The Polymath Musician

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The Polymath MusicianAre there any Leonardos out there? How about Ben Franklins? Or Jay-Zs? You may not be able to paint the Mona Lisa, speak French or father a child with Beyonce, but you do have multiple interests, a truckload of skills and a breadth of experience.

Sometimes your many interests feel like a bunch of beads with nothing to string them on. That’s normal for those with manifold passions and diverse skill sets. The challenge is figuring out a way to bring all of this together into a career that isn’t so scattered as to be useless, or that repels whispers of, there goes a jack of all trades, but master of none.

The polymath (i.e., people with multiple passions and interests) also smacks up against a lifetime socialization that includes the innocent (though loaded) question: What do you want to be when you grow up?  As if there is a single job waiting for us we will perfectly fit into. Maybe once upon a time, but no more. What the question doesn’t allow for is that most of us cannot answer it with a singular response.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as I meet more and more “non-traditional” students at Berklee College of Music who, a) may already have a degree (or several years of undergrad courses) from another school, b) have a few years of work & travel experience, or, 3) simply love to dabble in multiple subject areas. One student I met has a Neuroscience degree from Brown University; another spent ten years building and then selling a software company, and still another just got back from two years of observing and participating in the Arab Spring sweeping across the Middle East. Oh, and he also has a B.S. in chemical engineering.

All of them love music and want to build a career around this core, but their passions traverse numerous other areas as well.

I can relate to this. My background includes 4 years of theological study, 2 years working with drug-addicted teens, a B.A. in history, 9 years touring with a reggae/rock band, 6 years managing a record label, 1 year running a booking agency, and 2 years writing book reviews for a scholarly journal. In addition, I’m a husband and father of three, with keen interests in softball, hiking and BBQ-ing.

For me, these strands didn’t braid until I was well into my thirties but, when they did, the result was a complete surprise in the very best sense of the word.

Sometimes it will take longer than the typical college/major/degree/job sequence, a sequence which itself is becoming a rarity these days.

In exploring this subject I realized too that part of the problem lies in a particular habit of mind we’ve inherited. For centuries we’ve been handcuffed by linear and categorical thinking, a thinking that silos life into “Art” or “Science”, “Public” or “Private”, “Non-profit” or “For Profit”, “Liberal” or “Conservative”, etc. It’s a mind pattern shackled by the “either/or” rather than the “both/and”, eventually becoming a habit hard to break (just look at Washington!). But the times we’re in, if nothing else, beg for people who can see things from multiple perspectives.

In my opinion this inherited mindset does great damage to us spiritually as well – it divides, fractures, and wreaks havoc with the seamless web of knowledge, leading to an impoverishment of wisdom down the road.

So I tend to encourage polymath musicians to indulge their varied interests to the highest degree possible. Think of it this way: Replace linear and categorical thinking with “symphonic” thinking, a phrase Daniel Pink coined in his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. The author explains:

Symphony, as I call this aptitude, is the ability to put together the pieces. It is the capacity to synthesize rather than to analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair.

It’s no accident Pink borrows from music. Consider the conductor, the composer, the songwriter, the performer. This is familiar territory for musicians blessed with a knack for joining disparate pieces (written or played notes) into a whole (composition or performance).

I would go even further and say musicians are optimally suited for symphonic thinking owing to the unification of brain hemispheres sparked by musical activity.

Music calls on both the analytical “left” brain and the intuitive “right”. In fact, studies reveal that musicians’ brains are, on average, larger. Musical activity seems to exercise the physical brain. Increases in gray matter (size and number of nerve cells) are seen, for example, in the auditory, motor, and visual spatial areas of the cerebral cortex of musicians. Still no word on what’s up for drummers. Nyuk, nyuk.

So what does this mean for musicians with multiple interests trying to forge meaningful careers?

• First, accept that you have lots of passions. With this, give yourself permission to not have to pick one profession. Resist the mind set that pigeon-holes human talent. That’s 20th century thinking. Most of us aren’t uniform in our talents: our creativity is most evident in a several domains so don’t ignore it.

Simply understanding that we don’t necessarily have to pick a single career or work in only one field – that we are never boxed in by education choices or early career decisions, and that we all have mobility – can lead to multidisciplinary success.

• If you’re a student (hey, aren’t we all?), fill those curricular gaps and discretionary hours with explorations outside your major. Read a magazine you’ve never read before, on a topic you know nothing about. Spend an entire day taking pictures—from before dawn until after dusk. Walk home a different way. Audit a class. Volunteer your time for a community project. Try “shadowing” a careerist for a day who you admire. Attend a free lecture on a subject you’re interested in. Look through a microscope. Go spend some time with young children, then with someone twice your age.

Creative excursions from our usual routines help broaden our vision, deepen our sympathies and expand our mind.

• Recognize the growing music footprint in the world. Music is branching out, becoming a subject of study in fields as diverse as biology, physics, cognitive science, anthropology, astronomy, paleontology and forensics. Opportunities are opening up for musicians in all these areas as a new generation of researchers employ the latest technologies to study the relation of music and sound to just about everything. Remarkable things are being discovered and music is often at the center.

• Look for unusual applications. In her book for liberal arts majors, Katharine Brooks reminds us, “the more you know about different disciplines, the more you are able to create innovative solutions to problems. Your mind is able to wander into many territories. Your knowledge of chemistry, for example, might improve your thinking in the field of biology. Or your understanding of poetry might make you a better therapist” [or, musician].

Cross disciplinary thinking lifts us out of the trees for a better look at the forest, and betters our chances of discovering an “adjacent possible” – tools, ideas and technologies that can be lifted from one realm and applied to another. Check out this earlier post for a cool illustration of this.

Being a polymath doesn’t necessarily mean being unfocused . The key is to lead with your strength. Let your focus be discovering the valuable connections between your varied interests and how this can apply to a world of need.

That’s a worthwhile endeavor.

Some good reading on the subject:

Help for “Scanners”: Refuse to Choose!: A Revolutionary Program for Doing Everything That You Love by Barbara Sher.

Help for “Slash/Careerists”: One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success by Marci Alboher.

Help for “Renaissance Souls”: The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with too Many Passions to Pick Just One by Margaret Lobenstine.

About Peter Spellman

Peter Spellman is the Director of The Career Development Center, as well as an associate professor, at  Berklee College of Music

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