This is for you if you have way more interests, skills and things you want to do that the rest of the world can really get their head round. Waqās Ahmed spent five years researching extraordinary people to write The Polymath, a book that flies the flag for living a life of multiple areas of skill and interest.
Being a polymath, he says, may be the single best way to personal fulfillment. What’s more, in a world of AI, the ability to see and join links between apparently unrelated fields will become ever more important.
Waqās shares his own journey of turning his career upside down, rejecting the traditional job he’d found himself in to follow his passion for painting. That in turn opened up opportunities that took him around the world as a political journalist, art curator and now book author.
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Joanna Pieters: Hello and welcome. Today’s conversation is for you if you have way more interests, skills and things you want to do that the rest of the world can really get their head round. My guests is Waqās Ahmed, the author of The Polymath. It’s a book that flies the flag for living a life that’s all about multiple areas of skill and interest. He’s a great example of it himself. His career so far includes times as a diplomatic journalist and political editor, fitness trainer, investment analyst. He’s artistic advisor to the Khallili Collections, which together are one of the great private art collections in the world as well as being a practicing fine artist himself. He’s currently completing postgraduate studies in neuroscience where he’s investigating the treatment of chronic pain. Waqās, welcome. I’m used to people with crazy biographies on this show, but yours is particularly diverse. Do you ever have one of those days when you think I should just go and get myself a conventional job?
Waqās Ahmed: Thanks for having me on the show, Joanna. Yes and no. In the past, of course, I started off with what you might call conventional careers day jobs, and like many people, I would argue I felt a little disillusioned by the way my life was going, the reason why on earth I needed to be in that kind of environment, which I felt was quite constraining. It felt rather outdated to me given that we’d emerged from the industrial age where everybody had to clock in and clock out and focus on one particular task, one particular job or their time and try to progress within that, but within certain confines. So for me, I sort of saw life a little differently. And so therefore any stint I did have as a conventional day job was rather short lived.
Joanna Pieters: Did you expect that when you went into each of them?
Waqās Ahmed: Yes. Well, it’s actually what you’ve listed kindly in my biography is a mixture of what you might call day jobs or stints as day jobs, but also what you might call portfolio careers. So at any given time, it could be that I was studying something and studying that alone. Or it could be that, for example, you mentioned when I was working as a fitness trainer, I was doing that alongside studies as well as other jobs as well. So it’s never really been a case of me doing one or the other. It’s kind of been either sequential or simultaneous depending on what period of life.
Joanna Pieters: So what does it mean to you with all those different strands of interests and expertise to lead a creative life?
Waqās Ahmed: Well, it means everything. I think one of the main reasons for our existence is to create, and of course that means different things to different people. It comes in different ways and the scale is different depending on how big your ambition is. The creative life I feel is something that can be applied – and I know you’ve explored this through various podcasts in the past – it can be applied to various contexts ranging from, you know, the mother bringing up their children or even a father bringing up their children to somebody who’s leading a FTSE500 sort of organization or somebody even leading a country, whatever the context creativity is at the heart of any kind of progress. So for me, whenever I have engaged in different projects, different jobs that might be seemingly unrelated, I always felt that there were inherent connections between them. Even if I did not see those connections immediately, they did appear implicitly or explicitly. And it’s that knowledge that actually creativity comes from fresh perspectives, new experiences on unrelated fields, domains clashing, fusing, synthesizing that. I felt that actually I was on the right path, at least for me.
Joanna Pieters: And that’s a big theme in the book, isn’t it? That being a polymath is about having specialism in so many areas that those connections can come in, they all feed into each other, that they make a whole, then it’s always a bigger than the sum of its parts. But before we go into that, the question I ask all my guests: to take us through an example of when you have hit creative challenge of some kind. Can you talk us through it?
Waqās Ahmed: So when I had left university and I had done a master’s degree, I started a very conventional job as a management and communications consultant. And it had all the standard conveniences of early professional life. But what happened was during the course of this job, although it was interesting in many ways, I felt that my creative disposition was not being on untapped and it was not being explored in ways that it could be. I fought with myself. So this creative challenge actually was initially with myself and then with society.
Joanna Pieters: Feeling boxed in somehow?
