"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.” - Robert A. Heinlein
Polymaths, as Heinlein describes, were seemingly more common than they are now. In ancient times, Aristotle and Archimedes. From the Renaissance, Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Copernicus. In early modern times, Benjamin Franklin, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Jefferson. All these gentlemen had a profound tendency to not only dabble in many diverse subjects, but they often put significant effort into them and excelled. What is perhaps most interesting about them is that despite their varied interests, they often had one primary pursuit or profession.
My favorite polymath, Leonardo da Vinci, was a painter. He was also exceptionally productive with his writings on medicine and science, totaling eleven manuscripts over his lifetime on a variety of subjects. Leonardo studied human anatomy extensively, even going so far as to dissect cadavers in the pursuit of accuracy. Taking what he learned from the studies, Leonardo applied it to his day job—painting—and created the masterpieces of human form we know today. Many of the great polymaths were similar to Leonardo: their primary profession benefitted from the pursuit of their diverse interests.
Alas, our society has become more specialized. We tend to identify with the roles we place ourselves in (or roles we have been placed into), and rarely venture outside of those into unrelated fields. Software and systems engineers, I have found, tend to undervalue contributions made by fields other than our own. Such a shame! Our own profession is young and still finding its place in the world. There are professions with thousands of years of history and lessons to draw from, yet we often ignore or dismiss the contributions of our peers in medicine, law, sales, and so many more. Moreover, like the polymaths of old, not all pursuits are professional—many are hobbies that bring us enjoyment, also with their own lessons.
A few years after starting my career in IT, I bought a car. It kinda ran (not really). I found that I quite enjoyed fixing the car when it inevitably broke, and thus a new hobby was built. As I learned how cars work, I started noticing interesting parallels: troubleshooting a misbehaving car was a lot like troubleshooting a misbehaving computer. A car is a set of systems (cooling, exhaust, fuel, drivetrain, etc), each with subsystems made of discrete components. To troubleshoot a car is a matter of understanding what systems are in play, which aren’t, and then working through the problem in a systematic manner. Sometimes it’s a matter of forming a hypothesis, testing it, and adjusting based on the results. Starting to sound familiar? Developing that discipline carried over into troubleshooting the pesky computers at my day job, and vice-versa.
Sometimes people pick up new pursuits as a means of escape from the stresses in their profession. For example, a friend came to me some months ago, saying he was burnt out and didn’t know what to do. I asked him, “What hobbies do you have?” “Well…none, actually”, he replied. I suggested he pick up a hobby, both to help with the burnout and because hobbies are awesome. A month later, he told me that he took a week of vacation and learned to brew beer, and that it was one of the best decisions he’s made in a long time.
Aside from mitigating his burnout, there was an unforeseen benefit from learning the new skill. Brewing beer is a mixture of being methodical, something that is near and dear to all our hearts, and art.
Art, I’m afraid, is something we engineers don’t appreciate enough. Art frees the mind and energizes the soul. Art fosters the kinds of crazy connections that pop into your head while you’re in the shower, on the subway, or walking down the street. You know what I’m talking about—those ideas that hit you with a sudden realization of how to solve that hard problem you’ve been working on for days, or a new idea for a great feature. Art makes us better engineers.
Some pursuits are so common that people often don’t think of them as a source of inspiration and renewal. Traveling for enjoyment is a common hobby all across the world, and has been for millennia. In fact, some cultures place immense value on the experience: in the United States, it is common for university students to take a gap year either before university or during, and spend it abroad. A semester studying at a university abroad is common for university students the world over. It’s not uncommon for engineers to taken three, six, or even twelve months off after leaving a job, and spend it traveling. People who have spent their time traveling often speak highly of the experience, and how it changed the way they think. Travel has a way of influencing how we approach problems, how we interact with others, and so many other facets of our lives. Traveling makes us better engineers.
What new interests will you pursue? What old hobbies will you rekindle? We don’t all need to become polymaths to realize the benefits of diverse pursuits (though I suspect it wouldn’t hurt!): building even one or two hobbies unrelated to your profession will pay you back immeasurably. In a few months time, you’ll find yourself seeing parallels between your work and your new experiences, and drawing upon the lessons you’ve learned in them. More importantly, you’ll find yourself enjoying life more, which is the real value.