Welcome back! Today's conversation is with Dustin Miller of PolyInnovator. Dustin is an OmniContent Creator, host of the Polymath PolyCast, and the host of TeleInnovator, a polymathy and self-education channel).
We had a wide-ranging and enthusiastic discussion on self-directed education, learning how to learn, building habits and self-motivation hacks, and much more. Enjoy!
🎧 Want to listen? This post is based off of Episode 30 of the Neurodiverging Podcast! Listen on Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify
- Learn more about Dustin and PolyInnovator: https://polyinnovator.space/about/
- Listen to the PolyMath Podcast: https://pod.co/polycast
- Books mentioned: Atomic Habits by James Clear on Amazon | Bookshop, and Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein on Amazon | Bookshop
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Transcript of Polymathy and Neurodivergence with Dustin Miller, PolyInnovator
Danielle Sullivan: Hi, Dustin, welcome to Neurodiverging! How are you doing?
Dustin Miller: Good, and you, Danielle?
Danielle: I’m doing great! Before we get started, can I ask you to tell the audience who you are, and a little bit about what you do?
Dustin: Yeah. I’m Dustin Miller, a poly-innovator, which essentially means a polymath of innovation. A lot of people don’t know what a polymath is, so I’ll explain that real quick, too.
Dustin: It’s someone with many learnings, usually in a deep variety, and I’m trying to become one, in my own right, which means that I’m trying to become my own da Vinci, in a way. My journey on that is what I document with my personal brand, which is Poly-Innovator as well. So I create videos and audio, and written posts, and all that jazz.
Danielle: Yeah, you have a pretty extensive media presence existing already, which is pretty cool. Awesome!
One of the reasons I was interested in talking to you is that you seem to have worked pretty extensively on changing current education and creating a model of self-taught education. Sorry, I’ve forgotten the phrase you use.
Dustin: Modular degree.
Danielle: Modular education. Right. So, I wanted to ask you about that, and what motivated you to start that piece of your work. What went into that?
Dustin: Well, I’ve always been pursuing self-growth in some way, and I think, in order to get the idea of the modular education aspect – I’ll start a little bit earlier.
When I started out with my own growth. It came about with the idea of philosophy. I created the Four Pillars philosophy, which is around the mind, body, spirit, and motions – just a modernized version of old texts. I think that allowed me to understand things on a more broad view, but then I realized I had all these different things I wanted to work on – exercise, development, when it comes to meditation or learning – all these habits I wanted to build, so I focused on building the habits and systems.
[00:01:54] And eventually I realized, “Okay, great. I’ve built up these systems, I’ve started building up these habits. Well, around the time working on my old endeavor, before poly-innovating, I realized I wasn’t good enough. Even with these systems and all these philosophies, I didn’t have the right knowledge. So I thought, “Cool. Well, do I want to go to college?”
I looked around, couldn’t find one for the degree that I wanted to work in in the future, in the career that I wanted to work in. There was no degree for it. Even now, there’s only a Master’s degree in Spain that can do it.
So I decided, “Screw it. I’m going to make my own education.” So I did this do-it-yourself degree where I put together a list of over 450 courses. And I was like, “Oh, I’m going to try and tackle this.” Which, there was way too many, obviously.
Dustin: And so, that was the trajectory that way.
Danielle: You have a very specific goal in mind, and you’re having trouble finding matching courses in the existing educational systems, right?
Danielle: The do-it-yourself route – how did you go about building a curriculum? How did you know what you would need to get to where you wanted to be? Or was it a trial-and-error- sort of…
Dustin: I think it’s interesting because the idea of putting together your own degree, if you will, really comes down to the idea of how we used to do it. Well, we have credit hours, we have a certain amount of hours per year that you would do.
And I looked at the hours it would take to finish a course. Let’s say a course is thirty hours, you can put that towards the total, but the thing is, with an online course – you can speed up the videos, you can learn how to speed-read. You can learn how to learn, especially in an online context. You can actually go significantly faster. So I would go through a thirty-hour course in fifteen hours.
