This conversation really began a few months ago, from my self-reflective rambly essay on hippiesque, followed by my friend Stephanie Booth’s investigation into the idea of the “poly-expert”. The question arose over an informal chat: what can multi-talented or multi-skilled people call themselves that do justice to their poly-expertise, when the market seems only interested in specialisation and 3-word long job titles? How do we even go about self-branding?
How do poly-experts become who we are?
Today I’d just like to mull on what it means to be a poly-expert, and how you could have arrived at being one. I’m going to pretend to forget about the “what we call ourselves” question for a moment, and look at it through doing some basic arithmetic around how a polymath, poly-expert or generalist can possibly spend their time. If you don’t have the time right now (hah!) to read these two rather long pieces, let me synthesise here a couple of ideas that I want to expand on by pulling out some key quotes.
From my post:
Somewhere in the way we view what we, as respectable members of society, should do with our lives, we lose out the moment we think of ourselves as a cogwheel that can be good at only one thing. So many of the skills we possess in one discipline translate to another, it seems ridiculous to limit ourselves and fool ourselves into thinking that we were each designed for only one thing.
It’s a little like mastering languages. When you begin to know a couple of languages, the third, fourth and fifth language comes easier, because suddenly you have a much more flexible model of the world through which you can adapt what you see and interpret. As you encounter new things, they either fit into something you already know, or you create a new mental model.
Doesn’t it stand to reason that if we could pick up very different skills, that we should be able to be more efficient learners, and be more adept in more of the things we do?
From Stephanie Booth’s post:
The mono-expert builds his expertise on digging deeper and deeper and acquiring an exhaustive knowledge of his subject. He runs the risk of becoming blind to what is outside his specialty, or viewing the world through the distorted glasses of excessive specialization.
The poly-expert builds his expertise on digging again and again in different fields. In addition to being an expert in the various fields he has explored, the poly-expert is an expert [at] digging and acquiring expertise. By creating links between multiple fields of expertise, he avoids the pitfalls of excessive specialization — but on the other hand, he is often recognized as a superficial generalist rather than a kind of super-expert (because “you can’t be an expert in all those things, can you?”)
On a related note, Hunter Nuttall changed his blog tagline just two days ago to “personal development for polymaths”, and in a corresponding blogpost, he highlights some main points about polymaths and who they “are”.
Calculating “career time” as an expertise
I happened to have read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and maybe so have you. I’m sure you’ve at least heard about the 10,000 hours it takes to be an expert. I’m not saying I agree with him on the figure, but it’s an interesting guideline to abide by. There are many more points in the book about the secret(s) of success, but I’d just like to think about what this means for poly-expertise by getting it down to a simple practical matter — what do we do with our time? I’m going to start with the most obvious calculation: let’s take this apart and look at it from a “professional day-job” standpoint.
Assuming 40 hours a week make a full time job, to be an expert we’d need 250 weeks. (10000/40-hour week = 250 weeks.) Time off work for vacations and holidays and such ranges from 2-5 weeks on average a year, so let’s say it’s about 3, as an average of an average. With a “career time” of 52 minus 3 weeks, we’re at 49 weeks per year. 250 weeks/49 would give you just over 5 years, not 10, if you stuck at working in the same field of knowledge all day. (Side note: There’s interesting history about where the 8-hour work day comes from, but that’s out of scope of this discussion.)
However, anyone who’s tried to estimate how long something takes (let me put my project manager hat on) will know that most people are really effective for no more than around 5 hours a day. So let’s make that a more conservative estimate: 10000/(5 hours x 5 days a week) = 400 weeks. Let’s divide this again with our average number of weeks worked (49): and we’re at 8.16 years. That gets us a little closer.
But wait. Aren’t there 24 hours in a day? Is it correct to assume that an 8 hours’ work day is where we’re all at?
In my follow up post, I’m going to explore some basic arithmetic around the other 16 hours in the day. Let me just go away for a bit and make sure I got my numbers straight.