Pigeonholing vs. Cubism in Life

Canadian lightweight men's double
My university rowing coach had a saying: “True winners don’t give themselves a chance to win. They eliminate every chance to fail.”

Over the years I’ve found this quote applicable in many situations. Today I was thinking about how often someone pigeonholes themselves in their role. “I’m an experimental physicist.” “I’m an actor.” “I’m a communication studies major.” In looking at my own career path, sometimes I think it’s a bit absurd that I’ve gone into engineering and psychology, went to grad school then switched to the corporate world in user experience. I still try to keep involved and abreast of all those fields, which (I’ve learned recently) is really, really time-consuming. Sometimes I think it would have made a lot more sense to focus in on one area and not swash about.

Then I come back to my coach’s statement. Yes, it’s true that narrowly focusing on one topic or field of study has its advantages. But in a world that is so interconnected and multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary and all that, who can afford to do this anymore? It no longer guarantees success. Like humanity as a whole, the growth of individuals relies on learning about many different aspects of life.

Hence, the idea of “Cubism” in Life.

**Postscript (4/8/2011): It also reminds me of something Vincent Lam, author of Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures, said at a talk in Toronto (it might have been a convocation address actually). The advice he gave the young adults in the room was this: if you really love doing something, find a way to do it. Don’t give it up. Don’t settle. If you like medicine but have a great passion for writing, find a way to do both. Sometimes in life you have to choose, but sometimes you don’t – you can break the rules and do both.

He was of course referring to the point that everyone mentions when interviewing him, which is that he is a both an emergency medicine physician (already a time-consuming profession) and an award-winning author (also time-consuming), so how does he find time to wear both hats? (He’s a new father as well.)

It’s atypical – sure. But what Lam was warning against was pigeonholing. Just because other people don’t do it, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Moreover, pursuing seemingly unrelated things may reveal new perspectives that haven’t been thought of before. My perspective on social robotics, for instance, lends well to Marshall McLuhan’s ideas on communication and new media – but I would have never realized this had I not pursued my interest in writing an article about the Canadian author.


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