And so, I tried to take that into account when I was tracking a lot of the semesters that I built. And, as I mentioned, it was 450 courses – well, I put out eleven different semesters in that.
Once I started cutting it down, both the actual degree itself and all the courses in it – cutting fat, if you will – I ended up with just around 120 now. And instead of eleven semesters, around five. And the fifth one was just hanging out with just a little bit left.
[00:03:59] But it’s interesting because I wanted to divide it up with topics. That was the main thing. Each topic was almost a Bachelor’s degree-amount of hours for that particular topic. It was multiple different series and areas that I wanted to learn about.
Danielle: Okay, cool.
You seem like you didn’t go to college – you chose not to specifically because you couldn’t find a course for – I’ve forgotten the word for –
Danielle: Degree program! Thank you very much! That’s a thing that happens in my brain pretty often.
You couldn’t find a degree program that matched your goals.
I’m somebody who was interested in so many different things that I just went through six different degrees before I landed, and then when I ended up getting a degree it didn’t match my career goal. It seems much smarter.
Start at the beginning with, “What is your goal?” And then build a course load that’s based around that.
And here’s the deal with that modular degree concept, though: that’s the point. It’s that, since I am like you – it’s very divergent thinking, we’re interested in many different areas, we want our hands in different cookie jars –
Dustin: Most degrees do not support that. But a modular system, where, if you want to change things out, then you can end up choosing what you want to learn next.
In fact, one thing I didn’t realize until someone pointed it out to me later is that, I significantly changed my degree by learning personal branding, and content creation, and how to do video, and how to do audio, all these different things, and I chose to learn – which was my modular degree, but without me in it. I didn’t actually put it into my mod degree, so to speak, but it was what I was learning. I shifted my focus, I changed my semester, and that was because I needed to.
And I realized, “I need to start keeping track of that better.”
And that’s what really formulated what it is today, what I’m trying to build up to be today, at least, is this modular system. If you want to change something, then you can. You can keep track of it, too.
Danielle: [00:05:49] And how do you feel about – a lot of the argument that I hear for people going to traditional college is those first two years when you’re doing – everybody’s doing the same history classes, everybody’s doing the same literature classes, everybody’s doing the same 101 level, with the idea that we’ll end up with a group of people at the end who have a shared culture, or shared knowledge base, so that when we go into the world and get a career, we can then engage with one another with that shared cultural understanding.
Did you feel like that was missing from the self-modular approach, or do you feel like that’s something that you were able to access in other ways? That’s a concern for a lot of neurodivergent folks who are considering an alternative to a four-year traditional program.
Dustin: Well, let’s start off by asking the question, “What is the most hated part of a Bachelor’s degree?” There’s always one part that people love, and always one part that people hate. One part that people love is the courses that you chose to take, the degree that you chose to do, whether that’s philosophy, or science, or whatever particular degree – you’re like, “I want to go into that biology class, that’s the class I care about.” But then you’re forced to take however many credit hours of general education, which, like you said – it’s important to have that collective level of knowledge, I get that, but most don’t people care enough about it when they’re in the school.
Sure, there’s a lot of people who want to get a good grade, they’ll still learn it, but they retain it for the test, and then they don’t keep it. They don’t care enough about it to retain it for longer.
And so that’s my point – if you don’t care about what you’re learning, you’re not going to keep it, let alone want to keep it. When you choose the actual path or course you’re taking – it’s something you’re choosing. It’s something that you care about, something that you’re actually going to focus on learning, and keeping, and ingraining.
And I think that over time, because you care more about it, it’s going to be faster. You’ll be more engaged with it, you’re going to learn more, then switch to the next thing. And over time, you’ll get through so much information and so much learnings in all these different areas, you’ll still get a pretty collectivist kind of view, like you would from a general education.
Danielle: [00:07:50] Awesome.
And I think you also end up with much more diverse sets of knowledge from different people who focus on different things, and that’s one thing I think is really cool about polymaths in general, is that you can talk to them about anything, because there’s a shallow knowledge of so many topics, and then a couple of in-depth… it’s really fantastic.
