The Modern Polymath
The Path to a Successful and Fulfilled Life and an Enlightened Society in the Information Age
When you hear the word “polymath”, what comes to mind?*
*If your answer is something fuzzy or nothing at all, DON’T WORRY!! It sounds like a nightmare college course you would avoid at all costs. The concept is simple and could change your life. Hang in there…
Most of us think of celebrity scientists, intellectuals, artists and inventors…after all, a synonym for polymath is “Renaissance Man”, a popular term coined to describe the legendary polymaths who made world-changing and life-enriching contributions during the Renaissance (meaning the rediscovery of knowledge).
There’s a really good reason why the word polymath conjures up household names like Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson and of course Leonardo da Vinci.
Each of these polymaths changed the world in their way and forged a timeless legacy in the process. But even an elementary knowledge of these legends tells you that each of them did very different things, with their contributions ranging extensively.
This leads us to four obvious yet critical questions:
- What is a polymath?
- How is a modern day polymath different than the traditional polymath?
- How do you become one?
- Why should you want to?
We’ll explain each of these in detail and provide a blueprint for how to start down the path of becoming a polymath. But first, it’s important to provide some context as to why this matters.
Becoming a polymath isn’t like studying to become a doctor or lawyer. A polymath is simply someone who may have one area of depth, but who has a broad range of expertise in other areas as well that they can pull from to make enlightened decisions. There’s no certificate or ceremony…it’s more about learning to think critically and seeing the world through curious eyes.
Today’s world is more complex than it’s ever been, as are the problems that this diverse, connected world creates. Thus, it’s never been more important for people to be able to connect dots between different subjects to come up with comprehensive, creative solutions that account for the numerous variables making up any important decision.
Yet as a society we continue to get more and more specialized. Automation is a concern shared by many today as AI-driven technologies move closer to being able to match and exceed human efficiency on repetitive tasks. McKinsey Global Institute recently projected that by 2030 up to 14% of workers might need to change occupations, and in about 60% of occupations, at least one-third of activities could be automated by that period. And virtually everyone will have to adapt to working alongside machines in new ways.
The majority of the workforce is trained to be hyper-specialized in a specific subfield and are thus siloed to a narrow line of thinking and skill development. In many cases, these are the fields at risk of automation. Machines can beat us at repetitive tasks with defined rules but are like an infant debating with Einstein on physics when it comes to critical thinking and coming up with creative solutions to difficult problems.
Without an intentional effort to expand it’s impossible to see the big picture and think holistically, which are key traits for any successful leader. Embracing this ‘path to enlightenment’ could greatly change your life in many ways, making you more successful, fulfilled and confident…and as the idea grows, it could change the world for the better.
What is a polymath?
First things first, how is a polymath actually defined?
A polymath is “a person who knows a lot about many different subjects” (Cambridge), or according to my computer’s dictionary it’s “a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning”. In Greek, polymath means “having learned much”, and in Latin “universal man”.
A more complete definition that we prefer, which we’ll use as the reference going forward 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.”
That’s it. Pretty simple concept, albeit far from an easy thing to achieve. And with all of the world’s information available to anyone who has internet, polymaths should, in theory, be common in today’s society. If you give it a little thought, you could probably come up with several that you think meet that definition. The list will vary from person to person, but a few that come to mind are:
- Elon Musk
- Condoleezza Rice
- Charlie Munger (Warren Buffett’s partner at Berkshire Hathaway)
- David Rockefeller
There are obviously many more that we could list here, and likely your list would differ from ours. But more importantly, there are many more polymaths out there that we don’t know of (yet at least). After all, you don’t have to be a billionaire or celebrity to be a polymath, you just have to meet the criteria defined above.
This takes us to the differences between the traditional and modern polymaths, and the skills needed today to get there.
The Traditional Polymath spent the majority of their time finding new information, which until recently was extremely difficult to do. Most fields of knowledge were in their infancy, presenting a different challenge and opportunity than we have today.
These traditional polymaths had to work hard to find the information they were seeking, requiring a clear idea of what they were looking for. After all, there was no Google (more on that shortly). Books were extremely hard to come by, and even with what was available there was a limited body of knowledge to build off of. For example, when early scientists wanted to learn about anatomy they had to make back-alley deals with morgues to illegally acquire dead bodies to dissect. That’s dedication!