Waqas Ahmed: That’s right. And again, I think a lot of people will be able to relate to this. Some people are able to break out of and others less so. But for me it was very interesting because I was confused as to whether this is something that was valid and something that was right or something that was just a passing fad and that I needed to get over it in order to get on with my life and my career. What happened was it just wasn’t working for me. That particular lifestyle and that career was not working for me and so I felt, okay, I need to be true to myself. What myself was at the time was somebody that was interested in a variety of fields ranging from science to art being wider fields but more specifically and visual art and painting, and cognitive science and neuroscience.
Joanna Pieters: That sounds very clear. But at the time were you able to articulate it so clearly: I’m doing this, but actually all these other things in my real interests?
Waqās Ahmed: Yeah, so articulation of that to myself became clear, but then to others became a challenge I suppose when I had revealed to family members on the one hand and then to other members of society that were close to me, meaning my work colleagues, my friends, they were not able to relate to this creative urge I had to do to be creative in other fields.
Joanna Pieters: Yes, what you’re describing, is something that’s quite familiar to creative people who have also been achieving in a very conventional fields and that you get into the situation where you’re taken on for your intelligence and expertise, but actually so many jobs don’t allow that additional scope. I think you made the point in your book that employers are often quite wary to employee creative people or people who have many areas of interest. It seems a bit threatening. I know something I relate to. What? What did you do about it?
Waqās Ahmed: Well, I quit my job. I had to take that leap of faith because I knew that this would be a rather misunderstood feeling by employers – my employer at the time, for sure. My work colleagues, absolutely my parents. Although of course parents generally try to be supportive when they can, but when they where they feel that something is unfamiliar, and of course this whole phenomenon of the polymath or multiple careers, multiple interests being pursued is alien to a lot of people from a particular generation.
Joanna Pieters: And it’s something that I hear a lot from people saying: I want to do it, but my parents said no,
Waqās Ahmed: That’s right. And I was, I was lucky in the sense that my parents were generally supportive because they had a general confidence in my ability and my ambitious nature. So I didn’t I didn’t face too many hurdles. It was just I felt I needed to prove myself more just to them or to friends and to other colleagues, but most importantly to myself. So that’s what I did. I quit my job in order to set out, to prove myself. And I didn’t quit with a plan either. It was a just with an intuition and that intuition had to manifest itself somehow. And that’s when I started as you listed, that’s when I started embarking on my journey into various fields, starting with the arts.
Joanna Pieters: How did you start your journey into art? You haven’t studied art, you studied economics.
Waqās Ahmed: That’s right. So I studied economics. I did a masters in international relations. And interestingly, the phenomenon I just spoke of, which is sort of a skepticism of somebody if they’re kind of moving away from the field which you associate them with also exists within the academic or the university life. So when I studied economics and I studied international relations, people on my course had a very particular career trajectory, which they associated with that discipline. So when I then went off to relive my passion for painting, namely oil painting, a lot of people just simply couldn’t understand that. So I reconnected with the canvas and the oil paints that I had already many of and I sought various sources of inspiration and just started painting.
Joanna Pieters: Right. And where did that lead? Because it’s led to all sorts of things.
Waqās Ahmed: It did lead to all sorts of things, but, initially it was just a mode of expression for me. So there was obviously had a lot of frustration built up within, so I needed to express myself in different ways. So I’ve produced some works. One of those works was, was acquired by a major art collector, which gave me a lot of confidence. But even then, I did not rely upon that for a living. I knew I had to, at least for that moment, explore other things in order to continue making a living. So I started to work as a journalist. That was very interesting. It was, I started work as a diplomatic and an economic journalist, which did fall in line with my academic studies. So I knew I could draw upon my background in those studies in order to get that day job. That day job also allowed me to travel extensively around the world for the next five years or so. I lived in 13 different countries. So you can imagine the artistic inspiration that came about from so many different cultural contexts. So I continue to produce works of art in addition to pursuing my career as a diplomatic and economic journalist.
Joanna Pieters: So you went back to a day job of sorts, but actually it was something that did allow you to escape from that box. It had much less of a box around it.
