Becoming You: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Education

“You were a strength coach and now you’re studying writing because you want to become an entrepreneur?” 

“Yup, you got it.”

“But you’re in a program where you make your major?”

“Exactly.”

“Yeah, that doesn’t make any sense,” I retrospectively think.

Explaining what we study, what career we want or have, is a constant struggle. And most of us, especially around my age and younger, don’t know exactly what we want.

I have followed a tumultuous path of one opportunity after another, doing almost nothing conventionally. At 18, I took a gap year to continue playing hockey and begin my career as a personal trainer without a clue of where to go next.

“We want a trainer we’ll look forward to seeing twice a week.”

A prospective client never said this to me, but it was hidden in the subtext of every initial conversation. Quickly, I uncovered it was the most important aspect of the job. As a trainer, if people don’t like being around you, it overshadows everything else. 

Further, all the scientific and technical information necessary could be learned from books, courses, and seminars. But being a fun, interesting, and nice person? 

That wasn’t covered in the certification course. 

Effective communication presented another challenge notwithstanding the technical knowledge. 11-year old athletes don’t know anything about anatomy, so don’t tell them “don’t let your feet evert.” And many sedentary adults don’t have adequate body awareness, so “brace your core like you’re about to get punched,” often won’t yield core activation. 

Additionally, I learned the best trainers nearly all reach a broader audience through writing books, blogs, newsletters, and social media posts. It’s how I became familiar with them, after all. This realization inspired me to start my own blog. 

The top trainers like Eric Cressey, Mike Boyle, and Ben Bruno check all three boxes. They know the technical knowledge, they communicate effectively (in-person with clients and through their platforms), and they’re interesting people. 

I began to rethink education. Perhaps it wasn’t about becoming the best at one thing, but becoming great several.

Late in my first gap year, as I reread Tools of Titans, I froze at an excerpt taken from Scott Adams, creator of the comic Dilbert. To paraphrase, becoming the best (top 1%) at one thing is nearly impossible. But, becoming very good at two or three is not. In Adam’s case, he was a decent drawer, and was decently funny. Nothing extraordinary. The combination however, is rare. 

When I pondered on all the major influences in my life, everyone’s skill set aligned with this philosophy. I immediately thought of  John Romaniello (my now mentor. John was a great trainer, but his combination of fitness knowledge with elite wordsmith skills—and formal writing training—elevated his platform in the fitness space. 

I also thought of my favorite band, A Day to Remember. They write ear-wormy melodies, and combine them with heavy, heart-pumping verses and breakdowns. The combination of the heavy and pop-punk make them unlike any other band, unplaceable into any one genre. 

Personally, no singular trait led to my early success as a trainer. A combination of enthusiasm and easygoing training philosophy with a voracity to learn about strength and conditioning steered me to success. The “get really good at one thing” educational philosophy began to crumble more and more. 

Even if you do become the best at one thing, is that enough? The best athletes who are locker room cancers inevitably experience a fall from grace. A brilliant engineer who can’t interview well, or communicate her ground-breaking ideas will get lost in the mix. Inevitably, you must be interdisciplinary. 

As I’ve written about, so many adults work in a field unrelated to their degree. As the world and their interests changed, their career pivoted, leaving their degree of futile use. An interdisciplinary approach prepares you for a future full of uncertainties. 

With these ideas rattling around my hormonal adolescent brain, I began to resent higher education. As I looked at schools, no program or major aligned with this philosophy. Communications? No. Exercise science? Definitely not. Journalism? No interest. 

If I went to college, it seemed I would be stuck with a program confining me to a specific field.

Then, I thought of a former hockey teammate at New York University. When I looked up their programs, I came across the Gallatin School of Individualized Study. Gallatin is an interdisciplinary program, aligned with these philosophies. I applied and was accepted, set to enroll in the fall of 2019. 

At Gallatin, classes center around a specific subject matter, yes, but focus on developing ideas about the subject, and communicating these ideas in a unique way by connecting them to other ideas or disciplines. 

One of my interdisciplinary seminars this fall, Writing Against Time, was dedicated entirely to making sense of time. We read about, pondered, discussed, and then wrote about it.

The class taught us to read critically, make sense of difficult concepts, construct our own ideas, and then organize those ideas into a cohesive essay. In other words, we learn how to learn, think, and communicate. Valuable skills in any realm methinks.

These classes make up about half of our program, the other half is dedicated to taking classes in nearly any department at NYU. I know classmates who combine these skills with computer science, hard sciences, film, fashion, and art history, as they develop their unique skill set. 

NYU has no “campus.” Our buildings are marked with a violet flag.

With my specific training knowledge, combined with the writing and thinking skills I’m learning at Gallatin and from my apprenticeship with John, I’ll develop (or so goes the plan as of now) a skill set completely unique to me, unreplicable by anyone else.  

Like many areas in life, pursuing an interdisciplinary education came down to questioning the assumptions. It’s not the safest option, nor the easiest to explain. 

But even if you’re not interested in a program like Gallatin, consider adding an interdisciplinary component to your education. What skills would set you apart from colleagues studying the same thing? 

Your ambitions don’t have to be grandiose. Improving your public speaking or writing even a bit may set you apart in a world where it’s increasingly difficult to stand out.

Learning how to code or maneuver advanced technology, or speak another language can similarly provide the boost necessary. 

The options are limitless.

With a unique combination of skills you become the only person who does what you do, in your own category, not competing with anyone. You become what nobody else can be:

You. 

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