I had my latest performance appraisal last week. I found I had a much easier time identifying areas of growth this time over last year after having gone through an accreditation visit for one of our programs. In the past, I would look at my current skillset, look at the friction points I was experiencing, and project forward a better future based on picking up some new skills or experience. This process is fine, but I realize the flaw is that the path you choose to develop in is not based on experience. It’s a guess about what might be helpful.
Contrast this to going through the accreditation process. To prepare for the performance appraisal, I reviewed the last year’s worth of information (my calendar, my one-on-one meeting notes, and notes I’ve taken about my job) and saw patterns of missed opportunities and under-performance. In these areas, I can reflect and see how if I had more skills or experience in these particular areas, I would have had a better time navigating the issues we faced.
Based on this backwards reflection (rather than guessing or projecting forward), I could more clearly articulate what I’m weak in and where I would gain the highest value in focusing on.
I think this marks for me the formal transition from the “start of career” phase to a more mature “middle career phase.” I have enough work experience and self-knowledge to draw meaningfully from, and that allows me to make smarter choices moving forward.
At Christmas time, I shared with my wife that I was thinking about getting a vinyl turntable and records. She had asked for gift ideas, and being pretty content with things and not feeling immediately drawn to any shiny new toy, I reflected that I’m starting to look for gift ideas to help me slow down and appreciate things more. With all the access to music through streaming services, listening to music sometimes feels disposable – something you put on in the background instead of silence. I thought with a turntable, it would force me to be more mindful of the activity. I had grown-up with a turntable in the house, but I never appreciated it until my adult life. There is something alluring about a single-purpose device that is a centre-point of a room. You put on a record and sit and listen to it. It doesn’t last very long before you have to flip sides, so you can’t just walk away to do something else. It’s a point of focus in the room; something people can gather around.
My wife, being the wonderful partner she is, surprised me with a turntable and my first album. While I tested it out at Christmas time, it was only this week that I finally set up the space in my office with the turntable. It was great to quietly sit and listen to music, doing nothing else. The pops and crackles of the needle, creating a sense of imperfection, gave the affair a unique analogue experience compared to the perfect replication of digital playback.
Of course, I noticed right away a difference of pitch in the playback, indicating that the turntable was playing slightly off from the 33-1/3 speed it was set to. With new toys come new maintenance responsibilities if we want to keep enjoying things. Still, despite the altered playback, I found the sensory experience a satisfying way of capping off my day. Always more to learn.
On a recent CBC podcast episode about Leibniz and Voltaire’s thoughts about evil and God, one of the interviewees referred to Leibniz as “the last man to know everything.” I find this notion utterly fascinating. Upon hearing that title, I jumped online to search for the “best biography on Leibniz” and found a highly acclaimed book detailing an intellectual biography of the 17th-century thinker. Once I clear some books on my current reading list, I’ll dive into this hefty book.
This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the moniker of “the last person who knew everything.” In fact, that was the title of a biography I read back in late 2018 on Enrico Fermi.
I’ve been drawn to this idea for a long time, probably originating with the first time I saw the 1994 film Renaissance Man starring Danny DeVito. That was where I first learned of the term renaissance man, or more commonly known as a polymath – a person with considerable knowledge and expertise across a wide variety of domains. While I wouldn’t quite call it a goal, this is an aspiration of mine since I was a child.
I suppose as the sciences progress, it becomes increasingly difficult to lay claim to being “the last person who knew everything.” Each field grows increasingly complex as we push the boundaries of the known world, which raises the threshold higher of what counts as expertise.
It would seem we need to seriously consider the observation recently made by Professor Adam Grant on the differences between experience and expertise:
Instead of seeking to always have depth of knowledge, perhaps we should give equal consideration to wisdom and how we can apply our experiences and expertise to solve interesting problems. While more nebulous as a goal, I think it steers us in the right direction. At the very least, it’s a good vision to aspire towards.
PS – an unexhaustive list of the traits that distinguishes a “last person who knew everything:”
Interests spanning a variety of domains, both sciences and arts
A grasp of the methods and tools of science
Generating novel insights
The ability to see problems in terms of first principles