Man strives to understand his place in this world and for this, he needs to understand how this world works. Mankind has known all types of humans, but there are two particular ones that can be distinguished for their ingenuity and thirst for understanding the universe and consequently their own meaning of life.
The renaissance ideal human, Homo Universalis, was a type of human whose knowledge spanned a large spectrum of fields, including science and arts. It has since then become synonymous with the word polymath. A polymath, a Greek word meaning ‘he who has learnt much’, is someone who strives to develop his skills and abilities, by constantly studying, learning and applying the newly acquired knowledge to solve problems. Leonardo Da Vinci is considered to be the most recognizable personification of a polymath and the epitome of the Renaissance Man. His unquenchable thirst for knowledge led him to learn about painting, sculpting, architecture, engineering, anatomy, geology, mathematics, cartography, botany, geology and music. By having this vast and broad knowledge available in memory, he used insights from one field of expertise to apply it to another. This form of knowledge intersection and interconnection is a great way to invent and discover new things. It has been used by both scientists and artists such as mathematicians who often find revelations, like the Golden ratio which appears in the veins of leaves, by inspecting nature or musicians who have used the Fibonacci numbers to compose new musical pieces.
At this time, there has been already so much progress in science and arts, that makes it nearly impossible for modern people to gain expertise in more than one or two fields. The polymaths of today are often seen as generalists, since there isn’t enough time to have an in-depth grasp of a subject without sacrificing others. Finding balance by specializing in one topic, while having a breadth of knowledge is what most ambitious people are trying hard to achieve. The human brain is apt to consolidate new information by using association, so multiple references to a subject will help more easily recover it from memory and thus combine the relative knowledge to solve a problem. Inducing order out of this chaos of accumulated knowledge is what distinguishes an expert from an amateur, a professional from a hobbyist, a Homo Universalis from a bookworm, a hacker from a geek.
A hacker is someone who is inherently curious about how systems work, enjoys taking these systems to their limits and ultimately surpassing their own limits by being relentlessly resourceful and unimaginably creative in solving problems in unique and insightful ways. Countless definitions have been given for the word hacker but ultimately it is a term used for someone who is smart, persistent and takes great delight in gaining an intimate understanding of how the world works. Historically, it has been mostly used for computer hackers, technology wizards, who are mainly interested in learning the internals of computer software, hardware and networks. The mass media have warped its usage by limiting its meaning to only refer to those who gain access to computer systems by exploiting a security vulnerability, which by itself is often an intellectually challenging task. The essence of the culture of computer hackers can be summarized in the essay ‘The Conscience of a Hacker’ (The Hacker Manifesto) published in the most venerable underground hacker ezine, Phrack. Most of the technological achievements of the modern world have become a reality thanks to the collective effort of brilliant individuals that practically have a hacker’s mindset.
What do these two archetypes have in common?
Both are driven by curiosity. A quality that drives people to learn, explore and experiment. Innate curiosity to map this world full of wonders and infinite possibilities. This attribute is especially demonstrated by younger ages - the world is new and unknown to them and there is an inner motivation to learn how it works and how to best interact with it. As one grows older, it is hard to keep high levels of curiosity, as one’s mental model of the world is solidified and progressively more ingrained in one’s mind where changes beyond that point grow rarer and can be painful. Partly the problem is also physiological as the rate of neuroplasticity in the brain declines as people age. Hackers, however, tend to keep curiosity levels in healthy levels throughout their lives.
Staying hungry and staying foolish
As a wise man once said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Staying hungry is about keeping up with an ever-changing model of the world, continuously pushing the limits to reach a state of antifragility and avoiding complacency which unavoidably leads to falling behind. Staying foolish is about challenging the status quo and stepping out of one’s comfort zone. Decisions with the greatest impact often involve confronting one’s fears and going against the grain.
Thinking outside the box
Unconventional thinking, forming new perspectives and often rejecting the accepted paradigms is another trait. They use their vivid imagination to form new associations, often from different domains of expertise. Think about how for example the concept of emergent behavior, which is extensively studied in the life sciences, has been applied in drones. The end result is usually something that solves a previously unsolved problem or does so in a more efficient way. There are also countless examples of how ingenious algorithms invented by hackers, in this case brilliant computer scientists, have changed the way our world works. PageRank, the algorithm invented by Google for efficiently indexing the web, Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) for bridging the gap between the analog and digital world and Public Key Cryptography which is based on some of the most elegant mathematics and thanks to which we can have some level of privacy in our digital lives, are some notable examples. These recent advancements wouldn’t be possible, if hackers weren’t already standing on the shoulders of giants, taking advantage of all this accumulated knowledge made possible by those people that were instilled with the Homo Universalis mindset.
The highest quality, encompassing every great achievement, which also marks the greatest dividing line between failure and success, is persistence. “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” as Thomas Edison said. Determination, tenacity, resolve, perseverance is a nexus of qualities that can make the impossible possible. On a similar note, Albert Einstein had mentioned that his life’s work can be mostly attributed to him staying with problems longer, rather than sheer intellect - perhaps it’s an exhibition of humbleness and modesty by accomplished scientists but it does make a good point. Most scientific breakthroughs were a result of rigorous testing, experimentation, which only come with putting in the required work, doing due diligence and long hours.
These fundamental qualities form the basis of the mindset of people that move the world forward allowing many of the modern marvels to manifest.