Polymath: “having learned much”, a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas
Leonardo da Vinci was the original “Renaissance Man”. He held mastery in nearly every field you could imagine: literature, mathematics, engineering, art. He pursued each of his passions and accomplished things that people could barely fathom. But how much is too much?
For students today, college applications seem like an eternal war of doing too much versus doing too little. Filling up the resume has become a violent obsession for all high-achieving kids. Many students struggle with an identity crisis—from elementary school onwards, kids are asked, “What do you plan on doing when you’re older?”
A child might reply with something they saw on TV the other day, or spurt the tireless “I want to be just like my ___!” line. But as kids grow older, the smiles fade and suddenly the question turns serious. High school students are encouraged to choose a major as soon as they step into their freshman year. From personal experience, however, I know that nothing is ever that simple. Some people believe that no definitive, exclusive answer (“I am going to Georgia Tech to become a biomedical engineer.” “I am moving to New York City to work with Tina Fey on SNL.”) means no future, but this backwards conception is detrimental to a student’s success.
There is a difference between being open-minded and noncommittal, of course. There will always be decisions to make. There will always be priorities. But reaching for two stars instead of one moon won’t make you a weaker candidate--vice versa as well. Being a “jack-of-all-trades” is sometimes associated with mediocrity, but that is certainly not the case. It is not the number of roads you decide to take, it is the quality of the drive and where you want to be taken.
It is becoming increasingly common to dual major or work in multiple fields. People are expanding knowledge and reaching farther and deeper. There is a true economic advantage to dual degrees: it is proven that many employers look fondly upon students with both talents in liberal arts and STEM fields. Something such as a business-engineering double major is not abnormal; however, some experts are discouraging dual majors because of, first and foremost, the coursework load. It is true that if your two chosen studies do not overlap, it can be difficult to juggle both degrees. As a result of additional coursework, some students are having trouble graduating in time. In 2009, the national four-year graduation rate dropped to 28%. This rate has fallen due to a number of reasons: students are pursuing higher degrees, taking a year off, or otherwise extending their secondary education. While there are plenty of justified reasons to put more than four years towards your degree, universities often encourage students to stay on track towards a four-year education.
Also, there is a common fear that double dipping, so to speak, can result in a hollowed out knowledge of one subject. To relate it to a musical standpoint—even if you could play all of the instruments in the world, have you mastered even a single one?
Regardless of possible challenges, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded with double majors rose 70 percent between 2001 and 2011. This is where the idea of “passion versus pass” comes in. Are you working towards your personal enrichment, or an inflated resume? The amount of work that accompanies a double major (or even a college major-minor) demands that you aspire to the former. Returning to my original example of Da Vinci, the Italian artist never sat down and simply decided to be one of the most celebrated people of history. He simply did what he knew how to do. He was never trying to contort himself into someone else; he felt at home with his inventions, artworks, and copious notes--that dedicated mindset is the foundation of success.
Being interested in multiple things is not a crime, but pursuing things that you have no passion for is.
In my opinion, a commitment to several interests is something to be proud of. In fact, challenging yourself with something completely new should be encouraged. There is no reason why an astrophysicist major can’t spend his weekends taking pottery classes, or why a businessman can’t be a skydiving coach during the summer. After all, look at some of the multi-disciplined figures of history--Ronald Reagan, actor turned president, for example. His array of talents kept him unique, memorable, and true to himself. It also helped appeal to voters. It just goes to show: you never know how your skills may help you later in life. One day, those supplemental crocheting lessons you took may not be so useless after all. Another instance of multidimensional success, Angelina Jolie went from actress to humanitarian to author to model to screenwriter. She has garnered international fame for her hard work.
Perhaps I am being optimistic, but I firmly believe in encouraging students to pursue what inspires them. Even if you think it is “impractical”, why would you shove something that you love out of your life? Raising a passion, whether it is as a hobby or career, is one of the best services you can give yourself.
To those feeling forced to abandon your art, your music, your sport, or whatever it is for the sake of college or impressions--I am telling you that what you love is what makes you special. The “Modern Renaissance Man” is not a Nobel Prize Winner, a six-figure salary earner, a do-it-all entrepreneur, or a movie star. It is someone who is doing what they know how to do, to the very best of their ability and then better, and being proud of that.
Ling is an editor for The Millennial Times.