This is the second of two posts about how my mind has expanded lately. The previous one was on dropping assumptions, embracing transitional spaces, and cultivating the beginner’s mind.
You pick up bits and pieces of treasure and trash, pain and pleasure, passions and disappointments, and you start throwing them in your bag, your big bag of experience. You do some dumb things that don’t work out at all. You stumble excitedly on little gems that you never saw coming. And you stuff them all in your bag. You pursue the things you love and believe in. You cast off the images of yourself that don’t fit. And suddenly you look behind you and a pattern emerges.
You look in front of you and the path makes sense. There is nothing more beautiful than finding your course as you believe you bob aimlessly in the current. Wouldn’t you know that your path was there all along, waiting for you to knock, waiting for you to become. This path does not belong to your parents, your teachers, your leaders, your lovers. Your path is your character defining itself more and more every day, like a photograph coming into focus.
–Jodie Foster, commencement speech to University of Pennsylvania, 2006
I first realized a couple of years ago that there are two ways of approaching information, breadth and depth, and that I fall firmly onto the breadth side. I know lots of things fairly well. I could give a lecture on Asian American or US food history, teach yoga, bake for a crowd, draw anything, write about anything. I can do someone’s makeup for an event and sew a pouch to store the brushes, and I laugh at online-gamer jokes. But I don’t know any one thing with the deep embodied knowledge of long study. I couldn’t give my lectures off-the-cuff; my yoga teachings would only benefit new practitioners. I don’t have an MFA in drawing, painting, or writing. I can’t stop your eyeliner from smearing, I can only sew two kinds of pouches, and I can’t talk to serious gamers. In other words, my understanding exceeds that of the layperson’s, and falls short of that of the expert. This often manifests in a serious inferiority complex when I’m talking to people who really do know what they’re talking about. I once saw these people referred to as “guys with spikes” — people whose knowledge concentrates itself noticeably into certain areas, like spikes on a line graph.
We live in a world that values spikiness. We’re taught to specialize, to admire the world’s greatest x. There’s reason for this. It’s important to focus, to learn things with care and not skim over shallowly like a bird in flight just touching the lake surface with its toe. Expertise is awe-inspiring. Think of acrobats, cellists, chefs, scholars, climbers — mastery leaves us breathless with the sense that what we’ve just experienced is the closest we can get to magic. We don’t give that level of respect to people who do lots of things. We call them dilettantes, “jack of all trades, master of none.”
Plus, depth is teachable. Not that teaching is ever easy, not that everyone can become a master, but it’s straightforward to say, “Okay, this person wants to learn x, so I’ll show them everything I know.” How does one teach breadth without it just becoming a grab bag of this’n’that? When I was in college, we all had to fulfill a breadth requirement of at least one class each in seven different fields. I can’t say I got much of a taste of life science or international studies, but I did find some new topics that intrigued me (alternative medicine, nonviolence), and pursued my own additional reading in those. To me, that is the true meaning of breadth education — to find our own points of contact and then follow those wider (and deeper) into the world.
I have so much admiration for the guys with spikes, but I don’t seem to be built that way. When I was writing my artist bio for the IWL anthology, I struggled to capture my art and outlook in concise description. I don’t feel truly interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary, because those terms imply that I’m not only fluent in a single discipline but have found ways to merge it with another — like demonstrating mathematical concepts with crochet. I was trying to think of a word that means across/between/beyond, and came up with transdisciplinary. It seemed too pretentious to coin a term, but I looked it up and it already exists — and the wikipedia entry exactly articulated the reason I wanted to include the word in my bio.
As a perpetual outsider who’s always been uncomfortable with choosing sides, it’s very exciting to take ownership of an identity like transdisciplinary. It recasts breadth-based knowledge as a strength, not a sign of superficiality. But simply seeing it as a strength doesn’t make it so. Without depth, the danger is that a breadth of interests will come across as scattershot rather than cohesive. For breadth to be an asset, it’s vital to create strong, meaningful connections between interests — to knit them together, however loosely or tightly, into something new, original, and highly individual. Which means that unlike depth, where it’s possible to teach the same content to everyone, in the case of breadth each person will chart a different course based on their individual pattern of connections. Where breadth is strength, the map invents itself as you travel.
Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to.
Pathwalker, there is no path. You must make the path as you walk.
Oh, I hear you. I’m a breadth person all the way. Makes for interesting people. It occurred to me while reading this that the best fiction writers are probably breadth people. What do you think?
Thank you for visiting and commenting, Kim! Hmm, fiction writers… some of them are definitely breadth people and I love their writing, but I also know many who get really into their craft in a very spiky way. I guess breadth can apply to the kind of subject matter that interests people, but then there’s also approach, and people aren’t always breadthy in both those things. I am, though. How about you?
Thanks for making me think about breadth and depth in yet another new way!
I’ve always had the greatest respect for Jody Foster. Anyway, great post here. When I walk mountain trails by my home, my head is down. I look for beauty in the tiny secrets of mountains. Evergreen violets, British Soldiers, fairy bells, the pattern of moss on wood, of garnet in granite. I have to remind myself to lift my chin occasionally and look at the wide forest, the rushing river, the mountains themselves. I see the benefit of focusing on the tiny, the narrow, but I envy those who see the broader picture. Those who go through life with the blanket spread wide, catching bits of everything, like you describe yourself here, see more of life, experience more of life, to my way of thinking, than those who keep the blanket around their shoulders and the chin down. Hope that makes sense.
Thanks, Lisa! Jodie Foster is amazing for sure. I respect her in so many ways.
I love what you’ve written here about the beautiful details of the mountains. Wish I could see photos of all these glimpses of nature! It’s funny because I see what you’re saying about the wide landscape being a breadth thing, but my mom has said of me my entire life that I “can’t see the forest for the trees.” I don’t know if that’s still true. Maybe it’s changed over time? Or maybe my kind of breadth encompasses a diversity of small things as well as the big things.
That’s nice. There’s room for all of us, and like you say about working one’s breadth of understanding and knowledge into a new way of appreciating life, I suspect the values that may currently be so rated in our culture, may also change as the world catches up with a more fluid sense of existence. I imagine some more feminine sensibilities coming into a stronger focus, and these surely have not yet been clearly defined for the most part, and it is up to us to feel them out. Hope that makes sense! 🙂
Yes! I hope the world shifts too — I think it is. I do think a lot of it has to do with more women raising their voices to speak from their experience and perspective. And a lot of it is because the world is, as you say, “more fluid” than it used to be (at least in first world — I don’t know about elsewhere). I was recently introduced to the fabulous idea that the world isn’t “done” yet. We are all helping to make it. I love that.
I agree with the consensus here! I’d love to be an expert in some field, for all the practical reasons, but my little family calls me up with the darnedest questions because they have the idea that if I don’t know the answer to some obscure question, I’ll probably know where to start looking. I wouldn’t change that for the world. The way I see it, somebody has to know most of the words to “Car 54 Where Are You?” It may as well be me. 🙂
Ha, love it! I’ve long been my family’s go-to person for these kinds of questions too… and Erik is my go-to person for all the things I don’t know! 🙂