Waqās Ahmed: That’s right and actually there are careers that are so called day jobs and conventional careers where one could exercise their multifarious nature or their polymathy, so to speak. Within the book I refer to these as polymathic professions and those are professions that inherently or intrinsically require you to be multifaceted and holistic in your approach to your given field. For example, if you are a business leader or if you’re a business leader, a chief executive for example, that requires all of you knowledge of various domains within your organization, whether it be various sectors that your company is operating within or whether it be different aspects of the company, marketing, finance. So if you are an aviation company for example, it require you to have a sufficient knowledge of the way engineers work on the ground as well as the way that product is being marketed as well as the way the finances of the organization are being dealt with. And so that synthesis of different dimensions and aspects of the organization gives you a very wide ranging knowledge and expertise.
Joanna Pieters: Let’s just talk a little more about polymath and what it means now. My guess is that listeners to this show are going to take little convincing of the benefits of being a polymath. Let’s just take them to really just define, what you mean by a polymath.
Waqās Ahmed: Sure. So a polymath is somebody that is exceptionally versatile and as a result excels in multiple seemingly unrelated fields. And I say seemingly because as later becomes a apparent, you draw connections between those fields that you wouldn’t otherwise see initially.
Joanna Pieters: And this book is full of these extraordinary stories. I mean, right back over the centuries, the millennia on really all continents. So one example is Jose Rizal, a Filipino poet. Now he was murdered at 35 so it’s a bit of context here. He trained, I said he was a poet, he trained as an ophthalmologist. He became a kind of anthropologist. He learned 20 languages. He was a revolutionary poet and essayist against the Spanish colonists in the Philippines. And he formed a revolutionary organization. So that would be enough for most people. But he was also an accomplished painter working in various mediums and was particularly skilled, it seems, as a sculptor. And he also managed farms, created regional maps, played the flute took part in fencing and chess. And this is all in in 35 years. There are so many people from the book I could have pulled out with, with stories like this. And on one level it’s enormously inspiring on another level. It can leave. It’s easy to feel a bit intimidated by it. Well, I can’t possibly achieve on that level. But you’re not saying that I, you’re saying that that being a polymath is something we can and should all aspire to. Why should we, what does it bring to our lives?
Waqās Ahmed: There are two dimensions that to that answer. So one being the benefits to the individual, to ourselves and the other being benefit to society as a whole. So let’s start with the individual. Now, human beings are inherently multifaceted by their nature. So this whole idea, this whole notion that we should spend the majority of our lives, oh, focusing on a subject or an occupation exclusively at the expense of all these other facets that we have, emotional, spiritual, physical, intellectual, and so on, let alone various aspects to our lives, which could involve motherhood, fatherhood, it could involve mentorship, it could involve a variety of other things. So it’s undisputed that our lives and our innate nature is multifaceted. So then comes the thing that we ought to be true to our innate cells and how can we possibly do that in our work, our study environment and in our lives in general. So I would argue that actually the polymath is the state of being that we are most self actualized. So self actualization does not come about until we are able to actualize ourselves in our entirety. So it doesn’t matter if you were able to achieve great things in a particular field – that doesn’t make you self-actualize. There are various aspects to your being and various unlocked potentials, which need to be discovered and need to be pursued and need to be actualized. So what I’m suggesting is that actually the polymath is probably the closest you’ll come to that form of self actualization and therefore for me, fulfillment as an individual.
Joanna Pieters: So for our happiness and our wellbeing, then actually we should all be aspiring to be skills or at least competent on knowledgeable in multiple areas because that’s actually how we’re wired to be.
Waqās Ahmed: Yes. So skills is one thing but pursue multiple areas. Yes, absolutely. It is true that some people have an innate ability to be more skilled at one thing than the others. But how do, how many of us actually go through the process, through our upbringing and through our education, how many was go through that process of discovery where we really do truly understand what we’re skilled at or what we’re interested in? That’s in our youth. What about during the course of our lives? Even later in life there might be a new experience that might unlock a particular ability, talent interest, which you may never have envisaged earlier on in life. So this process of self discovery, ongoing self discovery will inevitably unveiled various facets of our being. And that means that we inevitably will pursue various fields, whether we consider ourselves polymaths or not, so that’s focused on the individual.
Waqās Ahmed: We can move on to the society. Why should we be polymaths? Because society benefits about a third or more of this book, as you know, is dedicated to a very particular thesis or proving a very particular thesis and that is that polymaths have been the most influential people in society over the history. I had to do five years, 10,000 hours of historical research to prove this point where I pick out a variety of those who are considered to be the most influential people in various fields looked into their lives and lo and behold, we find that their lives are much more diverse and multifaceted than we give them credit for.
