccio’s workshop, da Vinci began both a theoretical and practical education: figure drawing and landscapes, painting, and sculpting were the focus, but with them came a host of attendant technical skills. While da Vinci began with a set of skills required for the production of art, he consistently went beyond, undertaking an intense and detailed study of the subject matter.
Painting involved capturing images on canvas. Finding the right color, light, and texture of an image resulted from keen observation and detail. Inequal parts reproduction and imagination. It also required paint: a combination of natural oils, pigments, solvents.
Pigments were mixed in a mortar and pestle by hand, an emulsion created with the right adhesion and texture. At the time, medieval alchemy was in the midst of becoming chemistry, but the nomenclature was fractured and the processes poorly-understood.
More common than alchemical practice was that of the apothecary, using the same techniques involved in the mixture of paints, but medical in nature.
While still in Verrocchio’s studio, he recognized the value of seeking inspiration and education beyond its walls. As an example, he began to study the work of Piero della Francesca.
Della Francesca employed linear perspective in his paintings in a fashion that few artists prior had approached. Leonardo studied the style and observed its accuracy in the natural world, then integrated it into his own works.
Prior to da Vinci, the use of shadow and contrast in painting was bland and limited. He studied the effects of light on a variety of objects both simple and complex, and began to reflect these studies in his paintings. His techniques would forever change how artists approached light and shadow.
Figure drawing requires a detailed knowledge of human anatomy, and so all of Verrocchio’s students received instruction on the human form and movement. da Vinci mastered topographical anatomy while still in the workshop, but his curiosity remained unsatisfied–it drove him to continue his study beyond what was required to accurately portray the human body on paper and canvas.
It wasn’t enough to know how the body would look and move. Leonardo wanted to know why it looked that way, and what structures informed that movement.
In 1472 Leonardo da Vinci qualified as a Master Apothecary and Doctor of Medicine in the Guild of St. Luke. This and his early successes would give him access to bodies; his dissection of 30 men and women yielded a treatise on anatomy with ~240 detailed diagrams. It wasn’t published until more than a century after his death, and even then it was revolutionary. He studied the structure of the skull and brain, the pelvis and spine; he was the first to describe the double-S structure of the backbone.
Moving beyond structure to function, he made advances in physiology as well as anatomy. He studied the vascular system and described the function of the heart in detail; as late as 2005, da Vinci’s depiction of the opening phase of the mitral valve has been credited as the inspiration for a new technique on the repair of a damaged heart.
He was the first to draw an accurate representation of a fetus during pregnancy, the first, in fact, to put many of the organs of the human body to paper.
His study was not limited to human forms; he also studied the anatomy and physiology of many animals, but had a particular fascination with birds.
In 1478, da Vinci began taking commissions for artistic works, however he continued his intentional extension. Within a few years, he was living at the Garden of the Piazza San Marco, an academy of artists, poets and philosophers that the Medici had established. Here he continued his study in the humanist tradition.
Realize that humanism wasn’t simply a niche philosophy reserved for the elite and intellectual, but a pervasive cultural mode. Among other things, it emphasized the study of a range of topics to round out an individual. A humanist education involved grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, moral philosophy, and other non-occupational topics. That legacy lives on in the Universities of today, but we refer to it by a slightly different name: 'humanities'.
That we take humanities studies so lightly is a by-product of our cultural investment in specialization.
Leonardo continued his humanities study until 1482, when the then-patriarch of the Medici family, Lorenzo di Medici, sent Leonardo to the Duke of Milan as something of a peace offering. Prior to his departure, Leonardo sent ahead a letter, describing in some detail engineering and architectural marvels, civic defenses, and siege engines. Almost as an after thought, he mentions that he also paints.
We can see from this letter that his passion lay not only in art, but engineering–he had continued to pursue those studies in his copious free time.