But this also represented an opportunity. Polymaths could ‘master’ broad subjects and make significant contributions to those fields because the limited information provided curious minds with ample opportunities to make new discoveries.
Unfortunately, these opportunities weren’t available to everyone. Only a small proportion of the population historically has been able to read, and even fewer had access to books outside of possibly a family bible from which to learn. Books were remarkably expensive and privately held by the elite, who often didn’t want the lower classes educating themselves even if they could read.
In 1450, the world was forever changed by Johannes Gutenberg, a polymath himself, and his invention of the printing press. This started the Printing Revolution, which itself ushered in the modern period of human history. This invention directly led to the Renaissance, Age of Enlightenment, the scientific revolution and the world as we know it today.
Yet despite this groundbreaking innovation, it took a long time for the average person to become educated and thus able to begin accumulating knowledge. In 1820, 370 years after the printing press was invented, only 12% of the world could read and write. As of 2016, this number jumped to 88% worldwide, with literacy rates nearing 100% in most developed countries (Our World in Data).
The expansion of literacy across the globe has had a significant impact on reducing inequalities within and across countries, giving any literate commoner with access to books the ability to learn whatever they could get their hands on.
This brings up a key point in defining the modern polymath.
The Modern Polymath
Great news!!! In case you missed it, access to information is no longer a problem!
The answer to nearly any question you can think is but a click away. With Google, social media, and the unbelievable amount of sources available on the internet, you can search for nearly anything and quickly find pages of answers to your ‘question du jour’. Everything in today’s world is data, and data is everywhere.
Polymaths first develop a clear question in their mind of what they’re trying to answer and second find the info they’re looking for to answer this question or develop the skill.
This second point is where the huge difference appears with the modern polymath. One extremely important skill the modern day polymath must develop is to be able to sift through all the noise/bad data to find the answer you’re seeking. This couldn’t be more different from traditional polymaths, whose biggest limitation to acquiring new knowledge was access to information. It’s a great time to be alive.
But with all that information comes downsides you have to account for and workaround. Traditional polymaths didn’t have to worry about clickbait, gossip columns and a plethora of ill-informed opinions masked as information. Back then, it took a lot of work to create a book, especially prior to the printing press when they were hand-written by monks and scribes. But even with print, it took considerable time and resources to create the templates for the press and create a book. Therefore the information printed was usually carefully curated.
In the “Information Age” we now live, the modern polymath has to learn to sort through the crap, making up the large majority of what’s out there, to find the nugget of info they’re seeking. And this doesn’t mean just clicking on the first thing that comes up in Google. Look to see how credible the author is (e.g., how recent and timely is the information; has the author been cited and by whom?) and think critically about what they’re saying.
This is one of the most important and difficult skills we need to develop. The great news is that once you learn to view information through this critical lens it becomes much easier and faster to find the quality from the crap. And once you’ve gotten to that point, you can build a solid foundation of base knowledge within hours or days that you can then build off of.
So that begs the key question: how does one become a polymath?
The Path to Becoming a Polymath
The first thing to understand is that becoming a polymath is a life’s journey akin to a path of enlightenment. Getting on this path means you have to adopt the right mindset and accept the quest as an opportunity to learn, grow and be more interesting.
This term isn’t meant to be an elite, unachievable moniker that is listed in one’s obituary or on a tombstone. Rather, it’s an active pursuit to expand what you know and connect the dots between different ideas to be a more effective critical thinker, empowering you to make better decisions and continually become a better version of yourself.
Getting on this path is straightforward: strive to learn new things in a wide range of areas (diverse knowledge) and seek to find the wisdom in everything you learn. In other words, learning how to think along with learning how to learn quickly and efficiently. These then serve as the building blocks to think creatively around problems and find new solutions.
Start big picture, focusing on the main elements that make up the topic. From there, begin drilling down on each element, then moving to sub-elements and so on. Combining this top-down approach with consciously developing the skill to consolidate and internalize what you’ve learned (each time you add a new piece of the puzzle) and you’re on the road to mastery.
It’s important to note that 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 what you know is still relevant, otherwise, you’re no longer an expert and thus pulling from bad data…and that’s not good.
