Saturday, December 15, 2018

How to Polymath

Here's part of a recent New Yorker article, "Garry Kasparov Says We Are Living in Chaos, But Remains an Incorrigible Optimist: The chess grandmaster and political activist on Putin, Trump, and how we are living again through the eighteen-fifties" by the great Masha Gessen:
Kasparov: I realize that I can’t compete with the leading chess players today.

Gessen: How does the greatest chess player in history feel being unable to win?

Kasparov: You can’t really maintain the level of concentration. I can play a strong chunk of a game, or I can win one game in a beautiful way. But, on the whole, that’s not my life anymore. You can’t come from a different life at fifty-five and beat a thirty-year-old, or even a forty-year-old who does nothing but chess. I’m an amateur, and I feel comfortable with that.
Welcome to my world. As I've lamented, I will never be the musician I was in my 20s and 30s, back when I lived and breathed music.

Nor will I ever be in the physical condition I was in in 2009, nor be the manager I was from 1997-2004, nor the hatha yogi I was from 2002-2011, nor the social butterfly I was in the early 1990s, nor the rapier-like insult comic I was in high school, nor the voracious reader I was in the late 1980s, nor will I likely ever experience another freaky, multi-year food discovery Streak, etc. etc..

I've had a half dozen careers, several dozen all-consuming hobbies, and been a slew of different people under an uncommonly diverse set of circumstances. But I can't simultaneously keep all skills sharp or be all of those people (I use procrastination, i.e. compartmentalization, as my process for channel flipping, but it's a primitive, glitchy trick that only goes so far).

But let me make an important distinction. With a couple months work, I could play trombone well enough to get satisfaction, and to please audiences (so long as I stay within a narrow comfort zone, rather than try to be the uber-versatile chameleon I once was). I could also get back into at least some semblance of shape (I can no longer lift heavy weights due to my stent; a serious limitation). I could be a respectable dilettante in nearly every field in which I'd previously been an expert, given sufficient time (and tolerance of the zero-summing that ensures that some other part of my life disintegrates as I pivot my attention).

The problem is that it's difficult, and humiliating, and depressing to find yourself a dilettante in fields in which you were once expert. And I hadn't planned for this! I'd always imagined myself exuberantly riding the various bulls til the bitter end!

Perhaps the smarter way to have done it would have been to choose two main fortes, and stick with them all the way, channeling fickle curiosity into much broader dilettantism, rather than the spotty Swiss cheese I allowed myself to become (anyone who knows me well can attest that I'm really bad at everything I'm not really good at).

Either that, or do it my way, chalking up a gaggle of fields where you've invested 10,000 hours...but be better prepared than I was to amiably watch plate after spinning plate crash down over the years.

Hardly one thought from this Slog could have sprung out of my mind prior to 2004 or so. In fact, I've used this vehicle to answer nearly all the questions I've spent my life eagerly curious about. So I sometimes hear my younger self shrieking at me to stop regretting what's missing (I may never entirely learn)...and to recognize that what I'm engaged in is at least as worthy, if not more so. In fact, I’m the envy of my younger self!

The problem is that I perennially undervalue my immersion-du-jour, even if I register quality when I infrequently step back to appraise. Current engagements usually feel as pedestrian to me as an earthworm's view of its process - i.e. consuming dirt and shitting out slightly improved dirt. Earthworms don't take victory laps.

I'm obviously no Einstein, but I have similar self-framing aberrations to the ones I imagine he had....and that we all have (which is why it's important to tell people what they are).

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