A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
Robert A. Heinlein
People misinterpret this, and it shows up in their writing constantly. I run across this in characters all the time, from the new writer with the wagging tail through to the pro (although I see it less there, I do still occasionally see it). You know the characters I’m talking about – the ones who can conveniently do everything the plot demands to solve the problem, from sewing up a tear in a wedding dress minutes before the ceremony using nothing but a splinter and dental floss, all the way to giving instructions to disarm a nuclear bomb while accurately returning fire on a highway with their offhand as they drive a sedan at speed.
When I tried to gently point out to a fellow writer that her hero can’t be that awesome, because, well, it’s a little too unbelievable and maybe he should have a sidekick or a group of friends or something – each with their own talents applicable to the story – said fellow author quoted Heinlein at me. At which point we argued and now we don’t crit each others work anymore.
Heinlein, for all his brilliance, really should’ve phrased this as “A human being should be capable of doing all these things,” not able to do all these things. The reason behind my argument on the phrasing is quite simple.
Very few people are polymaths.
To be fair, a human being is CAPABLE OF doing all the above listed things and more.
But I do not know of ONE person who is ABLE to do ALL these things, and I’ve met a few folks.
Take me, for example. Some people have teased that being around me tends to make them hear the MacGuyver theme song in their heads. (I blame my mother, who is far more Macguyvery than I, but we’ll save that for later.) On Heinlein’s list, I know for a fact that I can go anywhere and:
change a diaper,
plan an invasion, (butcher a hog), conn a ship, (design a building), write a sonnet, balance accounts, (build a wall), set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, (solve equations), analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly
I have a rough idea of how to butcher any animal, but not a very good one. I know the theory behind building design from a technical theatre perspective, but I couldn’t even begin to talk about things like static load or foundation strength. I could write a sonnet, but I’d really have to bone up on the rules. The same goes for a wall – give me the plans and there’s a good chance I could do it. I can solve a few basic equations, but I think my father will always be disappointed in his heart that I don’t share his love of Partial Differential Equations. Or even really understand anything beyond basic algebra.
I have no idea how to conn a ship.
I have no idea how to plan an invasion, set a bone, program a computer, or fight efficiently.
I’d like to think I’d die gallantly, but let’s face it – you never know how you’ll react until you get there on that little topic. Circumstances are everything.
An all-around Archimedes Franklin Edison MacGuyver DaVinci type person is truly rare. Impossibly rare.
My former critter’s argument was that people like this do exist, and what’s more, if the character she created couldn’t do everything, it would totally destroy the story. And then there’s the Librarian, so obviously a character like that can work.
Ummmm… well… yes, there is the Librarian franchise, but they also retooled it into a team where each individual has specific fields of specialty with an overall encyclopedia or two at the core. The re-tooling took it out of 3 meh cute movies into a series – which turned out to be more profitable in the long run. And more fun, in my view.
The single character who can do everything is dull and improbable at best. This is not to say nuclear physicists don’t enjoy fabric arts after work, or that an artist can’t relax by reading a mathematics journal with comprehension, but how many Navy SEALs do you know have multiple PhD’s in history, math, a science, and 2 Masters degrees in Domestic Engineering and Management?
The polymath does exist, it’s true, but they are few and far between. And their social skills?
Many times it’s a great deal like waltzing with a porcupine.
I don’t know what happened to her after our last meeting. It was a few years ago and we stopped talking after that. Well, it was more like a “Wow, I’m really busy right now. Can I get back to you?” kind of thing.
I’m surprised Heinlein never put “tell someone to go to hell gracefully” on that list. He strikes me as the kind of guy who would’ve enjoyed that.