Friday, September 25, 2009

Know One... Know Many...

The other day, I was working in the garage with a friend building some new shelves to help us manage our rapidly deminimalizing lifestyle. When I build things, I tend to picture them in my mind and then construct them without drawing sketches etc.

My friend asked me where I'd learned to build like that. I realized it's something that I've always had in my life. My dad is a real "tools" guy. As far back as I can remember, I have always been involved in building this or fixing that, everything from putting up studs for walls to repairing clutches for washing machines to replacing brake shoes and brake lines in cars. It's just part of how I grew up.

My friend said, "so much for 'know one, accomplish all'."

I replied, "What do you mean?"

He said, "Well, with you, it's more like 'know everything, accomplish anything'."

This got me thinking.

Know Everything, Accomplish Anything
Many of you are probably familiar with the phrase "Know One, Accomplish All". It's essentially an admonition against dabbling. It implies that, by truly investing yourself in one discipline, you'll be able to do anything.

I've always liked the phrase. I know many people who always seem to be deeply invested in their passion of the moment. They flit from idea to idea, theory to theory, discipline to discipline, and so on. They run on inspiration, not perspiration.

In these cases, knowing 'one' would be way better than knowing 'none'.

However, I now realize that, if you're past the dabbling phase, the 'know one, accomplish all' approach can be severely limiting. If you're someone who has the wherewithal to invest yourself deeply in understanding a discipline, then there are many conceptual breakthroughs that you can only acheive when you're well grounded in multiple disciplines.

For example, I never really understood English grammar until I learned French. Within the single language, it was very difficult to discern the exceptions and the rules. English was simply too familiar. As I learned French, I picked up a new way of thinking about language, one that I might not have found learning only English. The French-based perspective improved my English.

When I worked in the research group at Bell Laboratories, my colleagues were all PhD's in electrical engineering, computer science and physics. I didn't have a PhD and my background was in music. Still, I did quite well in the organization receiving high ratings and promotions. My training in music gave me a different perspective and way of thinking about technology problems. This allowed me to achieve breakthroughs that wouldn't have come otherwise.

In short, I'm really starting to like the "know everything, accomplish anything" way of thinking.

Staying Young
I recently heard a news story about the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato, Minnesota. This is an order of nuns who on average live well into their 90s and who seem to thrive to the very end of their lives.

About twenty years ago, researchers at the University of Minnesota began a study on the nuns who, in addition to their long lives seemed to have no incidence of Alzheimer's. The nuns not only participated in the study, but also agreed to donate their brains to the project (posthumously, that is).

The amazing part is that, when autopsied, many of the nuns' brains appeared to have the physiological characteristics of Alzheimer's disease. Yet, none of them showed any of the symptoms while alive. It turns out that the nuns stay active throughout their lives (one receptionist was 102), and that they are constantly learning new things and new disciplines. The thinking is that, by actively learning and putting into practice new ideas and disciplines, their brains are always building new pathways, including those that bypass the Alzheimer's.

I'm sure that my explanation above is not up-to-snuff from a medical perspective, but I find the concept intriguing. If we stay active and if we actively learn new things, we may actually increase our lifespans and avoid dementia.

What Do You Mean by 'Is'?
It just occurred to me that my use of the word "know" may not be specific enough. By 'know', I'm not talking about the Trivial Pursuitish, Jeopardiacal memorization of facts; I'm talking about a functional and applicable understanding of how things work. I don't believe that memorizing without understanding will get you there.

A Little Experiment
I'd like to invite you to join me in a little experiment. First, only do this if you've already got the "know one" part down, otherwise, well...

Anyway, if you've invested yourself in and become really accomplished in a specific discipline, pick another, seemingly incompatible discipline that you find appealing, but in which you have not invested. For example, if you're an painter, it might be time to take up bowling. If you're an accountant, it might be time to take up singing. If you're a classical piano player, it might be time to take up jazz. If you're a Catholic, it might be Protestantism or Judaism.

Over the next few months, invest yourself in learning and really understanding the new discipline. As you do so, don't do it from a critical perspective, but instead, do so from the perspective of naive initiate who loves the discipline and really, really, really wants to learn and practice it.

My hypothesis is that, after three months, you will not only have acquired an understanding of something new, but that you will also have developed far better understanding of what you already knew.

Have a great Friday!

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