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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 September 20, 2018

How to Stay Calm and Cool When You Are Extremely Stressful

How to Stay Calm and Cool When You Are Extremely Stressful

Being in a hurry all the time drains your energy. Your work and routine life make you feel overwhelmed. Getting caught up in things beyond your control stresses you out…

If you’d like to stay calm and cool in stressful situations, put the following 8 steps into practice:

1. Breathe

The next time you’re faced with a stressful situation that makes you want to hurry, stop what you’re doing for one minute and perform the following steps:

  • Take five deep breaths in and out (your belly should come forward with each inhale).
  • Imagine all that stress leaving your body with each exhale.
  • Smile. Fake it if you have to. It’s pretty hard to stay grumpy with a goofy grin on your face.

Feel free to repeat the above steps every few hours at work or home if you need to.

2. Loosen up

After your breathing session, perform a quick body scan to identify any areas that are tight or tense. Clenched jaw? Rounded shoulders? Anything else that isn’t at ease?

Gently touch or massage any of your body parts that are under tension to encourage total relaxation. It might help to imagine you’re in a place that calms you: a beach, hot tub, or nature trail, for example.

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3. Chew slowly

Slow down at the dinner table if you want to learn to be patient and lose weight. Shoveling your food down as fast as you can is a surefire way to eat more than you need to (and find yourself with a bellyache).

Be a mindful eater who pays attention to the taste, texture, and aroma of every dish. Chew slowly while you try to guess all of the ingredients that were used to prepare your dish.

Chewing slowly will also reduce those dreadful late-night cravings that sneak up on you after work.

4. Let go

Cliche as it sounds, it’s very effective.

The thing that seems like the end of the world right now?

It’s not. Promise.

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Stressing and worrying about the situation you’re in won’t do any good because you’re already in it, so just let it go.

Letting go isn’t easy, so here’s a guide to help you:

21 Things To Do When You Find It Hard To Let Go

5. Enjoy the journey

Focusing on the end result can quickly become exhausting. Chasing a bold, audacious goal that’s going to require a lot of time and patience? Split it into several mini-goals so you’ll have several causes for celebration.

Stop focusing on the negative thoughts. Giving yourself consistent positive feedback will help you grow patience, stay encouraged, and find more joy in the process of achieving your goals.

6. Look at the big picture

The next time you find your stress level skyrocketing, take a deep breath, and ask yourself:

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Will this matter to me…

  • Next week?
  • Next month?
  • Next year?
  • In 10 years?

Hint: No, it won’t.

I bet most of the stuff that stresses you wouldn’t matter the next week, maybe not even the next day.

Stop agonizing over things you can’t control because you’re only hurting yourself.

7. Stop demanding perfection of yourself

You’re not perfect and that’s okay. Show me a person who claims to be perfect and I’ll show you a dirty liar.

Demanding perfection of yourself (or anybody else) will only stress you out because it just isn’t possible.

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8. Practice patience every day

Below are a few easy ways you can practice patience every day, increasing your ability to remain calm and cool in times of stress:

  • The next time you go to the grocery store, get in the longest line.
  • Instead of going through the drive-thru at your bank, go inside.
  • Take a long walk through a secluded park or trail.

Final thoughts

Staying calm in stressful situations is possible, all you need is some daily practice.

Taking deep breaths and eat mindfully are some simple ways to train your brain to be more patient. But changing the way you think of a situation and staying positive are most important in keeping cool whenever you feel overwhelmed and stressful.

Featured photo credit: Brooke Cagle via unsplash.com

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