Aristotle is described as being the last person in human history that probably knew “everything”. He was a pioneer of knowledge in a wide array of fields including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theater, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics and government. Others have since then have had that title ascribed to them. For example, Thomas Young in the early 1800s demonstrated that light is also a wave, did work in linguistics and Egyptology which later helped researchers decode the Rosetta Stone, proposed the tri-chromatic theory of vision, read or spoke at least 11 languages and played the flute. However, the CV of most recent of popularly described polymaths are quite a bit shorter. It seems in today’s world, the body of human knowledge has grown so large that no single individual can “know it all”. Most modern polymaths, like physicist Freeman Dyson or former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold seem to exist largely in a professional silo with writing or product development products that are related to their prior knowledge or work.
This shows some very interesting things that might be useful to take into account as you plan for your future and think about the trajectory your career could take.
- Go deep. In a world with a billion people, Thomas Young’s world, the competition one would face in their pursuit of any given field will be much lower than it would be in a world with 7.4 billion people. This affects some fields and industries more than others. (It’s unlikely that anyone is going to write Harry Potter before JK Rowling or that Benedict Cucumberpants will miss all opportunities for a breakthrough performance.) However, this does suggest that you must be mindful of the fact that in any given field in which you wish to be a generalist, you are guaranteed to be facing a swarm of specialists. This doesn’t mean you can’t still add value by combining knowledge in new ways, but it’s important to be aware of. If you don’t find an area to gain deep knowledge in, you run the risk of becoming an intellectual dilettante. Someone who’s is very impressive at party banter, but incapable of building anything with their knowledge.
- Find the overlap. Successful modern polymaths seem to find their best success by building off of their core knowledge. For instance, Nathan Myhrvold has intensively studied math and physics. He’s also a very well known chef and cookbook author. However, his expertise didn’t come from a fancy culinary school. He applied his knowledge of physical phenomenon such as thermodynamics to study how food and the chemicals that make it up can be manipulated. Another example: Richard Posner is a judge who has studied economics extensively and was a pioneer in anti-trust law. He now writes on a wide variety of subjects like history and human sexuality, but his analyses always take an economic approach. These thinkers find the edges of their field and figure out where it overlaps with other interesting fields.
- Business and action are your best weapons. One thing you’ll notice as you read about polymaths of the past 100 years is that they are often described with initials. PhD in this. MS in that. MBA, JD, MD, EIEIO. The real basis for evaluating someone’s success as a polymath has been institutional. Not only that, as Richard Posner from above points out:
“Even in relatively soft fields, specialists tend to develop a specialised vocabulary which creates barriers to entry,” Posner says with his economic hat pulled down over his head. “Specialists want to fend off the generalists. They may also want to convince themselves that what they are doing is really very difficult and challenging. One of the ways they do that is to develop what they regard a rigorous methodology—often mathematical.
“The specialist will always be able to nail the generalists by pointing out that they don’t use the vocabulary quite right and they make mistakes that an insider would never make. It’s a defence mechanism. They don’t like people invading their turf, especially outsiders criticising insiders. So if I make mistakes about this economic situation, it doesn’t really bother me tremendously. It’s not my field. I can make mistakes. On the other hand for me to be criticising someone whose whole career is committed to a particular outlook and method and so on, that is very painful.” -Richard Posner
However, with the Internet, many of the industries that Posner is speaking of have been flattened. The gatekeepers, those who might try to keep you from participating in an industry by developing artificial barriers, can’t keep you out. Do you think “industry standards” have stopped Elon Musk from building spaceships? Not anymore. And it won’t stop the companies following in his wake building satellites and new ship prototypes. Want to publish a book? The opinions of the New York Times or even publishers don’t matter much when you can self-publish and sell millions of copies. In short, the most wild forest of obscure professional jargon and certifications can’t stop someone who proves the value of their ideas in the marketplace.
- Be curious and don’t waste time. The nature of polymathism may have changed, but this remains the same. Those brave pioneers who can successfully transcend the boundaries of a single field must not only remain curious about knowledge outside of their realm, but the must also use every moment as fuel for their curiosity. There is too much knowledge to gain to stuff it in between Netflix episodes.