I Am a Sciolist

I was delighted and consternated to learn a new word recently, sciolous, because it describes me all too well. A Sciolist is someone who knows a little about a lot, but not a lot about anything. This description fits me perfectly. I know a little about science, literature, geography, politics, economics, computers, civil rights, law, web development, writing, linguistics, music, history, culture, etc… but I don’t know enough to claim any sort of proficiency at any of them.

I could never be an authority on any of those subjects (and more) because I was never bothered to learn them to any great detail. It’s not that I’m not interested, but by the time I reach the point where I’m required to put some serious effort into researching, studying, and memorizing to really get my facts down and develop deep understandings. I learned the general theories and some essential facts, maybe a bit more, and then my interest moved on to other things.

This is a big problem in our modern world, which prides itself on what you know, how well you know it, and practically requires you to be a specialist to get ahead. Who would take you seriously as a professional if you admit you don’t know almost everything in your field? The likely answer is: Not many. Even our “modern” liberal arts schools are becoming more and more specialized; your major is really all anyone seems to care about.

Despite this, I like knowing a little about everything. It allows me to make connections others would completely miss. It allows me to draw on a range of possibilities that many others can’t have because it’s not a part of their specialized knowledge base. It allows me to follow any conversation even if I can’t make specific contributions, and ask intelligent questions without seeming like an idiot.

Who knows, there might even be a career out there where being a sciolist is a good thing. I haven’t found it yet, but I’m hopeful. In the meantime, I’ve learned a new word I’d never heard and I can say with some authority that I’m not about to change what I am, even if I could.

5 Comments Categorized: geek

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5 Responses to “I Am a Sciolist”

  1. Robert Hahn says  (October 20th, 2004 at 23:37:01 )

    There is a job description for you…
    Project Manager.

    Well, any kind of manager, really. You could be an insight consultant.

    If you’re not going to go into business for yourself, then don’t pick large companies to work for – pick tiny ones. They’ll need your sciolistic leanings much more than the big guys would.

    Specialization is a thing craved by large corps, and they have successfully marketed it as the way to go.

  2. NHK says  (October 21st, 2004 at 00:16:04 )

    You are a Jack-of-all-trades.
    I’m not so sure I see such a *huge* problem with specialization, though. Especially after trying to picture you as a “manager”, project or otherwise. Yikes. Management, to me, seems by its very nature to be one of the most stifling, creatively unsatisfying paths a man can take.

  3. Robert Hahn says  (October 21st, 2004 at 05:10:59 )

    The stigma of management
    NHK: your opinion of what management is would have been shaped because you haven’t seen any good examples of great managers.

    We, all of us, are managers on some level. I’m a web developer. I have to manage my workload, manage my clients, manage my income and outgo. And yet, most people who know me do not consider me stifled or creatively unsatisfied.

    Look closely at the things he’s interested in. There’s a common thread — well, two of them, linking every single item on that list. To have a list of interests that look like that means he’s passionate about people relationships, and in particular communication with, or between people. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I had my choice of managers, I’d rather choose someone with that passion than just about anything else, even work experience, because they will put the people first.

  4. Uncle Roger says  (October 21st, 2004 at 06:03:37 )


    Read James P. Hogan’s Inherit the Stars (first of the Giants novels). The protagonist does that. Then, of course, there is:

    “Smith had put the original two and two together and catalysed this chain of events. That was his job — he was a synthesist.”

    John Brunner, The Fourth Power, 1960

    And somewhere, I’ve got an e-mail from someone attributing the concept even earlier to (you guessed it) Robert Heinlein.

    And, for what to do with it… Take a look at http://www.techsynthesis.com.

  5. NHK says  (October 22nd, 2004 at 01:16:27 )

    Point taken.
    Robert: Yes, I see what you mean. In fact, I think Dugh would make a really good manager—of people or projects. I would just hope whatever project he’d be managing would be something he was passionate about. To illustrate, I am an IT contractor with mostly advertising agencies as clients. I don’t give a rat’s ass about any of the projects I’ve managed over the past few years. And yes, I shudder when I think of some of the managers I’ve had (one, in particular, whom I ended up having to delegate to and eventualy “reverse-manage” because his organizational/interpersonal skills were so deficient).

    Management in its most common incarnation is just making sure people execute certain tasks efficiently and maybe assembling the results of their labor. A lot of delegation and administration. Yes, it often takes a broad skill set to pull everything together, but I still find it to be very dull. Project management *can* be pretty cool, however, if you’re working on a project you have serious personal investment in. Sadly, most managers I know—including myself at times, though hopefully for not much longer—are, unfortunately, managing crap they don’t care about at all simply because the job is lucrative. What really makes me balk at the idea of management being rewarding is that most instances of “fun” management seem to be secondary; i.e.: a person is working towards something they’re invested in where management of various tasks/people is merely incidental. For exampIe, I produced a music video once, and I loved it. Management as a primary function, though, still sends up huge red flags for me.