Once you’ve found the right info and consolidated the findings into a context that you can internalize, you’ll begin developing takeaways to keep you learning and growing. New knowledge in one area will lead to questions and possible solutions in another.
The key from here is to measure your progress to ensure what you’re learning is moving you towards your goal. As you track your progress, you need to continue to update what you’ve learned and how that drives your core knowledge base. This creates a “feedback loop” that will enable you to continually learn new concepts, update your learning agenda and eventually achieve mastery.
“Mastery” as a target depends on the subject and your goals, but, put simply, mastery is learning a subject well enough to be able to teach it to others. The depth and breadth of subject mastery depend on your goals. You don’t need to be a maestro at classical piano and flamingo guitar if your goal is to write a pop song. Plenty of the greatest songwriters were decent musicians at best, but they were adequate and made the most of what they had to succeed. Their goal was to express themselves that expressed what they felt more than to show off their chops on a specific instrument.
Unfortunately, there is a common culprit that derails most people’s pursuit of mastery regardless of the subject. The saddest part is that this is also a must to mastering anything. This is of course FAILURE.
Failure isn’t a final state or reflection of your character…in fact, a famous Chinese proverb argues that true failure can only be found by quitting, saying “Failure is not falling down, but refusing to get up.” Similarly, Confucius said “Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.” Therefore, this is a mindset that successful people embrace as an opportunity to learn and grow. According to Henry Ford, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, only this time more intelligently.”
Embracing failure is a core trait that underlies perseverance, a must for the modern polymath or truly for anyone trying to master anything. It’s imperative to acknowledge that failure is inevitable when learning anything new. The most successful people learn to embrace failure as a chance to grow because failure is required to achieve success.
The majority of our society shuns failure, yet a quick Google search on quotes about failure reveals numerous quotes by some of the most successful people in history. There is a clear correlation between willingness to accept failure and ultimate success. Like the Henry Ford quote above, Arianna Huffington said, “Failure is not the opposite of success; it’s part of success.”
Similarly, Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” A similar take comes from Oprah Winfrey who said, “Failure is a great teacher, and if you are open to it, every mistake has a lesson to offer.”
Thomas Edison is almost as famous for his perseverance as he is for his inventions. His most famous invention, the light bulb, took Edison making over 1,000 unsuccessful attempts before he succeeded. When a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
Lastly to ‘slam’ the point home (pun intended), Michael Jordan said:
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again. That is why I succeed.”
But the most important universal trait of a polymath is one that we’re all born with, and that can be seen in any child as they explore their new world: CURIOSITY.
Curiosity is a shared trait amongst most successful people, yet many who start off as a curious child become conditioned to a life of monotony and stagnation. But it doesn’t have to be this way!
Check out the following quotes from people much smarter than me who discussed the importance of curiosity:
“There is no better catalyst to success than curiosity.” –Michael Dell
“When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.” and “The four Cs as secret of my success: curiosity, confidence, courage, and constancy.” –Walt Disney
“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” –Albert Einstein
However, it is another quote from Einstein that provides us with an excellent framework for becoming a polymath:
“Success comes from CURIOSITY, CONCENTRATION, PERSEVERANCE and SELF CRITICISM.”
All polymaths are connected through these four traits, regardless of the multiple subjects they chose to pursue. Each and every polymath encouraged curiosity, focused on the topic they wished to learn, persevered through the inevitable difficult periods to obtain sufficient level of mastery, and were self-critical to ensure they were learning the right information and updating their knowledge with relevant info as it was discovered.
Learning something new can be a daunting task. This is why it’s so important to have a clear vision of what you want to learn, and the persistence to see it through. As a 39-time Grand Slam tennis legend, famed activist and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Billie Jean King said, “Champions keep playing until they get it right”.
Diverse Interests Lead to Greater Insights
Now that we’ve made failure our friend and accept it as a necessary building block to success, there is one last concept to cover to become a modern polymath.
We’ve already said that skill acquisition is relative. The more subjects you master the easier it is to see the interconnectivity between all things and pick up new skills without having to learn everything from scratch.
The final piece we’ll add to becoming a modern polymath is to embrace and pursue a diverse body of subjects. Since the polymath pulls from a wide body of knowledge to find innovative solutions, it is important to learn many things throughout life that will expand your horizons.
