Monday, June 4, 2012

Being Gertrude Stein

Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso
I'm currently reading Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company and I was delighted to learn that Gertrude Stein was almost 30 when she began her writing career.

I am only beginning to know Gertrude Stein, but I think for a long time I will be picturing her in my head as portrayed by Kathy Bates in Midnight in Paris. But I am so far struck be her meandering career in the first part of her life. She dropped out of high school, then went to Radcliffe to study the fledgling field of psychology under William James, and from there intended to start a clinical career, and so enrolled in the medical school at Johns Hopkins. But three-quarters of the way through medical school, she no longer wanted to be a doctor. and she left, to travel with her brother Leo to Paris, where she re-emerged as an connoisseur of modern art and a writer.

Stein was the leader of an influential circle of thinkers, writers, and painters.  I'm trying to think of anyone at the top of such a Mastermind group who took such a circuitous route to success. I think of the US education system, and the standardized tests we train children to take. Next, it is determined that the best route to success is through a 4-year college experience, maybe a master's degree and then straight into the silo.

Certainly, Stein came from a privileged background, with an annuity and never needed to work for a living. But still, she created a new genre of writing, the word portrait, and built a new system of characterology based on her academic learnings and melding in the learnings from her amazing circle of acquaintances. What produced Stein's contributions to literature was her decision not to stay in the silo, but to meander, to step into different streams, and ignite her ideas with the flint of diversity.

Edited: Just a few hours after I posted this, I read this article on the advantages of the generalist over the specialist. It has more business applications than this post, but the point is the same: the silo is not the be-all and end-all.