I wish.

I wish I had enough money to take the time.
I wish I had enough time to devote the energy.
I wish I had the right skills to make it real.

If I did I could, if I did I could, if only I did I could…

This has become the klaxon call of an entire class of modern entrepreneurials. They have the drive, they have the hunger but at least within the confines of their own minds they lack the resources, the skills, and the confidence that would give them the right to be great.

These barriers pile up and time ticks on and responsibilities replace desire with need until many of these people, people who might have otherwise made a real go at building out their dreams, are left with nothing more productive than dozens of pages of notes and dozens more aborted projects.

At best what we see here is an inefficient use of talent, at worst it’s a dangerous and tragic loss of potential innovation.

What we don’t see are simple excuses,hand-wringing justifying stasis. Instead, these pleas are symptoms, symptoms of a system that has existed at least since the second World War that has increasingly shifted the ideal of the innovator away from the free wheeling, broad-minded “universal man” of the Renaissance towards the focused and disciplined bench scientist of the 1950s. It’s a system that has regimented creativity and society alongside it. In doing so, it has brought us the entire edifice on which modern technological progress is built, but it has also stolen from us a template.

The Template of the Polymath

From Leibniz and Newton to Pascal and Franklin, polymaths were innovators who used their time and talents to pursue a broad range of social and scientific pursuits. Newton, for example, was a physicist, mathematician, astronomer, theologian, natural philosopher and alchemist. Benjamin Franklin was an author, political theorist, politician, printer, scientist, inventor, and diplomat. All of these people devoted their efforts to the exploration of knowledge itself, and through these varied pursuits were able to develop some of the most important discoveries of our time.

The modern system of forty hour work weeks, hyper-specialized degrees, Big Science, Big Industry and rising financial dependence has left our society with little room for these “shiftless generalists,” men and women without the discipline to pursue a single subject to its finest detail, or the desire to define in business plan or SWOT analysis where they hope their pursuits will lead. Even in the realm of entrepreneurship, a realm where you’d imagine this lost class would thrive, we have made a virtue of focus and specificity to the exclusion of discovery and adaptation, which has left us hard pressed to find anyone with the will and the ability to integrate differing disciplines of knowledge into new invention, as the Wright Brothers used their knowledge of bicycle design to build airplanes and Leonardo Di Vinci transformed his powers of observation and attention to detail into a range of artistic and technological innovations.  

How does this system work? How has society undermined this class of creators? Let’s take a look at each aspect of the complaint to see.

The Money Trap

Historically innovation has been the domain of those who, whether by patronage or independent wealth, were provided with the comfortable certainty that they would be able to feed themselves and their family. The money itself was not the key though, instead our focus should be how it was used and how those uses differ from our relationship with money today.

The Medici of the Renaissance are probably our most famous example of patrons. A group of powerful, wealthy and politically connected bankers, the Medici used their wealth to fund grand artistic projects, from the reconstruction of the church of San Lorenzo and the monastery of San Marco under Cosimo di Medici, to funding great artists like Donatello and architects like Michelozzo di Bartolommeo. For them wealth was not an end in itself, but a means to a greater goal, be it influence, political authority or simple public relations. For those who found themselves supported by Medici patronage, money was fuel, fuel that allowed them the time, freedom and credibility to build great works that would have otherwise been too elaborate, too expensive or too time intensive to create on their own. The Medici maintained these artist’s lifestyles, providing them with places to stay, food to eat and a means to create. In exchange, these artists provided the Medici with great works that they could take credit for and use to further their social agenda.

Compare this to our modern concept of wealth, where money is a tool used for two major purposes, the first is to support a lifestyle — to pay a mortgage, purchase food, buy health insurance and pay for a car. The second is as a means to increase comfort through the purchase of commodities. Under this regime, any money beyond what we need to support ourselves and maintain the health and safety of our families is to be used towards the purchase of more “things,” things we believe will ultimately make us content. The dream of wealth then is the dream of unlimited access to stuff, and the pursuit of wealth is couched in the language of commodity. We want to be able to afford that fancy car, the new boat, the bigger house, the elegant clothes, and the expensive dinners, not because these will make us happier in any lasting way (years of research has proven that they won’t) but because they will prove to the world and to ourselves that we have succeeded at living.

