Master of many trades

Our age reveres the specialist but humans are natural polymaths, at our best when we turn our minds to many things

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Renaissance man: Portrait of a Young Gentleman in His Studio by Lorenzo Lotto, c. 1530. Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice. Photo by Corbis

Renaissance man: Portrait of a Young Gentleman in His Studio by Lorenzo Lotto, c. 1530. Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice. Photo by Corbis

Robert Twigger is a British poet, writer and explorer. He lives in Cairo, Egypt.

I travelled with Bedouin in the Western Desert of Egypt. When we got a puncture, they used tape and an old inner tube to suck air from three tyres to inflate a fourth. It was the cook who suggested the idea; maybe he was used to making food designed for a few go further. Far from expressing shame at having no pump, they told me that carrying too many tools is the sign of a weak man; it makes him lazy. The real master has no tools at all, only a limitless capacity to improvise with what is to hand. The more fields of knowledge you cover, the greater your resources for improvisation.

We hear the descriptive words psychopath and sociopath all the time, but here’s a new one: monopath. It means a person with a narrow mind, a one-track brain, a bore, a super-specialist, an expert with no other interests — in other words, the role-model of choice in the Western world. You think I jest? In June, I was invited on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 to say a few words on the river Nile, because I had a new book about it. The producer called me ‘Dr Twigger’ several times. I was flattered, but I also felt a sense of panic. I have never sought or held a PhD. After the third ‘Dr’, I gently put the producer right. And of course, it was fine — he didn’t especially want me to be a doctor. The culture did. My Nile book was necessarily the work of a generalist. But the radio needs credible guests. It needs an expert — otherwise why would anyone listen?

The monopathic model derives some of its credibility from its success in business. In the late 18th century, Adam Smith (himself an early polymath who wrote not only on economics but also philosophy, astronomy, literature and law) noted that the division of labour 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 labour. Or as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: ‘Nothing tends to materialise man, and to deprive his work of the faintest trace of mind, more than extreme division of labour.’

Ever since the beginning of the industrial era, we have known both the benefits and the drawbacks of dividing jobs into ever smaller and more tedious ones. Riches must be balanced against boredom and misery. But as long as a boring job retains an element of physicality, one can find a rhythm, entering a ‘flow’ state wherein time passes easily and the hard labour is followed by a sense of accomplishment. In Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur (1962) there is a marvellous description of Neal Cassady working like a demon, changing tyres in a tyre shop and finding himself uplifted rather than diminished by the work. Industrialism tends toward monopathy because of the growth of divided labour, but it is only when the physical element is removed that the real problems begin. When the body remains still and the mind is forced to do something repetitive, the human inside us rebels.

The average job now is done by someone who is stationary in front of some kind of screen. Someone who has just one overriding interest is tunnel-visioned, a bore, but also a specialist, an expert. Welcome to the monopathic world, a place where only the single-minded can thrive. Of course, the rest of us are very adept at pretending to be specialists. We doctor our CVs to make it look as if all we ever wanted to do was sell mobile homes or Nespresso machines. It’s common sense, isn’t it, to try to create the impression that we are entirely focused on the job we want? And wasn’t it ever thus?

In fact, it wasn’t. Classically, a polymath was someone who ‘had learnt much’, conquering many different subject areas. As the 15th-century polymath Leon Battista Alberti — an architect, painter, horseman, archer and inventor — wrote: ‘a man can do all things if he will’. During the Renaissance, polymathy became part of the idea of the ‘perfected man’, the manifold master of intellectual, artistic and physical pursuits. Leonardo da Vinci was said to be as proud of his ability to bend iron bars with his hands as he was of the Mona Lisa.

Polymaths such as Da Vinci, Goethe and Benjamin Franklin were such high achievers that we might feel a bit reluctant to use the word ‘polymath’ to describe our own humble attempts to become multi-talented. We can’t all be geniuses. But we do all still indulge in polymathic activity; it’s part of what makes us human.

So, say that we all have at least the potential to become polymaths. Once we have a word, we can see the world more clearly. And that’s when we notice a huge cognitive dissonance at the centre of Western culture: a huge confusion about how new ideas, new discoveries, and new art actually come about.

Science, for example, likes to project itself as clean, logical, rational and unemotional. In fact, it’s pretty haphazard, driven by funding and ego, reliant on inspired intuition by its top-flight practitioners. Above all it is polymathic. New ideas frequently come from the cross-fertilisation of two separate fields. Francis Crick, who intuited the structure of DNA, was originally a physicist; he claimed this background gave him the confidence to solve problems that biologists thought were insoluble. Richard Feynman came up with his Nobel Prize-winning ideas about quantum electrodynamics by reflecting on a peculiar hobby of his — spinning a plate on his finger (he also played the bongos and was an expert safe-cracker). Percy Spencer, a radar expert, noticed that the radiation produced by microwaves melted a chocolate bar in his pocket and developed microwave ovens. And Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the modern machine gun, was inspired by a self-cocking mousetrap he had made in his teens.