As a student, he’d learned the barest minimum of architecture and engineering, but in successive years, his keen eye for observation had filled in many of the blanks. Even so, da Vinci felt that his knowledge was incomplete. He had a strong grasp of the geometry required for engineering and his imagination provided him the inspiration he needed to innovate, but at the end of the day he didn’t really understand the math.
da Vinci’s approach to extending his mastery continues to be very intentional. He knows some things, recognizes an adjacent concept he wants to master, and sets about gaining that mastery. At this point, however, da Vinci is 43. He’s too old for apprenticeship or academy, so instead he seeks out a mentor.
In 1497, he convinced his patron, Ludovico the Moor to bring Luca de Paccioli to Milan. Three years earlier, de Paccioli had published a book on arithmetic, geometry, and proportionality that tied in nicely with da Vinci’s existing geometric knowledge. de Paccioli seemed to da Vinci to be a perfect tutor to round out his engineering deficiencies. They worked together in Milan for two years until Louis XII of France invaded Milan with the help of the Venetians. With Ludovico overthrown, both da Vinci and de Paccioli skipped town, and headed to Venice.
da Vinci illustrated Paccioli’s book ‘On Divine Proportions’, published in 1509 and concerning the aesthetics of the Golden Ratio. It’s also very likely that the illustrations in Paccioli’s treatise ‘On the Game of Chess’ are also da Vinci’s.
By the time da Vinci fled Milan, he’d mastered math well enough to be employed without a patron as a military architect and engineer in Venice, focusing–as you might expect–on naval attacks.
In 1502, Leonardo da Vinci entered the employ of Cesare Borgia. Cesare had carved a dutchy out from among the papal states two years earlier, and realized that defense was a priority. da Vinci had submitted a map of the town of Imola that he’d made while in the employ of the duchy of Milan.
His skill in cartography developed as combination of his observational skill and his study the engineering discipline, and served as an effective introduction. At this point, we can say that his mastery of engineering was complete. He would keep learning, however let’s break from the chronology for a moment.
It’s hard to say whether or not da Vinci was driven purely by the extension of his own knowledge, in a Confucian sense, or there was some goal in mind, however the latter seems likely.
In 1505, da Vinci published ‘Codex on the Flight of Birds’. He’d been doodling gliders in his notebooks for 20 years at this point, studying first the way the flight of birds looked, then what the bones and muscles of birds were, and finally the construction of several apparatuses intended to mimic that flight.
While he would never succeed, it should be clear enough what he was after. He wanted to fly.
Even though he'd never achieve this goal, da Vinci’s engineering skill was legendary. His innovations continue, five centuries later, to be integrated into our daily lives.
What began with figure drawing and painting moved methodically and intentionally through adjacent disciplines, in a culture steeped in humanist tradition. Step by step, methodically approaching engineering from many angles. Along the way, he found mastery after mastery.
He was aided in this endeavor by political system at the time–patronage. In our world, it’s somewhat more difficult to get rich people to give us money out of a love of the arts and sciences. Similar things are starting to appear in a limited format–think Kickstarter but it might be better if we look to a slightly more modern example of multi-disciplinary mastery.
His approach was very different than da Vinci’s, but the world in which he lived is one we can relate to a little easier.
Ben Franklin, opportunistic polymath
Benjamin Franklin was also born into what might be considered humble circumstances. Born on the younger end of a litter of 16 children, his father made ends meet by scavenging and making candles and soap. He was, however, fortunate to born in a time and place that would enable and encourage his creativity and imagination.
The 17th century had seen the town of Boston in the Massachusetts Colony grow from a few isolated settlers to a thriving metropolis, housing some 10,000 people with its very own newspaper. It would remain the largest town in British-controlled North America until the 1750s.
The end of the 17th century had seen the spread of European settlers across the Atlantic en masse, and with them they’d brought the ideas of Newton, Voltaire, and Spinoza. The Age of Enlightenment was spreading to the new world–the notion that purer truths could be found in reason and the scientific method than in religion and superstitions. Embedded in these ideas were the need to disseminate them through intellectual correspondence.
