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How to Become a Modern Day Polymath

How to Become a Modern Day Polymath

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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How to Become a Modern Day Polymath

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Last Updated on March 13, 2019

How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

Have you gotten into a rut before? Or are you in a rut right now?

You know you’re in a rut when you run out of ideas and inspiration. I personally see a rut as a productivity vacuum. It might very well be a reason why you aren’t getting results. Even as you spend more time on your work, you can’t seem to get anything constructive done. While I’m normally productive, I get into occasional ruts (especially when I’ve been working back-to-back without rest). During those times, I can spend an entire day in front of the computer and get nothing done. It can be quite frustrating.

Over time, I have tried and found several methods that are helpful to pull me out of a rut. If you experience ruts too, whether as a working professional, a writer, a blogger, a student or other work, you will find these useful. Here are 12 of my personal tips to get out of ruts:

1. Work on the small tasks.

When you are in a rut, tackle it by starting small. Clear away your smaller tasks which have been piling up. Reply to your emails, organize your documents, declutter your work space, and reply to private messages.

Whenever I finish doing that, I generate a positive momentum which I bring forward to my work.

2. Take a break from your work desk.

Get yourself away from your desk and go take a walk. Go to the washroom, walk around the office, go out and get a snack.

Your mind is too bogged down and needs some airing. Sometimes I get new ideas right after I walk away from my computer.

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3. Upgrade yourself

Take the down time to upgrade yourself. Go to a seminar. Read up on new materials (#7). Pick up a new language. Or any of the 42 ways here to improve yourself.

The modern computer uses different typefaces because Steve Jobs dropped in on a calligraphy class back in college. How’s that for inspiration?

4. Talk to a friend.

Talk to someone and get your mind off work for a while.

Talk about anything, from casual chatting to a deep conversation about something you really care about. You will be surprised at how the short encounter can be rejuvenating in its own way.

5. Forget about trying to be perfect.

If you are in a rut, the last thing you want to do is step on your own toes with perfectionist tendencies.

Just start small. Do what you can, at your own pace. Let yourself make mistakes.

Soon, a little trickle of inspiration will come. And then it’ll build up with more trickles. Before you know it, you have a whole stream of ideas.

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6. Paint a vision to work towards.

If you are continuously getting in a rut with your work, maybe there’s no vision inspiring you to move forward.

Think about why you are doing this, and what you are doing it for. What is the end vision in mind?

Make it as vivid as possible. Make sure it’s a vision that inspires you and use that to trigger you to action.

7. Read a book (or blog).

The things we read are like food to our brain. If you are out of ideas, it’s time to feed your brain with great materials.

Here’s a list of 40 books you can start off with. Stock your browser with only the feeds of high quality blogs, such as Lifehack.org, DumbLittleMan, Seth Godin’s Blog, Tim Ferris’ Blog, Zen Habits or The Personal Excellence Blog.

Check out the best selling books; those are generally packed with great wisdom.

8. Have a quick nap.

If you are at home, take a quick nap for about 20-30 minutes. This clears up your mind and gives you a quick boost. Nothing quite like starting off on a fresh start after catching up on sleep.

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9. Remember why you are doing this.

Sometimes we lose sight of why we do what we do, and after a while we become jaded. A quick refresher on why you even started on this project will help.

What were you thinking when you thought of doing this? Retrace your thoughts back to that moment. Recall why you are doing this. Then reconnect with your muse.

10. Find some competition.

Nothing quite like healthy competition to spur us forward. If you are out of ideas, then check up on what people are doing in your space.

Colleagues at work, competitors in the industry, competitors’ products and websites, networking conventions.. you get the drill.

11. Go exercise.

Since you are not making headway at work, might as well spend the time shaping yourself up.

Sometimes we work so much that we neglect our health and fitness. Go jog, swim, cycle, whichever exercise you prefer.

As you improve your physical health, your mental health will improve, too. The different facets of ourselves are all interlinked.

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Here’re 15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It).

12. Take a good break.

Ruts are usually signs that you have been working too long and too hard. It’s time to get a break.

Beyond the quick tips above, arrange for a 1-day or 2-days of break from your work. Don’t check your (work) emails or do anything work-related. Relax and do your favorite activities. You will return to your work recharged and ready to start.

Contrary to popular belief, the world will not end from taking a break from your work. In fact, you will be much more ready to make an impact after proper rest. My best ideas and inspiration always hit me whenever I’m away from my work.

Take a look at this to learn the importance of rest: The Importance of Scheduling Downtime

More Resources About Getting out of a Rut

Featured photo credit: Joshua Earle via unsplash.com

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