You may have met people that have shown polymath tendencies in the past, who brought new meaning to the term “well-rounded”. This may be the class valedictorian who, in additional to outstanding grades, is also a gifted violinist, competitive swimmer and helps run experiments at the nearby university. It may be the girl you met while volunteering at the hospital who has won several national math competitions, speaks multiple languages and runs a small business on the side.
A polymath is a person who excels across a diverse range of areas. Also known as “renaissance men”, the term was used to refer to the numerous great thinkers that lived during that time period and boasted achievements in intellectual, social, artistic and physical pursuits. Notable examples throughout history include Benjamin Franklin (writer, politician, inventor, scientist), Imhotep (chancellor, architect, physician) and Leonardo da Vinci (scientist, artist, philosopher, writer, inventor).
Nowadays, it is difficult to find polymaths in the wild after university. As we make our way through school, we’re told constantly to specialize. Eventually, we get to the point where we are considered ‘experts’ in our field. In fact, a running joke is that a PhD thesis will be read by you, your advisor and the examining committee – because nobody else will understand it! A lot of career advice these days focus on specialization and finding your niche. Being a jack-of-all-trades is frowned upon as are those who can’t seem to stick to an area of focus. So how do we bring back that individual who wants to divide their efforts and accomplishments over many fields?
1. Be Curious and Open to Learning
Polymaths aren’t motivated by fame or the need to impress. They simply want to learn about everything that interests them. This also has a positive effect on improving our brains – in fact, many have compared the brain to a muscle in that we need to either “use it or lose it”. Multiple studies have shown that increasing mental stimulation (ie. by continuing to form new connections through active learning) helps with memory retention and decreases the risks of cognitive decline.
It’s never too late to pick up a new area to add to your repertoire of skills and careers. By all accounts, Leonardo da Vinci originally trained as an artist under the tutelage of Andrea del Verrocchio during which he first acquired a number of artistic (painting, sculpting, drawing) and technical (carpentry, mechanics, drafting, metalwork) skills that would serve as the foundation for his later innovations in engineering and contributions to the fields of anatomy and biomechanics.
2. Cultivate Multiple Passions and Interests
Unlike specialists who will happily live and breathe their area for years on end, polymaths will have many different areas they are interested in exploring further. Think back to your childhood? Did you enjoy drawing? Building? What were your hobbies when you were in middle school? Young children are fascinated with the world around them and possess an inclination to explore and try out different things. As we progress through the structured educational systems in place, much of our natural curiosity gets stamped out in the process.
To regain it, you have to explore outside your usual areas. All growth and learning occurs outside your comfort zone. There might even be a common thread linking through your interests. Many polymaths including Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes have made a number of significant contributions towards in mathematics and physics. Yet many of them were also philosophers who wrote at length about their efforts to make better sense of the world around them.
3. Don’t Worry About Being Perfect
Malcolm Gladwell may have popularized the 10,000 hours rule, but want to know a secret? You don’t need to be the top in your field to be a polymath. You just have to be better than average. That’s it. If one of your interests is tennis, do you think it really matters whether you’re ranked 45th or 128th in the world? The fact that you’re ranked means that you’re already heads and shoulders above the crowd. So while it’s good to strive for excellence in all fields, it’s also equally important to remember that we only have a finite amount of time and energy.
It’s also worth noting that you don’t need to know everything in your field in order to be an expert. For example, a person who can recognize the 1000 most common Chinese characters already has a 90% understanding of the Chinese language. When this is increased to 2000 characters, their knowledge of Chinese increases to 97%. Think about it – learning an extra 1000 characters for a mere 7% boost in knowledge! It’s the same with any other field, not just languages.
4. Reject Gatekeepers
Despite the aspiring polymath’s willingness to learn, they may still run up against numerous gatekeepers in their quest for knowledge. These can run the gamut from admission committees to managers at work to literary agents to subject prerequisites. When Benjamin Franklin’s brother refused to publish his writing, he made up a pseudonym – Mrs Silence Dogood and submitted his pieces under that name instead. Those letters soon became the talk of the town, such were their popularity.
Is there an interest that you’ve been putting off because you felt that you weren’t qualified? The rise of the internet has made it easier than ever to pick up a skill and learn from experienced teachers. Youtube alone boasts thousands of educational and DIY video tutorials. Previously exclusive university courses are now available to anyone with a working internet connection through platforms such as Coursera and edX.
Part of Gottfried Liebniz’s success can be attributed to the vast library he inherited from his university professor father at age 6 after the latter passed away. It enabled him access to a number of advanced texts that otherwise wouldn’t have been available until he began college. The large number of Latin texts he read also resulted in him being proficient in Latin by age 12.
5. Set Realistic Goals and Follow Through.
Every single polymath in history had one thing one in common: all of them were very hardworking with extraordinary levels of productivity. Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule reveals how he was able to accomplish so much over his lifetime. Every day, he has specific blocks of time set aside for deep work as well as time to unwind and for reflection. As well, at the beginning of each day, he would ask himself what his goal was for the day and then evaluating this prior to sleeping.
Remember, the term ‘Polymath’ has never been synonymous with the term ‘overnight success’. Indeed, history can show that every single polymath’s success was the result of years of dedication to their craft and studies. This is why their names still live on to this day. What is one small step that you could be taking towards your goal today?
Featured photo credit: Ed Gregory/Stokpic via stokpic.com