Dustin: Well, and you made a good point too, it was that we do need that wide range, but I think, over time, when you’re doing those different learnings, too, you’ll end up picking up a lot more in those areas.
If you don’t like history, but you really like science – well, sometimes you have to learn the history of science, and in turn you have to learn history itself, too. In order to learn about the atomic bomb, you have to learn about World War II. And so, you have to learn about the different areas, too.
Danielle: Everything is embedded in the context, it touches everything else around it. yeah.
I know that this is your area of expertise, but for my listeners, I homeschool – one of my kids is autistic – and I often hear from autistic parents that it can be hard to… we can be very much polymaths, but a lot of us also have specific special interests that we really target, and we have a lot of depth in one very narrow topic, and for parents who are trying to educate kids with that sensibility, what Dustin just said is a really good way to approach that – that you are finding the context.
So, if your kid is not interested in history, but is interested in science, you can swing them around to being interested in history by approaching it from their area of specific interest, so that’s really important.
Dustin: Well, and, ironically it is partially my expertise because I taught swim lessons for many years. I still do from time to time, but for a while there I taught adapted swim lessons, which – autistic kids don’t generally pursue in that regard, they usually take the regular swim lessons that people would do, but there’s a mix between either one. And in order to teach the more adapted swim lessons you have to find what that kid or person is really interested in, and you have to switch on cue, when you have to. If it’s not working, you have to switch.
So it can be good to understand the context between what looks like very different areas of study. They always have a link, so you just have to find that link, and get them engaged that way.
[00:10:06] And what tips would you have for people who are interested in building their own degree, basically, but have maybe just come from a formal background and haven’t had a lot of experience outside of the public school system in the U.S.?
Dustin: Well, I’m trying to build this out into a system that can be applied to basically anyone, and that’s what I’m doing right now, I’m building a template. I actually worked on it yesterday, this week.
And so, I’m working out the template for other people to use, and the whole point of it is to be able to start it from any angle. If you were to middle-aged and trying to pivot careers, well you need to learn something but maybe you don’t want to go back to get a degree for something else. You want to learn a skill, but maybe not spend so much time pursuing an official education. And the other person could be on the other end of the spectrum, where some people want to leave high school, or secondary school, and start pursuing their career, but maybe they don’t need a degree for the career that they want. Maybe they want something that’s internet-based, it doesn’t really have a particular degree.
I’ve only recently heard about YouTube Studies as a degree, and that’s something that should have been done a long time ago.
I interviewed someone, actually, with a YouTube Studies degree. He had to go out of his way to make it. So it is possible that way, but it was more of those interdisciplinary – not interdisciplinary, liberal arts degrees, I think. Something like that.
So I wanted to build this where anybody from any level can start out with their own pathway could be. And it’s just a matter of learning to learn, learning how to keep track of it, and proving your knowledge, as well.
Danielle: And what tips would you have for that “learning how to learn” aspect? Because that’s certainly not taught in most public schools.
Danielle: [laughter] Yeah. Well, when you came and started your own learning process, what were the first things you did? You mentioned speed-reading…
Dustin: [00:11:52] The biggest thing, the “why”, the macro, is indulging in curiosity. Curiosity is a big muscle that people need to use. And as we grow up, our curiosity is often squandered by school or work, or society, and it’s just kind of how our society has been built. It’s changing, but it’s still one of those things that you have to go out of your way to cultivate.
Dustin: The “how” aspect comes into the learning, re-learning, and un-learning. You have to be able to re-learn some topics that you’ve already forgotten. Sometimes what you learn has been proven false. There’s been plenty of studies that have come out, like the BMI accessibility thing.
Dustin: Or the Meyers-Briggs accessibility thing.
It’s all these things that have been proven to be false, but people still use them as common sense. And personality types are true; introverts, extroverts, that’s true, but the Meyers-Briggs test has been proven to be kind of iffy.
Dustin: My point is that some people have to un-learn that in order to progress to the next learning.