Just as da Vinci was, Ben Franklin entered the world in the right place and at the right time.
It was possible to organize Leonardo da Vinci’s life chronologically, since his learning followed a path. Whereas da Vinci extended his mastery intentionally and methodically, by most appearances Benjamin Franklin did so opportunistically–almost haphazardly. Because of this, we’ll organize his efforts topically, starting at his earliest occupation.
In 1718–after two years of early religious teaching and plentiful self-study–a 12 year old Benjamin Franklin was indentured as an apprentice to his brother James, where he began learning the business of printing. James was opposed to this arrangement, but not opposed enough to defy their father.
Three years later, James would found ‘The New-England Courant’, the first truly independent newspaper in the colonies. The paper didn’t print stale news or official addresses on its cover sheet, but satirically attacked current issues with letters from imaginary correspondents. One local clergyman referred to these ‘miscreants’ as ‘The Hell-Fire Club’.
Basically, Ben Franklin learned to be a printer and journalist at the 1720’s equivalent of ‘The Onion’.
Printing, above all else, was Ben Franklin’s trade, and would remain the cornerstone of his life. He was deeply in love with the written word. As a child, he taught himself to read–after that, he borrowed books from whomever would lend them. He would skip meals and buy books instead. Working with his brother and his fellow miscreants, it was only a matter of time before he started to write.
Franklin’s first real attempt with publishing his own material had its difficulties. He’d asked his brother for the opportunity to write some of the correspondence in the Courant, but was turned down. Instead, he wrote under the pseudonym ‘Mrs. Silence Dogood’, and dropped her letters in an envelope under his brother’s door every other week between April and October of 1722. When Dogood’s letters started to become conversation pieces, Ben admitted to James that he was the author; over time, James became increasingly violent, and Ben Franklin skipped out on his apprenticeship and fled, eventually landing in Philadelphia.
His exceptional skill as a printer landed him work immediately. He worked for several printers until 1728, when we find him establishing his own printing house. The next year, he bought ‘The Pennsylvania Gazette’ from a former employer and from this point on, he had a pulpit from which he could agitate the public–something he continued to do until he died.
As a journalist, he quickly mastered many literary conventions; he tended toward the essay and articles that played to his wit and stirred up trouble, but he also used the paper as a means to educate the public, fully embracing the Enlightened sentiment that ‘knowledge wants to be shared’. To aid in that effort, he formed partnerships with newspapers from the Charleston to New England, in effect inventing the newspaper chain.
He wasn’t limited to essays, however. In 1732, he began publishing “Poor Richard’s Almanack” as Richard Saunders. His newspapers had been reasonably successful, however the Almanac’s popularity provided him with real income. This was, of course, in addition to his book shop and the general goods store he ran.
If you’ve been doing the math, Ben Franklin is at this point 26 years old, with a thriving publishing and printing business, a store, a book shop, and from this point forward, has no need of patronage at all. He continues to work–he doesn’t retire until 42–but his financial world is basically self-sustaining.
Let’s rewind: before Franklin established his printing house in Philadelphia, he detoured a bit.
In fact, he was something of a dilettante, intellectually. Imagine Franklin at 19, hanging out in coffee shops with small groups of ‘free thinkers’, book in hand, taking in the theater on the weekends. Something of a hipster.
That’s exactly what he was doing at 19. Only, he was stuck in London, not Philadelphia. He’d gone from a town of 10,000 people to a true old world city of nearly a million.
London was, at this point, somewhat farther ahead in the Enlightenment curve than the Colonies were, and the London coffeehouses were free academies where philosophy and politics were discussed and argued, where language, poetry and mathematics were taught. The London coffeehouse was as much a debate society and cheap university as it was a place to have cup of joe.
It shouldn’t be surprising that London was where Ben Franklin started publishing political pamphlets.
