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Last year during my admissions season phase, I undertook TWO admission coachings- one for engineering and the other for BBA. This is exactly what most people would forbid admission seekers doing. In a broad perspective, even our society refrains people from having more than one subjects or fields of interest. That’s why we have to select a track in high school (Science, Commerce, Arts), major in university (CSE, EEE, Marketing etc.) and a specific aim in life (Engineer, Business, Civil Service etc.). “Jack of all trades, king of none.”
But doing the exact opposite of what society dictated, I succeeded in getting into Ahsanullah, Dhaka University A unit, MIST and IBA. But I also learnt an important learning concept along the way. And this concept has worked wonders for people ranging from Leonardo Da Vinci to Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. Plus, it is not just for famous people, there are researches that suggest this concept work great for you and me as well.
So I present you with “Renaissance learning” (or “Polymath learning”) – a concept that can transform you into a learning superhero where you fight against worldly problems in a new way.
In this article, you will get to know about Renaissance learning, how personalities throughout history have embraced it, how it can work wonders for you and how you can use it wisely. As you know- “With great powers, come great responsibilities.”
What is Renaissance learning?
Renaissance learning refers to learning to gain expertise in different subjects and fields of knowledge. Simply put, if you want to pursue renaissance learning, you concentrate on more than one path. The term has come from the “Renaissance”- a period covering from the 14th century to the 17th century Europe. During this period, people would be expected to develop knowledge and skills in a wide range of topics- from the science to history to arts and even skills like sword fighting and speaking in 2-4 languages. In modern times, the term “Renaissance man” has been changed to be called “Polymath.” However, the definition still stays the same.
Problem with focusing on one field only- Einstellung
Specialization in one field has its benefits. You gain expertise in one area and have deep knowledge of that field. However, it will leave you uninformed in other fields of knowledge and that can be dangerous.
But the most important thing is that when you focus on only area or field, you cannot think outside the box. You solve problems in one way only. This concept is called “Einstellung.” (pronounced A-in Shta-loong) Under “Einstellung” state, you become so habituated with one way of doing that it will never occur to your mind that there is an easier way to solve the problem. For example: In Physics, we are taught to find out equations of motions through algebra at first (that is, using the equations and deriving from them). Then, when you are in higher grade, you learn the equations through calculus (which is an easier way to derive). However, we are so accustomed to the first way that we don’t try to derive the equations easily. This is an example of “Einstellung.”
The concept of Einstellung shows that concentrating on one field actually hinders progress. And as you will see in the later sections of this blog, Renaissance men were those who have solved some of the world’s greatest problems.
Pi-shaped personality vs. T-shaped personality
Similar to the concept of renaissance learning is the concept of “Pi-shaped personality.” But before that, I want to show you the dominant form of personality- that is the ‘T-shaped” personality.
T-shaped individuals are those who are specialist in one area and generalists in a few other areas as well. This maybe an computer programmer who knows all the nitty-gritty details of a programming language and a few above the average level of skills like communication and teamwork. A lot of organisations these days prefer people with such T-shaped personality.
But being good in just one area can be harmful. It’s like putting all your eggs in one basket. And as Warren Buffet once famously said, “Do not put all eggs in one basket.” Nowadays, you might have heard how automation may sweep away some jobs and render people unemployed. Having two sets of fields to be expert on can help minimize risks. Plus, an additional skill can be a great booster to your resume as well.
Here comes Pi-shaped personality to the rescue. Individuals with Pi-shaped personality are experts in two often different fields and generalists in a few other fields as well. Consider, Tahsan Rahman Khan. He is not only a singer, but also a lecturer as well. In addition, he has also taken part in commercials and films. He is an epitome of a Pi-shaped individual.
Renaissance learners throughout history
Leonardo Da Vinci: Considered the ideal “Renaissance Man”, Leonardo Da Vinci was not just an artist, but an inventor, an engineer, an architect, a scientist and a visionary as well. He kept a journal where he wrote whatever that came to his mind. This included daily activities like grocery list to bizarre things like shoes that can walk on water! He also made important discoveries in human anatomy, drawing pictures of human skeleton, the heart, and other internal organs. Many of these drawings were considered far superior to his time. He also made plans for a flying machine.
Thomas Young: Remember learning Young’s Double Slit experiment or Young’s Modulus in physics classes? All these theories go back to one man- Thomas Young. But he was not confined to physics only. He was also a well known doctor in his days. He also studied languages (coining the term “Indo-european languages) and made important contributions to decoding the language of Egyptian Hieroglyphics (those ancient symbols you find in Egyptian pyramids).
