Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone
For as long as I can remember, I didn’t like school. I didn’t hate it either, but it was always a drag. Grade school was somewhat tolerable, but adolescent awkwardness hit in junior high (switching to a new school didn’t help) and I can remember dreading each day. Then in high school, I came home every evening with a litany of complaints, usually about teachers and classwork and – more than anything else – just plain boredom. Though I loved my time in college, I skipped as much class as anyone. There were just too many sports to play, too many friends to keep up with, too many outside interests and projects that I wanted to pursue on my own. Lectures and labs were an unfortunate necessity, and for most courses, they were to be avoided when possible.
So it really is a bitter irony that education itself proved to be the toughest thing to lose in starting life after college. The transition happened fast: graduate in May, start work in June, begin waxing nostalgic in July. It took me only weeks of “real life” to discover that I still had a million disciplines I wanted to explore, and at least a thousand I needed to master. It turned out that I knew far less about even my own field, computer science, than I’d realized. I found so many doors I hadn’t opened, and every week of life exposed more to me.
Of course, unbounded interest isn’t usually the only issue in adjusting to post-college life, and it wasn’t for me either. This exploration of my passions happened concurrently with all the normal struggles: making friends, getting acquainted with a new city, finding a workable fitness routine, and managing suddenly-much-more-limited free time. But even after I had mostly resolved these other issues, my desire to learn more about everything just didn’t go away.
Expertise and Tunnel Vision
Meanwhile, a force was also pushing in the opposite direction. In an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, writer Stephen Dubner and angel investor James Altucher dispense their favorite life advice. One recommendation they give is to write down your top 25 interests and passions, and then to cross out all but the top 5. Give all of your time to the few things that make you most happy, they say. Put yourself in a silo.
As I’ve transitioned into the professional world, that piece of advice has come up time and time again: “become an expert”. Choose a specialty. Coworkers recommended mastering a narrow field and growing into a “subject matter expert”. University professors with industry experience talked about mastering a discipline to bring more value. Even peers have begun to find a niche and stick to it, as some begin all-consuming graduate school programs and others become entrenched in their chosen industry.
But what if variety is your passion? What if your curiosity isn’t confined to just one domain? If you limit yourself from day one, you may never find your greatest talents. More importantly, you may never find your greatest joys.
But I don’t think education has to be over after college. I think we should all resist the pressure to confine ourselves to a single domain, even if it comes from all directions. In fact, I think that broadening your horizons is not just an opportunity but also an obligation. As Jeff Bezos says, we don’t choose our passions; they choose us. It’s worth remembering that we have to put in the time to find those passions, by exploring new fields and pushing our limits. Society depends on individuals finding their gifts and using them to improve the world.
And continued education has another important role: building empathy and wisdom. Every election year has been contentious, but (as many people have already written) this year we’ve seen a remarkable inability of each side to even agree on basic principles and facts. There are no longer common premises. Social networks and technology as a whole have led us toward people with similar beliefs, and we live in echo chambers. But a less-discussed and more historically precedented reason for this fracturing of the truth is the temptation to immerse ourselves in our chosen field at the expense of everything else. And that’s how intellectual and ideological rifts form. Having some understanding of the world beyond your life can change your perspective radically for the better.
So learn something new today. Buy a book on Keynesian Economics or subscribe to a podcast on the history of 20th century Russia. Get a feel for a subject you’ve heard about but you don’t really understand (even if you sometimes tell people that you do). Be honest with yourself about what you don’t know, and spend time trying to make that list a little shorter. You’ll be surprised at how much fun it might be along the way.