This is especially important in today’s world. Things are far more complex than ever before, and therefore decisions are going to have to take in a much broader and more diverse set of criteria than ever before in order to make a good decision. This has been shown to be true many examples over the years.
A great example comes from David Epstein’s book, “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” (a must-read for the modern polymath). Epstein found that Nobel Laureates (winners of the Nobel Prize) when compared to other scientists, were 22 times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or some other type of performer. Yes, 22x.
Similarly, 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 description than even their nationally recognized peers.
Also from “Range” comes a quote from Psychologist and prominent creativity researcher, Dean Keith Simonton, who said “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 having, 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.
A great example of diverse interests and mastery comes from America’s greatest polymath, Benjamin Franklin. His accomplishments are nearly inconceivable, having excelled and innovated more fields than we could possibly cover here.
Beyond being the face of the $100 bill, he was an author, inventor, printer, politician, scientist, entrepreneur, American statesman, diplomat, and much more. As one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, he earned the title “The First American” for his efforts to unite the colonies. He invented the bifocals, the lightning rod (ushering in the electrical era in the United States), founded Philadelphia’s first fire department and the University of Pennsylvania, wrote and published numerous books and articles. He was a pioneer in many fields including statistics, particularly important to data nerds like yours truly. He was also a chess master and even a musician and composer who could play several instruments and even designed improved instruments.
As America’s Ambassador to France he was critical in America winning the War of Independence by using his great wit and intelligence to secure France’s support, which many historians credit as the key turning point for the fledgling colonies. You could go on for pages describing his many accomplishments, and we would highly recommend Walter Isaacson’s biography. Isaacson, a modern polymath himself who has also written biographies on Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein amongst others, said that Franklin was “the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become.”
While it’s easy to look back on his accomplishments with praise and awe, the important question for us is how he became so knowledgeable and inventive. What drove his quest for brilliance? Put simply, curiosity in numerous fields, and the need to find solutions.
A great example of Franklin’s polymath mindset comes when he was a young boy with an interest in swimming. He wanted to find a way to swim faster, and in the process realized his lack of webbing on his hands and feet were holding him back. He then began experimenting and ultimately built paddles for his hands and flippers for his feet to move him faster through the water. Not just your normal kid walking the streets in the early 1700s.
It was this pursuit of advancement and solutions that drove him to become who he became. Long before the kite with a key and the post office, he was finding simple but inventive ways to improve. As one of 17 children in a poor family, his family could only afford two years of schooling. The remainder of his education was self-directed, yet he ended up establishing the first university in the United States.
Franklin’s story has many similarities to Leonardo da Vinci’s, history’s preeminent polymath and the original “Renaissance Man”. Despite no formal education, he pioneered more fields than arguably anyone in history. Beyond his legendary work as an artist, inventor, engineer, and scientist, he excelled in many other fields including architecture, music, mathematics, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography.
What’s important for us outside of the history lesson is to note that neither of these men’s status as polymaths was something they were born with, but something they made themselves into. Polymath isn’t a title. It’s a mindset and a quest. It’s something to strive for, and ultimately a way to describe a life well lived.
An encouraging thing to know is that every time you learn something new, it will get easier to learn the next skill or concept because you’ll continue to update how you learn more efficiently, and how to weed out the noise from the good information. This then creates a compounding effect where you can fluently bounce between topics and see the relativity between them.
This is what the polymath does. They pull from various different areas to solve problems. They recognize that everything is relative, and by being able to connect dots across different fields they’re able to come up with creative solutions that couldn’t be reached by someone who is only a subject matter expert in one specific area. They see the “big picture” in ways others can’t because of their knowledge base is both broad and deep, seeing connections and inspiration where most “experts” never even thought to look.
It’s like adding a new tool to your toolbox. When you first start out, you might have a hammer, screwdriver, and some pliers. But as you add more tools you realize how to best use each of these to more effectively and efficiently do the job you’re trying to do. The polymath’s toolbox is full of ‘tools’ so that they can objectively decide which tool to use, rather than being limited by a small set of tools.