And so, it’s interesting. I actually started a little mini-course that I attached for people to take, just to get a quick understanding about me, auto-didactic, being a self-learner. And so that’s the one thing I was going to do, was help people with that by giving that little mini-course, and then beyond that, I think it’s just a matter of, like I said, indulging in curiosity. If there’s something you’re interested in, go learn it, and over time you’ll get better at learning, too.
Danielle: Yeah, that’s a really good way to approach it, just focus on what you’re most interested in and go from there.
That’s what I’ve always done.
Dustin: Yeah. You had to learn how to do a podcast, for example.
Danielle: Yes, and I am still learning how to do a podcast. You learn more every day.
It is definitely something that’s taken me out of my comfort zone. But it’s also – I think you might understand – when you have something you’re really invested in, it feels important that you follow through – you just figure out how do it. Even if it’s terrible, you get it out there because it will help somebody.
And a lot of your work seems to be oriented towards “What can you do for – how can this help the world?” Right? How can this help the greater group of humanity, and education is a really big part of that, right?
And you’ve linked education to innovation a lot in your work, I noticed when I was reading.
Dustin: [00:13:59] I’m glad you noticed that, too.
It’s a matter of micro and macro. You have to look at things from both perspectives. The previous endeavor I had was, I mentioned earlier, was called the United Living Construct, where it was meant to be a hub of innovation. Part of an aspect of that was worldly living through self-development. So the whole idea of learning was still, even back then, still instilled in me way back then before I created my own education.
So, start from the individual. Build them out, build them up. Make them a better person from themselves inward, and then the community as a whole will be built up. Cities as a whole will be built up. And then, over time, each city will become the global civilization.
So it’s micro and macro.
It all comes back down to this poly-innovation system that I made out. Personally, I started the opposite way. The way I have the P.O.S – Poly-Innovation Operating System, or whatever you want to say – the operating system for your life, eventually. Start out with self-education as a foundation. The learning, the ingraining the input, so to speak. And then you build it out with the habits and systems. What rituals or routines are you using with that knowledge? How do you implement that knowledge in your life?
And then, beyond that, it comes down to the Four Pillars, which is the Mind, Body, Spirit, and Motions. How do those each new skills and habits affect areas of your life? Is it making you a better physique? Is it giving you more intelligence? Is it making you more emotionally aware? Is it giving you more spiritual alignment? Whatever that may be, how is it affecting that?
And then, eventually, you have to have some sort of output. So whether that’s just bullet journaling, or building a personal brand or podcast like we have here, or something along those lines.
Danielle: Can we talk a little about your interest in polymathy – how did this interest come about? Because it does seem to define your life and your approach to most of what you’re doing, right? So why is that such a big drive for you?
Dustin: You’re not the first person to ask me the origin of the interest, and I still don’t have an answer.
[00:16:00] I think the biggest thing was that I always wanted to do many different things. I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones, where I’ve always known that I wanted to do many different things, whereas a lot of people don’t even know what they want to do for one thing. Even at my age now. But I knew what I wanted to do even when I was younger.
I’m lucky. I’m not bragging, I’m lucky. I found what I liked doing – business and content creation, graphic design, all that at a young age, and it just built up over time. It started compounding. I love playing video games, well one of the areas that I want to work in the future is video games. That’s one of the things that I have as a future phase, before poly-innovating.
And so, even back in seventh grade, I remember doing an in-depth presentation on Leonardo da Vinci. There was a whole fair of people doing these presentations, these seventh-graders doing presentations. And I remember being one of the best presentations there because I was so excited about it. He became my hero, too, because he did so many things, he was super interesting, and I had really in-depth charts. And I remember that being a big motivator too. I wanted to become the modern version of da Vinci, or something like that.
A successor to da Vinci, I said at one point.
That was egotistical there, but...
Danielle: [laughter] Well there is this concept – we’re slightly different generations, but the way I was brought up, there was still this clinging to this idea that my parents had: you grow up, you get a job, and you stay in that – with any luck, right? – you stay working with the same company until you retire and die, and that’s what you do. You have this one trajectory.
