The Woodpecker and the Hummingbird

hummingbird

We have an extremely irritating woodpecker who loves to drum on our house. It’s likely different woodpeckers from year to year, but I like to imagine it’s one single, annoying bird. Despite each of us wandering out and shooing it away, taping old CDs to our house, and putting metal protection where it likes to work, it continues to drum away at our house year after year.  Knock, knock, knock.

We also have a neighbor who loves to attract different types of birds. He has several hummingbird feeders, and I love to watch them as they flit around our garden, precise in their approach, going from flower to flower. They don’t stay long, but they are beautiful to watch. When they leave, we look wistfully after them, wanting to follow.

I grew up thinking that being like a woodpecker was a good thing. Not the annoying part (though I’m certain I was pretty good at that skill as a child), but the persistent part. Keep at it, keep working at it, and eventually good things will come to you. Perseverance was the key to success. For my own life, this has actually worked out to be pretty much true. I decided around the age of eight that I wanted to be a doctor. I took Latin in high school because I thought it would help me understand medical terms. I majored in biology in college, went to medical school, then internal medicine residency, and then found a great job. I might be a case study in the success of persistence.

I have come to observe, though, that recommending this path is not always a good fit for gifted individuals. Meeting my husband was interesting. Here was a brilliant man (he will protest this post) who was good at everything. A true polymath, as comfortable writing a novel, performing calculus, or playing in a band. I have come to understand, over the years of being married to him, that the multipotential nature of these folks is often a curse and a blessing. Do you persist at something that you are insanely good at, but don’t really enjoy? How many things should you continue to focus on, when there are so many options to choose from? When is it OK to let go and move on?

One of our daughters has turned out to be a polymath as well. I am thankful every day that she has my husband to help guide her. She could so easily look at my life and think to herself, “that’s how I should do things.” But, in following me, she would be miserable. Polymaths get restless easily, and can persist in doing things far beyond their useful life to the person involved. I think of them as the hummingbirds: they attack each subject they are interested in with deep intensity, ingesting everything they can from the experience in record time. Before long, they are done with it, and can then move onto the next thing. I imagine there is no other way to live your life when everything has so much possibility.

Other folks may observe this behavior and think, “they quit too soon, they had such potential!” For those of us who are really good at a few things, the woodpecker life suits us well. We continue to drum away, happy in our success, never yearning for anything more. For polymaths, however, only a hummingbird’s life will do. Making them continue to do something, long after the flower has been sucked dry, is more harmful to them than teaching any lesson of persistence. My house may be full of finished and discarded projects, and probably a lot of lost potential, but the birds of various types are all happy, which is what matters to me.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks Kathy

    This is a great analogy – it resonates with me. I am a little perplexed at what seems to be an oxymoron. “Polymaths get restless easily, and can persist in doing things far beyond their useful life to the person involved.” – If they get restless easily, I presume they move onto something else. How does this equate with persistence beyond the ordinary?

    I ask because my husband appears to be a polymath – creatively starting so many different projects. As Pearl Buck said, ‘his whole being needs to create, create, create, or he doesn’t feel alive”. But he also persists way after anyone else would have given up, with an intensity that is almost unbearable. He can’t accept failure as an option.

    Rather than comparing him to a woodpecker or a hummingbird, I might use the analogy of a vulture!

    You also say, “I think of them as the hummingbirds: they attack each subject they are interested in with deep intensity, ingesting everything they can from the experience in record time. Before long, they are done with it, and can then move onto the next thing. I imagine there is no other way to live your life when everything has so much possibility.”

    I understand this, as it explains the way of dealing with my multi-potentiality.

    Thank you for your insights – but I need a ‘vulture’ club to understand my dilemma I fear.

    Reply

    • Posted by Kathy on March 3, 2013 at 6:21 pm

      Hi Debbie-

      Thanks for your comments! It is interesting to watch this from the outside. What I have observed is that they both have many irons in the fire at once, and then have a hard time deciding how to focus on everything at once, because they can really do all of it if they want to. What makes it especially challenging is that they are good at so many things. So, while they might be reasonably “done” with something in a few weeks, having intensely soaked in the knowledge or experience, the “thing” itself may be far from over, and that’s where the dilemma comes in for us. We’ve tried, with out daughter, not to get into too many structured activities or curricula, so that she’s not feeling “stuck” staying in something she’s really good at just for the sake of everyone else involved. (Meaning, she’s no longer getting anything out of it.) There are certainly many types of polymaths, and presumably the individual intensities make the situation even more complicated. Here’s hoping you find some folks that are like your polymath, too!

      Reply

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