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On specialisation, moderation, and difficult life choices

What follows is an excerpt of an email exchange. It is shared with permission. My correspondent shall remain anonymous. Some details are obfuscated to be more generic, as what matters is the overall theme.


I’ve watched your recent three videos on philosophy, and I find them invaluable. I’ll watch them again in order to absorb the many key concepts you covered.

If you think something is unclear, please let me know. As always, feel welcome to comment on any point.

[ Prot edit: Check the presentations. ]

The ancient Greeks amazed me again: they knew that science, art, and letters are interconnected!

Yes, I think this is what we need to rediscover. Consider the negative connotations of the phrase “jack of all trades; master of none”. We have a bias against polymathy and thus tend to misunderstand what specialisation is and should be. It is desirable to specialise, for it is how we develop expertise in any given area of sophistication. What is undesirable is to believe that you can see the world through a keyhole by thinking that knowledge of the particular is sufficient and, indeed, fecund.

I believe I have mentioned this in passing in one of my publications: the Olympic ethos (I will elaborate in a future publication). You know about the ideal of fair play in sport. It holds an important lesson for everyone, not just athletes. I would argue it is essential for the scientifically minded fellow as well. Why, you may ask? Because fair play teaches us to recognise what the truth is: if ceteris paribus someone beats you at a sport, the fact is that they performed better. Sport (of the Olympic sort, not the unscrupulous capitalist money-making machine) shows us that there are no true winners and losers in a game: we all win when we elevate ourselves beyond our instinctive egoism by playing fairly. Then it is a matter of upbringing to cherish the participation, not the outcome, to appreciate the substance and not be distracted by the pursuit of ephemeral social points, medals, and accolades.

We then see how sport and science have something in common. Does it matter if my theory lost to a more cogent alternative, assuming conditions of fairness (i.e. genuine science)? No, it does not matter because the other theory brings us closer to the truth. That knowledge helps us, myself included, escape from a falsehood or an otherwise distorted view of things. The scientist wants to do science exactly because of that inner need to remain inquisitive. To be strictly self-serving runs contrary to said inquisitiveness.

It is misguided to think of the scientific enterprise in purely technical terms, as if it has no ethical underpinnings. It is equally unwise to treat sport in exclusive physical terms, art as merely expressive, and so on for all fields of endeavour that we insist on treating in isolation from all the rest. Everything we do is part of a continuum. There is no such thing as a standalone presence. Not in human affairs, not in the Cosmos at-large.

Specialisation comes with the latent risk of creating incomplete human beings. These are the “geeks” or “nerds” when the terms are used negatively: individuals who obsess over a narrow field of expertise, have nothing else to think about, only make friends within that circle, and end up living in a parallel world in which their perceptions of selfhood and the world at-large are not challenged (this describes me at some point in my life). Other activities like sport and art give us a chance to connect with people. In the case of art, the connection can be figurative as we may relate to the subjectivity of an imaginary hero, the impression of an abstract figure or a soundscape, and so on. When we interact in earnest with different people/subjectivities and put ourselves in unfamiliar situations, we learn more about who we really are. The “self” is neither fixed nor predetermined: to know who you are is to discover the others (i.e. be open to the world). Isn’t “openness” a prerequisite for finding the truth?

Back to the “jack of all trades”. We do not want to turn people into charlatans who pretend to know everything: specialisation is desirable and polymathy is not about aspiring to be an encyclopedia. What we do not want with specialisation is to reduce humans to machines that perform minute tasks. The more one knows and the more diverse that corpus of knowledge and experiences is, the better their quality as a person and the higher the chance they will have unique insights to share; insights which can only be grasped by studying the intersections and emergent realities therein. Interdisciplinarity and, generally, the ability to draw linkages between different views on life provides a unique perspective on things that should not be underestimated.

I only reached this realization two years ago; my graduate and postdoctoral training didn’t teach such holistic, comprehensive approach to science. What a pity!

My formal education was the same. Though I was lucky that I played football during my teenage years. I had the memory of a time when I was not a human-like automaton. Once I realised that I had to become a fully fledged human again, I decided to change how I view and do things. Sometimes the presence of one presupposes the demise of another: I am not who I used to be during my early twenties.

I agree with your previous comments on the shortcomings of the modern STEM education. To me, a good scientist must first be a well-rounded person with broad perspectives on, and deep understanding of, humanity, culture, philosophy, and science.

That would be the best outcome for civilisation.

