The Downsides of a Multidisciplinary Life

“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

Stephen Covey

There are many benefits to pursuing a multidisciplinary life, as an endless supply of curiosity and ideas, but there are also plenty of downsides. If you’re not careful, you can —

  • be less focused
  • get less done
  • be less potent (less deep / more shallow)
  • be more scattered
  • become distracted by new ideas or things you want to learn

And you’ll likely be late for everything. 😉

There’s also the chance that people don’t believe that you are doing all multiple things. Some will think you are cutting corners, but really you are just adding more time to your day by cutting away the nonessential things most people spend all their time on.

As you can see, the majority of the downsides are all related to spreading yourself too thin and spending your time like it’s an infinite resource. 

Because our most valuable resources—time, energy, attention—are all spent on one thing, dividing up our time between various skills naturally cuts our time shorter than if we were focused on only one thing.

While you’re trying to learn 10 things at once, Jane Doe over there is giving 100% of her time and effort on learning design. (Not that comparing yourself to Jane is the smartest thing to do.)

But wait. Is this really true? Aren’t we all overbooked—despite whether we enjoy doing many things or just one thing? Aren’t we all busybodies nowadays, running around with too much on our todo lists and spending our free time vegging out in front of the TV and or our phones?

We (humans) all have to choose what we do with our time, whether or not we are pursuing a multi-disciplinary life or a one discipline life.

The first thing you must decide is what type of life do you want to lead. Are you going to go all-in on dancing? Or are you going to divide your time between dancing and microbiology? Or are you going to find a way to thread the needle between dancing, microbiology, music, painting, and pottery?

Once you have a good idea of what type of life you want, then you must prioritize what’s most important. 

If you decide to pursue multiple disciplines, know your limits. Don’t try to do everything. Rather focus on a handful of things. The less amount, the more time and focus you’ll have for each.

The last thing we want to do is spin a lot of plates but not accomplish anything we set out to do. Without consistency and discipline, we could easily jump from one shiny object to the next and never actually finish a project, or fully learn a craft. 

The key is to not try to do everything at once. Even if you are pursuing multiple things, whichever one you are focusing on right now, give it 100% of your attention and effort. As the inventor Alexander Graham Bell once said, “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”

STAY BOLD, Keep Pursuing,
— Josh Waggoner | Daily Blog #906

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The Benefits of a Multidisciplinary Life

The concept has many names:

Polymath, multi-hyphenate, multi-faceted, multidisciplinary, renaissance human, wunderkind

It essentially means being skilled and knowledgable in many things. Not a genius, per se, but someone who pursues a life of learning. And behind that learned skill is an insatiable curiosity that only grows the more you know and question.

The first person that likely comes to mind is Leonardo da Vinci. His curiosity knew no bounds. On top of being a master painter, he was also interested in architecture, geometry, engineering, mathematics, music, anatomy, botany, cartography, playwright stage design and more.

Being multidisciplinary isn’t for everyone. It isn’t an easy goal to take on. You have to spend time and them some to become competent—let alone exceptional—in one skill. More than one and you’re crazy. Luckily, you are in good company. The journey may be long and hard, but that makes it all the more special.

There are many benefits to seeking a multidisciplinary life:

Greater sense of wonder and curiosity. Instead of just following the path everyone else follows, or memorizing the answers and following the rules, a multidisciplinary life gives
you a mind that desires to understand the reason behind the rules. Questions awake curiosity and the desire to figure things out for ourselves. Instead of following the path most taken you to create your own path, leading to true wisdom and a fundamental understanding of how things work.

Ability to learn new things quickly. One skill relates to others. Your previous knowledge interweaves into new things you are learning. Wisdom combined with curiosity keeps you humble and in a beginner’s mind—never too arrogant enough to think you know all the answers. And with that comes the ability to easily apply what you know to other interests, soaking up knowledge like a sponge.

More unique ideas. Because you are interested in many subjects and crafts, your ideas tend to cross-pollenate. Skills influence one another. Lessons you picked up from learning photography might go on and influence how you learn to program, or what you use programming to build (a photography app for example). Each idea leads to another which leads to —

More connections and more opportunities. By learning multiple disciplines, you start to combine, mix and match interests with each other. Your love of film combining with your love of dance and your curiosity about sunsets. Each connection creates a new opportunity for a new project or a person you might meet.

All of these leads to better and more chances to create. And it also gives you more self-awareness of who you are and what you want in life.

curiosity > ideas > insights > skills > opportunities > connections > impact > more curiosity

But…

There are downsides too —

More on that tomorrow.

STAY BOLD, Keep Pursuing,
— Josh Waggoner | Daily Blog #905

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All In

Learning never exhausts the mind. Leonardo da Vinci

It’s a misconception that a renaissance human — someone who practices multiple skills — can’t be as good as a specialist who only focuses on only one skill.

Yes, It’s true that the more you divide your focus, the less amount of time and energy you can give to each. And yes, there is a limit to how many things you can pursue at once without scattered yourself in too many (ineffective) directions.

But a multi-disciplinary can be just as great if not more so that single-disciplinary individuals. Divided time doesn’t mean you aren’t putting in the hard work.

Even pursuing one skill, there’s only so much time and energy you can give to something before you need to stop and take a break. For a renaissance type, it just so happens you’re likely going to take a “break” by jumping into another skill. You aren’t reducing work, you are adding in different work.

You can go all-in on multiple things. Not too many — there are only so many hours in the day. Try too many things at once and you won’t be able to go deep enough. (This is the jack/jill of all trades zone.)

While alive, our hearts keep beating. Our minds keep thinking. Even while we sleep our mind and body are still active.

When you are jumping from one skill to another to another, you are feeding your curiosity. The key is to pursue interests that rejuvenate you and keep you doing and learning new things. We get stale when we stay in our comfort zones instead of challenging ourselves. (That goes for both specialists and renaissance humans.)

STAY BOLD, Keep Pursuing,
— Josh Waggoner | Daily Blog #868

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Is it Possible to be a Multidisciplinary in Today’s Age?

“If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.”

Michelangelo

Is it possible to reach Leonardo da Vinci or Benjamin Franklin’s level breadth of skills and knowledge in today’s world?

Yes. But there’s a difference between today and as time goes forward (assuming there’s no apocalyptic zombie outbreak).

There’s a lot more choice today than in the past. For example, Leonardo, although an I legitimate son, had more access to paper than most growing up because his father was a notary and landlord. That’s like me growing up without a cellphone versus kids today growing up with phones, tablets TVs and other screens aplenty! For most, paper was not cheap. To think and draw and write was quite a luxury.

Think about how plentiful our access to paper is today. The same is true for everything in our modern world.

Even the poorest of us have more choices than in the past.

To be multidisciplinary, we must be extremely cautious with what we give our time too. Every skill and industry, be it woodcraft, design, dance, artificial intelligence, or medicine has multiple multiple sub-skills and paths we could take.

To reach a level of mastery of any trade is difficult. Most don’t get there. To reach mastery in multiple trades takes discipline, creativity, and dedication.

It’s possible, certainty. But it means we have to choose. We must prioritize our essential few over the plethora (and ever-expanding) options.

There’s room for trying new things and experimenting of course. But there’s not much room for idleness and complacency.

STAY BOLD, Keep Pursuing,
— Josh Waggoner | Daily Blog #847

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