We can see this by looking at the national savings rate, which hovers at around 4%. To put this in perspective, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median American made $51,260 in 2010. Given this rate of savings, this person only managed to put away $2,048 a year. Assume about 75% of that ($1,536) went into a tax advantaged retirement account which made our friend a generous 6% annually. In that case, after 30 years of savings he would be left with $128,719.

Unfortunately, by most estimates, at retirement he will have about 19 more years to live, and at an average of $26,567 of expenses per year (excluding taxes), only about 5 years of savings to live on. Behavioral economists call this “buy now, pay later” mentality hyperbolic discounting and it’s something we are becoming increasingly good at, selling our future comfort away to the present for pennies on the dollar.

Add to this the debt that we use to support our “stuff” habits and the image becomes even more clear, the average American carries around about $7,200 worth of revolving credit debt. This average, however, is a bit misleading because there is a significant portion of the population with limited to nonexistent revolving debt. For those with debt then, the amount of debt they hold can be many times this number, and this doesn’t begin to include the mortgages and student loans which make up a huge portion of the debt load for many families. The end result is that many households can’t even afford the rather modest savings rate we described earlier, partially because so much more money is going towards consumption rather than towards savings and investing.

The ultimate result is that we are a nation made up almost entirely of consumers rather than investors, we don’t produce a great number of Medici’s because even among our high income earners, a large portion of their wealth and debt go towards the consumption of goods rather than the direct production of great works (there are notable exceptions among the Billionaire and especially tech Billionaire set). We don’t produce a lot of people with lifestyles like those under Medici patronage because so few of us have the monetary cushion to support “idle speculation” and time intensive work. We aren’t even living paycheck to paycheck, we are often living three or four paychecks behind, which binds us to our jobs and to normal, systematized work in a way more reminiscent of the Company Towns of the early 20th century than the free and mobile society that we purport to live in.

In this context the complaint that lack of money, specifically the lack of deep monetary cushions produced by high rates of savings, coherent investing and reduced consumption of commodity goods becomes quite obvious. This class of entrepreneurials, like many of us, is caught up in a culture that no longer holds thrift and accumulation as a virtue and as a result often has no idea what a life looks like without a brand new car every three years or the newest cell phone every 12 months. Insofar as this prevents them from having the time, space, and ability to create, this aspect of the modern system of innovation is criminal.

Speaking of time…

40 Hours a Week

After sleep, which takes up about 9 hours of our day according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, work is our next biggest time sync. On average we work 5.74 hours a day or 40.18 hours a week, a massive portion of our lives and productive energy.

This 40 hour work schedule has existed unchanged since the late 1800s when labor activists and Unions fought to establish an eight hour work day. Before that, it was not unheard of for factory workers to be forced to work ten or more hours, six days a week under often dangerous conditions. After years of strikes, including the Illinois strike of 1867 which managed to shut down an entire city, and the Chicago riots of 1886 in which prominent labor activists were rounded up, jailed and executed after a bomb went off in Haymarket Square, the first Federal Law establishing an eight hour work day for large groups of workers was passed in 1916 with the establishment of the Adamson Act, which regulated work times for railroad workers and provided overtime pay for anyone working over eight hours a day. These laws came to a head with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937 under the New Deal, which provided an eight hour work day to employees covering about 20% of the U.S. labor force. This was a major win for workers of the time. Since much of the work available was in mining, manufacturing and constructions projects like railroads — reducing the work day to a manageable length saved lives. It reduced workplace accidents, it reduced the terrible stresses on the workers bodies and it reduced the ability of managers to treat workers more as indentured serfs than paid employees.