And you might have a family, you might work on your house every weekend – this very middle-class white system – but this idea that you have this one job, and that’s just what you do. And maybe you get a promotion within that space, but you’d still be in basically the same industry your whole life. And I think, starting with my generation and moving on down, you start to get this idea that you can do so many different things. You don’t have to get stuck in this one trajectory for your whole existence. You can do software engineering. Okay, no, I’m going to go learn how to paint watercolors. Okay, no, I’m going to go –
[00:18:00] There’s so many spaces for development, and development of interests. And I think that polymath ideal fits really well with this specific generation of… freedom to do a lot of different things and the expectation that you’re not going to stay at the same job for sixty years.
Dustin: Yeah. I agree with what you’re saying. Just beyond that, though, there’s this big misunderstanding about human nature, too. A couple of examples I want to mention – I don’t remember what his name is off the top of my head. It kills me. But it’s on the Max Planck Institute of Technology. There was a research paper about how Homo sapiens evolved [Ed. Note: Dustin may be referring to this paper.]. So there was Neanderthals, Homo erectus, all these different versions of the hominids, all these different humans going about. And they were wondering why is it that we survived, they didn’t?
And the study points out that the generalist, the species that were able to adapt and change to different around the world, were the ones that survived. It was because of the Homo sapiens were adaptable to change. The generalists in our species are actually the reason that we evolved when the other ones didn’t.
Dustin: It’s a very fascinating thing. It means that we had polymathy, or generalists, for our entire lifespan as a species.
Danielle: Yeah. I think that idea of being in the same job until you’re sixty – and also, that job being your identity as a person –
Danielle: Both of those things conflating – I think that’s a totally contrived situation. I think at any place where you’re trying to push all humans to do this one thing, and say “That’s the best thing for all of us” – we’re built to be diverse. We’re built to be able to do a lot of different things, and to be able to adapt to a lot of different situations, and that’s the whole point.
You don’t allow space for people to do that, you’re squashing our –
Danielle: Potential. Yeah.
I don’t know if we read the same paper, but we have definitely both done a lot of anthropology, I guess.
Dustin: [00:19:56] Well, the idea of doing one job all of our life is a specialist thing. But, ironically, those who work the same company for forty, fifty, sixty years, aren’t doing the same job the whole time. They’re moving to middle management, maybe C-level, if they’re lucky. They’re going horizontal, doing different jobs. Each position or job they have in that company changes their career. At that time, they may be doing sales, and then they go into management, then they go into doing R&D if they want to, or they move over to IT.
Those are different careers, different areas of knowledge. So one thing I’ve also seen is that even those who think they are specialists – they’re a lot more polymathic than they realize because they’ve had multiple different careers within that same company throughout their lifespan. And so even though we think we’re still being specialists – and I do think that there’s a change going on, like you said.
A lot of companies like Google and IBM, they want you to work ten different companies, for two years each. Even in the old way of thinking, where you’re sticking with one company, you’re still doing a polymathic life over your lifespan.
So I just wanted to point that out.
Danielle: I think I was specifically thinking about the value of the 1950’s, that post-War idea. I agree with you, people would be called upon to develop different skills within that space, but it’s also true that work, or capitalism, has changed a lot in the last fifty years, with the idea of what working is and what isn’t, and where it is has changed a lot in the last fifty years.
I think, also, nowadays, because work has evolved to where you can be doing it from your computer, you can be doing it from wherever, there is a lot more space, still, to expand – not just your skills, but your openness to different cultures, and different ways of doing things. Where, in the 1950’s that wouldn’t have really been accessible to a large number of people.
Dustin: That’s true. I think that mindset is kind of going forward, and the overall societal norms, too.
And we still have the social construct of the whole, 9 to 5, working a career, go to college –
Danielle: It hasn’t disappeared.
Dustin: That’s what I’m saying, we still have that. It’s just changed, like you said.
