Podcast 001 What is a polymath?
In this episode, we explain what a polymath is and why we chose that for the name of podcast, which is ultimately the crux of our company philosophy.
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Episode 001 What is a polymath? Transcript
Heather McKee: Welcome to the Modern Polymath where we discuss topics and technology, economics, marketing, organizational behavior, market research, human resources, psychology, algorithms, higher education, and cyber security.
Heather McKee: Hey podcast universe, thanks for tuning in. This is our very first podcast episode and we’re so excited and a little nervous, but hope that you’ll like it along with the other episodes that we’ll be releasing this season. When we first started sharing the name of our podcast, we got a lot of eyebrow raises about the term polymath. We thought for the very first episode we should explain just exactly what is a polymath and the reason why we chose it. We’ll also cover what role a modern day polymath can play in our society and how to become one, or at least get on the path to learning like one. But before we get into all that, let me first quickly tell you a little bit about our Ins & Outs crew.
Heather McKee: Our CEO and co-founder, John-David McKee, is a multi-time entrepreneur combining technology, data, and customer experience. Working with the highest levels of government and higher education, he has focused on improving college student retention rates through a data driven approach, and has been an executive at a successful market research company serving numerous organizations over more than a dozen different industries. He has been featured in several publications and currently serves on the faculty of Charleston Southern University’s College of Business.
Heather McKee: Our other co-founder and CIO, Chief Intelligence Officer, Dr. Jon Christiansen, was trained in computational analytics at Carnegie Mellon University and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in economics and a PhD in organizational leadership from Clemson University. Jon is also an owner at Sparks Research, a full service marketing research and business intelligence company. He is certified as a senior professional of human resources, and a SHRM Senior Certified Professional. Jon too serves as faculty at Charleston Southern University’s Department of Analytics as well as having served on the faculty at Clemson. He is the author of a soon-to-be released fictional mystery series using the magic of statistics and machine learning to solve complex crimes, (think modern day Sherlock Holmes), as well as a textbook on data science and has been featured in numerous major publications.
Heather McKee: Our newest addition to the team, Will Callaway, was drafted after college to be a pro baseball player for the Giants organization. While on the bus traveling from city to city, Will spent his time learning up on cyber security, computational architecture, database engineering, digital business models, and numerous other topics for he’s our certified resident expert. Will also has experience in private equity, venture fund development, and startups.
Heather McKee: I am Heather McKee, our marketing and operations guru. I’ve led marketing efforts in many different fields including the nonprofit sector, manufacturing, construction data, higher education, and have been on the cutting edge of marketing technology and application of data to drive sales and marketing efforts. I’m also a student of operations and internal efficiencies, having led operations in several capacities including this podcasts where I’m also the editor and moderator. It’s my pleasure to be your host.
Heather McKee: Without further ado, let’s get this podcast started. To kick us off today, let’s first talk about what is a polymath?
John-David M.: Anyone who’s heard the term before, the general response is typically picturing some celebrity intellectual or scientist or an artist or an inventor.
Heather McKee: John-David McKee speaking there.
John-David M.: All of these great thinkers from yesteryear, if you will. The synonym for a polymath is a Renaissance man because the term was actually coined during the Renaissance to describe the legendary polymaths who made all these world changing life enriching contributions during the Renaissance, which itself means the rediscovery of knowledge. The word polymath conjures up these household names for a very good reason. Those of like Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, and of course, the most famous of them all, Leonardo da Vinci.
Heather McKee: Yeah, I remember those guys from history class, but as far as I remember, they all did different things. What is it that makes them all a polymath?
John-David M.: Put simply, a polymath is a person who knows a lot about many different subjects. Another definition is a person of wide ranging knowledge or learning. In Greek, the word means having learned much, and in Latin it means universal man. My favorite definition because it’s a little more expanded is a polymath is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of subject areas known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. Regardless of these definitions, clearly, these greats of old of yesteryear deserve to be called that. They’ve changed the world and cemented legacies forever. Hopefully, it’s clear that there are still polymaths out there today, and honestly, probably more than we ever knew could be possible. There’s a very obvious list that comes to mind, at least, in my mind, but it’s different for every person. Elon Musk is probably the most universal example. Condoleezza Rice and Charlie Munger, who’s was Warren Buffett’s business partner, David Rockefeller’s a good example.
Heather McKee: What’s the process for becoming a Modern Polymath?
Dr. Jon C.: All right, so you’re not trying to be a polymath, you’re trying to get on a path.
John-David M.: Right.
Dr. Jon C.: Like it’s almost like an enlightenment path.
Heather McKee: Dr. Jon Christiansen speaking there.
