The Vocabulary of Genius

Being quite good, or even, moderately bad, at most things one attempts  is either a cause for commiseration or an art to be celebrated. My mother used to remark in that particularly snide fashion that sticks like Thai rice in the bowels of memory, in the rare moments that I crept into her consciousness: ‘Jack of all trades’ – then, very quickly, with the trademark sniff – ‘master of none.’

For centuries, cultures have wagged their heads at the generalist – he of the non-specific, butter thinly spread over the entire slice of bread: “Equipped with knives all over, yet none is sharp,” warned the Chinese. In Estonia, it goes, “Nine trades, the tenth one - hunger.”
Not very ambitious thinking, you’d have to agree. Not quite the vocabulary of genius.
I once wrote a piece praising the joys of mediocrity; sometimes I rather wish I hadn’t. So sorry for the slip into narcissism – who else will toot my flute but me? Being interested in lots of different things doesn’t necessarily mean that one isn’t particularly good at any of them, in fact, quite the reverse. Many of the world’s most impactful individuals , both contemporary and historical, have been generalists: Steve Jobs, Richard Feynman – he played a mean bongo – Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci – his helicopter blueprint actually helped when the real thing came along five hundred years later.

If being a generalist was the path to mediocrity, what about these?  Newton. Galileo. Aristotle. Kepler. Descartes. Huygens. Laplace. Faraday. Pasteur. Ptolemy. Hooke. Leibniz. Euler. Darwin. Maxwell …is there a collective noun for  polymaths? Learning or indeed developing original ideas across academic domains is like travel, it broadens the mind. It seems to then act as a lightning conductor to attract left-field kind of thinking, a probing intellectual workup in the subject’s particular specialism at that time. Newton confirmed the inverse square law for gravitation – twenty years later he wrote a book on optics.

Modern polymaths go against the grain. They capture half an idea at the water fountain, gleanings from cast aside conversations; they build atypical, asymmetric patterns then – and herein lies genius – develop them in the arid space where competition is weak. Elon Musk is primarily an engineer, like half the Stanford graduates who work for NASA. Had he just concentrated on that, he’d be just as well-off as an average NASA high flyer. However, he was able to use his business training as well, hence Tesla and SpaceX. An image search turns up thousands of images of the man, not his achievements, so a gift for self-publishing is a helpful addition. Plus getting stupidly rich.

Being a Jack of at least a few trades seems like quite a healthy option. Being retired often leaves a black hole of guilt – perhaps I should go and learn Icelandic, just because I happen to  have time to do so. (Perhaps I should clean the guttering instead.) I used to spend a lot of time thinking about mathematics and physics – these days, I think about literature, theology, art, music and even poetry sometimes, none of which will, alas, make me rich or extend my Icelandic vocabulary. Nevertheless, what fun to trace out the beauty in the twinkling mathematics of Euler, or the symmetrical, Persian carpet perfectionism of a Mandelbrot set. That satisfaction of completeness where circles become squares. Yes.


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