[00:22:00] Here’s the thing, too, when you’re talking about polymathy aspects, too. And the other thing I didn’t get a chance to mention earlier was the book by David Epstein, Range. We were talking about how different specialists were generalists first. And so it’s like this funnel, where someone dabbles, like a jack of all trades, who’s putting their hands in all these cookie jars, who are trying to find what they like. And then, once they do, they tunnel-vision on it.
Roger Federer was that kind of person. He tried thirty different sports like wrestling, soccer, all kinds of things, and now he’s a pro tennis player. It’s because he settled on that one after trying thirty different ones. He became a specialist after being a generalist. And then, on top of that, as we get older, sometimes our knee gives out and we can’t do tennis anymore. We have to do something else. And so the interests start to spread out again.
And so it’s almost like a big funnel where it stats out wide, it becomes smaller, and then it grows out wide again. So there’s a lot of potential.
Danielle: What that makes me think of is – so, you start out with this general knowledge. You pick a special interest, you zone in on that, and then you start seeing these ways that your random interest in whatever thing – medieval corsetry – applies to all these other things. Now you’ve an interest in medieval history. You’ve got an interest in sewing. You’ve got an interest in cultural differences. Maybe language.
So there’s always ways, once you narrow it, then reapply that highly specific knowledge, back out into a range of different subject matters, which makes having that depth of knowledge better and more useful. And then, having more depths of topics the more you’re noticing those connections and those interlocking effects throughout everything you’re learning.
Dustin: Oh, for sure.
Danielle: The world is connected. So, it can be really helpful.
Dustin: It is that trans-contextual thinking.
Dustin: [00:23:53] To see the bridge between different areas. And the interesting thing is, too – one thing that me and a lot of actual, legit researchers, in polymathy are looking at, is this idea that polymath is a spectrum, or a call it a multi-disciplinary spectrum, too. Polymath’s not the only term people identify with.
It’s interesting that there are a lot of different levels to specialties. You can be a specialist, you can be a polymath, you can be a bi-specialist.
So there’s nanotechnology, and biotechnology. You have to be a dual-specialist in order to work in those fields. And you mentioned earlier the width and having one big depth. That’s a T-shaped person.
And there’s multipotentialites, jack of all trades, generalists, and each one gets a deeper and deeper level of knowledge. Then you get to polymaths, and there’s a difference between a polymath who knows a lot of things, and someone who’s a master polymath. Someone like da Vinci, who was a literal master at painting, and master at architecture, and master at design and science.
He discovered ocular science before anyone else. Five hundred years before any other scientists even tried to do anything like that. He talked about light physics. He was an extreme polymath, you could say. So there’s a different level of polymathy even, within that little bit at the end.
Danielle: And I think one of the values of the life approach of a polymath is that you are not always constrained by social expectations or social norms. Da Vinci wouldn’t have been able to do, for example, all of his anatomical figures without going around the law and finding some corpses to take apart.
Danielle: That’s not the same extreme, but you deciding to make your own way with your courses, and you made your modular degree, and you specifically said, “I’m going to reject the social institution that might be the more formal, or socially appropriate way to do this, and I’m going to do my own thing.”
Social norms protect us in many ways, but in many ways they stymy us, and can harm, especially people who aren’t the neurotypical, able-bodied. People who… don’t have power, don’t have privilege. The social norms are not there to protect you.
[00:26:02] Being able to notice that and go around them when you need to is really valuable.
Dustin: Well, you could say I said “Screw it” to the stigma of not having a college degree.
Danielle: Yeah. That’s what I mean.
Dustin: And the other thing was, with PolyInnovator, I created it as the foundation for any particular career I wanted to have in the future. For all the careers, actually, in particular, is the best way to explain it. For all the careers I wanted to have in the future, whether that’s changing education, or working on exercise – my background is fitness. So, I’m going to create content about fitness at some point, too. Might as well.
Dustin: So, gaming was another aspect I mentioned earlier, music – whatever it may end up being, I wanted to have a platform to build off of.
Danielle: Well, and when you have a depth of knowledge in multiple topics, it’s kind of a social duty to give that depth of knowledge back to other folks who are trying to access it and may not have a way to do that through traditional formal means. That’s really great.