Dr. Jon C.: The quest to it leads you to what these people have achieved, so how do you get on that path? How do you choose the right road and the right road is very simple, the one that’s got diversity of knowledge and a quest for wisdom in it.
John-David M.: If you want to become a polymath, in the end of the day, it’s not epitaph, it’s not a something you put in your gravestone, it’s something that you ultimately they refer to you as because that was your life’s goal. What, if you’re at a fork in the road, what’s the right path forward? The answer is going forward, it’s not diverting left or right. The only wrong answer to that is pausing and not moving forward. Because you would take a body of knowledge here, a body knowledge there, combine that together, and eventually, it’s going to be useful. Some things are going to be more useful than others, but at the same time, like learning these different things allows you to make it much easier to learn something else down the road.
Dr. Jon C.: Right, so it’s the compounding effect that Will talks about all the time. It’s the idea that if you… We know people that have had 20-year careers that are the same thing every day for 20 years. Essentially, you’ve got 20 years of the same days of experience. On paper, it looks like you got 20 years of experience, but off paper, you’ve got nothing. You’ve got no growth, you’ve got the same thing different day.
John-David M.: We joke about that a lot, or we have in the past, the only experience they have past that was the technological changes that they had to go through as a result of the industry changing around them without the choice in the matter.
Dr. Jon C.: They survived the paradigm, but then you see the people that have five years experience or even two years experience or 16 months of self-study. What they’ve earned and learned is what they’ve earned and learned, and that’s I’ve invested in myself and my time and I’ve utilized my time strategically to learn a multitude of facets of things that apply to exactly what my target is. Which comes back to the big question is what’s your target? The one thing that you, JD, you and I teach our students is this course and this program is everything you’re going to make up. You can check the boxes and then you’ll get it and then you’ll just show you’ve checked the boxes. That’s great, you pay for the right to have two to three letters behind you, or you can invest in yourself, actually, do the work, ask the hard questions, understand where the hard lessons are, and be okay with it.
Dr. Jon C.: Then, all of a sudden, look on the other side and say, “Wow, I just got, in a year and a half, two years, three years, five years, one year, whatever it might be, I got 15 years worth of skill and wisdom out of it.” Now, I want to get into a situation I know that, “Oh, no, I need to look at it this specific way on what we do.” Data science is, “All right, well, I’m going to run this test to say whether or not this dataset is something that I can work with in a certain way.” It’s like whether or not you’re looking at, as a chef, you’re looking at whether or not I have all the ingredients, right? Well, the right chef knows, “Okay, I don’t have garlic but I have garlic powder. Now, if I take garlic powder with this blend of stuff, I can make it even better based on what I know about the chemistry of this.” Because they’re free and flexible, they got that MacGyver about them.
John-David M.: Yeah, there it is.
Dr. Jon C.: You need that in all fields, and that’s what the ultimate polymath is.
John-David M.: It is, it’s pulling from all these different areas. MacGyver must have learned a lot of stuff when he was a kid. Whoever his mentor was taught him a lot. I can’t count the number of times you said, “I’m going to pull a physics equation into this because I think it will help us solve this particular problem.” Nobody’s pulling physics into marketing questions, but it’s pulling from those that allows you to innovate because it’s already been figured out somewhere else, everything is relative. It’s not that much different.
Heather McKee: So would you say then that’s basically the whole idea of the learning path for a polymath is that everything’s relative or [crosstalk 00:10:00]-
John-David M.: It’s the connectivity, yeah. Yes, absolutely, it’s the interconnectivity between it all. If you view every skill that you have as a disparate skill, you’re not going to get there. But if you see the fact that you can learn to build something or put something together or fix your engine or fix a hole in the wall is not that much different than building a business. We can see the connectivity between it because everything has inputs, everything has the components to make it up, and then at the end of the day, if you know what your goal is, you can get there. Then you start to realize a couple things. One, you see that this all connected, and you have to do these things to get there, and two, you have the confidence of knowing that you can do it. The more that you can succeed and get to that level, the more confidence that you have. I’m going to give credit to Jon here because he is who taught me the most about having a learning agenda and where you’re going.
John-David M.: A lot of this comes from Andrew Wittman. If you don’t know him, please look him up because he has an incredible program to help you take where you are today and get you to where you eventually want to go. We’re going to get into that a little bit down the road. If you want to know how to “future proof” yourself, not get replaced by automation, this is how you do it. But there’s a few steps you have to take in this, and it’s how to learn anything but it’s also how to combine the things that you’ve learned and compile those together into a collective body of knowledge you can pull through. First and foremost, you have to know what you’re trying to learn, you have to break down a learning path, if you will. What are you trying to learn? What’s interesting, it doesn’t have to be super academic, it can be something that you can come out and say, “Man, I don’t know how to do this, and I’ve always wanted to know how to drive a boat.”