I thought you were either a ‘natural’ or nothing. Then I saw natural athletes fall behind when they didn’t practice enough. This, shamefully, was a great morale booster

Despite all this, there remains the melancholy joke about the scientist who outlines a whole new area of study only to dismiss it out of hand because it trespasses across too many field boundaries and would never get funding. Somehow, this is just as believable as any number of amazing breakthroughs inspired by the cross-fertilisation of disciplines.

One could tell similar stories about breakthroughs in art — cubism crossed the simplicity of African carving with a growing non-representational trend in European painting. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Banksy took street graffiti and made it acceptable to galleries. In business, cross-fertilisation is the source of all kinds of innovations: fibres inspired by spider webs have become a source of bulletproof fabric; practically every mobile phone also seems to be a computer, a camera and a GPS tracker. To come up with such ideas, you need to know things outside your field. What’s more, the further afield your knowledge extends, the greater potential you have for innovation.

Invention fights specialisation at every turn. Human nature and human progress are polymathic at root. And life itself is various — you need many skills to be able to live it. In traditional cultures, everyone can do a little of everything. Though one man might be the best hunter or archer or trapper, he doesn’t do only that.

The benefits of polymathic endeavour in innovation are not so hard to see. What is less obvious is how we ever allowed ourselves to lose sight of them. The problem, I believe, is some mistaken assumptions about learning. We come to believe that we can only learn when we are young, and that only ‘naturals’ can acquire certain skills. We imagine that we have a limited budget for learning, and that different skills absorb all the effort we plough into them, without giving us anything to spend on other pursuits.

Our hunch that it’s easier to learn when you’re young isn’t completely wrong, or at least it has a real basis in neurology. However, the pessimistic assumption that learning somehow ‘stops’ when you leave school or university or hit thirty is at odds with the evidence. It appears that a great deal depends on the nucleus basalis, located in the basal forebrain. Among other things, this bit of the brain produces significant amounts of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that regulates the rate at which new connections are made between brain cells. This in turn dictates how readily we form memories of various kinds, and how strongly we retain them. When the nucleus basalisis ‘switched on’, acetylcholine flows and new connections occur. When it is switched off, we make far fewer new connections.

Between birth and the age of ten or eleven, the nucleus basalisis is permanently ‘switched on’. It contains an abundance of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and this means new connections are being made all the time. Typically this means that a child will be learning almost all the time — if they see or hear something once they remember it. But as we progress towards the later teenage years the brain becomes more selective. From research into the way stroke victims recover lost skills it has been observed that the nucleus basalis only switches on when one of three conditions occur: a novel situation, a shock, or intense focus, maintained through repetition or continuous application.

Over-specialisation, eventually retreats into defending what one has learnt rather than making new connections

I know from my own experience of studying martial arts in Japan that intense study brings rewards that are impossible to achieve by casual application. For a year I studied an hour a day three days a week and made minimal progress. For a further year I switched to an intensive course of five hours a day five days a week. The gains were dramatic and permanent, resulting in a black belt and an instructor certificate. Deep down I was pessimistic that I could actually learn a martial art. I thought you were either a ‘natural’ or nothing. Then I saw natural athletes fall behind when they didn’t practice enough. This, shamefully, was a great morale booster.

The fact that I succeeded where others were failing also gave me an important key to the secret of learning. There was nothing special about me, but I worked at it and I got it. One reason many people shy away from polymathic activity is that they think they can’t learn new skills. I believe we all can — and at any age too — but only if we keep learning. ‘Use it or lose it’ is the watchword of brain plasticity.

People as old as 90 who actively acquire new interests that involve learning retain their ability to learn. But if we stop taxing the nucleus basalis, it begins to dry up. In some older people it has been shown to contain no acetylcholine — they have been ‘switched off’ for so long the organ no longer functions. In extreme cases this is considered to be one factor in Alzheimers and other forms of dementia — treated, effectively at first, by artificially raising acetylcholine levels. But simply attempting new things seems to offer health benefits to people who aren’t suffering from Alzheimers. After only short periods of trying, the ability to make new connections develops. And it isn’t just about doing puzzles and crosswords; you really have to try and learn something new.

Monopathy, or over-specialisation, eventually retreats into defending what one has learnt 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.

Besides, it may be that the humanities have less to worry about than it seems. An intriguing study funded by the Dana foundation and summarised by Dr Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California, Santa Barbara, suggests that studying the performing arts — dance, music and acting — actually improves one's ability to learn anything else. Collating several studies, the researchers found that performing arts generated much higher levels of motivation than other subjects. These enhanced levels of motivation made students aware of their own ability to focus and concentrate on improvement. Later, even if they gave up the arts, they could apply their new-found talent for concentration to learning anything new.