So, we talked about self-education, and then the other thing I was most interested in in terms of my audience is the building routines and building systems, I guess, for self-development, for getting to where you want to be. Do you have anything to say about that, or any tips about that?
Dustin: I can dig into that a bit.
So, going back to what I was mentioning earlier, the Polyinnovation system, I created it as a tier-based system, where you start out with the foundation, you build with consistency, you get the exponentiality of the Four Pillars, and then you have the output of the personal branding.
But the aspect behind having some systems, and actually being able to integrate that into your life, especially neurodivergent people, but anybody, really – I think there’s a lot of habits that people miss out on. People build up bad habits that they don’t realize they’re building good habits, or something like that. And the idea of how our brain works on any level.
So, for example, the habit cues. Atomic Habits by James Cleary, he talks about cues.
[00:27:57] Let’s say you wanted to start listening to podcasts more. You want to educate yourself on whatever topic you’re listening to that podcast about. You’re saying “Screw it” to the stigma.
And regardless of whatever you’re listening to, you’re going to put on those headphones, and you may go for a walk. And now you’ve started to associate those two things with podcasting. And now, when I want to listen to podcasts, what I usually do – at least, when it’s not super cold out, is go for a walk. But the more important thing was, I always put the headphones on. I always do it. I can’t listen to podcasts without headphones. And so, when I started associating putting headphones on, the moment I do that, there’s this mental cue saying, “Oh, now it’s time for podcasts. Now it’s time to go do that thing.”
And so understanding the psychology behind it, or neuroscience behind it, too, is a great way of building habits out.
So when the pandemic hit, for example, my fitness background helps me out with working out. I can build a workout habit pretty quickly. But my workout habit revolved around me at a gym, where I could just build out a system of “Hey, I’m working today, let’s go work out today.” I can get enough workouts out throughout the week.
When I lose that gym, when I lost that with quarantine, I ended up having to take that system and re-evaluate it, and change my habits based off of the now new situation that I had. So it’s adaptable to it, as well.
Danielle: So the environmental cue is really important, and also associating the goal and the steps you’re going to take to achieve your goal with physical things, or the environment around you.
Dustin: Oh, speaking of environment – and that’s a big thing people talk about, the feng shui or just having a minimalist life – if you look around my apartment, if you look around this room, especially, there’s hardly anything in it. I have a very minimalist lifestyle, besides my technology. My technology is my one caveat. But the rest of it is all pretty minimal.
And the thing is, too when it comes to habits: if you want to have a good habit, let’s say you’re learning how to play guitar, you want to teach yourself that new skill. Something that takes effort, so your brain doesn’t want to do it, it’s like “I want to conserve my energy, I don’t want to expel it focusing on this.” But you have the remote right there to go watch TV right away.
[00:29:54] That’s giving your brain two options. You can easily pick up the remote and start watching TV, or go out of your way to go pick up the guitar, and then start a harder habit, too, versus that remote’s in the back drawer of your TV stand, all the way across the room, and moving your guitar next to your couch. Then the good habit is the easier option, and the bad habit is the harder option. And when you can switch between those two, when you start changing your environment that way, it makes the habits easier to get into.
Danielle: Yeah, that’s been a really important one for me specifically, because I have an executive dysfunction issue, so I always think of Future Danielle as a different person from me. So I have to do things to help Future Danielle. Because if I just think about her as me, then I won’t ever help her. I won’t do anything to help her. “No, I’d rather just not do that right now.”
But if I think about it like that, like in the morning, I set myself up for success. I have my meals planned, because Dinner Danielle won’t be able to think anymore. She’ll be –
Dustin: Burnt out.
Danielle: Yeah, burnt out, overwhelmed, unable to think through even basic steps. But if Morning Danielle has made a plan, or if even Last Week Danielle has made a plan, for “What are we going to have for dinner,” “Are we going to get dressed today.” Even basic stuff, like putting my phone in a totally different room overnight so I don’t get on it first thing in the morning.
But those environmental cues, they’re a great way to trick your brain into doing what you want it to do.