John-David M.: Cool. Well, we have this great thing called Google and it’s awesome. Sorry, Bing, it’s there too. But, anyway, so you have to pick out what you want to learn and you have to know what you’re trying to get out of that. When you start with that process, we don’t have the same problems they had back in the day. If you look at an old school polymath, there was no information available. There was such limited information that they had to scour every library and everybody’s home, they could… Excuse me, let me clarify, they had to scour everybody’s home they could find who had books because the first library they ever found was somebody by the name of Benjamin Franklin, who said, “Hey, we should probably come together and put all of our books in one pile so we can all borrow from each other. Instead of having to go from house to house. Let’s just put them in a common place.” There’s your library.
John-David M.: Granted, there was a Library of Alexandria, which is a very big loss to humanity and all that. It happened before but in terms of the common collection of knowledge, that’s where our modern library started. And putting all that together and saying, “All right, what’s the good information?” Because back in the day, the only information that persisted was probably coming from a scribe or a monk or something like that that’s writing down what’s actually relevant because that’s a lot of work. If you’re not writing down what’s relevant, it wasn’t like Clickbait and gossip columns. There was no time for that because they had to hand write that stuff. Gutenberg comes along and makes life a little easier, that’s great. But today, in our world, with all the information in the entire world available at the click of a button, one of the hardest and most important skill a polymath today can have is finding the right info. Scrubbing out all the noise, scrubbing out the 98, 99% of crap, and getting to the stuff that’s good.
John-David M.: When you get to that point and you can internalize what’s there, the information’s right there so just skip all the crap and get to the stuff that’s good. Then, all of a sudden, in a day or two, you have a very good understanding of the basis and you continue to build on that. Then you can consolidate what you have into something you can internalize and start to become an expert.
John-David M.: Just because you’re an expert today doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to be an expert tomorrow. Time is changing so quickly with the creation of new technologies and new methodologies and new processes around these that it’s critical to watch the trends and continue to update your knowledge base to ensure that you are continually an expert going forward.
Will Callaway: Right, and we’re not talking about just… don’t just google around, read the first three web pages and think you’re an expert. We’re not talking about the five minute expert here, we’re talking about someone who googles around, finds the right information, gets the right books.
John-David M.: Who’s credible.
Will Callaway: Yeah, really does a deep dive in information, but after they find the right information to actually study.
Heather McKee: That’s Will Callaway.
John-David M.: That’s a really important point because let’s not confuse SEO by the top first page on Google with actually good information.
Will Callaway: Sure.
John-David M.: Who’s cited it? Are they credible? How much impact has it had? That’s how you’re going to narrow this stuff down. If you just go to the first thing you see-
Will Callaway: I think we’ve also studied things where we’ve looked at it, we’ve read, we’ve possibly believed it for a second, and then we’ve actually gotten to a truth or better information along the way. And been like, “Man, that was trash. I can’t believe I actually thought that was real or I thought that was the way to go about things.” Then that’s a lead into what we’re talking about is constantly updating your beliefs.
John-David M.: Right, but you couldn’t evaluate that as trash unless you had the experience enough to go deep down enough down that road.
Will Callaway: Exactly.
Dr. Jon C.: But let me tell you how you just bypass all that, and we tell our students one of three things, figure out what you want, figure out who’s done it and done it well, and go figure out how they did it. If you can’t figure it out, ask them.
John-David M.: Yeah, people are surprising and they’re willing to share stuff.
Dr. Jon C.: Unbelievably, you find the person that knows what you know and you say, “All right,” or what you’d like to know and say, “Here’s what I think I should do. What do you think?” Third thing is-
John-David M.: Hold on, before that, a polymath today is going to take advantage of other people’s hyper specialization and leverage that to build the overall narrative they’re trying to tell or understand.
Dr. Jon C.: Right, but the ultimate polymath question is who is the life that I want? It might be career, it might be some skill set, it might be-
Heather McKee: Contribution to society.
John-David M.: So big picture, figure out what you want to get out of life so you can develop a target, then go find somebody who has a life you want to live, and reverse engineer how they got there so that you can put yourself in a course of learning and growth to ensure that you reach that eventual goal.
Dr. Jon C.: Right, and don’t be afraid to say, “Look, here’s what I want out of life, here’s what this looks like. You’re doing things that I’ve always wanted to achieve. What do I need to do today to do some similar form or fashion of what that looks like?
John-David M.: With every great accomplishment, there’s some good insight to get out of that.
Dr. Jon C.: Right.
John-David M.: Yeah, and very few people have stumbled upon that. They have tried, they’ve failed, they’ve taken in new knowledge and eventually they have gotten there and there’s a lot to learn from that.
