The Vanishing Polymath: How monoculture is killing us.

(Reading time 8 minutes)

One passion. One purpose. One focus.

Laser-sharp. Unwavering. Precise.

That is what every success coach, wellness expert and lifestyle guru would have you believe is the secret sauce of success, of that perfect life. That is also what most work environments expect from themselves, their employees, their colleagues and even their clients. It is the way most people wish they could be when they are not so already.

As we strive to prune our lives and dive deep within to find that one magic gem, we rarely pause to look at what else we may pass up in our pursuit, and above all, we rarely question the validity of such a pursuit.

To what end?

In biological terms we can describe this lack of diversity as a mono-culture.

Mono-cultures are entirely man-made, they area a very rare occurrence in nature. They are chronically empoverished ecosystems, and therefore highly vulnerable to any external changes. They exist only in a very narrow band of natural variability, and it is this reason why they are uncommon: they are an evolutionary dead-end. If you leave a planted crop field to natural forces it will survive, but it will be altered considerably by other living organisms like insects and animals, fungi, and other plant species brought in by wind and fauna. It will be altered by physical conditions like soil nutrient availability, weather events, rain frequency and so on. In order to keep the mono-culture functioning it is necessary to invest a tremendous amount of energy and resources effectively fighting the natural phenomena and diversity, and creating and maintaining artificially controlled conditions: pesticides and poisons that selectively ward off living organism intrusion, and natural and synthetic fertilisers and irrigation systems that rely on careful testing of chemical composition and moisture content monitoring. This effort and energy is necessary to keep the mono-culture alive, because it is inherently weak and unstable. The most robust ecosystems are also the most diverse.

The same is true for our human nature, our spirit, our character.

Perhaps like me, you too may have spent a fair chunk of brain-energy and time struggling to distill things down to a single a focus of endeavor. One of the most wonderful side-effects of coaching is that it also accelerates self-discovery. Being the outside observer of my client’s challenges, and then having to dissect, study, relate these to our latest science understandings of psychology in order to provide meaningful guidance also provides an extraordinary accelerated path to self-discovery. Accelerated because along the way I was required to research and understand questions that in some case were completely foreign to me, or not relevant for my circumstances at that particular time. Or in some cases, these challenges were anchored in completely different value foundations and world-views. That alone is a big topic and will be a subject of other posts.

Of course I totally failed in distilling that single purpose thing! And the odds are you will most likely fail too. And here is why.

Through my coaching clients, the futility of such an endeavor soon became obvious: not one single client so far has been someone I could describe as a “monomath”. Inside every one was a vast and rich universe, which would not only be impossible to distill into a single purpose, but outright harmful to do so. So harmful in fact that this distilling, this reducing and exclusion began to show up as a very consitent factor with people who were and are experiencing burnout, self-doubt and depression.

Reducing your entirety of being to a singular purpose will not bring happiness to your life, it will rob you of it!

To emphasize this point, the list of greatest luminaries throughout time is made up of a rich mix of polymaths. Even those who have stood out in a single endeavor were also notorious for passions unrelated or complimentary to their main legacy of work. We are not talking here about statesmen or about the modern financial outliers who have built billion-dollar businesses in the last few decades, but people who have created meaningful cultural, scientific and humanitarian legacies across the last 2000 or so years of modern civilisation.

Without going into details of each – that would warrant a whole lot of posts on its own – here is a very short sample list of perhaps the most recognizable ones.

  • Hypatia
  • Aristotle
  • Leonardo DaVinci
  • Avicena
  • Hildegard Von Bingen
  • Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein
  • Nicola Tesla
  • Albert Einstein
  • Jacques-Yves Custeau
  • Isaac Newton
  • Benjamin Franklin

From an evolutionary and science perspective polymathy makes complete sense. Up until the industrial revolution “single purpose life” was not really a thing. And while industrialisation was meant to augment our life experience, it has done so at a price: we have been funneled into becoming and believing in the virtues of a stripped-down version of ourselves: single purpose beings doings. It is efficient, but that efficiency only adds value within a very narrow economic and monetary value context, and outside of that it runs at a horrific deficit. Outside of that narrow set of metrics, on a ledger far removed from economic prosperity, we see the real cost: this silo of efficiency is at the very root of our global depression and burnout epidemic. Those stripped away bits are deeply valuable to ourselves and fundamental to our emotional well-being.

People fall apart and die within silos, metaphorically and physically.

All the little character nuances that make us relateable to others are removed, severed, de-legitimised. The authentic quirks, passion and richness make us unique are precisely what creates and nurtures meaningful bonds with others, bonds that outlast a shared sports fandom in the corporate box, or the contracted project period. Those bonds are deep, non-transactional and fundamental to our emotional (and physical) well-being. Is the foundation of trust both given and received, the actual signals of authenticity of character. And it makes us feel good about ourselves.