Subsequent research has shown that reducing the number of hours worked might have also increased the efficiency of the work itself. As early as 1908, pioneering researchers like Ernst Abbe had discovered that reducing work hours from nine to eight actually increased industrial output. Henry Ford was famous for taking this kind of research to heart, in 1926, well before the Fair Labor Standards Act, he enacted a policy of reduced hours in his factories. He cut his employee’s work day from ten to eight hours and their work week from six to five days, after twelve years of experiments he found that by doing so he actually increased worker output and reduced production costs. The idea that he stumbled upon was that not every hour of production is the same, human beings get tired and as we get tired we become less productive, we make more mistakes and we start burning time rather than using it. Anyone who has ever found themselves at the end of a long work day simply staring blankly at their computer screen can easily relate.

The eight hour work day was a grand victory for organized labor, but in the nearly 80 years since it was enacted, we seemed to have forgotten its basic lessons. In the world of software development, especially game design, many companies now ask their employees to devote 60, 70, and sometimes even 80 hours a week towards projects during crunch periods. In high powered law firms, investment banks and other professional organizations it’s not unheard of for employees to work 65 hour weeks in the office, and many more hours outside of it. This slow creeping up of work hours has even started to affect normal, white collar employment in offices and corporations. With the labor market tight, employers cutting costs, and the addition of technologies like smartphones which allow employees to never really leave the office, more time and more commitment is expected of workers today than since the heyday of modern labor abuse in the 19th century.

What has this cost us?

First and foremost it can be argued that much of this additional work time is not particularly productive. Significantly increased work hours lead to increases in error rates for workers. In fact, simple sleep deprivation can have massive effects. In 1997, for example, Colonel Gregory Belenky of the Division of Neuropsychiatry at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research showed that for every 24 hours of continuous wakefulness cognitive function decreased by 25%. In his sleep deprivation studies he found that soldiers under the effects of sleep deprivation would fire on friendly targets if asked to, rather than reviewing the situation map and speaking out against the bad orders. These same soldiers, during a 4 hour sleep schedule, would fire less than a third of the rounds of soldiers under a 7 hour sleep schedule. If employees are working twice as much then, a lot of those extra hours are being drawn from time they might otherwise be sleeping, under these conditions it’s unlikely that they will be producing their best work.

The second cost is one more relevant to our discussion, and that is what happens when these workers go home. Not every hour is created equal and by expending their most productive hours and even most of their moderately productive hours at work, they have little additional energy to learn, analyze or create. This goes a long way towards explaining the next biggest time sync, leisure (4 hours a day), usually in the form of television or other screen activities. When we add those hours to the pool we are essentially “out of time” to do anything more productive than errands or other lifestyle maintenance tasks. This is a poisonous environment for our class of entrepreneurials because if we know nothing else about those who we would call polymaths, it is that they had time. Time not only to develop their skills, but time to analyze and think deeply about their subjects of interest.

Albert Einstein famously developed the Theory of Relativity through years of subtle, continuous imaginings. Einstein was not a bench scientist for most of his life, instead he relied on the analogies and mental models that he had developed. To understand one aspect of Relativity he imagined riding on a light beam, to understand another he imagined chasing his brother through space, signaling him with a flash light and how this would be perceived from different reference frames. These kinds of models can only be created and refined when one has time and energy to do so. Nassim Taleb explains in his book Antifragile that this time for reflection was the result of what he calls the Bar Bell model, in which one covers his basic needs using a risk-less endeavor so that he can devote time to an extremely risky, high reward one. Einstein choose to work at a patents office, a notoriously slow paced career that allowed him a great deal of time to think and imagine, it also gave him access to new ideas as they passed over his desk. In addition, because he had a stable job that took up little of his productive energy, he was essentially under the patronage of the government. His basic lifestyle was paid for by his salary, his energy was his own to use, and thus he was able to devote a monumental amount of time to his work in theoretical physics.

For many of us this strategy is not available. Our jobs expect more of us and do not provide compensation large enough to cover our desire for consumption. Our culture of consumption drives us towards devoting even more time to work in an effort to have more money to spend on more commodity goods. Since we only have so many productive hours in the day, by the time we are done with this treadmill what we are left with are minds that can do little more than passively absorb whatever information is easiest to consume, usually in the form of the latest reality television show or YouTube phenomenon. For the class caught up in this system, even if they have the desire to do more, many of them simply do not have energy to make it happen and they certainly do not have the huge amount of time to develop the skills they need to give them a real shot at being successful.