Will Callaway: Yeah, and also I think John’s hitting on like the mentor-mentee kind of model and it’s like-
John-David M.: Yeah, because why spend the time, the information is out there. The polymaths of old, I admire them so much because they had to work really hard for any information they got. They’re digging around trying to find this one little piece, we don’t have to do that. It should be a common thing yet with all the information that’s out there where we could be so broad as a society and have so much knowledge to pull from, our society says get more and more specialized. That’s a problem if you think about the fact that the world’s much more complicated than it’s ever been, and we need to be getting to the point where we can see the collective to make a decision. If you’re so specialized at the point where you only understand what you understand, how can you take that and apply that to humanity? Whenever humanity is a very complex beast, much more so than it’s ever been before.
Dr. Jon C.: Let’s scale back real quick. The learning mechanisms behind it are supremely important, which is something that we’ve struggled with, individually, as a collective about how-
John-David M.: We’ve also taught ourselves that, though. I’ve learned a whole lot from you and how to learn and hopefully I’ve taught you a thing or two.
Dr. Jon C.: The point is that’s the most important thing about all this is to learn how you learn.
John-David M.: The unfortunate thing, and it’s a societal reflection, so what are we going to do about it? Hopefully, you listen to this and say, “Hey, I’m going to make an impact in my little world.” Because that’s the way this happens, and it’s a collective awakening of how these things have come to be what they are and also what we can do about it going down the road. But the majority of education at this point is put in a specific way, you have to learn it this way. We’re in a unique situation in society where, well one, everybody has access to education in the developed world. There are exceptions, please don’t email about that. But, two, everyone can now process information the way that they process it best. If you’re an auditory learner, great, if you’re a visual learner, great. There are things, it’s called adaptive learning, and we’re not near where we’re going to get at this point. But you can learn things different ways.
John-David M.: Take elementary school aside, if I’m reading something about a math problem or how to fix my blinds that are messed up, I might read it one way and say, “That’s not working for me, I don’t get it.” That doesn’t mean I’m stupid or there is a problem with me, granted it could be the case, but unlikely. I could read another article and say, “Oh, Okay, I get it now.” Because people learn different ways. People explain things in different ways. That’s not a reflection necessarily on the person explaining it and it’s not a reflection on the learner. It’s just you have to find the synergy, and what we have now is the unbelievable ability to have so much information out there that you can find a piece of information that works for you and you can learn that piece. Don’t sit there and churn and churn and churn over something if it’s not working for you. Move to the next.
John-David M.: We’ve all had, we share a badge of honor we talked about before, like we’ve all had the point where we had to reverse engineer a math problem and we did it a different way than the instructor told us to do it and got docked points. This has been a running joke in our little group, we got docked points because we found a different way to do it. There’s always one way to do it. The funny part about is that we got docked points for getting the right answer that we got to on our own, not just following a formula. It’s ridiculous, that is the exact wrong emphasis to have.
Heather McKee: That’s the difference between teaching for the test and teaching to actually learn the concepts as well.
John-David M.: Well said. To that point, a little personal story, I was really struggling in math class in high school and I just thought I wasn’t getting it and didn’t think that I was capable of getting it. And try and try as I might to take that teacher’s lesson they had given me, it just wasn’t making sense. My dad sat me down and said, “Hey, you’re not bad at this, you’re not dumb, you’re not bad at math, you’re just not getting the big picture. You’re not getting the concept that they’re trying to teach because they didn’t really get that point across.” I’ll never forget that conversation. In fact, my dad puts a line through his sevens in the Germanic fashion and I do that to this day because of that conversation. Because in that conversation, I realized how important it is to understand what you’re actually trying to learn and the way to go about acquiring new skills and new knowledge.
John-David M.: But that leads us to arguably the most important part of becoming a modern day polymath. It’s something that all polymaths in history have had, and I’ll argue almost every successful person in history has ever had. The two characteristics that are critical are curiosity and persistence. One, you have to be curious, you have to want to know how to do something, you have to know what question you want to answer. It’s not like you got to go down the road and pick up a book. Like Google’s right there for you, you probably got a smartphone. If it’s there, then its persistence to learn it. It’s getting to the point where you, now, you have to look at the information that’s there, you have to start to distill it down and make it make sense to you. If you do that, if you are truly curious, then you want to see the answer happen. If you’re willing to see that through, then you can learn a skill.
