21 July 2024

Exploring our own Renaissance


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By Prof Emeritus Dr Ng Kwan-Hoong

The Renaissance, a period of rebirth in arts, science, and culture from 1359 to 1600, was a time when society celebrated versatility. This era saw the emergence of polymaths—individuals who excelled in multiple fields. Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most iconic figures of the Renaissance, epitomised this ideal. Known for his masterpieces like the “Mona Lisa” and his extensive notes on engineering and human anatomy, Da Vinci demonstrated the seamless integration of art and science. His famous sketch, the Vitruvian Man, symbolises the unity of the human body, the world, and the cosmos, echoing the belief that “a man can do all things if he will,” as articulated by Italian architect Leon Battista Alberti.

Polymaths like Alberti and Da Vinci were driven by their passion for learning and exploring diverse fields. They were not confined to one area of expertise but thrived on their ability to connect and innovate across disciplines. The legacy of polymaths includes names like Archimedes, Aristotle, Ibn Sina, Nicholas Copernicus, Benjamin Franklin, Florence Nightingale, Lewis Carroll, Rabindranath Tagore, and Maya Angelou, all of whom made significant contributions by following their diverse interests.

Despite the historical celebration of polymaths, Waqas Ahmed, in his 2019 book “The Polymath: Unlocking the Power of Human Versatility,” argues that today’s society stigmatises polymathy. The saying “A jack of all trades is a master of none” is often quoted to discourage pursuing multiple interests. However, the full proverb is actually “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but often times better than a master of one.” This clearly suggests that versatility can be more valuable than deep specialisation.

Ahmed posits that everyone is born with limitless potential, yet societal pressures often force us to narrow our focus. To unlock this potential and lead a fulfilling life, Ahmed proposes six steps that encourage exploring our diverse talents and interests.

To begin, understanding yourself is crucial. Identifying where your talents, passions, and desires intersect helps in recognising the unique blend of abilities you possess. Embrace any eccentricities, idealism, intense curiosity, and intelligence you may have, as these traits often guide you towards areas where you can truly excel.

Unlocking your curiosity is another essential step. Curiosity bridges the gap between the known and the unknown. Despite being an innate trait, curiosity often diminishes in rigid educational and work environments. By rekindling your love of learning and maintaining an open mind, you can overcome these constraints and continue to explore new interests.

Nurturing various abilities ensures that you do not become pigeonholed in a single field. Intelligence is diverse, encompassing mental, social, and emotional dimensions. Recognising and developing these varied skills can enrich both personal and professional life, making you more adaptable and innovative.

Tapping into versatility is invaluable in a world that often pushes for hyper-specialisation. Drawing from different fields not only fosters innovation but also enhances your ability to adapt to changing circumstances. This intellectual flexibility is crucial for thriving in today’s rapidly evolving world.

Connecting the dots involves applying concepts from one field to another, a process known as recombination. Innovation frequently occurs at the intersection of different disciplines. By exploring these intersections, you can create new ideas and solutions that transcend traditional boundaries.

Lastly, seeing the bigger picture develops systemic thinking, allowing you to understand the interconnectedness of various fields. This holistic view helps appreciate the broader context and relationships between different areas of knowledge, enabling you to approach problems and opportunities with a well-rounded perspective.

Society often suppresses the curiosity and inquisitiveness that are crucial for navigating our complex world. Embracing a polymathic approach—exploring and celebrating diverse skills—can prepare us better for future challenges. Rather than seeking to be the best in one thing, let us enjoy the journey of learning and growing in multiple areas.

Let’s break down the barriers and unleash our potential by embracing the joy of exploring new vocations, just as history’s greatest polymaths did.

The author is Emeritus Professor of biomedical imaging at Faculty of Medicine, Universiti Malaya. This 2020 Merdeka Award recipient is a medical physicist by training, but also enjoys drawing, taking photos, and tinkering with ideas for new medical devices. He may be reached at ngkh@ummc.edu.my

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