How to become a polymath

polymath

Ever worried you have too many interests?

Maybe you feel like you don’t have enough time for your varied projects and hobbies.

Or perhaps you just bought into the cultural cliche that a jack of all trades masters none.

Either way, there’s a new renaissance underway, evangelising the benefits of polymathy versus the pursuit of hyper-specialisation.

So let’s dive in.

What is a polymath?

Merriam-Webster defines a polymath as,

“A person of encyclopedic learning.”

That might sound like a daunting description of capabilities needed to make the grade.

But knowing a little about a lot still counts, and can take us deeper into the realms of human knowledge than most are willing to dive.

My story

I think it’s safe to say that I’ve never been a polymath, at least not a successful one.

But like many humans, I have leanings in that direction.

There’s something rather romantic about being able to wrestle a bear, build a shelter and write a novel, without breaking a sweat.

The closest I’ve come to such cross-disciplinary proficiency may be with different sports which admittedly, still fall under the same umbrella of physical exercise.

I remember a point when I was younger and having to decide whether to go all-in on tennis or play various sports in their respective seasons.

After much deliberation, I chose the latter, because I enjoy variety.

Now, undoubtedly, this decision had implications for my tennis achievements but looking back, I don’t regret the decision.

This article is as much for me as it is for you dear reader.

In my desire to develop more of a beginner’s mindset, learn new skills and explore other areas of interest, I thought I’d learn more about the dark art of polymathy.

Specialising

So if being a polymath is so good, why does society celebrate the hyper-specialised?

Well, I feel there are two main factors, both on more of a market level that’s filtered down into individual approaches to work and leisure.

The first has its roots in the industrial revolution.

Throughout history, renaissance men were fairly ubiquitous, Leonardo Da Vinci said to be as proud of his ability to bend iron bars as painting the Mona Lisa.

However, for factory owners, such disparate skills weren’t of much use.

The Adam Smith school of economics was all about output, with business magnates realising they could maximise returns by distilling the manufacturing process down to its components, to be fulfilled by specialists.

While knowledge work doesn’t lend itself to such repetitive tasks, physical work, however one-focused, can be endured due to flow mind state it creates.

The second factor centres around human psychology.

Who would you prefer to see for your all-important heart surgery – a surgeon who operates on every human appendage, or a specialist who’s spent his whole career researching, analysing and healing hearts? Exactly.

Consumers seek those who can best solve their problem, and invariably this is the people who speak most clearly to our particular need.

The old marketing aphorism comes into play here:

“In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare.”

You see this routinely with new businesses, which aim to bite off a small piece of the market pie by focusing on a narrow market segment.

On the flipside, you just have to enter a restaurant with laminated menus, selling everything from pizza to curry, to know that the quality of food may be questionable.

And let’s face it, the results from these approaches is pretty good when concerned with pure output.

The factory worker who’s specialised in widgets his whole life will likely churn out more than his multi-tasking counterpart.

And the business that goes niche and targets a specific market segment will undoubtedly carve a profitable area for themselves, as opposed to the business that tries to do it all.

But there are some pretty big pitfalls of going hyper specialist, as we shall now cover.

The specialist problems

Change

As we specialise and become masters of a single craft, it can be hard to change as the field evolves.

We’ve all observed the old professor trope, doggedly defending their territory when a young upstart tries to instigate change.

As we achieve mastery in one field, it becomes tempting to resist advancement.

The beginner’s mindset is easily forgotten and the necessity of further learning disregarded.

Innovation

When we’re so focussed on our prized domain to the exclusion of all else, it’s far harder to generate new ideas. Due to limited exposure, we simply don’t possess the ability cross-fertilise our ideas.

Some of the most notable innovations have been created by polymaths combining principles at the cross-section of seemingly divergent disciplines.

Take Richard Feynman, who only deduced his Nobel Prize-winning theory by spinning a plate on his finger.

He was also an expert safecracker and accomplished artist.

Indeed, whole new fields of study have emerged due to combining different elements of knowledge in unusual ways. 

It’s tough at the top

When you specialise, it’s much harder to compete, especially in a word class cadre.

Going up against other specialists means you have to be at the top of your game, which, unless you’re extremely gifted, is very hard.

Being a polymath provides unique opportunities…

Scott Adams, the creator of the wildly successful comic, Dilbert says you have two options:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

While the first strategy is nigh-on impossible, he says, the second is relatively straightforward,

“In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare.”

Such opportunities exist everywhere.

What seemingly unrelated talents could you combine that provide leverage in your own life?

Technology

There’s one inescapable fact – technology is advancing apace, progress largely facilitated due to the replacement of specialists with their more efficient machine counterparts.

Just look at the factory floor, where you have hyper specialised machines doing one job, all day every day.

As soon as that technology becomes cheaper, safer and more productive than meat, bye-bye humans.

Machine learning and AI is not quite at the level where it can fulfil cross-disciplinary functions, so by embracing the polymath philosophy, we can look to future proof ourselves (for the time being at least).

Benefits of being a polymath

There are many benefits to being a cross-discipline autodidact. Let’s take a look.

Power

Knowing that you can learn anything provides a huge boost of self-confidence. Carol Dweck, the celebrated psychologist, calls this the Growth Mindset.

When you realise you have the ability to master any topic, given the inclination, it provides a tremendous sense of power and control of your future.

Adaptability

So many people blame their external circumstances for their life situation, aspersions which are rooted in fear. When you become responsive enough to learn about a new field and apply that learning to your existing skill set, you become extremely agile, flexible enough to adapt to any new situation.

If your job is suddenly in jeopardy, you have other skills and areas of interest to fall back on.

Engagement

Becoming an expert in one thing feels good, but what happens when you reach the top of the mountain?