John-David M.: Take my personal favorite polymath, Benjamin Franklin. The guy’s awesome, he’s considered the first American by some definitions. You can argue all day long that we don’t have an America without him thanks to his diplomacy, to France, and securing them in the war of independence as well as his lobbying for the independence throughout the colonies. But this guy did a little bit of everything, he was an author, inventor, printer, politician, scientist, entrepreneur, obviously, a statesman. Much more he invented the bifocals, ushered in the modern electrical era through the lightning rod he’s so famous for with the kite and a key. He founded the first fire department, established a modern post office and established University of Pennsylvania, which was the first university in the United States. Great guy, pioneer in statistics, so many other things, even invented his own instrument. Really worth looking into but I can’t go through all his accomplishments here today.
John-David M.: But the one thing that’s interesting and it proves out his perseverance and his curiosity is when he was a kid, a very young kid, and this is early 1700s, he was interested in swimming. And proving his mentality out, he realized in order to swim faster, one of his major limitations was what we all have in just human anatomy, lack of webbing on his hands and on his feet. He began experimenting and, ultimately, built paddles for his hands and flippers for his feet so he can move faster through water. This is just something that he exhibited from childhood was something we can all learn from in terms of being curious and seeing it through being persistent to reach the goal you’re trying to reach.
Will Callaway: Yeah, and I think that’s where the experimentation aspect comes into it, where it’s like, “If you’re curious enough about a subject and you’re persistent with it. Like you fail a couple times, that’s fine, just experiment with it.” Figure out what you’re doing wrong, figure out where you need to be and induce the next steps to move forward.
John-David M.: It’s an obvious example, but Thomas Edison. You talk all the time about the light bulb, right, like the thousands of iterations it took to get to that light bulb, or however much time it took, it took a lot of work. But Thomas Edison was also named with over 1000 patents, and most of those didn’t work out. But he did invent the light bulb as well as many other things because he had the persistence to do it. He wanted to have an answer of how you do this and he did it.
Dr. Jon C.: Yeah, so he has a great quote and the quote reads very simply, “The greatest tragedy of a man is when they quit doing what they’re doing and not realizing how close they were to their goal.”
John-David M.: You almost have to have a level of obsession at that point, but not everybody’s Thomas Edison, right? We don’t have to be Thomas Edison. One of the most unfortunate things is that we so clearly know the polymaths of old and we know a few of the polymaths today and we’ve referenced them as being an Elon Musk, Iron Man, David Rockefeller. But there’s no reason why you don’t work with multiple polymaths, the information’s out there. We’re talking about mastery to a level where you can truly understand it to explain it to someone else. You don’t have to be Stephen Hawking in an area, that’s not the point. The point is learning to the point where you are defined enough expert to where you can share that information with other people. If you can do that, then you move on to the next topic and then you start to connect all the dots between each other.
Will Callaway: But that’s to become one of these, let’s say, thought leaders in a certain subject or just become the best top 1% in a certain subfield. Maybe you don’t have the skills that translate if that field becomes irrelevant. That’s one of the things we want to talk about is with the world changing as quickly as it does, you need to stay abreast upon trends and skills that crossover to multiple industries.
John-David M.: Because who’s to say when something will pop up and be relevant again, just in a different context. But the one thing that we talk about almost in everything that we publish and say, do, whatever, the one skill that is not going to be replaced by artificial intelligence is critical thinking. It’s thinking outside the box and pulling different pieces of information together to solve a problem.
John-David M.: That is essentially what the polymath strives to be able to do. Oftentimes, it’s curiosity that drives them to learn these different subjects, and the consolidation of those different bodies of knowledge into a unique solution presents itself as a need for the solution appears. But, nonetheless, they have already learned all those different things that are able to bring them together into a unique solution other people can.
John-David M.: If you want to future proof yourself, if you want to look at what can I do to where I don’t become irrelevant, if you can think, if you can draw from a large body of knowledge and solve problems, you’re good. Because I’m not saying it will never happen because we don’t speak in absolutes. However, it is very unlikely in the foreseeable future that there will be a computational ability to outdo humans in terms of critical thinking. Even if there is, there is still going to be a role for critical thinking.
Will Callaway: Yeah, there might be some technologies in some tools that can outdo you and computational thinking.
John-David M.: Absolutely.
Will Callaway: But critically thinking across a mass domain knowledge and experiences, the transfer learning effect that IBM has proven today is not even close.
John-David M.: We want them to be better than us in computational thinking because what you said, they’re tools.
Will Callaway: Yeah, they’re tools.
John-David M.: But that’s what they’re going for, they’re supposed to.
Will Callaway: They’re probably using them for.
John-David M.: Why should you become a polymath? Today’s world gives you the opportunity to know more than you’ve ever known, to access information that was unthinkable before. Because of that, largely in the same vein definitely correlated, the world’s more complex than it’s ever been. What was a simple decision back in the day where do I want to carry this particular good because I’m the local convenience store and this is my market? Well, now you’re serving everybody on Amazon.
