When I was a child I decided that I want to be a polymath and know everything. Not a very realistic goal. Since then I have been learning for as long as I can remember myself. I noticed that the more I know the easier it is to learn more, even in very different areas of expertise, especially in interdisciplinary areas. If you want to become a polymath – or so-called “renaissance man”, I suggest reading this article carefully.
Knowledge should not be used as a standalone tool. If we have more than one area of expertise what we do is called interdisciplinary. Today most of the major technological, scientific, and business projects are performed by interdisciplinary teams. Being able to learn fast multiple subjects is a skill set anyone can acquire.
- Work on your curiosity and passion. Gamify collection of knowledge.
- Understand the way your profession and expertise link with other sciences. Almost all professions enable this link.
- Read journalism and search for scientific answers.
- Learn to transfer knowledge between study areas.
- Work with ontologies and understand the way the ontologies change.
- Develop metaknowledge, e.g. understand the nature and limitation of knowledge
- Hack everything. Embrace entrepreneurial spirit.
- Generate and manage assets based on innovation.
I have a course about the skillset
A few words about myself
When I was a kid there was a popular TV program for kids on Soviet TV, called “I want to know everything”. The show dealt with the stuff you currently find on the Discovery channel or on YouTube: entertaining and gamified new theories and open questions in science. Since it was a popular show, it did not really differentiate math, engineering, physics, biology, history, and other knowledge. If something was worth learning, it was assumed that anyone could learn it.
I was lucky enough to follow a path that enables very wide interdisciplinarity. My first degree was in electrical engineering, then I studied business, and my Ph.D. was on a complex statistical tool applied both to medical imaging and financial markets. I learned 3 languages native-level, and more languages for several years. As a part of my work, I invented many patents and wrote literally millions of lines of code. For fun, I wrote several books. Some books are poetry, other books deal with cognitive sciences. So I would say that I have a polymath record that is quite easy to verify. I am blessed to have a wife and three wonderful kids, and I think that in work-life balance, work never came first.
I have a “course” with my bio:
The price tag is for my privacy. If you are really interested contact me at [email protected] and I might open it free of charge.
What I really want to say: the skillset I used to learn so many different subjects is complementary to memorization and reading. I started to think like a polymath well before my marriage to Anna and acquisition of memory and reading techniques.
Collecting knowledge is fun
Before the 20th century, there was no television. People met to eat, drink and play board games. During these meetings, they entertained themselves by discussing all sorts of subjects: gossip, politics, arts, and science.
The actual Renaissance men had large desks, often called curios, with curiosities they collected: stones, shells, paintings, statues, and books. There was really no clear differentiation. People who acquired knowledge learned pretty much everything there was to know.
By the 19th century, rich educated people sent large expeditions to discover artifacts for private museums. Understanding and comparison of artifacts was the main entertainment of educated elites. The activity was highly gamified: the chase after hidden treasure, the pride of owning artifacts, and the social satisfaction of stimulating discussion are just some benefits of the activity.
Collecting knowledge was fun. It still is a great form of entertainment – as long as the process is gamified. Unfortunately with the increasing complexity of knowledge, simply understanding the new findings often requires a very complex background. People without a relevant background I not even curious. They do not know what to ask, and if they get something amazing they do not understand how to evaluate it.
Quite often to learn new things I go from an amazing new idea or artifact to the background knowledge that enables full appreciation. Then I add gamification elements: scarcity, discovery, ownership, debate…
Most experts are relevant in multiple disciplines
Almost any sort of expertise may help evaluate other connected disciplines. Some professionals wonder over multiple applications, while others host professionals with diverse areas of expertise.
Math, especially statistics, can be valuable for describing dynamics via differential equations and understanding experimental results. There are many kinds of math. Usually only applied math is in interdisciplinary demand.
Artificial intelligence and engineering are in great demand in almost all new scientific projects. Even historians and biologies often rely on complex imaging devices to produce new discoveries.
Every project needs leadership and financial management, so all business-related professions are in high demand.
Chemistry can be used for some of the most complex interdisciplinary projects from rocket science to brain surgery.
Other professionals host the interdisciplinary teams, providing core expertise. For example, medical professionals work with experts from multiple disciplines to provide the best possible treatment for people with specific medical conditions.
Discover in journals, research in scientific publications
For new subjects, often the best entry point is so-called popular science. There are all sorts of popular journals and overview articles that provide a high-level review of the subject area. Typically it is best to review such documents and get a high-level understanding before diving into the details of specific experiments and implementations.