But in the mono-cultural silo, this isolation is real: take a look at the inherent structure of social media platforms, most noticeably the “professional” one, Linkedin. It is nigh impossible to project polymathy, diversity and richness of character, so much so that we unquestioningly accept this as a cultural normal. While videos are somewhat more transparent, it is still generally another means to deliver information within that same specific silo. And it becomes even more homogenous when you consider the plethora of experts who will give you the seven magic tips of how to make that compelling impression that will get you a veritable stream of clients and dollars rolling in.

But its not just social media, that is simply a place where it becomes undeniably visible. It is a real-world phenomenon, and it is everywhere. We publicly consider this “silo identity”, the stripped back image of the ultra-efficient optimised one-trick-pony as desirable, even trustworthy, authentic. And yet we know deep in our guts and heart that it is precisely none of those things, but still we play along with the formal officialness, starched and bleached of all meaning and substance. We like the lie, because it is shiny enough to make us believe we look and project like the people we think everyone likes and hires. We like the lie because we believe that everyone else is buying it, and for a few that participation is likely to be lucrative. But above all, we like and cherish, even protect the lie because it makes us feel safe from scrutiny and criticism.

But just imagine for a moment you could project that richness. Imagine how many more genuinely meaningful relationships would emerge if such an expression of authentic, multifaceted character were possible? Imagine connecting with people who may never hire you or send you work, but who by their implicit trust could open the most unexpected and rewarding doors for you? People whom you may never have a need to hire, but whom you will eagerly recommend for an opportunity elsewhere in favour of a bunch of starched and stale business connections simply because you “get them”?

Now step outside of your work silo head-space for a moment, and imagine what the whole of your life – work included – would look like then?

Chances are that you are either angered/intimidated/frightened by such an idea – and are furiously attempting to shut it down, or you are grinning from ear to ear, maybe feeling that there is something in this. I hope for you that it is the latter! (And if its not, get in touch fast and let’s work together to change that!)

In 2020, I will continue – as I have now done for several years – to develop the whole of my “universe of being”. And I will help others to restore such richness within themselves, unapologetic, dignified and proud.

First and foremost I will continue to create. Some of it will be architecture, some of it music, some of it visual art. I will “puzzle till my puzzler is sore” (thanks Dr. Seuss!). By that I mean solve problems, figure stuff out, refine, improve, iterate. Architecture demands a lot of that, and so does coaching. From the outside it may look like complete “nerding out”, but there is an indescribable satisfaction when stuff comes together, almost always even better than imagined. The sense of fulfillment when a client has a breakthrough realisation, a design idea finds its true grounding, sonic fragments coalesce into a musical story, that sense of joy is completely beyond words.

Some of it I will get paid for, other things I won’t, at least not in monetary terms. I am ok with that, because I will keep on learning new stuff and taking on new challenges. One of the fundamentals of Zen is to approach everything with a “begginer’s mind”, never allow pre-conceived ideas to get in the way of new learning, and to be open to seeing the teaching in every experience, place and situation.

Of course there is always a need for priorities and exclusions, but for most people these decision are anchored around external assumptions, expectations and economic imperatives that have very little to do with their deeper human identity and core being. The important shift is to get this combination of priorities to be richly inclusive and to align as best as possible with your “wholeness of being”.

In 2020 I will not be a coach, a mindfulness teacher, and architect and a musician, these simply are things that I do. In 2020 I will continue to nurture and enrich these activities, get better at them and evolve them so that I may continue help others in whichever modality is appropriate for their context and dreams. I invite you to do the same, and let us meet, converse and live outside of the silo.

A caveat: this “full being” living takes discipline and a bit of organising. You need to put in place good planning and time management skills. You need to get good at saying “No” to time-sucker activities. For example I don’t watch TV, have allocated myself limited social media times which I am pretty good at sticking to, and don’t have entertainment subscriptions of any kind. I instead spend that time and money on special skill teachers or courses.
And finally you need to be disciplined enough to do the work when you have allocated the time to it. But in spite of occasional procrastination and distraction, simple strategies don’t need to work 100% of the time, even sticking to your plan for half the time will see you achieve some extraordinary things this year!.

I hope this approach inspires you to do the same. Make this year the year of ditching the labels. You are not an accountant, or a doctor, or an electrician. That is a niche activity that you do, generally for income, but it is not what you are. Forgetting who you are leads to burnout.

If you are, like the vast majority of people, feeling that restoring the big picture of who you are, and bringing clarity to your personal and unique “Universe of Being”, then I invite you to do something only the most courageous change-seekers commit to doing: invest in yourself by getting expert outside guidance. Our coaching program “Soul Compass” -now in its 4th year – was developed to do exactly that. It will probably change everything for you in 2020.

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