Heather McKee: As a consumer, you have an abundance of retailers to choose from as well.
John-David M.: Undoubtedly.
Heather McKee: It’s not as simple as running to the end of the street, necessarily, especially, if you want to get the best deal and exactly what you want.
John-David M.: Yeah, it’s great to have the option to buy whatever pants you actually want to buy, not just what they offer you at the store. But that also leads to a lot of decisions that you had to make that you did not have to make before because the options weren’t there. We process these crazy abstract ideas every single day. We look at things like downloading something and seeing the download progress bar, which is a great point made by David Epstein in his book Range. We have to make these increasingly complex decisions, and it doesn’t matter what field of focus you’re at, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. Some jobs are definitely more specialized than others and that’s great. We need specialists, if I’m going to have brain surgery, I want somebody who specializes in brain surgery. But, nonetheless, it doesn’t hurt if that brain surgeon can pull from other areas of knowledge to make sure that they’re making the right decision.
John-David M.: But regardless of that and regardless of the field of focus you’re in, we continue to narrow the focus of jobs and education as a society. Research has proven time and time again that polymaths or generalists or people with a broad base of knowledge to pull from are more creative and are especially able to connect ideas across diverse fields significantly better than a specialist. It’s critical thinking, it’s creativity, it’s thinking outside the box, and it’s never been more important than today to be able to think outside of the box. Time and time again, we’ve seen that experts “are terrible” at forecasting what’s going to happen.
Heather McKee: How’s that?
John-David M.: There have been numerous studies that have found that experts or pundits on TV, whatever it may be, have called something an absolute sure thing. In 25% of the cases, it’s failed to happen all together. In other words, you’re hearing them say, “This is going to happen. I am an expert in this particular situation, no chance it doesn’t.” Wrong, not even close, like not even the same field.
Heather McKee: It’s like just having blinders on, I guess.
John-David M.: It is because you know what you know but just because you’re an expert in… If I have a corporate lawyer who specifically trained in intellectual property law and they tell me that I should or shouldn’t pursue a patent, “Okay, I get that, that’s cool.” But if that same lawyer comes across and is like, “There’s no way that X, Y, Z field…” All right, let’s use Uber, “There’s no way that this company’s going to come around and use an app to disrupt the taxi industry because it’s been around forever. Come on, you can’t ever come there.” Wrong. That’s a legal loophole that does fall under their actual purview but, nonetheless, they didn’t see that coming because they found a loophole in the system and they were like, “We can exploit this because we’re not going to sit there like a taxi does and move around.”
Will Callaway: Right, because Uber found the loophole, not because of the lawyers.
John-David M.: Exactly.
Will Callaway: The lawyers were too short sighted to actually see the, let’s not say innovation, but just like the skirt of the law. Just the changing of the paradigm. Not even that, it’s like if Uber happened 10 years before, Uber doesn’t exist [crosstalk 00:30:47]-
John-David M.: There’s no way that it could.
Will Callaway: … everyone’s popping out their 3G flip phone and let me call an Uber. That map isn’t updating in time for you to figure out where your fricking Uber is.
Heather McKee: Right, it came along at a time where people were much more familiar with using apps, they were much more familiar with the whole cloud sharing-
Will Callaway: Sharing economy, yeah.
Heather McKee: … economy.
John-David M.: I’ve been told before that a business idea wouldn’t work because you couldn’t make this specific contracts work in that scenario, not by a lawyer. I was too young to know the difference and I thought they were right. Well, you can’t take somebody who’s been a successful entrepreneur who knows a little bit about a specific topic and take their word for it on the extreme legal side. Because you’re an expert in one doesn’t mean you’re the expert in the other. However, if you are trained in the legal side of it, you have a base level of knowledge in that where you’re pretty good. You understand markets, you understand consumers, you understand technology, you see these different pieces, it’s not a matter of why I can’t work, it’s like, “All right, so all these pieces can fit together, let’s figure out how it can work by solving these particular hurdles that we’re looking at right now.”
John-David M.: Look, the biggest red flag in the world like for me, personally, but I’ve heard a lot of smarter people than me and more accomplished people say this is the word can’t. If you say the word can’t, then we’re off on a bad start right here. Because a lot of cants have happened. Look at us as we fly through the air all the way across the world and we have the internet connecting us from one place to another. If somebody says that to you, that’s a bad starting point because things can happen. It may not be the exact way that you envision it, it may not be the way that it starts out. But if you allow yourself to update what you understand, to get new knowledge and to gain perspective from the different outside elements of what it takes to accomplish that goal, that idea will morph itself into a true concept and that concept can morph itself into an actual realized result that can actually happen in the world.