Skills, Mastery and the Liberal Arts

In classical antiquity the “liberal arts” included those skills that were considered essential for a free person to participate in civic life. For the ancient Greeks they were grammar, rhetoric and logic. The Medieval Church expanded them to include arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, which they referred to as the Quadrivium (with the initial Greek conception being referred to as the Trivium). By the 5th Century, writers like Martianus Capella were defining the seven Liberal Arts as: grammar, rhetoric, music, astronomy, geometry, dialectic and arithmetic. The core idea of these Arts was to create a class of people who were broadly informed and capable of participating in every level of civic discourse. Unlike the “slave classes,” these men would be articulate, knowledgeable and virtuous. Universities that implemented this model relied heavily on the teachings of philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle, and focused much of their attention not on developing employees with specific skills useful for a narrow set of tasks, but citizens capable of learning and adapting to whichever tasks were set before them.

A part of this conceit was the result of the types of people who attended Universities up through the middle part of the 20th Century. The only people who could afford the time and money necessary for such a high level of education were the scions of the wealthy. These men were being groomed not as merchants and craftsmen, but as leaders and were being given the skills they’d need to take their place in society. It is little wonder then that many famous polymaths like Issac Newton and Charles Darwin were trained, for at least some portion of their lives, under this regime.

In the realm of scientific inquiry, before the 19th Century, the idea of the scientist as we would conceive of it today was unheard of. Instead, those who inquired into the nature of things referred to themselves as natural philosophers. According to Mortimer Adler in The Four Dimensions of Philosophy: Metaphysical, Moral, Objective, Categorical, a Natural Philosopher was one who studied astronomy, cosmology, nature on a grand scale; causes, the elements, infinity, matter, mechanics, natural qualities, physical quantities, the relationship of physical entities, chance, probability and the philosophy of space and time among other pursuits. Many of those following this discipline would have also found themselves in a University system that relied heavily on the classical liberal arts. The result would be something antithetical to our modern society, the almost fully unfocused man.

The knowledge that they acquired, above all else, was a framework that held that acquiring knowledge was a virtue. They learned how to learn and were placed into a structure that promoted broad, varied and life long study not merely as something that was desirable but as an ethical standard for a fully realized life. They were taught to seek answers and ask questions, and were given the mandate to go out into the world and find those answers wherever they might turn out to be. Their relative wealth and privilege, like a Medici patronage, secured for them the time to follow these pursuits. The result was that many, such as Newton, found themselves moving fluidly between such disparate fields as optics and alchemy, and all of the polymaths chased passions ranging from writing to politics to mathematics, sometimes in the same breath. While this mode of unfocused inquiry is not nearly as efficient as specialization, especially when we are speaking about the sorts of specialized knowledge required to participate in the massively expensive projects generated by Big Science and corporate research, this class of seekers is incredibly valuable for setting a direction for that research to follow, and for generating the kinds of innovative questions that one only can when he has a wide base of knowledge to draw from.

But what about the technical skills?

10,000 Hours

Malcolm Gladwell asserts in his book Outliers that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at a skill. He makes his case by pointing to examples such as the time the Beatles spent between 1960 and 1964 playing concerts in dive bars in Hamburg, Germany, and Bill Gates who, through the luck of his circumstances, was able to start tinkering with computer programming in 1968, years before most of his peers would even see a computer in action let alone play around with one. These experts were able to clock their “10,000 hours” early in life and thus had a major head start when they later brought their skills to bear as professionals. This “10,000″ rule is based on research by Anders Ericsson of Florida State University, who studied concert violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music. What he found was that the highest performers were those who were able to surpass the 10,000 hour mark early in their careers and that performance decreased linearly as the number of hours fell.