Danielle: When you’re in a good mind space. Because all of us lose energy, and all of us sometimes just can’t make good decisions for ourselves, even if we may want to, and if you can get in front of yourself there and just be like, “I’m going to take care of her now, because she won’t be able to do it later. I’m going to put this phone over here so she can’t get to it.” Put the remote over there, put the guitar here.
Those are really good ways to work around that kind of exhaustion that all of us slip into once in a while.
Dustin: And like you said, all of us have that issue, where we only have so much energy, or as Tim Ferris says it, “attention units per day,” and for you, you accelerate through those units even faster. You have to be even more careful about it.
Dustin: [00:32:00] That’s a good point to make, too, for any neurodivergent people. But there’s also the idea of anybody, in any situation, preparing for a future version of yourself is super important.
Danielle: Absolutely. Yes.
There’s a metaphor often used in disability circles, that’s the spoon metaphor. Do you know the spoon metaphor?
So, you get up in the morning and you have a certain number of spoons in your cup. And you can hand them out for each task you need to perform. But the minute the spoons are gone, the spoons are gone. They’re not coming back. They have left the building. So, you really need to be careful how you ration your spoon allotment for the day. You can’t just assume – I think with many neurotypical people, they do generate more spoons throughout the day. Or, they’re just given a larger allotment in the beginning of the morning. You can look at the metaphor how you want.
But for many neurodivergent people, a lot of us don’t regenerate those spoons, they’re just gone. So you need to use your spoons carefully, and help yourself wherever you can. Make it as easy for yourself as possible, by doing things like hiding the remote, or the phone from yourself, or making the plan, or do whatever you need to do.
Dustin: So, before we end up wrapping up, too, I was thinking that there’s a way of polymathy. The journey of polymathy is very important. Because when it comes to routines, or actions you take, or how you approach education, they all formulate into how you live your life. Which, for people like us, is more polymathic.
And I thought, there’s two paths to polymathy. There’s the “jack of all trades” approach. You’re putting your hands in all these different cookie jars, and eventually those cookie jars get really, really long. Like, deep knowledge. And you have multiple sets. Not just four, but multiple beyond that.
And there’s the idea of context-switching. You’re switching to different ones. You’re narrow-focusing on one, then you switch to the next, switch to the next, switch to the next.
And I think most people would be like “The second one, that’s the best one.”
[00:33:54] But I do think there’s a big potential in the first one, where you’re really focusing on a lot of different things all at once. And it’s not that you have a lack of focus, it’s more that you’re switching focus effectively. And I think that those who do that first one and fail are the ones who can’t switch focus. Either they’re specialists by nature and they don’t have the capacity to, or they’re like us, and we’re generalists in nature, and they just haven’t learned how to do the systems.
So there’s a concept in learning called inter-leaving, where you’re switching between different topics on purpose, so that your brain is no longer losing focus. Because you can only focus on something for so long on average. And neurodivergent people might even be less time. So it’s interesting how – or more. Or more!
Danielle: For many of us, it’s a lot more!
Danielle: It does vary.
Dustin: That’s my point. It varies for anybody, that’s what I’m saying. And the inter-leaving aspect is a matter of switching between different topic areas. The same thing goes for whatever you’re learning, too. But I think it’s an important distinction to make, so there’s potential for both. And a lot of people underestimate the first one.
That is really valuable to know, because the more ways that we can access learning, the better.
Well, thanks so much for being here! It was great to talk to you.
Dustin: Thank you for having me!
Danielle: Any time.
Could you please tell our listeners more about how to find you, and how to hear more about your work?
Dustin: Yes. So, PolyInnovator is my personal brand. You’ll be able to find that anywhere. P-O-L-Y-Innovator, and you can find that on any social platform. Pretty happy about that, where you can find me anywhere, and more importantly, on my Web site, polyinnovator.space. I just recently remade it. I revamped all of my old posts, which is over 180 posts. I’m making more, as well, including a 7,000 one I made this week. But overall, just reach out to me. Talk to me about polymathy or generalists or education. Anything.