But building this toolbox, these skillsets, requires a vision of what you want to achieve in life and what you’re interested in so that you can build a learning agenda that will help you define and reach your goals. No professional athlete just picked up a ball and was instantly the best in the world at that sport. Nor has a writer sat down and unintentionally written a book. It takes strategy, intentional effort and patience to accomplish anything. You have to have a clear target defined! You can’t hit a target if you don’t know what it is.
So first, you have to decide what it is you want to learn, then you can break down a learning path that will help you get there. A great shortcut is to find someone who has the life or skill that you want and reverse engineer how they got there. Most people are more than happy to share what they know if you’re willing to ask. Plus this can save you considerable time because they can likely steer you away from areas to avoid and keep you focused on what’s important to get you where you want to be.
Put simply, do these three things:
- Figure out what you want
- Figure out who has done it and done it well
- Figure out how they did it, or just ask them
With everything you learn, it’s critical to continue to put the pieces together to see the relativity across subjects. If you view every skill as disparate then you’re going to have a hard time getting where you want to be. But if you realize the connectivity between things and if you know what the goal you hope to achieve is then you’ll start to realize how things are connected, plus you’ll have the confidence to do it. Unfamiliar things will start feeling familiar and you’ll feel you’ve done something before because it isn’t that much different than something else you’ve learned to do previously. This is an extremely powerful insight.
Once you know your goal and you’re ready to start the process, it’s time to start putting all the information you’re learning together and figure out what is good and relevant, and what is noise that you need to omit.
Doing this will allow you to consolidate what you’ve learned into something you can internalize and thus start becoming an expert in that specific area.
In summary, to become a modern polymath you must:
- Be curious about a wide range of topics
- Have a clear question they want to answer or goal they want to reach
- Have the patience and skill to sort through the noise to find good information
- Persevere through the difficult times, embracing a willingness to fail as an opportunity to grow, moving one step closer to the goal
- Monitor and measure progress, developing a feedback loop to continually update knowledge to move towards or retain mastery
Finally, we’re going to explain the benefits of being a Modern Polymath and why you should strive to become one.
Why You Should Become a Modern Polymath
Now we’ve come to the most important part. Hopefully, by now you understand what a polymath is, and that in today’s world that nearly anyone can become one if they have the vision and put in the work. But why should you?
There are numerous reasons why, and the specifics will vary from person to person based on their situation, interests and needs. We’ve listed some great reasons below, but the list is far from comprehensive. Truthfully, there are obvious benefits from pursuing this path as well as subtle ones that will have a big impact over the long-term. The immediate rewards will be obvious, but don’t overlook the elements of delayed gratification that will consistently come as you forge your path.
The benefits largely fall under two major categories that work hand-in-hand to positively impact your life as well as those that you love and care about. Those are:
Let’s start with the personal. The drivers to become a modern polymath are unique to everyone. However, even if you don’t start out seeking one of the benefits listed, you’ll likely see the benefits simply as an outcome of going down this path.
Polymaths are by definition well-rounded, interesting, knowledgeable, relevant and more fulfilled while possessing superior critical thinking and out-of-the-box creative skills. Thus, by joining the path to becoming a polymath you’ll most importantly learn how you learn and enjoy many life-changing benefits. Some (but far from all) of the benefits of becoming a polymath are:
- Success in life (and learning what that really means to you)
- Increased self-confidence and self-worth
- More meaningful connections and relationships
- Becoming more interesting (you have to be interested to be interesting)
- Improved critical thinking and creativity
- Being well-rounded (jack-of-all-trades)
- Increased empathy
- Increased resilience
- Being able to talk and relate to anyone
- A life of learning, growth and purpose
- Futureproofing your career
- Life fulfillment and happiness (the sum of the parts above)
The benefits above have been lauded in the timeless wisdom of nearly every culture in history. Mirroring quotes cited earlier is a passage from the Atharvaveda, an ancient Vedic text written around 1200 BC that was foundational to Indian culture and multiple religions. It reads, “One, who acquires knowledge and then pass it on to others, gets all his wishes fulfilled and achieves success, happiness and prosperity in his life.”
The renowned 19th-century British philosopher James Allen said, “To begin to think with purpose, is to enter the ranks of those strong ones who only recognize failure as one of the pathways to attainment.”
