Wednesday, July 07, 2010

A Long One, Filled With Much Introspection

After a much needed three day weekend, I'm coming to terms with the fact that there are only 8 more days left in this program. Sorry, scratch that. I'm overjoyed that there are only 8 more days left in this program. Sure I'll miss teaching their sweaty little, tear-streaked faces, but such thoughts are saved for a retrospective evaluation a month down the road. For now, we must continue teaching.

These three days has given me time for a rare activity these days: thinking. I'd have never thought I'd have to budget my time for thinking, but such is the case of this modern work-a-day lifestyle. Let us begin.

Throughout my life, noticeably in high school, I've been a dabbler. A Renaissance man. A Jack of all Trades, but a Master of None. The latter part of the final idiom had never really bothered me until I got to college. I had always thought that my versatility, and the breadth of my experiences was what had gotten me into Yale. But as I began to interact with my fellows, and more importantly, take classes and tests, my opinion began to turn. I began to see that my dabbling had denied me extensive depth in any one subject. My first rather rude awakening to this fact was taking Perspectives on Science (and Engineering, since engineers are second class citizens. Freshman Orgo also provided a bit of a shock, but that's a whole 'nother story). I had always enjoyed science, though I had never really pursued it in an extracurricular manner. I went to class, got my A, and that was the extent of my science exposure. Meanwhile, I would fill my time auditioning for plays, playing in bands, reading whatever I could find and MOCK COMBAT! with my Military History Club (Offically called the Reenactors' and Military Historians' Society, or ReMiHS, but it's quite a mouthful):

(I'm the tall white guy in the back).
But it never even crossed my mind to explore science beyond class. I do realize the irony of who I am now and what I'm doing with my life, but there's time to remark on the peculiarity of my life later. Coming into Perspectives on Science (a program I only got in off the waitlist. I was actually deciding between Directed Studies and Perspectives, but after the DS registration passed, I figured the decision was made for me) armed with a motley assortment of AP Chem and Physics knowledge, I was vastly overwhelmed. And it showed in a rather unseemly way.

I came to reflect upon my predicament as I've been fond of doing in such times. I decided that I would commit myself wholly unto Science, as my selection of courses had unwittingly steered myself that way. Music was my one concession, my one exception to this rule, as I don't like quitting things, like Concert Band, and figured I might as well just keep playing.

I bring this up because I recent went back and reread Plato's The Republic, inspired by all this Mr. Devlin talk. One of the big, over arching points Plato/Socrates makes is about specialization. Every man has an arete, sort of like a life purpose, very similar to the concept of dharma in Hinduism. Some people's arete demands they become politicians, others demand they become garbage men. There was no shame in being a garbage man, as long as that's what you were meant to do. But one thing that Plato/Socrates makes clear is that multi-tasking, and despecializing was a bad thing. Would you rather go to the man who is solely committed to being a doctor, or the one who's a doctor half the time, and a used car salesman the other half of the time?

When I first came across this in high school, I found this rather distressing, and a little perplexing. I had devoted my life in a way quite orthogonal to this notion of arete. And upon arriving in college, it appeared that specialization was the way to go.

This 4th of July weekend, I visited the Farmer's Market at Kapiolani Community College, a haven for such specialists. Some stalls only sold jars of honey, others only sold tomatoes. And the food was amazing. Sure they only sold one type of produce, but the tomatoes were some of the best I've ever tasted. I also visited an orchid breeder, and bought a little friend:

His name, I'm told, is "Nobby". The tag reads that it's across between what sounds like racehorses: Be Glad x Mahogany Leopard = P. Nobby's Little Candy. But I digress.

And for a while this specialization in science thing has worked. My grades have been slowly but surely improving, and I've carved a cozy niche amongst my scientist friends, whom I cherish in a way I never thought I would. But since this is a story, there has to be some conflict, rising action and the rest.

I first became acutely aware of it at the end of the summer of 2009, after serving my time in New Haven doing membrane research with an Environmental Engineering lab. In this lab, I spent 9 hour work days reading papers, making, testing and improving membranes for osmotic processes. Very specialized.

But I was understimulated, and deeply dissatisfied with my life. I loved my research, thought it was genuinely exciting and interesting. But it was incessant. My day to day life lacked a natural rhythm to break up the monotony. This atonal existence was not working. I deeply missed doing non-science things. I missed singing and acting. I missed spending hours in the kitchen baking and trying to get out of washing my dishes. I missed watching hours and hours of Band of Brothers, getting lost in the story telling and the drama of WWII.

And now that I'm beginning to ramble (and become self-aware. OOOOHHH.), I'll come to my conclusion. I've realized can't be a specialist. Socrates would hate my existence.

But I can't help being a Jack of all Trades, dabbling a little bit in every creative medium, academic discipline, and hobby circle. I'm still bothered by the Master of None bit, but I'm learning to live with it (in the same way that I've come to accept I actually have to study for tests now that I'm in college, and that even if I work my ass off, I'll still come out slightly below average). And I'm finding others out there like me. Those people who told me that you'd have to pick one thing and stick with it at Yale were wrong. I went to Yale because I couldn't just pick one. And there are hundreds other like me, fellow dabblers.

And as I approach the inevitable end of my run as "Mr. Science", I'm searching for something to fill the rest of my summer with. My first instinct was to find something science-y to do, like breed orchids (which sounds really fun), or learn programming. And I'll probably end up doing something like that either way. But I need to balance it out with something completely unrelated. So far, I've had the wit to balance my science teaching with a late night hobby (not pr0n): music. Composing, playing and recording a crappy collection of things that catch my ear has in part saved my sanity from the horrors of this job. And to those of you who facilitated such a distraction, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

So, my fellow dabblers of the world: I may have strayed from the path, forgotten who I am, and lost my way. I may have forgotten how to keep myself happy. I may have forgotten everything I learned from Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. I may have affected a persona I was never meant to assume. But I'm back. And baby, it's going to be good. Real good.


  1. What the heck are though surfboard like things in the ReMiHS pictre?

    Isn't PoS mostly bio? And besides the essay at the end of the semester, were there any other assignments?

    I completely agree with you about dabbling. I feel like a dabbler myself. I always felt that by specializing, you missed out on the life experiences offered by exploring other fields. Also, I feel that as a dabbler, you're more well-rounded than people who specialize. You're like the Mario character, who in video games is usually good all-around, but not excellent in any area. The specialist would be like Bowser, specializing in power, or Toad, specializing in speed. As a Mario character, you're more versatile, ready to handle more varied stages. When you don't know what to expect, I think being well rounded is the best option.

  2. I enjoyed this post. But in the end, you are still a specialist. You are just one that specializes in learning many things at once. And if that was what your arete was meant to be, then you should be content with that. Your dissatisfaction with lab work was a clear indicator that you needed to dabble in more than one thing to be happy. So I think in the end, you are still a specialist, just one that specializes in cultivating abilities in multiple fields.

  3. @Anthony: Those things are shields, made from 3/4" plywood I salvaged from the set of a play I did in HS. PoS was a lot of bio, but we covered stuff like dark matter, neutrinos, NMR at the end. But yeah, since there are a lot of premeds in there, it was a lot of bio, which is interesting, in its own right. Bi-weekly discussion response type things.

    But it's interesting that you bring that up, because when I play Smash, I hate using Mario. My two favorite Characters are actually Marth and DK, who are definitely specialists.

    @Andy: That's an interesting way to put it. Thanks for the insight. Hope you're enjoying your prize!