Get Talmudic.

15 April 2006

I’ve read plenty of advice over the years that suggests specialization as a key way to get ahead in one’s career. Since I’m an intellectual magpie with an attention span approaching nil, I have resisted this advice; while I still preach the virtue of broad learning and broad exposure to many parts of human experience, more and more I grasp the advantage of diving deep.

The issue isn’t whether you can handle more than one subject — many smart people can, and indeed you see gifted folks who excel in more than one area. The example that springs to mind is David Halberstam, who would be known primarily as one of our most intelligent commentators on sports if he weren’t already known as one of our most intelligent explainers of recent history and policy. And then you’ve got the multi-talents like Bill Buckley or Bill Bradley, who may simply not be the best models to follow. Not everybody gets to be Willie Mays.

But even the men I’ve mentioned have allowed themselves to get “Talmudic” in something. Halberstam is a reporter deluxe — endlessly interviewing and drafting in support of his books. Buckley is a controversialist deluxe, and he immerses himself in public policy and the like to make his points. Bradley spent many years obsessively (happily) immersing himself in basketball, and then many more doing the same for things like tax policy.

The point is that each of them found his own piece of ground and proceeded to explore it, scout it, stake it out, sleep on it, dig around in it, climb the trees on it, wallow in it. Warren Buffett does the same when he follows his obsession — finding value in companies. Oprah Winfrey does the same when she explains the world to her audience. Richard Feynman did the same when he cracked some of the great secrets of the physical world. Joseph DeRisi does the same thing cracking open viruses at his UCSF lab. Mozart, music. Et cetera.

In my own lifetime I have been Talmudic about baseball scores, comic books, and a few other things. Mostly I let myself do this when I was a kid, or say up through the college level (that’s when my baseball obsession was at its peak). It makes your mind better, I think, to wallow in a subject like that. But despite my constant engagement with interesting ideas from business, history, and policy, I haven’t yet wallowed in a field during my professional career.

Bear with me here, because I’m figuring this out as I go. As I think through it, I realize that it’s been years since I’ve let myself dive that deep into anything. I write a lot, but not with that level of obsession. I read a lot, but not with that kind of intent.

This led me to dig up a quote about Bill Belicheck, the subject of a recent Halberstam book and by any measure the best coach in the NFL right now.

“Perhaps his most unheralded virtue, but one that explains plenty to me, is his innate curiosity,” Ingraham wrote in an e-mail message. “Bill wants to know what makes things tick, and when applied to his passion for football, this extends to every facet of the game: ‘What makes this blitz work? How do you counter this blitz? How can you disguise this blitz? How can we vary this blitz? Who can I call tonight to talk blitzes with?’

“You get the picture,” Ingraham added. “No stone goes unturned because his curiosity drives him to learn everything he can, which he then absorbs, thinks about, mixes into the boiling pot with the other ingredients and ultimately prepares to dish out on some poor unsuspecting sap. It’s been said that he’s not Mr. X’s and O’s, but rather Mr. A to Z, the complete package. I believe that his curiosity has been the catalyst in bringing all this together. Not unlike some other accomplished gents throughout history!” (NYTimes, George Vecsey, January 30, 2005)

(Thanks to NOSE.)

That’s the kind of “Talmudic” immersion I’m talking about.


2 Responses to “Get Talmudic.”

  1. Shirley Says:

    Enjoyed this interesting post. Our intellect is certainly a gift from God. We should use it wisely.



  2. Zack Says:

    …6 days of no entries…brain drying…need…intellectual stimulation…

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