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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 January 21, 2020

The Best Way to Create a Vision for the Life You Want

The Best Way to Create a Vision for the Life You Want

Creating a vision for your life might seem like a frivolous, fantastical waste of time, but it’s not: creating a compelling vision of the life you want is actually one of the most effective strategies for achieving the life of your dreams. Perhaps the best way to look at the concept of a life vision is as a compass to help guide you to take the best actions and make the right choices that help propel you toward your best life.

your vision of where or who you want to be is the greatest asset you have

    Why You Need a Vision

    Experts and life success stories support the idea that with a vision in mind, you are more likely to succeed far beyond what you could otherwise achieve without a clear vision. Think of crafting your life vision as mapping a path to your personal and professional dreams. Life satisfaction and personal happiness are within reach. The harsh reality is that if you don’t develop your own vision, you’ll allow other people and circumstances to direct the course of your life.

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    How to Create Your Life Vision

    Don’t expect a clear and well-defined vision overnight—envisioning your life and determining the course you will follow requires time, and reflection. You need to cultivate vision and perspective, and you also need to apply logic and planning for the practical application of your vision. Your best vision blossoms from your dreams, hopes, and aspirations. It will resonate with your values and ideals, and will generate energy and enthusiasm to help strengthen your commitment to explore the possibilities of your life.

    What Do You Want?

    The question sounds deceptively simple, but it’s often the most difficult to answer. Allowing yourself to explore your deepest desires can be very frightening. You may also not think you have the time to consider something as fanciful as what you want out of life, but it’s important to remind yourself that a life of fulfillment does not usually happen by chance, but by design.

    It’s helpful to ask some thought-provoking questions to help you discover the possibilities of what you want out of life. Consider every aspect of your life, personal and professional, tangible and intangible. Contemplate all the important areas, family and friends, career and success, health and quality of life, spiritual connection and personal growth, and don’t forget about fun and enjoyment.

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    Some tips to guide you:

    • Remember to ask why you want certain things
    • Think about what you want, not on what you don’t want.
    • Give yourself permission to dream.
    • Be creative. Consider ideas that you never thought possible.
    • Focus on your wishes, not what others expect of you.

    Some questions to start your exploration:

    • What really matters to you in life? Not what should matter, what does matter.
    • What would you like to have more of in your life?
    • Set aside money for a moment; what do you want in your career?
    • What are your secret passions and dreams?
    • What would bring more joy and happiness into your life?
    • What do you want your relationships to be like?
    • What qualities would you like to develop?
    • What are your values? What issues do you care about?
    • What are your talents? What’s special about you?
    • What would you most like to accomplish?
    • What would legacy would you like to leave behind?

    It may be helpful to write your thoughts down in a journal or creative vision board if you’re the creative type. Add your own questions, and ask others what they want out of life. Relax and make this exercise fun. You may want to set your answers aside for a while and come back to them later to see if any have changed or if you have anything to add.

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    What Would Your Best Life Look Like?

    Describe your ideal life in detail. Allow yourself to dream and imagine, and create a vivid picture. If you can’t visualize a picture, focus on how your best life would feel. If you find it difficult to envision your life 20 or 30 years from now, start with five years—even a few years into the future will give you a place to start. What you see may surprise you. Set aside preconceived notions. This is your chance to dream and fantasize.

    A few prompts to get you started:

    • What will you have accomplished already?
    • How will you feel about yourself?
    • What kind of people are in your life? How do you feel about them?
    • What does your ideal day look like?
    • Where are you? Where do you live? Think specifics, what city, state, or country, type of community, house or an apartment, style and atmosphere.
    • What would you be doing?
    • Are you with another person, a group of people, or are you by yourself?
    • How are you dressed?
    • What’s your state of mind? Happy or sad? Contented or frustrated?
    • What does your physical body look like? How do you feel about that?
    • Does your best life make you smile and make your heart sing? If it doesn’t, dig deeper, dream bigger.

    It’s important to focus on the result, or at least a way-point in your life. Don’t think about the process for getting there yet—that’s the next stepGive yourself permission to revisit this vision every day, even if only for a few minutes. Keep your vision alive and in the front of your mind.

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    Plan Backwards

    It may sound counter-intuitive to plan backwards rather than forwards, but when you’re planning your life from the end result, it’s often more useful to consider the last step and work your way back to the first. This is actually a valuable and practical strategy for making your vision a reality.

    • What’s the last thing that would’ve had to happen to achieve your best life?
    • What’s the most important choice you would’ve had to make?
    • What would you have needed to learn along the way?
    • What important actions would you have had to take?
    • What beliefs would you have needed to change?
    • What habits or behaviors would you have had to cultivate?
    • What type of support would you have had to enlist?
    • How long will it have taken you to realize your best life?
    • What steps or milestones would you have needed to reach along the way?

    Now it’s time to think about your first step, and the next step after that. Ponder the gap between where you are now and where you want to be in the future. It may seem impossible, but it’s quite achievable if you take it step-by-step.

    It’s important to revisit this vision from time to time. Don’t be surprised if your answers to the questions, your technicolor vision, and the resulting plans change. That can actually be a very good thing; as you change in unforeseeable ways, the best life you envision will change as well. For now, it’s important to use the process, create your vision, and take the first step towards making that vision a reality.

    Featured photo credit: Matt Noble via unsplash.com

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