Joanna Pieters: I think that’s one of the really key points, isn’t it? I think whoever you are, there will be numerous people you’ve never heard of simply because you’ll meet just so broad, ninth century China to 18th century all periods and all areas, but very often their names, which we know from one area we wouldn’t necessarily count as a polymath because we have come across and Charles Darwin we think from for evolution, not the other things he did. We were talking before, I said one character that jumped out for me with someone called Edward Heron Allen Cause as far as I’m concerned, he wrote a really influential book on violin making, but actually that was a sideline. Everything else he was doing. So it’s not necessarily being public polymaths oh these people influential because they had the kind of brains and the energy to drive themselves forwards or where are the influential because that breadth of knowledge allows them to think and come up with new ideas and approaches.
Waqās Ahmed: Well many of these polymaths over history have actually attributed much of their success in their core fields to the breadth of their background. And we can just talk about one particular study that was done of Nobel prize winning scientists over the course of I think about 80 years or so. It was found, again for me intuitively it made sense, but a lot of people would find it surprising that the majority of those scientists whom we would have considered to be micro specialists in their field actually had a variety of avocational pursuits and hobbies, even other careers prior to becoming scientists. It was a lot more diverse and varied and many of them have testified to the importance of that diversity to their core field. And this is of course backed by, is increasingly acknowledged now in cognitive science. That diversity of experience and background does have a neuropsychological impact on the brain, which enhances creativity simply because – again, we can talk about this – it makes rational sense.
Joanna Pieters: So I find that study fascinating and I’m assuming we’re talking about the same one here. It’s compares scientists who’ve won a Nobel prize for scientists. You haven’t. And the ones who have won Nobel prizes are way more likely to have been taking part in theater or music or some other form of arts, you know, large, large factors. Also fascinating. That id you’ve just touched on, the actually having many areas allows our brain to create more connections in it. We’re using more of our brain, it’s if I understand correctly. So in some ways it’s not surprising that we should be thinking in a more interesting way.
Waqās Ahmed: That’s right. The cognitive science and neuro psychology of creative thinking produced many studies and many theories in recent times with mixed success. But all of them alluded to the fact that uh, creativity comes from fresh perspectives and fresh and new ideas must come from a different way of thinking, whether that be lateral thinking or creative thinking, critical thinking, that critical thinking must take into account various perspectives. So actually some of the most creative thinkers are considered to be holistic thinkers. So yes, there is a large body of literature and a growing understanding and acknowledgement of the importance of diversity to creativity.
Joanna Pieters: But set against that, we’re almost where we started with your story. We have this culture I think affects all of us certainly in the West that says, ‘Oh Jack of all trades, master of none’ that expects us to go and get a proper job that slightly frowns on these portfolio careers. And the idea that that somehow multiple areas of expertise equal lack of depth, which in itself is, is bad. How do we manage that tension between expertise and the time taken to get expertise with the danger I suppose of distraction and, and to chasing in too many directions.
Waqās Ahmed: Well, one person that I interviewed, Tim Ferriss who’s a well known podcaster and writer.
Joanna Pieters: From the four hour work week,
Waqās Ahmed: Absolutely. So he is quite interesting. He has this very interesting post called why to be a jack of all trades. So yes, there is a stigma attached to the Jack of all trades, master of none. However, that Jack of all trades could potentially become the master of one and use their various experiences in different fields to optimize their performance in their given one field. And there are various examples of of this, especially those that do undergo what I referred to earlier as polymathic professions, so they would be considered, for example, a corporate executive or a chief executive or even in the environment of government and politics. It might be a prime minister, but that prime ministership or that chief executive position is inherently multifaceted and so it will require you to explore the various dimensions of that role and synthesize in a unique way to make your own unique contribution to that role.
Joanna Pieters: Well, I think very clearly if we look at the arts and the creative fields that we taught more frequently here, it’s easy to see the benefits of understanding. For example, understanding finance and management if you want to be a filmmaker. So I came from a creative writing background and I went to an MBA because I realized that the people who held the purse strings held the power and no one was ever going to teach it to me. I think that’s it. Maybe recognizing that there are a whole load of adjacent fields that will directly benefit us, but a whole lot of the fields which aren’t adjacent, which will create connections, which we can’t yet anticipate.