As for my interview I told you about previously, I didn’t get a job offer. Nevertheless, I think that Athena has been with me, because I have gained wisdom through this experience. I felt disappointed with the bad news for only one day; after that, I moved on and sent out new job applications. I’m glad that I now have this emotional agility, which enables me to quickly adapt and take appropriate actions.

I understand. It is okay to feel disappointed. Part of recognising the need for a holistic world-view is to admit that we have emotions. We do not win anything by acting tough and by pretending that we are purely rational (i.e. non-human). Being too emotional is not helpful though, as it is an extreme disposition, so it is good that you have adapted accordingly.

To be clear: even if you were too emotional, that is still a condition you should not be ashamed of, nor try to conceal or otherwise prettify. The key is to recognise it for what it is and then, once you are in control again, think critically what the root causes are. This links back to what I have covered before on expectations and factors beyond our reach (my next video will be on expectations and role-playing, though I still have not found the opportunity to record it).

I want to ask you about moderation. Oftentimes, I find it hard to strike a balance between two opposing things. For example, good scientists can tolerate ambiguity: they believe their hypotheses enough, so that they go ahead and test the hypotheses; meanwhile, these scientists doubt their hypotheses enough, so that they don’t ignore other possibilities or data that contradict their hypotheses. Another example is my juggling two opposing career paths. The approaches and emphases are completely different between academia and the relevant industry. I feel that since my efforts are currently split between the two, I might fail at both. I don’t know how to reach moderation in this situation (I’m doing OK with non-commitment here).

Moderation is part of the picture. It cannot be helpful if we do not know who we are: what we actually want, what our current options are, how the prevailing conditions influence our life, and so on. Again, this is about openness to the truth.

What is a moderate position for one might be an extreme reality for another. Every person is different. There is no one-size-fits-all. Hence the need to seek knowledge of your predicament and be honest about it.

Sometimes the moderate position is not a locus between two existing extremes: it can be a third magnitude which is not related to the other two. Those may be untenable and any permutation in-between might still lead to uneasiness. There are cases where a moderate disposition requires a radical change, a shift in focus which provides the impetus for a new beginning.

I cannot tell you who you are and what is happening in your life. I don’t have answers. I also don’t know you well enough to form an opinion. And even if I did, I would still encourage you not to listen to my advice. Figure out the general idea in what I am trying to communicate, but do the thinking yourself. When we are searching for answers we try to be overly thankful to someone and thus attempt to conform with their guidelines. Such is a false sense of duty. My opinion is that you should not act like a soldier who follows my directives to the letter.

As such, I can only share general thoughts with the hope that they inspire you to search for plausible explanations and then act accordingly.

This is what applied to me (again, no one-size-fits-all and you should not act without knowing who you are): there was no attainable moderation in my “previous life”. There could be no compromise between what appeared to be the alternatives on offer. I did not want to accept that a third option existed and had to suffer as a result. When I eventually did open myself to the truth, I made radical changes and went to great lengths to bring about the necessary change. I did not become more popular, more rich, more whatever-the-social-metric-of-success is: I simply found peace. What happened to all those social points? I don’t care: they are irrelevant.

I’m also wondering when and whether I should stop applying for faculty jobs, as my chance of success looks dimmer and dimmer with each passing day.

To me this says that the process is harming you. I already hinted at what I did but let me be crystal clear: I quit. Whether you should do the same is for you to decide.

I will close with a brief comment on the sense of worthlessness.

When things don’t go our way, we lose sight of the bigger picture. We develop tunnel vision as we focus our energy on pursuing that goal we originally set out to accomplish. We consider it a matter of pride or, else, we develop a sense of duty to the cause. Our real concern is what the others may think: the family, the colleagues, the friends… What will they say if we fail? We dread the prospect of failure. It unsettles us. The idea that there are some imaginary judges out there who will condemn us to an eternity of suffering and stigmatisation is haunting us. We thus get trapped in a loop of trying to be the hero in someone else’s story. When we inevitably fail to meet those lofty standards, we rationalise our condition as one of inadequacy: we say that we are not good enough. Instead of remaining open to the truth, such as the possibility of a genuine alternative, we dwell on our current condition. We think we are worthless, when we simply lack perspective. Remove the tunnel vision and suddenly a new horizon opens up.

Don’t victimise yourself. Don’t punish yourself.

I’d appreciate your thoughts and advice.

These are just the thoughts of a fellow traveller: I don’t have definitive answers. I learn through trial and error.