As Ericsson explains it though, this 10,000 hour marker is not a magic number and not just any hours count. In order for it to be productive, the person has to be practicing deliberately with the goal of improving his skills. Playing the theme from Star Wars ten thousand times on the piano, for example, does not a virtuoso make. In order to grow in skills you have to work for a very, very long time at just that and continually challenge yourself.

The interesting thing is that for all their lack of focus, the polymath is much more likely to be able to achieve this more subtle goal than the modern specialist. The specialist is taught to do a single set of things very, very well and spends most of his career doing just that — over and over again in only slightly different ways. As a result, he never achieves real mastery, except in the very narrow field that his years of practice has made rote. The polymath, the natural philosopher, the person who existed and thrived under the system of classical liberal arts training and its precursors was trained to seek out and overcome challenges, to approach the acquisition of knowledge and skills deliberately and to look for new answers and new questions. Like the Beatles, they were practitioners, producing products and ideas, getting feedback from their peers and seeking out ways to overcome the issues raised by their detractors, and fortunately for them, this is just the kind of deliberate, active practice that leads to mastery.

Without an intellectual edifice that encourages knowledge and learning above rote skill acquisition, many of our lost entrepreneurials feel trapped by whatever box that their Major and their career path has placed them inside. They feel that if they are biologists, learning about programming is a waste of time. They feel that if they are managers, data analysis skills are meaningless. They can no longer separate themselves from the artificially constructed roles that society has developed for them, and as a result even if they can see the skills that they would need to make their products a reality, they do not have the confidence to pursue them, because they are deeply afraid that by doing so they will open themselves up to the derision of their peers (for wasting time) and lose the utter, mechanical focus they believe they need to advance in their chosen field. When combined with a lack of energy and a lack of financial cushion, all the incentives begin to point away from innovation and towards a system that promotes, above all else, stasis.

A Cry for Help

Now perhaps, our three excuses begin to seem more reasonable, a cry for help rather than a white flag.

It’s not that these innovators need “money,” not in the concrete sense that they need money to buy a sandwich or pay their rent, what they need is financial cushion, that far more ineffable quality in which money ceases to be the primary focus of their endeavors. They don’t need to be rich (by modern standards) in order to achieve this, they just need to have enough, enough money to support their lifestyle and a little more besides to insulate themselves against shocks and provide them with time. They also need to craft a lifestyle that values creation over consumption, reducing the need to have a cushion so large that it’s practically impossible to achieve.

It’s not that these potential entrepreneurs need more “time”. What they need is a system that taxes their creative energy less completely. They are working and working up to the red line, burning away their creative capacity to nothing, and by the time they get home they are left stripped of the kinds of energy they need to think deeply about anything beyond how much sleep they need, and how quickly they can usher the kids into bed. These people need their own Bar Bell models, new methods of working that allow them to pay their bills on one hand and work on their high risk, high reward projects on the other. This means changing the way they think about work, not as a treadmill towards ever more focused versions of the same activities, but as a means to an end. A way of gathering resources to be used for bigger and better things.

These dreamers do need more “skills” but the skills they need are the core values of the classical liberal education, the ethic that learning is a virtue and that in order to be a fully realized person they must challenge themselves constantly. It’s the skills epitomized by the Beatles and Gates, people who established a goal for themselves and sought out new ways to outdo themselves. They did not simply play the same twelve notes over and over again until they perfected them, they had feedback and consequences and every time they created they learned about their defects and worked to rise above them. By learning how to learn, and having a structure that rewarded that learning, gathering the technical skills that they needed was just a matter of focused practice, and having the confidence to work outside of the narrow boxes that society had built for them.

As thinkers, as builders, as doers, as a society that lionizes creation and innovation and needs our creators to be risk takers and change makers, we need to find a way to make this happen, to create a world where this lost class is not left to wallow in their reality television and dead-end jobs, to make it practical for those with drive and ability to express their talents, to raise the already slim odds that we can create new entries in the history books. We need to recreate the template of the polymath for the modern world, not to replace the system of specialization but to support and improve upon it, to provide it with guidance and models of excellence, to give radical innovation a chance to thrive. We know this. We all do. Now the question is what are we going to do about it?

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