Expanding on this is the contemporary author, philosopher and success coach Jack Canfield (co-author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series) who said, “Successful people maintain a positive focus in life no matter what is going on around them. They stay focused on their past successes rather than their past failures, and on the next action steps they need to take to get them closer to the fulfillment of their goals rather than all the other distractions that life presents to them.”
But it may have been put best by soccer legend Pele, who said, “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”
Some dozens more quotes and passages could be listed here, and we encourage you to find the ones that motivate you to take the step towards becoming a polymath (or put more eloquently by ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”).
The truly incredible thing is that this timeless wisdom has never been more relevant or achievable than it is today.
Anyone with the internet can answer nearly any question or begin learning a new skill while sitting on their couch, usually for free. Can you imagine what the old school polymaths would’ve given for this???
This access to information has the potential to empower mankind to ascend to a new level of humanity. The ability to become a better, more enlightened version of ourselves that our ancestors could only describe as superhuman is right there to be taken.
So then why haven’t we? What’s preventing hundreds upon thousands of people from leveraging the fact that all the information and wisdom mankind can be had with a click of a button??
The short answer is nothing, other than awareness of the concept and the determination to see it through. Obviously, that’s the major goal of this article, our Modern Polymath podcast, and much of our other work…along with numerous other people promoting the same ideals.
But in reality, the core issues are much bigger and more complex.
It’s easy to point to Facebook, tabloids reality TV and many other ‘guilty pleasures’ as culprits. And these are certainly channels we overuse that prevent us from furthering ourselves. Everyone needs their downtime to veg out, but as with anything moderation is key. Once today is gone it’s never coming back, so make the most of it.
However, the true reason boils down to the modern economy and ‘societal conditioning’.
We live in a highly specialized society, which is one of the foundational building blocks of capitalism and the developed world as we know it. The modern economy really came into its own during the Industrial Revolution, which occurred between the 18th and 19th centuries. While the early phase of the movement saw the rise of the mechanized factory system, machine tools and unprecedented population growth, it was the latter phase (also called the Second Industrial Revolution) that truly drove specialization as we know it today.
This phase of the Industrial Revolution is marked by innovations such as mass-production and the assembly line. The most well-known example of this move to the division of labor and hyper-specialization comes from Henry Ford’s assembly line process that he innovated to mass-produce automobiles.
The majority of employees in the Ford plant were unskilled workers who systematically built the cars. Ford designed the process so that anyone could come off the streets with no experience with cars and could immediately be trained with a few instructions to be a part of the assembly line. This allowed everyone to know their specific job and do it, time and time again, without having to know how to build a car from scratch. The engineers who fully understand how to design and build cars went from doing the labor to a small group who designed them to be produced in a systematic way on the assembly line. This led to a faster, cheaper and more efficient process that enabled numerous consumers to buy cars who otherwise would’ve never been able to afford them, all while creating unrivaled profit margins.
Needless to say, the model took off, making the division of labor, specialization and economies of scale become lynchpins of the global economy. Unfortunately, the specialization required inevitably leads to a decrease in self-sufficiency and people becoming inter-dependent on each other.
Adam Smith, the renowned 18th-century philosopher considered to be the founding father of capitalism and modern economics, discusses the inevitability and potential downsides of specialization of labor in his seminal work, The Wealth of Nations:
In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.
While much of what Smith said has proven true, much of this proposed theory was rendered obsolete when Sir Tim Berners-Lee introduced the World Wide Web in March of 1989 (we’ll give him a break since he wrote this in 1776, and it largely held up for nearly 300 years). However, much of this is changing in our modern Information Age.
Automation of jobs currently performed by humans represents one of today’s hottest topics. Millions fear that their jobs will be rendered obsolete by developing technology. The view we share with many others is that much of this is overblown and that many jobs will instead evolve to use AI-driven tools to be more efficient. However, there is no doubt that these changes will impact numerous citizens in the coming years.
Nearly every innovation in history has had both pros and cons, and there is little doubt that these developing innovations will follow suit. We’re not here to argue the good and bad sides of emergent technologies. Progression is natural and we’d encourage anyone to find a way to embrace the changes because the alternative of ‘digging your feet in the sand’ and refusing to change is the recipe to become irrelevant. After all, being in the horse-and-buggy industry was a profitable one until automobiles reached critical mass.
