There always seems to have been a small number of men with a very interesting skill set, who are sufficiently independently minded, have self-taught enough of the skills necessary to be able to participate in the next big thing before it becomes a thing, participate in it while it is still a meritocracy, and before the syllabus to study the area is established. The boundary condition men. The guys waiting around for the boundaries to shift and for something to become possible.
I don’t speak of the polymaths. Turing, Ramanujan, and Newton all propelled society forward in their own heroic or tragic ways, contributing greatly, although memetically rather than genetically. This is about the tool-makers who support the polymaths. The practical men who can build instruments hatched in the fevered mind of a genius. Every Alan Turing needs a Tommy Flowers to refract the pure genius into a solid form. Horatio Nelson knew where he was by being preceded by a century by John Harrison’s clocks.
Often they will spend a lifetime doing the heavy lifting in obscurity, only to become one of Tolkein’s Leviathans of the Landscape upon whose capacious shoulders we stand. The ‘Artist & Engineer’ Type who is always fascinated on general principle, and infinitely curious. The guys who spend fifteen years mastering an apparent technological cul de sac. The guys who the entrepreneur considers to be terribly wasted talent, but are prepared to use to try to fix problems that nobody knows how to even approach.
One of the cruellest tricks that nature plays on men is to give a small number of them sufficient cognitive ability to be objectively confident in their own abilities, resourceful enough to be able to get by, passionate and artistic enough to make enough progress to sustain their interest in an area which nobody else bothers with. Historically, such men either travel and wait for a change of physical boundaries, or are working producing miraculous but useless artifacts, waiting for a technological change where their skills will suddenly enable them to exploit such changes, and do miracles.
The human evolutionary calculus must payoff incredibly well at the level of the culture, since for each Joseph Whitworth, Isembard Kingdom Brunel, and John Harrison, there are a huge number of equally cunning Artificers with the tragic misfortune of being born at the wrong time.
Corporate career pathways tend to emphasise and lionise the managerial path, presumably because the people structuring the profession are all managers. IT companies above a certain size allow for a career path of “guru”, which means creating an internal research post for someone whose expertise they can’t exactly identify, but who is clearly too bright to let go. Skunkworks has huge black budgets that they just throw at a wall to see what sticks.
It makes me happy that the wastage rate is falling as we recognise and appreciate the value of intelligences which may not be exactly the shape and configuration you want, but which are never the less valuable for its rarity. Such men have the advantage of being so other-worldly that of the seven obviously very bright guys you have working for you, you’d need to be one of them to identify which of the geniuses is the polymath.
In an age of gawpers and paparazzi, it is a rare trick indeed to be almost completely invisible to such people unless the process “succeeds” and spits out a once-in-fifty-years or so commercially disruptive innovator like Nicola Tesla or Elon Musk. Last time I looked, Musk seemed to be dealing with being the richest man on the planet with the deft “Sorry, which planet are we talking about?” contempt that endears him to so many engineers. At least he’s handling it better than Tesla, pigeon-love not withstanding.
About the author
Nostradormouse is a UK-based human rights activist.