Waqās Ahmed: Absolutely. I’m glad you mentioned film because being a filmmaker is a perfect example of this kind of multifaceted profession where, and I mentioned many of them within the book as well, the likes of in the 20th century likes of these Jean Cocteau and Gordon Parks. And then today you have the likes of uh, uh, Takeshi Kitano from Japan and David Lynch, who actually not only are aware of or knowledgeable about the different aspects of filmmaking, but have excelled in each of them or many of them in their own right. Whether it be writing the screenplay, whether it be technical aspects of editing, casting, designing the promotional materials and the artworks for their films, acting in that film itself. So, yeah, I’m glad you mentioned film because it’s a very, it can potentially be one of the most polymathic platforms we have today.
Joanna Pieters: And one myth, another myth I’d like to demolish here, is we have this idea, and again I think it’s very cultural and maybe of our time, but having multiple specialisms will be financially detrimental to us. But actually when we look at it over time and we look at it over different cultures and even with our own, that is just a myth by and large. So whether that’s the Indian entrepreneur who runs a corner shop and spends the evening driving taxis and maybe she does nail painting parties at weekends, or now though the portfolio creative who is in demand from multiple areas because she is a a writer and a composer or whatever it is. And the research is suggesting, but actually those people typically will make more money after a couple of years than they ever did in their mono specialism areas. So I think what’s great about this is these examples that the things, the stories we’ve grown up with about the validity of working careers don’t have to apply.
Waqās Ahmed: No, they don’t. Actually the career landscape, the job landscape today in the 21st century is very different to what it was even five, 10 years ago, let alone a generation or two ago, not to mention the ongoing trends and futuristic trends of automation, machine learning, computerization and so on, which will affect the job market. I think the larger aspect of what you’re talking about is what is the relevance of the human being, and this sounds philosophical but I’ll get to the point. What is the relevance of the human being to the 21st century in the age of automation? So with automation, a lot of these so called jobs for life that used to be jobs for life, where we would micro specialize on one mundane task and there’ll be some form of linear progression over time that is become redundant. And if it hasn’t already, it will become so.
Waqas Ahmed: So what is the value of the human mind to the progress of the job market? We must then seek to understand actually what’s uniquely human, uniquely human are aspects of creative intelligence, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, which cannot be mimicked or replicated by machines, at least not yet. And it’s not envisaged to be so from by some of the leading futurists that I’ve interviewed within the book. And so we need to understand, okay, what kind of individual is it has these attributes. So it’s clear that somebody doesn’t think in that linear way. Somebody that does have a very unique career, which is multifaceted, has different dimensions to, it has its own complex nature. That will be the kind of individual that will thrive and will survive this age of automation moving forward. So I would argue that actually the polymath is the most relevant type of human being to the future.
Joanna Pieters: So one question about polymaths. Are they fearless to go out in pursuit of excellence or expertise in multiple areas.
Waqās Ahmed: They are fearless. Most importantly, they’re curious. If you look at Leonardo Da Vinci, who’s considered the archetype of the polymath in the Western mind, he faced a lot of adversity. He did not have the socio economic status to excel in one field, let alone multiple fields, but he had an innate curiosity and that curiosity overcame any obstacles that he faced in his work environment or in his social environment. And so that curiosity does inevitably build in a kind of fearlessness that you see in many polymaths over history. And that actually, yes, you do still need to have today because we do still live in a very highly hyper specialized world where things are aware of disciplines in our academic institutions are segregated, where you still have the division of Labor in most modern corporations and organizations as we did in the post industrialized factory, you still have this kind of environment which fosters specialization and assumes that that is the way to efficiency and progress. So it to actually go against that, you do indeed need to be fearless. You need to have unfaltering belief in your method to creativity and to progress and you need to be able to deal with the kind of cynicism and skepticism and even envy that you will inevitably face moving forward.
Joanna Pieters: Well, maybe I can just challenge that for a moment because I think that creativity and fear do go hand in hand. But maybe in that case it’s a curiosity and the drivers are other things that are more powerful.