John-David M.: Speaking in absolutes, it’s easy to do. It’s a lot more convincing than an argument if you speak in absolutes. However, like how many absolutes have been proven wrong? How many times is that will never happen been proven wrong? It’s incalculable. You can go back to the beginning of history, you’ll never be able to make fire happen on a regular basis, “Hey, look at me in my Flintstones buddy.” Let’s see how this goes. That is humanity, that is the core idea of being a polymath is the curiosity of how do I make this happen? The persistence to make it happen on a regular basis, tell me I can’t do it, tell me it’ll never happen, cool, I’m going to show you wrong. That’s what it takes to get through all this and say, “I have an idea. I got to go learn about this, this, this, this, and this because you’re saying it’s not going to happen. I’ll show you that it will.”
Will Callaway: Yeah, it’s very much the greater fool, right? It’s like you look for a success where other people know there’s a failure. You’re willing to go against the grain, you’re willing to die for the other person’s seat. It’s not like you’re against societal norms or anything, it’s just you don’t believe when other people say that’s impossible or you can do that, it’s just like, “Okay, you just haven’t thought of the solution that I’m going to think of.”
John-David M.: You’re not against societal norms, you’re just recognizing that what other people see as societal norms are permanent norms, and norms can be changed with inventive technology and societal changes and the way people view the world.
Will Callaway: Yeah, you can push it forward.
John-David M.: Yeah, if you stick in that old way like some things are great, there’s a lot… We still all used some element of the 10 commandments, and this is in no way, shape, or form religious, it’s just we agree that killing people is bad. At some point, that was recognized as, “Hey, no, no.” That’s good, like we all pull that forward but our understanding of a lot of things have updated. If you don’t continue to update what you know about questioning your beliefs and how things are changing with new technology and changes in industry, then you’re really just digging your feet in the sand saying, “I want it to stay this way.” Well, it doesn’t matter if you want it to or not, things are where they are. Neither you can continue to become updated on the changes and remain relevant or you’re going to end up a dinosaur in whatever field you’re in.
John-David M.: Not all innovations are good by any means, everything’s a Yin and a Yang, there’s positives, there’s negatives. Nonetheless, the polymath and the entrepreneur, the inventor, the person that wants to push things forward because they know there’s a better way to do it, you can’t tell them no. You’re not going to tell them no. You might try to dissuade them but that’s where the perseverance comes in because you know that somewhere deep down, there’s a way to do this.
Will Callaway: All the inventions that have happened are relative based on what their environment and what is available to that inventor to actually use to create whatever their invention is. It’s like-
Dr. Jon C.: The innovation that happened with Gutenberg and the printing press from handwriting books to the innovation of the next freemium app is very different.
Will Callaway: Sure.
John-David M.: Like the leaps and bounds are great and you have all the opportunity in the world. The recognition is that as opposed to inventing from scratch, because most ideas have been hashed out, as somebody said, pull from different fields, and all of a sudden, you start to come up with something that’s never been seen before. But you can see where the inspiration comes from. You can see that in art, God knows you can see it in music. Every song that you listen to, you can probably pick out, if you really sat down and really understand your musical history, where that comes from. It’s true in everything, you see the evolution of sports, but you see what influenced that evolution happen. Tiger Woods is an example of someone who now has trouble winning, although, the last 2019 Masters was amazing. But he’s a victim of his own success because the dude changed the game.
John-David M.: He was an anomaly, he did outperform everybody at such a level that no one could even touch him. But he also raised the awareness, is like the 4-minute mile. Nobody thought they could break the 4-minute mile until somebody did then everybody started breaking it. When you see Tiger breakthrough and shoot the scores and hit the ball the way he’s doing it, people were like, “Okay, that’s possible.” Well, he has since become a victim of his own success in the influence he’s had. Nonetheless, we haven’t seen the next person come along that’s in golf do what Tiger did to the current generation. They’re all copying his model, they’re just improving upon it as technology, and the whole industry has revolved around that. That’s what happens every now and then, that whole term disruptions actually earned.
John-David M.: The reason we started this podcast, and really, while we’re trying to encourage the idea of the whole premise behind the modern polymath is because in today’s world, we need polymaths more than ever.
John-David M.: Because the world is more complex than it’s ever been, and therefore decisions are going to have to take in so much broader set of criteria than ever before to make a good decision. To expand on some of the examples we’ve already given, here’s an incredible example of the importance of being able to think outside of just the frame of your specialty. Compared to other scientists, Nobel Prize winners, aka Nobel Laureates, are… and this is an unbelievable stat, so I just got to stop and say, 22 times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or some other type of performer. Yes, 22 times, that’s a lot. Nationally recognized scientists are much more likely than other scientists to be musicians, sculptors, painters, printmakers, woodworkers, mechanics, electronic tinkerers, glass blowers, poets, or writers than the general scientists. Nobel Laureates are, again, in this case much more likely to fit that void.
