Back to School: Aspiring to Be a Well-Rounded Thinker

Thanks to our considerable brainpower and opposable thumbs, human beings are generalists when it comes to surviving on planet Earth. Toss us in any new environment, and we have an unnerving habit of staying alive. We can eat nearly anything, provided you cook it long enough.

Contrast that with a specialist species, such as the panda, that prefer a certain kind of habitat and one or two kinds of food. Generalist species endure situations that would place their specialist brethren on the extinct list. Drop a human being into the Arctic Circle with a knife and a little survival knowledge, and a few months later they might return from the snowy wilderness with a moderate case of frostbite and a crude bearskin coat. Leave a koala bear near the North Pole, and the poor beast will be stiff as a hockey puck by dawn.

In a similar way, a well-rounded thinker can survive and prosper where a specialist thinker might not. The master chemist with commercial truck-driving skills and an extensive knowledge of Elizabethan poetry serves a purpose in three very different types of situations, whereas a plain ol' chemist is useful in just one. Keep that in mind whether you're heading back to school or just looking to expand your knowledge base.

Putting This Theory Into Practice

I don't mean to suggest that specializing in a particular subject somehow puts you at a disadvantage to those who take the generalist approach. We all inevitably focus on what interests us or, in many cases, what proves the most lucrative. But keeping an open mind to new things often leads to greater variety in life. If nothing else, generalists who dabble in many subjects rarely find themselves bored, which is a fate worse than death for many intellectuals.

And who knows? One day you might find yourself in a situation that demands extensive multidisciplinary knowledge, like having to drive a truck loaded with nitroglycerin while reciting old English sonnets into the radio. (Your refusal to settle on a college major until senior year will have finally paid off.) Until then, you can indulge in multiple lines of inquiry for the sheer pleasure of intellectual pursuit.

In grade school, your instructors try to balance you in exactly this way: a dash of physics, some phys-ed, a wee bit of "ethics" in a failed attempt to prevent you from giving authority figures the finger, a few semesters of art, and years of mathematics, language, chemistry, and literature. If you paid attention and did your homework, you probably reached your generalist peak at the tender age of 17, equally capable of counting atoms and quoting a few lines of T.S. Eliot. My biology teacher made us learn the names of every bone in the human body. Nowadays, I have trouble remembering the name of the subway stop closest to my house. It's an unending task, keeping your knowledge base alive.

The Inevitable Footnote...

Some professions and branches of knowledge require so much study, they swallow the time needed to dive deep into other subjects. A computer programmer who spends a decade learning their craft, followed by more years building the world's first auction Website devoted solely to celebrities' used chewing gum, never had the spare months to learn another language, for example, or the history of Japan's Edo era. This is excusable -- provided they use the resulting millions in stock options to head back to school.

Adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media.