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For Me, Humboldt Today Means …

Alexander Von Humboldt’s fame and achievements continue to encourage scientists and researchers all over the world. The story of his pursuits is however lost to the common person, especially, the global millennials.  

In 2016, I was introduced to Humboldt, his work and achievements during the German Chancellor’s Fellowship organised by the Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation. Towards the end of our fellowship, after a year of discovery and research on our chosen themes, we all received a copy of ‘Humboldt and the Cosmos’ – a biography by Douglas Botting. Botting offers a riveting narration of Humboldt’s journey from the corridors of aristocracy to the unexplored interiors of the south american continent. To celebrate his 250th birth year, the Foundation launched an initiative – Humboldt Heute – inviting a few of us, including the German Minister for Education, to share what Humboldt means for you today? Check out our statements on the official website here >>

How is Humboldt relevant for me today - Watch full video here
How is Humboldt relevant for me today – Watch full video here

This exercise got me thinking… and I wondered what makes Humboldt – the last great universal man?

Humboldt grew up in the ‘age of exploration’, fascinated by the irresistible accounts of these expeditions and the scientific discoveries. His ambition to explore the world and carry out original scientific field work was well known to those around him.

Today, 250 years later his life and legacy are an inspiration, in particular for those who wish to pursue original ideas and explore the unknown. But what is in it for the average person? For instance, the millennial glued to a screen for a constant dose of dopamine or a fresh graduate looking to enter the world of work? As a skills and vocational training specialist, I reflected on this and relooking at various aspects of Humboldt’s life (based on the details offered by Sir Google and Botting).

A set of traits and strategies seemed to re-appear in Humboldt’s approach to life & work. These set him part from his contemporaries, many of them leading authorities in their respective fields. I call them the 3 lessons we can learn from Humboldt that make him more relevant than ever today.    

Lesson 1 : Learn how to defeat time

Humboldt’s inexhaustible energy and curiosity made him the busiest 26 year old in his time. He juggled a job exploring the mines or supporting international diplomacy and still found time to write books and conduct experiments. At the age of 89, Humboldt worked with what strength was left to him to complete the fifth volume of Cosmos – the story of the world. He managed this at the cost of ordinary time wasters like – sleep, mealtimes and recreation. Perhaps, his meticulous time management was a result of his focus on the end goal, a larger than life pursuit for knowledge. He wasn’t a recluse but very selective in spending every second he had. For many of us, constantly distracted by technology or the 21st century FOMO (fear of missing out), Humboldt’s vigour, focus and tenaciousness is a valuable life lesson.

Lesson 2 : Remain a multi-disciplinary, life long learner

As we move towards Industry 4.0 and higher human – machine interaction in day to day living, Humboldt’s ideas to remain multi-disciplinary and a lifelong learner somehow become extremely relevant. Elon Musk is possibly the best example. An expert generalist who builds everything from payment systems to rockets. Jobs are evolving at a must faster pace and the education systems are not keeping pace. While machines will use AI and other advances to do the routine jobs, we must focus on acquiring cross functional exposure while retaining our subject matter expertise.

In the age of specialisation, Humboldt remained a scientist with universal interests. He continued to self-tutor in expeditionary disciplines. On his journey to explore geographic and environmental influences in nature, Humboldt took with himself the finest apparatus that could be found anywhere in the world. He used his botanical, zoological, astronomical and meteorological knowledge & skills in researching and later producing 30 volumes of materials on his scientific work in South America.

Humboldt resurrected the use of the word cosmos from the ancient Greek and assigned it to his multi-volume treatise, Kosmos, in which he sought to unify diverse branches of scientific knowledge and culture. A kind of ecosystem approach which today is used by several institutions like World Economic Forum (WEF) called the ‘systems approach’ to study the socio-economic phenomenon. This important work also motivated a holistic perception of the universe as one interacting entity.

Lesson 3: Build alliances and nurture networks

In contemporary times, we hear the word ‘networking’ as a leadership quality. One can easily say from the accounts presented in his books and biography, Humboldt was an expert networker. Today, most young people consider networking as connecting with someone at an event, exchanging cards or following them on social media. While, this sure is a starting point, networking is about forming genuine alliances and connections that can be long-term and mutually beneficial.

Humboldt was a great conversationalist, story-teller and funny at his own expense. He drew on his vast knowledge and had a star like quality that made him sought after. He variously used his ability to connect with people, build alliances and nurture networks. In 1799, for instance, Humboldt navigated a complex chain of contacts to gain an audience with the King and Queen of Spain at the Court of Aranjeuz. He convinced the King to sign off his expedition to the Spanish American colonies in South America. Both Humboldt and Bonpland, his long time friend and associate, received spanish passports and access to any place they wanted to visit and necessary support. His banker friends in Berlin & Madrid offered him the financial support to undertake this journey based on his reputation and trust.

Years after returning to mainland Europe, his reputation was far reaching, especially in the United States. It is noted that when the first trans-atlantic steamer service began between New york and Bremen, Humboldt attracted a never ending stream of visitors to Germany. Even in his old age, he was receiving 3000 letters from professors, scientists, students and general public of which he would reply to ~2000 in his own handwriting. The most celebrated man alive was humble to nurture every contact and relationship.

Humboldt was not after a personal adventure but scientific discovery and experimentation. He took on the task of documenting the vast bio-geography he had uncovered in his travels, something that took him 30 years and more. Despite being the most decorated man of his era, Humboldt lived a fairly simple life doing most of his tasks on his own. Humboldt’s life and story are inspiring to different people in different ways. It is not just the bio – geography bible but a fascinating read for anyone looking for some inspiration to follow their dreams.

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