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  • Writer's pictureJon D'Alessandro

Robert Boyle’s Impossible To-Do List

What the father of modern chemistry can teach us about succeeding in the future of work

Robert Boyle's To Do List (Source: The Royal Society)

Robert Boyle is considered by most to be the father of modern chemistry. He wasn’t just given awards, awards are named after him. (That’s how you really know you’ve made it.)

But his accomplishments are more panoramic than you’d imagine. Boyle was a co-founder of the Royal Society of London, a director of the East India Company, a member of an English mining company, and one of the pioneers of the Scientific Method. He associated with other science OGs like Galileo Galilei and Robert Hooke, wrote a number of scientific, philosophical, and theological treatises, and was awarded an honorary M.D. at Oxford. He even tried his hand at alchemy, attempting to transmute metals into gold.

Counterintuitively, Boyle was a Generalist.

Like a true generalist, Robert Boyle kept a list of interests as long as it is varied which, courtesy of The Royal Society, is included below. Depending on the source, it’s described variously as a list of to-dos, wishes, ambitions, areas of exploration, or predictions.

Boyle's list demonstrates a vital ingredient necessary for success as a generalist: curiosity.

The Future of Work

Technical skills and tasks are being automated too fast for individuals and organizations to keep up. The world economic forum stated that by 2022, at least 54% of all employees will require significant re- and up-skilling due to automation and technological augmentation of roles.

How right they were. Less than two years after making this proclamation, a pandemic forced most of the global workforce to work remotely. This required significant and immediate upskilling, not to mention resilience, flexibility, and a broad toolbox to deal with a brand new set of challenges.

Automation, on the other hand, continues its relentless march.

One way to shelter yourself from automation is to dig continuously and narrowly into a specialty area. But this assumes you'll be able to consistently outpace technology. Good luck.

A more reliable way to stay ahead of the curve is to follow the generalist path: stay curious, adopt a growth mindset, explore, create, build your soft skills, grow and nurture your network, try new things. Let your interests guide you to new knowledge, skills, and capabilities, and make novel connections between fields and ideas. Ask new questions. Pursue breadth and expand your toolbox to respond more flexibly to the unpredictable demands of the future.

Even Robert Boyle, who would be renowned for his accomplishments in chemistry alone, stayed curious, adopted a generalist’s growth mindset, expanded far beyond his specialty, and kept an ever-growing list of interests and ideas.

Here is Boyle’s list of scientific projects:

The Prolongation of Life.

The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in youth.

The Art of Flying.

The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there.

The Cure of Wounds at a Distance.

The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation.

The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions.

The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only.

The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed.

The Transmutation of Metalls.

The makeing of Glass Malleable.

The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables.

The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums.

The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses.

The making Armor light and extremely hard.

The practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes.

The use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to watches.

Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc.

A Ship to saile with All Winds, and A Ship not to be Sunk.

Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men.

Pleasing Dreams and physicall Exercises exemplify’d by the Egyptian Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French Author.

Great Strength and Agility of Body exemplify’d by that of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall persons.

A perpetuall Light.

Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing.


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