Instead, we’d recommend proactively futureproofing yourself. While jobs with monotonous tasks that can be easily replaced by automation, technology is highly unlikely to replace the need for critical thinking and creative solutions. Technology is a tool after all, and those who can think critically and make wise decisions are universally valued in high demand.
Steve Jobs once told Wired Magazine:
“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. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”
The reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or have thought more about their experiences than other people. 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…just owning the world around you and being interested in the countless opportunities life offers, knowing that everything is connected.
By embracing the modern polymath ideals, you will ensure that you are continuing to grow your skills and knowledge. Even jobs not at risk of automation have and will continue to require professionals to evolve their jobs and daily routines as technology and subsequent processes are introduced.
David Epstein’s aforementioned book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” provides an amazingly detailed explanation of our modern specialized world, providing significant support for a generalist approach. This generalist approach is what the modern polymath is all about. In the book, Epstein specifically shows that innovation is driven by a breadth of experience and interests, and cites the need for more polymaths in our society.
We completely agree, and hope you do too!
Technology brings us many wonderful things that most of us couldn’t live without now that we’ve experienced their benefits. It’s great to have countless options when you shop for clothes online, where previous generations were limited to the few options at the local store. But this also leads to a lot of decisions that you had to make that you did not have to make previously.
We process crazy abstract ideas every single day. Epstein points out that we see something like a download progress bar and instantly know what this means. We have to make increasingly complex decisions, regardless of your field, focus or interests. This is the world in which we live.
There is no doubt we need people to be hyper-specialized in many fields. If I’m having brain surgery then I want a brain surgeon doing the procedure, not a veterinarian or general dentist. We all have a core focus, but one can only benefit from pulling knowledge from a wide range of knowledge to be able to make better decisions in an increasingly complex world. Yet, regardless of your field or core focus, 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 uniquely capable of connecting ideas across diverse fields significantly better than a specialist.
As a society, we largely put our trust in experts, even though we’ve continually proven that experts are “terrible” at forecasting what is going to happen. These subject matter experts, such as pundits on TV, continue to make “infallible predictions” even though they’re rarely right. In fact, when an expert says something is ‘absolute going to happen, no chance it doesn’t’, they’re not even close to being right a full 25% of the time!
As a society, we put immense faith in the advice of experts. These experts can be seen on any cable news channel, with pundits screaming their intellectual superiority with absolute certainty. We see the same from politicians, journalists, academia, the corporate world and much more. Yet it turns out that these “experts” are truly terrible at making predictions about anything!
The acclaimed forecasting-expert Philip Tetlock analyzed over 28,000 predictions from 284 experts over a 20-year period and showed that our faith in these hyper-specialized experts is largely misplaced. The results, published in his 2005 book “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?” found that when experts said that some potential event was impossible that it still happened 15% of the time. And events claimed to be an absolute sure thing failed to happen 25% of the time.
In the case of cable news, Tetlock found a troubling inverse relationship between fame and accuracy. The more famous this pundit, the more likely they were to be wrong…famously describing them to be “roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee.”
How is this possible? The findings showed that these experts had an extremely narrow focus, having spent their entire careers studying one specific issue. Thus they developed explicit theories on the minute details of the topic without much domain knowledge on the many variables that made up the issue at hand. Any given political issue contains numerous variables pertaining to economics, politics, trade, international relationships, cultural differences, and much, much more. So while someone might have spent their career intensely studying one of these issues, it’s unlikely that they studied the many adjacent issues that are also taken into consideration.
Therefore it should be pretty clear that everyone can benefit from a wide range of knowledge to pull from. It could change your life and our world for the better. All you have to do is to decide to do it and see it through. The path to becoming a polymath is a life’s journey that leads to a fulfilled existence, a life well-lived.
Every day the world grows more complex, so it’s never been more important to think outside of the box with critical thinking and creativity that pulls from many places. It will make us all better.
But we don’t have to rely solely on our individual expertise and capabilities to gain the knowledge base to pull from. For the first time, we can build communities from all over the world where people can contribute ideas and their expertise to literally crowdsource critical thinking.
It’s more than just having access to the information. It’s having access to other people who also have their own knowledge and the ability to help you navigate and refine your questions and understanding of whatever topic you’re interested in. More often than not, the question on your mind has been asked and debated before on the countless forums covering nearly any topic you can think of.
