The Modern Polymath

polymath (Greek: πολυμαθήςpolymathēs, “having learned much”; Latin: homo universalis, “universal man”) is an individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. (Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polymath)

You may know that with the rise of the internet we now have at our fingertips access to thousands of years worth of information and human history. The amount of knowledge available to each of us on a daily basis is more than our ancestors could hope to consume in a lifetime of study. What should we do with all of this knowledge? Should we spend our days mindlessly feeding ourselves to the entertainment industry? NO! With such information available to us we can rediscover, with purpose, the ideal of Homo universalis. We can become the polymath.

If you’re still with me at this point it means that I’ve struck a nerve, something deep inside you knows that this is the way forward. From here I will discuss the difference between the specialist, the generalist, and the polymath. Find yourself in these descriptions and decide if you want to continue on this path. It is not easy, but the rewards are beyond imagining.

I am going to start with a generalization that in today’s business world there are three types of people. The specialist, revered for their deep knowledge of a given subject, the generalist, a jack of all trades able to move between positions, and the specialized generalist, or, polymath. Other types of people or employees may come up in future posts, but for today we’ll stick with these three.

The specialist has spent years deepening their knowledge of their given subject. They are the ones called when something goes so horribly wrong that their encyclopedic knowledge is the only way to resolution. You may find them in laboratories, hospitals, and even factories. (Note: I never said being a specialist required schooling, just a dedication to deepening one’s knowledge on a subject.) These people are generally paid well as long as their services are needed. The trap for the specialist is if their particular field ever dries up or if their specialty depends on specific outdated software or tools. Specialists are happy as long as their skills are being used and their intelligence is appreciated, but don’t ask them to perform something below their abilities.

The generalist is known for their breadth of knowledge, if not their depth. Talking to one will often leave you surprised with the expanse of experience they have. Keep in mind, though, that their knowledge on any given subject may be superficial at best. As an employee the generalist can fall into almost any position and be useful for grunt work, though any task requiring a modicum of specialization may be outside their abilities. They may bounce around from job to job gaining new skills or even stay within a single company for years transitioning from department to department. Generalists are usually happy with the process of learning and the excitement of learning something new. Beware the boredom threshold of the generalist, if they are not stimulated they’ll soon be on their way.

Then we have the specialized generalist, or polymath if you will. This is the Renaissance Man written of since, well, the Renaissance. There have been many over the years, though this model of learning and mastery is still somewhat rare today. The knowledge of the polymath is both broad and deep, though probably not as deep as the specialist or as wide as the generalist. The polymath strikes a balance with a number of different subjects, each of which showing a significant depth of knowledge and insight. Such polymaths as da Vinci (perhaps the most well known), Orson Wells, Isaac Asimov, Helen Keller, and yes, even Steve Jobs, held significant knowledge in multiple disciplines that they were able to weave into breakthrough work. That is the strength of the polymath, to use what he knows to blend the different disciplines into something that has never been seen before. Unlike the generalist the polymath has a deep love of learning that goes beyond the superficial and lasts a lifetime. If the usefulness of one aspect of their knowledge dries up there are other disciplines to fall back on, which make them more resilient than the specialist. The downside? Gathering deep and broad knowledge takes time, time that many people are unwilling to devote to the learning process.

What can we take from all this? It is my thought, and my conviction, that a generalist is merely a polymathic pupae. I believe it is possible that a generalist can become a polymath with the right direction, motivation, and devotion to learning that will elevate him beyond his peers. I also believe that a specialist can see the value in, and extend his study to, other disciplines. There is nothing to suggest that a polymath can’t have a 10+ year specialty in one area and only 2 years of knowledge in others. The point is breadth without being scattered, depth without drowning.

The Caveat: How broad is broad enough? How deep is too deep, or not deep enough? There are no guidelines on how to become a polymath, nor is there an endpoint where one can say: “I’ve done it!”. You can try to go by the Wiki description: “… is an individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.” but how do you know when your complex body of knowledge is big enough? I firmly believe that the world needs polymaths, perhaps more now than ever. Specialization is great and provides much needed clarity to specific fields; and who doesn’t want a specialist operating on them? The problem is world is not so tidy and specialized. A specialist may be able to tell us, in great detail, why something works, but it will take a polymath to look at different systems and disciplines to tell us why it is important. Of course a specialist can tell you why it’s important, but generally only from the perspective of their specialty.

There are ways around this caveat. I’ve been studying the issue for a while now and I’m ready to start sharing what I’ve found. I’ll keep writing my thoughts and findings here and the journey to polymath will become more clear to those who seek it.

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