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Can One Achieve Mastery in More Than One Field?

October 27, 2013, 5:00 AM

You can achieve mastery in more than one field.  What would be interesting to see is could a musician also master baseball?  Take two things that are totally disconnected.  I don't have an example offhand of something like that, which would be pretty remarkable.  Normally what you see are people mastering two fields that are somewhat related. 

A great example is Paul Graham, who has the company Y Combinator in Silicon Valley.  It's basically an incubator system for training people how to create a tech start up.  Paul gets a percentage, if their idea turns into a business.  Now he's fabulously wealthy because it's been a hugely successful system.

Paul started off as a computer programmer.  He was an absolute master of programming.  He was a hacker very early on in life.  And because of his programming skills, he started what became the first Viaweb, which was the first online store application for starting a business online. 

It was huge in 1995; he made $50 million on that one thing because he was so brilliant at computer engineering.  He got bored with it and he went to writing.  And he decided to write essays, really incredible essays that built up a huge following for him - essays about wealth, about entrepreneurship, about philosophy and art etc., and then finally he fell into this thing called Y Combinator where people kept saying, "Well you're so good at starting this one business can you help us start a business?"  And so he decided to create this thing called Y Combinator based on the computer model, which is the more times you try something the greater your chances of finding success at it, finding the right path.

So his model was to bring in, not just ten people a year like most people do, he would try to invest in 300. He would bring in three or four or 500 young people every year in his system.  And through doing this with so many different people he would gain an intensity of knowledge that would make him a master of figuring out what is a solid technology idea in three or four years. 

So he's a master at business, and entrepreneurship, at computer engineering, perhaps writing.  He took the model of computer engineering and hacking and applied it to business and entrepreneurship.  There are many other examples but what I would be curious to find somebody who has intelligence in different frames. Maybe da Vinci would be the one that came closest to it as someone who's a great artist and is also a great scientist.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Leonardo's Da Vinci's engineering drawing from 1503 courtesy of Shutterstock


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