He returned to Philadelphia as soon as he was able, and set about forming a ‘free-thinking society’ called the “Junto” from a diverse group of artisans and merchants in hopes of personal and community improvement. While it wasn’t a London coffeehouse, it recreated enough of the necessities to satisfy Franklin.
Members of the Junto were by and large bibliophiles and discussed their reading, however books were expensive, so the members pooled their books into a library. Franklin went one step further in 1731, creating the Library Company of Philadelphia, the first subscription library. In 1736, the library’s books–which had been stored at the members’ houses–were pooled here:
Anyone who wanted to subscribe could borrow and read. As a further step, he wrote a proposal for the education of the youth of Pennsylvania, laying out a curriculum by which all would have access to a Humanist education.
He went on to found the Academy and College of Philadelphia.
It followed a European-style multidisciplinary model, and eventually included the first school of medicine in North America.
While he was proposing the Academy, he was also founding the American Philosophical Society, providing a network of scientific men a forum in which to discuss their discoveries and theories.
When Ben Franklin had an idea, he did the reading, then pitched it to his friends (of which there were many) and eventually the public. He believed strongly in the value of voluntary associations to benefit society as a whole, not just for education, but also public safety.
Shortly after creating the Library, he founded the Union Fire Company, a volunteer fire-fighting brigade and the first in Pennsylvania.
This sentiment was also at the core of his political writing; he advocated printed currency as a means to keep interest rates low and the value of working-class labor high, primarily of benefit to the poor.
He rediscovered the concept of ‘paying it forward’, that is, a loan repaid to others and not the original benefactor, lost from common usage since before the Roman Empire.
He even created a bequest to the Cities of Boston and Philadelphia in the sum of $2000, to be deposited with interest, and with instructions that it not be distributed until 200 years after his death.
His humanitarian side was in service to what he saw as civic duty, a duty which would demand that he meddle more actively in politics, leading him to be called ‘The First American’, and ‘The only American president to not actually be president’.
We know those stories already, but the path to that point is filled with opportunistic learning. By the time his political star began to truly rise, he had already mastered not only a number of disciplines, but the art of learning them.
On any number of occasions, something came up that provided Ben Franklin with an opportunity to learn something new. There are far too many for a complete survey in under 20 minutes, but here are a few.
After a particularly devastating blaze in Philadelphia, Franklin started thinking about fire prevention. This led him to form the fire company mentioned earlier, but he also began thinking about fire prevention, starting with thermodynamics and previous fireplace designs. Based on then-recent research around the behavior of hot gasses, he designed the Franklin stove such that it would radiate more heat, contain smoke more effectively, and reduce the risk of fire.
Ben Franklin’s family had persistent medical problems. As a response, Franklin took up a study of medicine. While he never practiced as a doctor, he made a few sound contributions to the field.
For instance in 1752, Franklin’s brother John was suffering from bladder stones. After some reading and study, Franklin invented a flexible urinary catheter. Franklin may be best-known for his expertise on electricity, but it’s worth noting that he didn’t start thinking about it until he was 40 years old—on a visit to Boston in 1746, he watched a demonstration of an electrical experiment. He was engrossed, and began an intense study. By the next year, he’d proved that an electrical charge was stored by friction, not created, as was previously thought.
As a part of this train of thought, he coined an alternate terminology for the ‘vitreous’ and ‘resinous’ properties of the electrical fluid, calling them ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, respectively.
In 1750, he’d proposed an experiment to prove that lightning was, in fact, electricity. An upshot of this was his invention of the lightning rod.
In ’56, he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, ten years after he began his study.
Incidentally–Franklin never patented any of his inventions. He said this: “as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.”
Curious about the growth rate of the colonies, Franklin began studying the American population. In 1751, he published a paper on population growth – anonymously, of course—that had a significant impact on the emerging science of demography. His paper influenced many economists, particularly Thomas Malthus.
