Tuesday, March 30, 2010

This Is a Potpourri. It Just Doesn't Smell as Bad

Photo: ciokkolata_farabutto_never_loved_berlusconi, Flickr Creative Commons

If I could go back and change just one thing about my time in college, it would be this: I'd take more math.

I know that sounds a little weird from a guy who claims to hate math, but in case you haven't noticed, I'm a guy who prides himself in being a Renaissance type with far-flung interests. Of course, living in an age of specialists, being that guy who dabbles a little in a lot of different pursuits makes me pretty worthless, but I'm okay with that. I'd be miserable as a specialist. I take the generalist label that belongs to such successful species as humans and cockroaches and I make it my personal creed. Do a little of everything. Colonize new territory. Spread diseases. I don't want a good niche. I want all of them, even the sucky ones.

If Malcolm Gladwell was right and to become truly exceptional in any one field requires 10,000 hours of practice, I never had a chance at being the best at anything. It's not that I lack passion. I have plenty of passion. It just passes through a passion prism and is split into a seemingly infinite number of directions. I regret that I didn't take calculus and physics in college. I just don't know where I would have put them. It's not like I was going to give up Pre-Colombian Art History or the Modern History of Africa. I wish I had gotten around to taking ceramics, too. If I ever come into enough wealth to see me comfortably through to my death, I will quite literally become a professional student. I'd be an academic vagabond, a new Paul Erdős, except with less math. Hey, I said I wish I'd studied it more, not exclusively.

That strange little ramble was inspired by a podcast that recently entered the ranks of my favorites along with This American Life and Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. Ira Glass and company will always be my favorite, but Radiolab is really, really good. Imagine if This American Life decided to compete with Science Friday, got a little more avant-garde with their production values, and the hosts decided to model themselves after toned-down versions of Click and Clack from NPR's Car Talk. The result is just incredible radio. Don't let the Car Talk reference throw you. Jad and Robert on Radiolab are nowhere near as over the top as Click and Clack, but there is an undercurrent of silliness and geniality that reminds me of them. I've taken to listening to this show during my runs. Do yourself a favor. Even if science isn't normally your thing, give this show a listen. Believe me, unless you have below average intelligence, this won't go over your head.


Chris said...

I'll confess to being torn over this generalist vs. specialist idea. I have sort of broad curiosities that have probably led me to be mostly a generalist, but I do sometimes lament what feels like the limited career opportunity that results from not being a real specialist at anything.

On the 10,000-hour rule, I'm probably approaching 10,000 hours of practice at writing. But there again, writing itself is probably too general to be considered a specialty, so I'm not expecting to be regarded as a wildly successful expert writer any time soon.

Julie said...

That's funny. I decided long ago that if I could redo college, I would study less and hang out with my friends more.

I took class and good grades far too seriously. As long as I'd kept the grades high enough to keep HOPE, I could have slacked off and still followed my current path with no problems.

I do agree that I would continue to learn if given the time and money.

Finally, I just have not gotten into podcasts. I'm sure they are great but I don't want to handle more than the radio dial / cd button in my car and rarely listen to music outside the car. 

Jacob said...

Julie, I can't say that studying less would have been something I would change, mainly because I wouldn't have been able to study less. I rarely read my textbooks, even for lit classes.

I am the master of bullshit. I passed a regular college lit class without reading a single damn paragraph of our assigned readings. The key is to really listen to the class discussions. I never missed a class or that wouldn't have worked.

Jacob said...

My grades back then could have been better. I wasn't going to lose HOPE or anything, but it should have been higher.

Courtney said...

I think I'm a generalist too. In fact, I think that's mainly why I decided to major in journalism -- you get a taste of a lot of different things when you're a reporter. Then, when I abandoned that and went to grad school, I had a hard time narrowing my focus to something specific. I'm interested in too much damn stuff.

I'll give that podcast a listen.