Knowledge for life

May 23, 2019

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. – Robert A. Heinlein

Different societies, depending on what they felt the aim of life essentially was, have had a different conception of what ‘useful’ knowledge is. Confucians saw acquiring knowledge as a means to improving moral character; Hindus and Muslims traditionally saw it as means to know the Divine; prehistoric hunter-gatherers saw it as a means to survive in a hostile, adverse climate.

For the modern human, knowledge can be divided into strategic and operational. The former is knowledge required to advance best toward the ultimate objective, whatever that might be. It is understanding the big picture and contextualising our lives – our place in the cosmos, the effect of macro-level decisions and policies on our lives, our spiritual and moral existence, our career objectives, family planning and so on. For polymaths, it will be many of these together.

Optimal Alertness

The latter (operational) refers to the knowledge required to live a well-considered life on a practical, day-to-day level. It is a functional knowledge, something usually possessed or pursued by the ‘practical generalist’, who identifies all the fundamental factors that will be affecting his or her life, however wide-ranging, and educates himself accordingly to be able to deal with them. It is the type highlighted in books such as The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch and The New York Times Practical Guide to Practically Everything.

What is required for the effective acquisition of both strategic and operational knowledge is a conscious state of alertness; awaking from the trance of passiveness, complacency and apathy into a state of complete cognitive sharpness. It is the use of optimal brain capacity, that is, the effective synchronicity of the right and left brain hemispheres as well as of the conscious and unconscious systems.

Enhancing Control

General knowledge should not be seen as mere leisurely trivia. The correct general knowledge – that which has a practical value (utility) for the individual and is personal to him – is indispensable to the enhancement of day-to-day life, and indeed often a necessity for wider survival in an increasingly complex world.

There are, of course, many things out of our control no matter how much we exercise an enquiring mind and seek to employ a self-sufficient lifestyle. We will never really reach the truth about everything surrounding our lives, nor will we be able to produce or manufacture all the tools we will need along the journey, as Ibn Khaldun reminded us in his fourteenth-century masterpiece, Muqqudimah.

The impact of nature, for one, is something almost completely out of our control. A degree of interdependence is always inevitable and in certain contexts, desirable. However, each of us at the very least can enhance our knowledge of the fundamental aspects of our lives; the way organisations, nature, machines, economies, buildings and people in general work and affect us, for example, is important information.

Better still, we must understand how these fit into and affect our own lives, in however direct or indirect a way. This means our knowledge of fields as diverse as economics, politics, science, philosophy, psychology, religion, history and mathematics ought to be ever increasing. The more knowledge we have, and the better we are able to bring together and apply it to fit our personal needs, the better informed our choices and decisions will be (whether made rationally or instinctively).

A Well-Considered Existence

As Stephen Wolfram, polymath and founder of Mathematica, says, ‘you need a reason to learn about something’. Often, the reason is simply life; or even existence. Simple facts such as the difference in substance between two painkillers, or the origins of the curry, the government policy on housing or the sexual philosophy of East Africa can, for instance, improve one’s mood, income, health, relationships and general performance. Complacency and ignorance, on the other hand, reduce our quality of life and withhold our ability to stay in control. Ignorance is a mythical bliss.

Michel de Montagne said, ‘the only learning I look for is that which tells me how to know myself, and teaches me how to die well and to live well’. And this mindset is what made him a polymath. The parts of the world that can and do affect our lives are evidently multiple and multifarious. Hence so must our knowledge be.

Driving a car, preparing a meal, operating a computer, loving our loved ones – these are all day-to-day endeavours that are very different, requiring different types of knowledge, cognitive skills and intelligence domains – all become unified to form a day in our lives. Yet we do not have any qualms in learning them because we accept that they facilitate our survival and enable us to live a better day. Why, then, is moving between academic and professional ‘fields’ seen as contentious?

Life as a Project

This small portfolio of essential knowledge and cognitive skills must be expanded to include other aspects of the world which commonly affect (or are at some point likely to affect) our lives. We must learn, for instance (at least the basic) skills of the lawyer, the accountant, the doctor, the handyman, the computer engineer, the entertainer, the soldier because legal, financial, medical, household, technical and survival challenges are typical in modern life. Otherwise we become complacent and rely on the luxury of having ‘experts’, living unnecessarily at their mercy for even the most basic of problems. This can prove costly, both in the financial sense and otherwise.

People may now be waking up to this: the increasing popularity of blogs such as Lifehacker, which aims to share day-to-day knowledge on a wide range of practical matters, demonstrates an appetite by people to enhance their knowledge for life.

This is an edited extract from The Polymath: Unlocking the Power of Human Versatilityby Waqās Ahmed (Wiley, January 2019).

About the Author

Waqās has been called ‘an emerging young Leonardo da Vinci’ for his work in various fields.  He is currently Artistic Director at The Khalili Collections – one of the world’s great art collections – and is simultaneously completing his postgraduate studies in Neuroscience at Kings College, London.

Previously, Waqās was Global Correspondent at FIRST Magazine, where his exclusive interviews included world leaders in government, business and academia. He was also the editor of Holy Makkah, the first-of-its-kind exploration of the sacred city, which received praise from UNESCO, the Commonwealth and the Vatican.

Born and raised in Britain, Waqās has since lived in several countries across Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. He has degrees in Economics (BSc, SOAS) and International Relations (MSc, LSE), but his real education came from the five years he spent travelling the world researching and writing The Polymath, his first book.

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