Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

Curse of the Polymath

In the reality I experience, the world is literally filled with gifted people who are not appreciated for their manifold talents. My mail these days brings me works of genius and beauty, drawn by hands that will not be seen for their immense skills by the public at large. I meet musicians installing wiring, great novelists in waiting sitting at desks (if they are fortunate) in cubicles of major corporations, and great savers-of-humanity trapped behind retail counters.

I also meet many people who are just brimming with gifts,
if only the universe were structured so that those gifts could spring forth. They do more in a weekend than I get done any month, read more novels in a month than I do in a year, and still have time to bewail the manifold shortfalls of Fate.

In general, everyone I know is more talented than their level of achievement. In general, I see more raw talent misapplied in life than I had imagined possible.

I really love the Strangers and Brothers series of novels written by CP Snow. The work is an exploration of the English professional, government and academic classes, spread across 11 novels, told through a single protagonist narrator. During the novels which touch on scientists--Snow himself started as a scientist--a recurring plot theme is "which are the truly inventive minds and which are the 'second raters'". Characters' egos rise and fall based on whether they are truly gifted (Snow, though not religious,
speaks of this almost as though it were Providence), or merely "second raters".

I have discovered over time that I am among the "second rate" intellects. I did not have the genius to be a scientist. I did not have the gifts to be a writer or artist or painter. I am a hobbyist in creative expression, not a real rabbit, perhaps not even a velveteen rabbit. I was mediocre, but not awful at sports. I can live in an ordinary home, in a non-bohemian area, and partake of cable TV without guilt. I can read at the middlebrow and the low as well as the high. I am an above-middling chess player, though chess was once a passion for me. I do well as a lawyer, but isn't law almost by definition a place for people like me?

I do not say this with any particular self-pity or longing.
I find that being a "second rate" mind is a fairly workable arrangement. For one thing, one does not worry about the fact that one has not arisen to one's fated level in life. Fortunately, one is just about where one should be in life. One does not worry that one wants to find practical solutions to problems, as one knows one is not gifted, and instead must rely on workaday solutions. My IQ tests always come out just above average--caution, non-genius at work!

I always think of that anguished character in the film Interiors, who had the soul of an artist, but none of the talent. What an agony! But I would much prefer to the person with the soul of a non-artist, and no talent. I have to think that folks who staff soup lines have no talent. I like to think that talentless people start businesses, work a little harder because they know they have to do and not depend on their gifts, and do not satisfy themselves with just being a cut above the rest.

I love the film Weapons of the Spirit, a documentary about a small town of French Protestants who sheltered a large number of Jews from the Nazis. They had no plan or genius or saintliness. They did it because they could not imagine doing otherwise. I wish I were this sort of second-rate mind; I strive to be of such limited gifts that I do the right thing automatically, being too second rate to do anything else.

Despite my ironic tone here, I have a fairly non-satiric point to make. I feel that too often we shortchange ourselves when we dream instead of giving ourselves permission to do. It's no accident that a B movie character like Ronald Reagan could imagine he could become President. His talents were so limited he could not imagine being unqualified for the role. I am not a Reagan admirer,
but I have to wonder how many of us should give ourselves permission to strive for things, even if we fear we are second-rate. In this respect, positive thinking is all well and good, but I'm in favor of positive action--one really does "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" better with hiking shoes than with an operatic voice.

My father, with whom I share some similarities, used to console me..."Bob", he'd say, "you and I are polymaths. We're not much good at anything,but we can do a little of everything". He meant we knew a little of everything, but also that we were not much good at any one thing. He could tell it much better than I do, but the story essentially meant that being no good at anything, but a little good at everything was some family coat of arms--I'll metaphorically call it a crest with 3 ordinary looking goats on it, busily grazing. Actually, my family surname is an Old English phrase, which means "Nun's Meadow". It refers to the chap who tends the garden for the convent. To me, it is the essence of my family tradition--unremarkable people who do quirky little jobs as if that were their Fate.

I must resign myself, I suppose, to what I called in an earlier post "the problem of mediocrity". But I take this comfort--because I know I am no good at anything, fear of failure rarely informs my actions. I try business, I try the arts, I try recreation--heck, I even try to overcome my shyness and relate to people. Why? Because I know I am no good at it, any of it. Even at law, which comes naturally to me, I use my gifts to solve problems more than to try to prove I am Clarence Darrow. It's no accident that I hold a degree in physics though I am nearly as calculus-impaired as any science person can be (let's skip over Cal III in college, and my grade there). I used to imagine it was a shortcoming, but now I see it as one more colorful thread in the great quilt of second-rate polymathism. It's a red badge of courage, for the talentless.

You see, I have turned my impairment into my strength.
I was not afraid to start my business, because as a polymath I knew I had no genius for it, and would have to work it, budgeting and getting clients. I didn't mind publishing my own booklet, and selling it shamelessly on ebay, because I knew I am never to grace academia or the salons of the literati, and could just huckster and market (archaic expression, but you get the idea). I can give myself permission to be bad, because I know on some level I am not really very good. The liberation from self-judgment can be very gratifying. When I send an "artwork" out in a exchange, I cheerfully warn the recipient how bad it is. They seem to appreciate it.

Being a polymath is a curse. I will never be anyone, anything. But it's a curse with compensation. I will not live in fear of talent squandered, opportunity lost. I will live in the moment, drawing my meager bow back to shoot my lightweight arrows. But you know, those lightweight arrows sometimes land, and unshot arrows never do.

Polymaths didn't get a line in the Sermon on the Mount, but I fancy sometimes that blessed are the polymaths, because they just don't know any better. I will count that as one more blessing, as the song says, instead of sheep.
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