John-David M.: This is coming from David Epstein’s work called Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, and another quote from that comes from psychologists and prominent creativity researcher, Dean Keith Simonton, where he said that rather than obsessively focusing on a narrow topic, creative achievers tend to have broad interests. This breadth often supports insights that cannot be attributed to domain specific expertise alone. Why is that relevant? We’re not saying to go out and sign up for a ballet class and think you’re automatically going to get a promotion or something, that’s not the point. The point is the difference between these Nobel Laureates and other scientists who are likely close to have, not as well, read as those Nobel Laureates is because they have explored other subjects so far outside of their core area of expertise. Because they have interests that lie outside of that and other elements of humanity in philosophy, in the creative arts.
John-David M.: All the things that we all see and do on a daily basis, they pursue that to the point where they gained a level of skill and knowledge about these creative endeavors that allowed them to think more holistically about a specific problem. And pull from so many different bodies of knowledge that they’ve gathered through their lives because it opens their eyes to just how broad life can be and how broad of knowledge there is to gain through different fields. It’s almost an exercise in diffuse thinking where they can take what they’re working on in their very specific field, and then through these other channels where they’re expressing themselves in a way completely foreign to their day in day out process allows them to come up with these aha moments that they wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Diffuse thinking meaning that the brain makes connections when it’s not thinking about something.
John-David M.: You think very, very hard on a specific subject and then you remove yourself from it and allow your brain to process the information in a non-focused environment and then come up with a broader solution or a better understanding of wherever it is you’re thinking on previously. Will sent me a quote from one of my favorite humans of all time, Steve Jobs. I get a lot of crap about how much I love the guy. I’m not saying he’s a great dude, that’s up for debate. I think he is a genius of what he did. In an interview with Wired Magazine, he said this, and this completely speaks to the importance of polymaths in today’s society, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while, that’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”
John-David M.: The reason they were able to do that was because they’ve had more experiences or they thought more about their experiences than other people. That’s what we’re talking about today, take the most out of what you can get in every situation. You can learn something from everything you encounter in life. Even if it’s the best time to go to the DMV so you don’t have to deal with a big old crowd, that’s okay, you’re learning something and you’re maximizing your time. There are lessons in everything you see and do, and we’re blessed with the kind of mind that can learn and process these things and they continue to compile until you start to see things you never thought you could see before. That’s the path of a polymath, is just owning the world around you and being interested in what you could be interested in because you’re interested in it and you know that it connects together with other things that are important to at least other people, if not yourself.
John-David M.: The reason the four of us are here doing this podcast isn’t because we want to hear ourselves talk and boast about how much we know, I promise you that. But it’s because we all have the things that we’re interested in, the things that we are, at least, on the path of being experts in. We want to continue to pursue that and get individually smarter and get more well rounded in that regard. But we also recognize that, collectively, we all have things that we are interested in that we’re not experts in, but that the other person is and they can teach us. If you look at it like a Venn diagram with those that overlap, we continue to try to expand each of our individual capabilities while also sharing internally. We have a weekly meeting where we share the things that we’ve learned because it helps us all learn and put together these larger pieces.
John-David M.: All of a sudden, this puzzle gets much bigger and we’re able to put it together because we know what it looks like. None of us here are saying that we’re polymaths, and then again, we’ve said before that a polymath isn’t something that appears in your gravestone and, “Congratulations, that’s what you are.”
Heather McKee: It’s not a certificate that you earn.
John-David M.: Right, it’s not. It’s a path, it’s the polymath path. Hey, coin that here, you heard it here first, TM. But we’re all on the journey to become as well-versed and knowledgeable as we can because it’s important to us. For us, this is our platform to share what we’re learning and to help ourselves as well as you think about how you can learn more and think more critically to expand your knowledge base as well as our own. We hope that you liked this. If you don’t like the topics we’re talking about, that’s totally cool. Just don’t stop at what you learned yesterday, continue to move forward and find new things that you’re interested in and grow as a person because you only get one life. You’re only here once and it’s only given to you good to learn and expand.
Heather McKee: That’s right, if you don’t like the topics we’re talking about, then please shoot us an email with an idea. We’d love taking on new topics and would love to explore them with you. Don’t forget, you can always find our in-depth content for this episode and all things we discuss on the podcast at our website, insandouts.org. But that’s it for us today, so thank you for tuning in. We hope that you’ll tune in for our next episode, which is going to be part one of two in a crash course on artificial intelligence and machine learning. Catch you later.