Waqās Ahmed Yes, well, creativity and fearlessness do definitely go hand in hand. I think there are a variety of attributes that I mentioned within the book. One section of the book I talk about reconditioning the mind, which is that you need to actually go through a process of self discovery to unleash your creative potential and to be at one with this whole idea that you’re not going to live the normal conventional life and that you will be faced with social obstacles and so on. Only when you’re able to understand that and go through that process of reconditioning one’s own self, do you develop the kind of fearlessness that is required to excel and also to take on the institutional or systemic specialization that we’re facing.
Joanna Pieters: We started this conversation with your story about needing to take a decision that was creatively brave, yet coming up against, if not opposition, at least questioning and skepticism. Is that something you still have to confront in your life now?
Waqās Ahmed: Yes, and I know I will inevitably have to confront that unless the culture changes, institutions, organizations, companies, schools, academic establishments. Unless that culture of hyper-specialization that fosters that kind of thinking is changed, then I will inevitably face this. Moving forward, I’m not as concerned with myself, I know you’re asking about me, but I’m more interested in the propensity of people to be creative in multiple ways. So people, the alienation that people would definitely feel through a variety of research, alienation that people are feeling in their current jobs is something that we need to address. And I would suggest that alienation derives from people’s inability or actually those environments, an inability to allow those people to unleash their creativity in its entirety.
Joanna Pieters: So if you’re listening and you’re feeling stuck in that way, caught, your job is a bit like your job at the beginning, constraining putting in that box and not, not allowing you to be creative. What’s your top piece of advice?
Waqās Ahmed: I would suggest that you go on that process of self discovery first. So it could be actually that your disillusionment with your current position or your alienation is a result of something very specific. So you need to look internally first and understand what your strengths, your capabilities are, what your opportunities might be. Then when you’ve figured out what self-actualization might mean to you, then you will embark on pursuing that in the best way possible. So once you’ve done that, then what you need to do in a more practical level is to surround yourself with individuals, friends, people that think similarly and there are many of them. There’s a huge network of people that are creative in so many different fields that you need to get in touch with, reach out to surround yourself with partner with, get involved and collaborate with on projects. And so on so that you’re amongst likeminded people. Even within organizations and leading corporations, you do have managers, recruiters and so on that do appreciate what we’ve been talking about and so those need to be sorted out. Otherwise you’ll be stuck in a situation where they have certain expectations of you which you will not be able to fulfil and in trying to fulfil them, you will become very unhappy. So that would be my advice.
Joanna Pieters: I love that. So first go in with ask yourself what it is. That’s what’s really burning to come out and then go and find other people. That’s so important. I think in those situations it’s so easy to feel isolated, so important to find a tribe. I’m going to wrap up with a quote from one of the interviews you have in The Polymath from Judy Crocket, who has done all sorts of different things. She says: if you limit yourselves to things you are safe with and now you’re good at in advance, it’s short list. If you’re willing to try anything once and be mediocre at something, you’ll do a lot of stuff. And I thought that was a great sort of summary in a way of saying, why would we narrow ourselves? Why would we limit ourselves to what we can already do when there’s this whole big world out there?
Waqās Ahmed: Absolutely.
Joanna Pieters Thank you so much for coming on and sharing this. What is your next step in your polymathic journey?
Waqās Ahmed: The next step in my polymathic journey is I’ve now been fortunate enough through writing this book to have found that tribe that you mentioned earlier on to a phone, that tribe of like minded people. And it’s with these people that I’ll be seeking to collaborate with on various projects. So that collaboration might take various forms. It could be film, it could be painting, it could be business, it could be anything. So what I plan for myself is to develop a set of ideas and to find ways of expressing that idea and bringing it to life by any means necessary. As long as I have the right team on board.
Joanna Pieters: How can people connect with you? And find out more about your work.
Waqās Ahmed: The best way of connecting is through Twitter, the polymath book and through the website, which is the-polymath.com and I’m also on Linkedin for those people that are interested in collaborating on a particular project.
Joanna Pieters: And all those links will be on the Creative Life Show website. So thank you so much for coming and talking about the the polymath and we look forward to talk about this next things. Maybe we’ll have you back to talk about just this huge range of projects in your polymathic future. Thank you for listening and have a think: Are you limiting yourself to the things that you already know you’re good at or are there things out there, things you can’t possibly anticipate, the results they would have on your life, but by expanding those boundaries, potentially really change it and lift you into that league of people who are indispensable for the future, and much more self actualized and happier as a person.