the “well-rounded” myth and how you’re missing the point.

Yesterday, one of my favorite friends summarized my college experience as “my refusal to be put in anybody’s box.” I loved this for two reasons. One, because I had never thought of it that way (and great compliments have a way of making you see yourself in a new light). Two, because I love when complex experiences can be summed up so neatly.

For me, learning how to filter labels that were created outside of me was a life skill. For others, it’s a survival skill. But given perfectly benign circumstances, the logic still stands true.

Vincent Horn does a great job of explaining why. He says, “attachment to any idea, point of view, or identity is going to cause an unnecessary impedance to the flow of reality. In Buddhist parlance, the result is often called suffering. The thing is, reality doesn’t give a shit about our identities. It keeps changing anyway.”

Which is why I want to talk about being well-rounded.  You know, “well-rounded”. It’s the word you earn from employers or admissions offices after spreading your time around various activities and depositing your energy into developing multiple skills. It’s all a bunch of hooey. Which is not to say that those things don’t count; but being well-rounded lies somewhere in the cerebral aspect of completing checklists like this and this, not the physical one.

I know I am onto something because an admissions officer admitted that the real challenge for students who get accepted to selective schools like Harvard is not the demanding schedule. It’s finding the ability to have self-esteem in such a competitive environment.

A healthy balance of learning, doing and creating are the keys to being well-rounded.

On Learning:

Here, a math teacher explores how memorization gets in the way of learning. He says of his students, “To them, math wasn’t a process of logical discovery and thoughtful exploration. It was a call-and-response game.”

I work with teenagers on a regular basis, and I know the implications of this behavior are not limited to the four walls of a math classroom.

But if memorization is a way of knowing without learning, then what do we call learning without doing? Are we creating a whole generation of ‘savants’ who we can’t learn anything from that isn’t already available in a book? Or a fresh group of start ups that only want to monetize an existing culture instead of adding value to it?

On Doing:

I started my career in Operations at a big box retail store. It was a hands-on gig where sales and marketing were happening in real-time. But in every job I’ve had since then, I walked around thinking the result of ‘doing’ was an immediate and tangible output. I credit my current bosses for showing me that output comes in different forms.

Sometimes doing leads to shaping, and the eventual output of shaping is legacy. Neither are immediate, neither are tangible.

Which is funny because I hear so many people who are stuck and talking in circles about not knowing what they want to “do” next.  Many don’t realize they have already chosen what to do: nothing.

On Creating:

One of my favorite things in the world is watching people create things. It’s almost like a guilty pleasure getting a sneak peak into their process and glimpse into their genius. Inspiration is contagious.

Facebook agrees with me, they spent a billion dollars on their art collection.

And look at Apple, they crushed records by selling 9 million smartphones this weekend, marketing the $99 iPhone 5C to “lovers of color”. It’s hard to ignore the economic impact of selling the ‘unapologetically plastic’ phones to an economic class who previously could not afford access to the same technology or the 1 million potential customers per day.

First art imitates life, and then life imitates art.

So really, if you want to be well-rounded, do the following: underindex on everything you’ve learned and overindex on everything you’ve lived.