You can get the perspective of other people thinking about the same issue or asking similar questions you are without even getting involved initially. You can sort through people’s comments to hone in on the collective wisdom already there as well as to narrow the field of people down to those you think can help you get where you want to get, and potentially together you can get much further than going at it solo.
Granted, this makes sifting through the noise even more important. But communities of people you trust who bring great ideas to the table, pulling from their own knowledge base to contribute to the larger idea or question is much greater than a sum of its parts. Good people know other good people they respect, and with social channels like Reddit, Quora, Github, and Facebook you can access and share with people in a way that was never possible until right now.
The Modern Polymath at its best is a group of people individually on the path to becoming their own version of a Polymath while overlapping their interests and skills with others in complementary fields. There’s great evidence of this power in Netflix’s new documentary “Diagnosis”, which highlights people using online communities to crowdsource diagnoses of rare medical conditions.
Github is a great example of this open-source community where its members make each other better. Software developers can share and collaborate on ideas from anywhere, sharing code plus many forms of programming within the community to conceptualize, test, troubleshoot and more.
Crowdsourcing platforms like Kickstarter allow entrepreneurs to put concepts out to reach potential customers, who can then contribute ideas and opinions to refine the concept to its final state. This is market research at its best, and by giving the consumers a voice and some ownership in the product the entrepreneur is building their tribe in the form of a loyal customer base in the process. Similarly, Betabrand allows fashion designers to share clothing concepts with its community of fashion-forward early adopters who contribute to the development of the final product and receive a nice discount for their participation, while the designer can presell items to proactively forecast sales and inventory.
These are early days in the field of communal collaboration. Technology such as 3D printing will soon reach maturity, empowering inventors and designers to rapidly and inexpensively produce and test prototypes in countless forms to share with potential users and iterate the offering in ways never seen before.
But these examples could pale in comparison to the potential impact of communities of modern polymaths sharing ideas to solve the increasingly complex problems we all face. The impact could change the world as we know it for the better.
However, the opposite is also true. If we continue to rely on ever-more-niche specialists whose expertise doesn’t extend past their deep understanding of a very narrow field then our increasingly complex world will be driven by one-dimensional anecdotes rather than the holistic solutions driven by critical thinking that we desperately need.
So who should become the modern polymath, and what do they look like?
The answer is, quite simply, anyone. Entrepreneurs, community activists, executives, religious leaders, salespeople, builders, scholars, engineers, doctors…literally anyone. Whatever your life looks like, it can only look better taking this approach.
We’re not polymaths. Not yet anyway. But are on the path, and will be for life. Honestly, once you embrace the idea and start to see how much richer and better your life is as a result then there’s no way you can go back to the way you were before. This approach makes you open your eyes and experience things you’ve never noticed before, and once this awakening starts you’ll even start to see familiar things in a new, more connected light.
We started the podcast and wrote this piece to explain the merit of this lifelong pursuit hoping that others would benefit from it…because the more that do, the better we’ll all be. All four of us recognized that as a connected and supportive community who respect each other’s views we can be exponentially smarter and wiser than what we could do individually. Teams of people who can push each other and help each other grow will all be better because of it. We passionately believe that a world with more informed, interesting and well-rounded people living fulfilling lives can only be a good thing.
Just remember, the modern polymath is a journey. It’s a mindset and something to strive for so we never stop becoming better versions of ourselves. That’s what we’ve all set out to do, and we hope you’ll join us.
“To be interesting, you must first be interested.”
Those of us behind “The Modern Polymath” podcast and blog are a group of curious people who like to answer questions and solve problems that are interesting to us. So we decided to start this show to talk about topics we find interesting in our world to learn from each other and continue to grow.
We’re sure some of the stuff we talk about won’t interest a lot of people. That’s what’s great about interests…you get to choose your own. Of course, we hope the content will interest people in business, technology, leadership, and many other subjects. But what’s most important to us is spreading the idea that anyone can be a polymath.
Please connect with us to let us know what you think of the topics we discuss as well as to suggest other things that you the community will find interesting. Even better, start your own pod of modern polymaths and let us know what you’re finding!