Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Me, Encapsulated in a Word

I’ve always thought of myself as a Renaissance woman, or a polymath – someone who excels in a wide variety of subjects.  Notable polymaths include Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, and Benjamin Franklin.  The similarities between them and me are undeniable.  In high school, I was a member of both Art Club and Chemathon team.  I quit several sports and gave up two musical instruments all before the age of eighteen. I became fluent in many languages: English, Spanish (un poco), and C++.  I earned a degree in advanced mathematics and still found the time to become an unknown humor writer.  My talents couldn’t be more varied.

Wikipedia provides a list of recognized polymaths – none of them women.  The latest person to make it onto the list is Nathan Myhrvold, the former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft.  This got me thinking, what exactly does it take to be considered a polymath?  What’s so special about Nathan Myhrvold?  What does he have that I don’t?

At first glance, Nathan and I appeared to have a lot in common.  We both have a Master’s degree in Mathematical Economics, and we both enjoy cooking and scuba diving.  We’re like two peas in a pod, Nathan and me! ... Or maybe not.  Upon further examination, I learned that Nathan graduated from high school at age fourteen and earned two Master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in Physics by age twenty-three. Before he made his millions at Microsoft, he worked with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge, studying quantum field theory.  Sure, he has hobbies just like everyone else – skydiving, car racing, scuba diving, mountain climbing, fossil hunting – but he also has several other careers (like, actual careers, not pretend ones).  He’s an award-winning photographer, an inventor, a scientist, and a chef.  And I don't mean that he tinkers around in the kitchen; I mean that he’s the author of a 2,400-page cookbook and a world barbecue champion.

This prompted me to revisit the definition of “polymath.”  I guess I missed the part where it says that a polymath “does not just have broad interests or a superficial knowledge of several fields, but rather that his knowledge is profound and [...] even at a level comparable to the proficiency or the accomplishments of an expert.”

Since it takes a normal person 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, I interpret this to mean that all polymaths are prodigies.  Either that, or they’re very, very old.  Sadly, I am neither of those.  And according to my calculations, I’m only an “expert” at sleeping, eating, and talking about myself.

There is a term for someone like me, but it’s not “polymath.”  Nope, the word that best describes me is “dilettante.”  A dabbler.  An amateur.  Someone who engages in an activity “sporadically, superficially, or for amusement only.”  I tried to find a list of notable dilettantes, but apparently it’s not a desirable trait.  It’s actually considered to be more of an insult.  Super.  I finally discover the one word that encapsulates exactly who I am, and it’s an insult.  Maybe if I start using it in a positive way, it’ll eventually catch on.  “Oh my God, she’s such an incredible person.  What a diverse set of semi-talents!  She’s a real dilettante!”


  1. Well, if it makes you feel any better, my reaction to this post was, "Oh my gosh, I wish I had written this!" You're a very *talented* unknown humor writer... :-D

  2. Yes! I've been a dilettante all my life. Who wants to do the same thing all the time. As soon as I've semi-mastered one skill/art, I'm on to new ground. Keeps life interesting, but you don't get much money or recognition. I hope you keep at the writing.