However, the overview articles will rarely provide the fine details which are required for the implementation and optimization of the relevant methodology. Reading and analyzing scientific articles, possibly supplementing this activity with mental experiments, is still much easier than dealing with all technicalities of a viable proof of concept.
One of the reasons to learn speedreading and speedwriting is discovery in professional blogs and journals. This is a good supplement to discussions with the relevant professionals.
A large part of scientific knowledge and intuition can be transferred between various areas of expertise. This applies to mathematical apparatus, testing equipment, and methodology, engineering tools and approaches, and more. People also behave very predictably, and the behavior of teams and leaders often does not change when we change discipline.
If the knowledge transfer requires unique adaptations, we might be able to generate new patents and discoveries. Some of the best scientific discoveries were generated by scientists that moved from one science to another, for example from physics to biology.
I am not aware of guidelines for knowledge transfer. There are some attempts in TRIZ to define that. See e.g.
It is easier to keep in mind a list of knowledge that is likely to be transferred and be ready to do the step when the opportunity appears.
Ontologies and taxonomies
When we work with multiple subjects it is useful to have a map of where we are and what is missing. Many areas of science provide such maps in the form of ontologies and taxonomies.
Ontologies and taxonomies are almost arbitrary classifications experts agree to follow. When paradigms change, so do the ontologies. For example, there are many classifications for human emotions, and Plutchik emotions wheel is just one of many viable approaches. On the other hand, some systems like the classification of life forms in biology can be relatively stable. The changes are typically annual. small and local.
All sorts of mindmaps and related mental devices can be used to navigate the taxonomy. One of the reasons for having a taxonomy is finding the right expert to address. However, the expertise may follow a very different, say functional, taxonomy. For example, in medicine, there are separate doctors for children and for orthopedic damage. So if a 10-years old has a tear in a ligament, it is probably best to address a sports doctor, which is a specialization in orthopedics.
Thus usually it is best to learn multiple overlapping taxonomies and choose the best taxonomy for each scenario.
Understanding the missing knowledge and interdisciplinary needs
Some of the hardest things to understand are the holes in knowledge. Experts have a very good understanding of their own subject. They might have a partial understanding of other subjects. When a subject is not covered well by any expert, it is likely to be poorly studied. Understanding the taxonomy of the subjects we can find the right expert, but we can also understand that for some subjects there might be no proper expert.
Metaknowledge is knowledge about knowledge. It helps to understand scientific, engineering, and business methodologies. It also highlights the situations where no methodology is present, or where there is an ethical conflict.
Polymath will try to hack everything
Any limitation holds an opportunity. If something is very hard using one approach, it may become easy using another. Polymaths often have the biggest contribution to human progress because they can find the areas where such contribution is easy.
Understanding multiple paradigms and approaches frees from the tyranny of the dominant paradigms and enables unique hacks. This happens both at the macro and micro levels. Quite often experts define very strict and complex interfaces and procedures simply because they do not understand each other’s limitations and needs. People who talk multiple languages can often find a superior solution.
Embracing an entrepreneurial spirit does not mean that you need to leave everything and open a company. Far from it. There are many opportunities for innovation within any industry and company. There is a huge value for aggregated knowledge and experience. It is true that some of the most groundbreaking innovations are introduced by young people, but overall experienced experts and polymaths introduce significantly more breakthroughs.
Do not let your ideas disappear unnoticed
Generating assets and managing innovation might be boring, but it is a huge part of the overall success. If you have a new understanding – you should be able to build a proof of concept, publish a paper or write a patent. This may require some very technical steps, but without them, your insight might be lost.
The achievements of a polymath are not measured in the number of PhDs or books read – they are measured in the quality and maybe quantity of the artifacts created. These artifacts comprise articles, books, patents… Do not expect these artifacts to appear magically in your CV. They require hard work and discipline.
Is there an advantage to being a polymath and not an expert? First of all, it is more fun. There are additional benefits. Due to multiple areas of expertise polymath is less likely to get stuck. With age, the experience of polymath will become more valuable and respected. The added value of a polymath shines in interdisciplinary teams and areas experts do not cover.
Statistically being significantly more likely to generate great artifacts does not guarantee groundbreaking discoveries and unicorn companies. However, if you are curious you can definitely become a polymath. The path is pretty clear, especially in areas like brain study and rocket science.
I seriously suggest taking the course
or its bundle
The bundle also includes
The time-limited 50% coupon for these three products keytologic_50
The polymath course also includes other things, such as a background for several objects like curio that I use in my memory palace.