You become bored and discontent.

Humans are wired for novelty and to engage with changing states. It’s not really the summit we enjoy, but the journey.

To develop that same zest and enthusiasm, we must pick another mountain to climb.

Interest

Achieving mastery in one subject and being a monopath in our pursuits can make us boing. Imagine going to a dinner party and sitting next to someone who’s only interest was cell biology.

Unless you have a particular attraction towards the subject yourself, it’ll be a long night!

Conversely, sitting beside someone with numerous interests and expertise means the conversation can flow in many different directions and intersect with your own interests.

Excitement

Being willing to learn new things can naturally push us towards new and novel situations.

If you develop a keen interest in a particular language, for example, it might encourage you to live in that country for extra immersion.

Perhaps you’re interested in stand up comedy, which motivates you to do some local gigs. All good story material of a life well-lived.

How do you become a polymath? 

In order to become a proficient polymath, it all starts with curiosity.

On the surface, this might seem pretty damn obvious, but it’s surprising how we forget this childhood-like state as we pursue external rewards on the treadmill of life.

The subject you pick to learn can come from a general interest or an area of learning that would contribute to existing skills or knowledge.

Don’t preclude the general interest route.

Often it’s better to start here, rather than forcing yourself to learn something you think you should.

If you’re interested in woodwork, simply read a few blog articles or pick up a book.

Want to know more about coding? Download an app and write a few lines. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

The Pareto Principle

Okay, I’m putting this at the start, because it’s pretty mind-blowing how this seemingly universal law can also be applied to skill acquisition.

The Pareto Principle states that 20% of inputs are responsible for 80% of outputs and vice versa, a heuristic visible over a diaspora of disciplines, from agriculture to tech and now polymathy!

In this article, Techcrunch runs the numbers on the application of the principle in the learning domain.

Take a look at the image below and you can see the diminishing returns of investing additional years of study to achieve mastery in a subject.

Conversely, achieving a 20% competence in a new field is possible in a mere two months. Just imagine the possibilities!

You could increase your knowledge of divergent disciplines 18-fold in a mere three years.

Decide on your style

Do you want to pursue a disciplined path to polymathy or an opportunistic approach to learning?

Whereas Leonardo Da Vinci leveraged his existing skills and knowledge as stepping stones to related fields, Benjamin Franklin pursued completely opportunistic curiosity cravings:

Read more

Most of the successful people in the world are voracious readers, setting aside time each day to expand their minds.

If you have polymathic leanings, this should be an instinctive, rather than a forced urge.

Don’t enjoy reading? You can always start small and read a few pages a day or pick a different format, like audiobooks, to learn more about your chosen field.

Experiment

There are so many subjects out there that might interest you, and the true ability of a polymath lies in their ability to possess a little knowledge about a lot of things.

While you might discover a subject that becomes a lifelong passion, don’t discount the value of short experiments or 30-day challenges, where you focus intently on one subject, attempting to learn as much as you can.

That gives you enough time to get a good understanding of the topic, realise if you want to go deeper with it, before moving onto another area.

Learn how to learn

It’s said that Bill Gates has 90% retention when he reads.

Being an effective learner will accelerate your polymathic endeavours like nothing else.

There’s a skill and method to learning that we’re not always taught in school.

Techniques might include spaced repetition, self-testing or documenting and re-teaching your learning.

This way you can truly get a handle on the subject.

Patience

Pursuing polymathy isn’t advisable to get somewhere in life, although it can definitely be a byproduct.

It’s far better to challenge yourself due to the intrinsic desire to learn more about the world, insofar as it’s an activity that produces its own reward.

This naturally requires patience and is more of a life philosophy rather than an approach that provides quick wins.

Join clubs and groups

When you’ve established a general interest in a subject, learning can be in accelerated in the presence of others, helped by joining clubs and groups.

Sharing your progress with others provides important feedback, exposing you to new ideas and methods. It also helps you remain motivated. 

Find mentors

The next step if you develop a deeper interest in a topic is finding a mentor.

While you can be the best autodidact, learning directly from an expert can help you avoid common pitfalls that might take years to circumnavigate. 

The arguments against polymathy

Many monopaths use excuses to justify their inaction in tackling new topics.

The one thing fallacy

As if we’re miniature automatons rolling off a conveyor belt, many of us buy into the belief that we’re only designed for one thing.

Although this is likely rooted in feelings of inferiority when comparing ourselves to the success stories pervading popular media, it’s actually a fallacy.

We all have the ability to accrue new knowledge and skills, wherever we are in life and whatever our current job.

I’m too old

There’s certainly a cultural belief that it’s harder to learn as we get older.

However, studies show that neuroplasticity, the process by which new connections are formed within the brain, are developed so long as we challenge ourselves to learn new things.

In addition, with the application of the 80/20 rule outlined above, we only require two months of concerted study to achieve relative competence, blowing age concerns out of the water.

I don’t have time

To be fair, this isn’t exclusive to polymathy and applies as an excuse during any resistance to positive action.

Learning new skills and gaining knowledge, like anything, takes time.

If you’re inherently drawn towards a particular topic, there has to be a willingness to invest your personal resources in the pursuit.

I’ll never get good at multiple skills

Becoming a polymath isn’t about achievement and reward.

The inherent philosophy is one of wonderment and wanting to understand more about the world.

Don’t pursue knowledge for external trappings of success, but rather for intrinsic satisfaction.

Paradoxically, approaching your learnings with this attitude may ultimately make success more likely. 

Just get started

Still unsure if you’ve got what it takes to become a polymath?

Well, when you’re curious enough about life on this little globe spinning around in space, just pick a subject and you’re off to the races.

The most important step is to start from where you are.

And get learning!