Throughout his life, Franklin spent a lot of time on ships. As postmaster, he began to investigate the timing of the departures and arrivals of ships coming from England–after all, they carried the mail. As a result of his inquiries, he began charting a strong current running through the Atlantic between England and the Colonies.
In 1770, he published a complete map of the Gulf Stream. Once captains started using Franklin’s charts, they could trim two weeks off of their sailing time.
Much later, he would publish all of his accumulated oceanographic findings in a single volume.
If a theme that underlies the winding paths of Benjamin Franklin’s learning, it is that he was frequently searching for ways to make society better; however his approach is much more opportunistic than da Vinci’s deliberate approach, and often enough he was introduced to a subject by happenstance, then driven by curiosity.
This opportunistic approach worked extremely well for Franklin. He would be exposed to an idea or a problem, learn all he could about that thing, then–maybe–act. Along the way he accumulated mastery of a diverse range of disciplines.
A word on the 'full stack developer'
If you’ve been paying attention to the chatter of our industry, you’ve no doubt sat in a talk or read an article on the virtues of the ‘full stack developer’, or 'generalist' or 'hybrid' or 'unicorn'.
You’ve been encouraged to be familiar with multiple parts of the system, to go wide, to know things from the browser to the metal, from the design to the data model to the operating system, from user experience to storytelling to content curation.
A 'full stack developer' is still a specialist. A 'generalist' who only knows things that relate to software development (yes, including design) is actually a specialist. While mastery of a the full breadth of single discipline is admirable, it remains mastery of a single discipline. That's not what I'm on about.
The value of multiple disciplines
Polymathy encompasses multiple disciplines. Many disciplines.
Why multiple disciplines? Because every discipline has its own set of patterns, its own shape and structure and language that when applied to a different discipline, illuminates.
Consider mathematics. Applying a subset of mathematical structure and proof to your software development technique yields obvious improvement—math and computer science are so closely tied that at some universities they’re taught out of the same department. The value is obvious.
Botany? How many data structures and search algorithms can be represented as trees?
If that seems trivial, consider the leaves in the fall. A tree’s leaves turn gold or red or brown because the tree retrieves its chlorophyll, storing it in the trunk and branches until spring. It does this because chlorophyll is the single most expensive resource that the tree produces. Given a few minutes of thought, this might inspire an approach to the deployment of expensive cloud resources.
Anatomy and Physiology? Consider a stream of incoming data you know to be unreliable. You need a way to clean that data as it crosses the system boundary, and those filters must be as bulletproof as possible.
The kidneys do just that, operating in parallel. When the blood’s toxicity increases beyond the kidneys’ ability to process the waste, it stores it until it has the available capacity. As the kidneys begin to fail, some of their work is transferred to other organs that can, temporarily, provide similar services and allow the kidneys time to repair. Wouldn’t it be nice to build a set of network services like that?
We can find inspiration in many places. At some point you’ll be working with an Extract Transform Load pipeline, moving data from one storage medium to another. As the rows come through the system they are transformed through a series of discrete, repeatable steps, each one doing a single job. That seems a lot like an assembly line.
We can find useful patterns even in manufacturing systems that we don’t want to be a part of.
Let’s wrap up—
Men out of time?
Because of their knowledge and inventiveness, both Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci have been called ‘men out of time’.
They weren’t. They were perfect for their time. da Vinci emerged during the Renaissance, a new world where his methodical study and eye for detail would lead him to marvels of engineering. Ben Franklin was a product of both the Enlightenment and the Colonies, a new world that rewarded his hungry curiosity with vast opportunities.
Their ‘new worlds’ were intellectual, and political.
Our is digital. For the first time in history we have limitless computing power and boundless storage, distributed over a network that is becoming ubiquitous. Information flows through our world like water, and yet true knowledge about the shape of the future remains elusive.
We live in a new, amazing world. All that’s left to do is choose our place in it:
You can be a specialist.
You can even be a generalist.
Me? I choose to be legendary.