Ask Colin: Intertwingularity

Colin, I’m really into making music, and I’m not that good at it yet, but it’s my absolute favorite thing to do each day.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be good enough at making music to do it as a job, though, so I’m also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biology, so I can maybe work in a lab or something like that. I like science, and I think I could probably enjoy doing this kind of work, too, but I don’t know how I feel about giving up music for it.

Any advice on how to feel better about this situation? It’s not a terrible thing right now, but I worry that it could become worse someday if I focus all my time on my science work and never get to play music again.



Hey Spencer-

There’s a term that I’m quite fond of—intertwingularity—which was coined by the technologist (and frequent coiner-of-words) Ted Nelson to refer to the interconnectedness of all knowledge. According to Nelson, the silos we’ve created to divide information and understanding into fields, professions, practices, and expertises are all illusory: they’re not real.

These divisions may help us figure out what specific knowledge we need to acquire to pass tests, to get jobs, and to understand individual topics deeply, but they don’t indicate that these knowledge-bits are actually, latently separate from each other: all knowledge is interconnected with all other knowledge, no matter how we might organize it for various purposes.

I tend to agree with this sentiment, and have found it to be immensely gratifying and useful to explore fields far beyond the bounds of those in which I ostensibly work.

Learning about music, for instance, has helped me do visual graphic work; graphic work has contributed to my understanding of writing; knowing how to write has helped me learn to code; understanding how to code, and how that code interacts with computer systems, has helped me better understand non-tangible social systems; understanding systems made up of people has helped me more fully grok economic systems; a fundamental grasp of economic dynamics has allowed me to perceive more depth in my relationships; a more rounded view of my relationships has allowed me to distinguish more patterns and nuance in my inner-life; and a more thorough grasp of what’s going on inside my own mind and body has reinforced my love of, and desire to get better at, making music.

This relationship between fields and bodies of knowledge extends far beyond seemingly interconnected bits and pieces, and connects the most diverse practices you can imagine, sometimes in obvious ways, and sometimes in ways that would be invisible from the outside—only becoming apparent once you know enough about both fields to make the required connections.

These relationships are important to recognize in your case, I think, because it sounds to me like you’re perceiving your education and professional development in biology as a siloed, single-focus path, and the reality is that you will likely benefit from having more than one focus in your life.

There’s a book called Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World that addresses this same issue through an abundance of data showing how diversification in one’s collection of experiences and knowledge actually benefits each specialization, because you’re able to bring understanding and perspective from one field into each of your other chosen fields.

Among many other revelations, that book notes that many Nobel Prize winners attribute their success in their field to their practice of botany, their cooking habits, or their daily music-making routine, alongside the field for which they actually won the award—physics or medicine or whatever else.

They were able to think differently from everyone else in their field—even those who were arguably further along then them in that field—because they gained insight from other, adjacent or non-adjacent areas of exploration.

Don’t be afraid, in other words, to pursue both music and biology. There’s a very good chance that these fields will inform each other, and you’ll be a better musician and a better biologist because of the presence of the other.

Achieving a broader breadth of knowledge can help you achieve greater depths of knowledge.

Also important to note here is that it’s okay to have hobbies: to spend your time, energy, and resources on things that will never earn you a cent.

Because most of us, these days, are brought up within capitalistic systems of some flavor, we tend to gauge the worth of things in terms of money, even when money isn’t necessarily the best unit of measurement to measure that particular thing.

In this case, it may be prudent to view biology as something you can enjoy, but which will also pay the bills, while music is what you do to keep yourself happy, healthy, and growing in a different way.

I know many people who work jobs that they don’t particularly love, but which are absolutely fine—and which earn them enough money that they can afford to spend the rest of their time doing what they love.

This model, which I sometimes think of as becoming one’s own Medici, or one’s own patron, can provide you with financial stability and security while also allowing you to fund your own work. This provides you with the freedom to pursue whatever ends you want to pursue, uninfluenced by the needs and priorities of some external entity—some other patron that wants you to make a certain type of music, for instance, or stick to a particular performance schedule or instrument.

There’s no single, correct way to plan one’s growth trajectory, or to organize one’s day-to-day lifestyle. But finding this kind of balance—where you get all the things you want, and where each piece supports all the other pieces—is worth aiming for, whatever the specifics of your intended situation might be.

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