I think I qualify for a polymath, and if I was able to do this you can also do this quite easily. The recipe is very simple: learn the stuff you passionate about and implement the stuff you learned. Implementation is more complex due to time limitations. For more reading, see articles here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
What does it mean being a polymath?
The concept is very simple. We learn something and work in the area we learned. Then we want something else and work in that area while remaining involved in the original field. Now repeat the process for a couple of times and you qualify for a polymath. My own story is a simple example.
I was born in December 1974. In 1996 I graduated as an electronic engineer and worked as an RF engineer for 3 years. In 2004 I graduated PhD in a highly mathematical subject and worked as an algorithms developer since. Starting from 2008 I completed a sort of MBA (it looked more like a boot camp for entrepreneurs), and since then I owned several companies. In 2012 I co-authored the superlearning course and since then I work with cognitive psychology and journalism. I had short romances with other fields of knowledge, but they did not last.
There are several patents, several books and some other stuff I created. None of them was overwhelmingly successful, but all of them were in the top percentiles of their relative fields.
What is so good about working in several areas?
I am not a billionaire or a legend. Probably that would make me feel very uncomfortable. My persona is very mundane and humble.
There are some benefits that come with diverse experiences. My life is not boring. I have great empathy towards others, as I can easily imagine myself in their position. This also facilitates communication. I know not just several languages, but also several professional dialects in each.
Diverse experiences boost creativity. I can easily apply the ideas I learn in algorithms to psychology, the ideas I learn in psychology to business, and the concepts I learn in business to engineering.
Being a polymath it makes no sense to dive into one of the professional silos. I find my strength in jobs that require integration and coordination. For example, now I am managing the algorithmic department in a startup developing a dental scanner. This does not make me a dentist. I have some theoretical understanding but zero hands-on experience. Knowing your limitations is crucial for retaining some level of sanity.
Accelerated learning is clearly crucial for success as a polymath. I am expected to be a knowledge center and a living memory in most positions I hold.
Another critical aspect is hands-on work in the areas that I consider my forte. Otherwise, I would clearly soon loose my professional expertise.
A third aspect is a focus on creativity and research. There is little incentive in being a polymath without constantly developing something new.
Transferring knowledge between subjects requires some commonality. Most technical subjects use math, and mathematical concepts can be easily applied in different areas. In my PhD as an engineer, I tracked financial derivatives and processed medical images using the same filters.
Psychological understandings can be transferred between various social sciences. Something like cognitive biases can be applied in every job that involves humans, and many jobs that involve artificial intelligence.
A third common backbone I heavily rely on is organizational skillset, which can be easily shared between most human activities. A concept like return on investment can be applied almost to anything people do.
The 5 things every polymath should learn
We live in the 21st century and there are certain skills all of us should have. Here is a simple recipe, which will probably work.
- Learn math with an emphasis on statistics. Mathematics is so abstract you can apply it anywhere.
- Venture into brain sciences. AI is a great example of math meeting psychology.
- Get an MBA and join a startup. This is pretty easy for someone with experience in AI.
- Build a blog. By now you will probably have a lot to say. The research you do for your blog will help you generate new ideas and balance existing activities.
- Find your own niche. Probably some interdisciplinary position that will allow staying hands-on with different aspects of your activities.
This is clearly not a recipe for happiness, professional recognition or wealth amassment. Moreover, other people chose different paths often with similar results.
Efficiency vs mental health
Adam Smith was an early polymath who wrote not only on economics but also philosophy, astronomy, literature, and law. He noted that the division of labor was the engine of capitalism. His famous example was the way in which pin-making could be broken down into its component parts, greatly increasing the overall efficiency of the production process. But Smith also observed that ‘mental mutilation’ followed the too-strict division of labor.
To be mentally healthy and agile we need to step out of the comfort zone and acquire new skills. This is very hard for an expert who invests all of his efforts in his baby.
I quote one of the articles in the abstract:
Monopathy, or over-specialization, eventually retreats into defending what one has learned rather than making new connections. The initial spurt of learning gives out, and the expert is left, like an animal, merely defending his territory. One sees this in the academic arena, where ancient professors vie with each other to expel intruders from their hard-won patches. Just look at the bitter arguments over how far the sciences should be allowed to encroach on the humanities. But the polymath, whatever his or her ‘level’ or societal status, is not constrained to defend their own turf. The polymath’s identity and value comes from multiple mastery
The wisdom of polymath
Most polymaths are in top percentiles of their silos not because they have exceptional technical skills, but because they have a certain wisdom. I do not know a better recipe for developing wisdom than trying many different things and analyzing the results. Each activity offers a different sort of feedback, and we need multiple perspectives to be successful.
This does not mean that you need to be a polymath to gain wisdom. Some sources claim that many philosophers got their wisdom by running mental experiments. Many people become wiser simply by changing the way they live: immigration, social status changes, facing multiple rejections and overwhelming success…
Polymaths show more creativity and their ideas are more original than ideas of their peers. Also, their progress is less predictable.
Jack of all trades master of one
Once as a polymath you find an overwhelming success in one area, all other areas are often treated as a hobby. A polymath can often open up a new area of human knowledge. If this happens, the polymath is usually associated with this area and not his other activities. We remember Albert Einstein for his theory of relativity, not his groundbreaking works in statistics or his skill with a violin. Being a polymath is often a path rather than a final destination.
There are certain exceptions. Leonardo Da Vinci was a sort of party planner for Ludovico Sforza as a young man, but as an old man, he was a painter for the kind of France rather than everything else. He was recognized as a great inventor many years after his death.
Being a polymath is hard
I think that polymaths are rarely accepted by their contemporaries beyond their main role. Hedy Lamarr invented one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century, but for the large part of her life, she was known as a beautiful and provocative actress. Nobody treated her inventions seriously until she was old and bitter and lonely. She tried her luck in business but lost all of her money. Her experimentations in plastical surgery were brilliant, but eventually, she was disfigured by a less successful experiment. Her life story is fascinating, but there is no place for “easygoing” or “quiet joy” in such a story.
If you are a polymath or consider becoming one, you should probably accept some level of edginess in your existence. This is a huge price, but it only seems fair when we consider the benefits.