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Is versatility dead?

Are we conditioned to believe that if you know something about everything, you probably know nothing about anything? Is true versatility a thing of the past?

What do you want to be when you grow up is a question that we might have been asked or have asked ourselves when we were growing up. Some of you have been lucky enough to know it right from the start. But I was one of those ‘future generalists’ who kept switching from profession to profession. My age and mood-of-the-moment had a crucial role to play in whether I wanted to be a teacher, an astronaut, a bookshop clerk, a doctor, a lawyer, an archaeologist or a detective. As time passed, I chose one career and stuck to it. As much as I would like to, ‘jumping around’ every now and then doesn’t really work at the work place. People pay you for your experience and expertise. The bull shit that they talk about hiring generalists with creative problem solving skills or allround talent is just that. Whether you like it or not, very few of us are privileged enough or are entrepreneurial enough to try a new profession or industry every once in a while. But in my free time,I am my own boss. I explore a fascinating world where I flirt with geography to philosophy to literature to sociology to law to my most dearly beloved,Physics, every now and then. No one really cared or knew about my switching interests and fleeting passions. Books of all shapes and forms, unfinished paintings and artwork, collection of sand from different countries, trinkets and appliances of all imaginable forms litter my closet, and unknown to my husband, I have been shipping all this junk from country to country. Depending on the time of the month, I swing between being elated at my versatility to being depressed that I am good at nothing.

After I started this blog, I was chatting with a friend who had read my blog and he asked me, ‘So, what exactly does your blog focus on?’ And there it was. The world was once again forcing me to choose. One path. Not many. I non-chalantly told him, ‘Stuff. Nothing in particular’. The seasoned blogger that he was, he decided to let this novice in on one little blogging secret ‘You gotta focus on something for people to read your blog regularly. You know that, right?’ Though I tell myself that I write for my own self (which is true to a large extent), like every ‘normal’ writer out there, I do like it when people read what I write. Its not necessary, but its a feel good factor. So, even though I told my blogger friend ‘thank you, but I don’t care’, I secretly mulled over this in my head. And slowly I realised that every single one of the blogs in my blog feed list had a topic or area that they focused on. I had neatly categorised them into science, philosophy, literature, India and technology. It seemed that the self-proclaimed generalist that I am, did not read regularly any blogs that refused to belong to a certain genre. I realised that if I weren’t myself, I wouldn’t subscribe to my own blog, perhaps because it didn’t fit into my categories. Though I promptly created a new category called miscellaneous, it is still empty because I am yet to find a blog that I like, which fits the bill.

That leaves me to wonder – Do we have to specialise to be taken seriously? Like dating, where it is ok to flirt with many men when you are young but society sighs if you refuse to settle down after a certain age, if your interests are too varied, if your mind serves no one master, are you doomed to belong to the legion of those who deserve to be sighed at and eventually ignored? Do we believe, consciously or subconsciously, that the total knowledge a person can have is constant and thus someone who knows more about one thing should know less about another? That you need a PhD in philosophy before you can question the reality of our existence or a published book before you can write about literature or a proven fashion sense to comment on fashion trends? And that no one person can be equally interested and thus may have something worthwhile to say on all the above and more?

From what little I remember of my high school history lessons, several of the ancient greats were often referred to as versatile geniuses – they would be well versed not just in one field, but in many. While I admired such multi-faceted personalities, I rarely hear of versatile geniuses in our era. The heroes and role models of our times are specialists. They go deep into one topic or area and are undeniably the best in that field, but only in that field. Ask them about something unrelated and they are worse than the average Joe on the street. And the thing is, we are not surprised at this. Nor do we seem to mind. While the explosion of available knowledge in any area could be one of the reasons, I believe that it is more a function of our attitudes and expectations. We don’t expect our role models to be good at several things, but to be very good in just one chosen field. And we naturally follow it up with ‘if he or she is good in one thing, he or she cannot be good in another’. Or ‘thats his field, let him stick to it’.

Has the specialisation that has become an accepted requirement of our professional lives now permeated our social, philosophical and even our recreational worlds? Have we come across the proverbial ‘Jack of all trades, Master of None’ one too many time? Would we rather have a bright violet or a bright red over the wonderful harmony of a distant rainbow? Are we conditioned to believe that if you know something about everything, you probably know nothing about anything? Is true versatility a thing of the past?

Posted in Musings on March 2, 2005

6 Responses

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  1. Pleomorphous says

    Category for blogs, eh? Where does mine fit in?

  2. Surya says

    fiction and literature..

  3. Pleomorphous says

    Whaaa!??! Everything I write is not fiction!!

  4. Surya says

    really? i thought you made all that up! ;-)
    ok ok, the rest falls under lit. Anyways, u wanted to be a creative writer, so why are u complaining!

  5. Brett_FLX says

    Focus is where the heart and mind take you, versatility comes from the decisions and actions you make along the way. A Path shared by two people leaves different sets of footprints.

  6. Ecat says

    I came across your blog while googling for “versatility”. Believe me you have echoed my precise thoughts. Im a poetess, an artist, an activist, a budding scribe, and young business student(almost forced to “specialise” in marketing. You write very well and I can say that coz you have put my exact thots into words.

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