Benjamin Franklin: You might know him as the man who flew a kite on a thunderstruck day. However, Benjamin Franklin was more than that. He wrote articles and books, invented the lightning rod, a stove and some musical instruments. But he also played an important role in the American War of Independence. He was one of the drafters of the American Declaration of Independence and a signatory to the United States Constitution. He was also the ambassador of the newly found nation to France, forging important treaties along the way.
Marie Curie: For most of us, Physics and Chemistry are two of the most daunting subjects any science student has to face. But for Marie Curie, it was passion. And the passion for both subjects together with Mathematics led her to important discoveries in both Physics and Chemistry. She, along with her husband Pierre Curie, led important discoveries in radioactivity and discovering two elements- Polonium (after her birth country- Poland) and Radium. She was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize and one of the only two people to have received the Nobel Prizes in two fields.
Steve Jobs: I guess this man needs no introduction as you must know a lot about him. But you might not know that Steve Jobs was a Renaissance man in his own right as well. He had a passion for electronics, having worked for Hewlett Packard (HP) in his teens and befriending many electronic hobbyists. He also had a passion for literature and the arts as well. He took calligraphy classes, read literature and once acted on a play. He kept two circles of friends- one were electronic aficionados and the other were lovers of arts. Such influences enabled him to be the pioneer of cutting edge technologies blended with artistic design. In his last famous public presentation, he said, “It’s the intersection of technology and liberal arts that makes our hearts sing.”
Elon Musk: These days, we are all talking about this man. The man behind PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity, Open AI and Neuralink is a Renaissance Man as well. Elon Musk was a passionate reader from childhood. Since childhood, he has been an avid reader. His book list (details of which you can find by clicking here) includes “The Lord of the Rings”, “The Foundation Trilogy”, “Einstein: His Life and Universe”, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, “Zero to One” and much more. While he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, he studied two majors- Physics and Economics.
If the list of all famous people throughout history who were renaissance men or polymath didn’t encourage you, this will. More than 10 research studies have shown that most success in fields come when people have diverse interests in various fields. One research has shown people who are polymath are more likely to be creative. In another research conducted by University of Pennsylvania professor Philip Tetlock, it was found that people with broad range of interests were more likely to make accurate predictions in anything than experts in a single field.
So you see, there are researches to back the claim that Renaissance people or polymath or generalists are more likely to succeed than specialists. Thus, you don’t need to be “The gifted one” or “Born talented” to be a renaissance man.
Benefits of being a Renaissance learner
In addition to the obvious benefit of having knowledge in two different fields, Renaissance learning has other advantages with it. You can solve problems creatively, find connections between two completely different things and be competent in an ever changing workplace.
1.Solve problems creatively: Remember the concept of Einstellung? Such state occurred because the solvers were concentrated on one fixed method of solving. Being a Renaissance learner means that you see the problem from different perspectives and thus be able to solve the problem more easily. While I was doing coaching for Business Schools, I learnt some simple Math tricks. This became helpful as I was able to use it for Engineering School exams as the latter mainly focused on calculators.
2.Find connections between two different things: When you learn two different fields, you will gradually find connections between these two things. And through these, you can actually create something new. For example, the Spanish Nobel Laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal was a neuroscientist by profession. However, since childhood, he has been an avid artist. His profession, together with his artistic skills, enabled him to produce fine drawings of brain cells which are still being used today. Here’s one of his drawings of the human brain cells.
3. Be competent in an ever changing workplace: The current world is changing constantly. Skills which are in demand today can be obsolete tomorrow. But when you are equipped with two sets of knowledge, you can easily adapt to the changing marketplace.
By every chance, you should try to be a Renaissance learner. But there is a catch. The saying “Jack of all trades, king of none” still holds true to some extent. You should gather knowledge on at least two and at most four different fields. The working memory (or short term memory) can hold at most 4 information at a time. And to reinforce the information to your long term memory, you need practice. However, being involved in too much activities mean that you cannot give much attention to any particular field. So, learn a few different fields but not many.
So now if you wish to gain the power of a “Renaissance Man”, develop curiosity for everything. Find subjects that interests you. Read books on diverse fields and take part in different activities. You will find a lot of different interests and honing these interests, you can be the next “Renaissance Man.”
Learning is a superpower itself. However, once you gain knowledge in diverse fields, you can become a superhero. Look at superheroes of this century- Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg (I forgot to mention, he was majoring in Computer Science and Psychology at Harvard before dropping out). All of them harnessed the power of learning across diverse fields and became “Renaissance Man.” And research backs that, you too, can be a “Renaissance Man.” So start learning across different domains and you can become the next superhero.
This article’s audiobook is read by Sadia Raisa
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