I find this very suggestive. The old Renaissance idea of mastering physical as well as intellectual skills appears to have real grounding in improving our general ability to learn new things. It is having the confidence that one can learn something new that opens the gates to polymathic activity.

There is, I think, a case to be made for a new area of study to counter the monopathic drift of the modern world. Call it polymathics. Any such field would have to include physical, artistic and scientific elements to be truly rounded. It isn’t just that mastering physical skills aids general learning. The fact is, if we exclude the physicality of existence and reduce everything worth knowing down to book-learning, we miss out on a huge chunk of what makes us human. Remember, Feynman had to be physically competent enough to spin a plate to get his new idea.

Polymathics might focus on rapid methods of learning that allow you to master multiple fields. It might also work to develop transferable learning methods. A large part of it would naturally be concerned with creativity — crossing unrelated things to invent something new. But polymathics would not just be another name for innovation. It would, I believe, help build better judgment in all areas. There is often something rather obvious about people with narrow interests — they are bores, and bores always lack a sense of humour. They just don’t see that it’s absurd to devote your life to a tiny area of study and have no other outside interests. I suspect that the converse is true: by being more polymathic, you develop a better sense of proportion and balance — which gives you a better sense of humour. And that can’t be a bad thing.

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  • Ydre

    You seem to forget something, the time!
    A super-specialist, an expert, needs a lot of time for study to get on this level. It's hard for him to do anything else than eat and sleep, and sometimes even these. To stay on
    this level is even harder, the competition is ferocious. In many situations he likes his job, makes all with great pleasure. Where could they find the time for doing something else?

  • Call Me Ismael

    While you make an interesting article that might be applicable to *normal* people in everyday circumstances, such an argument is difficult to sustain for those who work or do research in technical fields. It is an undeniable fact of the present day that specialization in a technical field such as, say, theoretical physics requires a decade or more of serious study and practice to understand contemporary developments in the field. In fact, even within this relatively narrow specialization of physics, the field of theoretical physics has fractured in many directions with scientists focusing on specific intricacies/anomalies/inconsistencies within the Standard Model. A polymath, even one highly gifted, would not likely be able to make any significant contribution without commitment the same time and effort as other specialists. The examples you give of cross-fertilization - Crick using principles from physics to describe the structure of DNA - is interesting but is not entirely relevant considering that our knowledge of something like DNA is exponentially greater today than it was 50 years ago.

    • Walter Braun

      Well, the physicist Lee Smolin would be a counter-example ...

    • Tom

      I speak anecdotally, but when I hear about the lives of successful scientists, many seem to be polymaths to some extent. Maybe, for instance, they're semi-pro musicians, or good gardeners.

    • Lucy

      There's also someone like David Eagleman, who is both a successful neuroscientist and creative writer.

      • Flarn Buckholter

        Most neuroscientists are pretty much pond dippers. They treat rats with a compound or shock them, slice up their brains and look for changes. 9 out of 10 neuroscientists will never explain a mechanism or pathway, they'll just report the results. That's not the really involved science that other fields do.
        It's possible to do more than one thing in one's life. What I'm saying is that you have a critical threshold of knowledge (say...700 units out of 2000) to get anywhere in the field. A polymath with 200 units of knowledge in 10 fields is not likely to succeed in any of them because the easy work has already been done.
        The concept of polymath seems to mostly be there to bolster the confidence of people who don't study much and flit from topic to topic.

    • Phil Nast

      and Oliver Sacks.

    • Flarn Buckholter

      Excellent post! I agree that polymaths were more likely to be successful in science many years ago, when the body had "humors" and "vital forces" caused meat to turn into maggots (thanks Redi!)
      We get talented undergrads in the lab all the time and they pretty much suck until they master a basic level of literature concepts. If they are naturally creative thanks to art, music, philosophy, that's fine, but they need more knowledge to do anything constructive with it.

    • RC

      That is complete and utter nonsense. Physics is the most anachronistic, stubborn science, insisting on formal disciplinary boundaries and applying purity tests--you aren't allowed to contribute to its narrow sub-disciplines unless you've proven your cult-like devotion to the proper, narrow niche. And those niches are falling behind in impact and funding.

      Meanwhile, in the rest of the natural sciences, disciplinary boundaries are fading and are being replaced with broad, goal-oriented monickers like "nanoscience" or "functional materials" or "energy." If you knocked on every door at most modern research institutes, you'd be unlikely to find two scientists with the same background. Instead, you will find chemists, physicists, biologists, engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, etc. all working under one roof on what will become the technologies of the future.

      I see these types of arguments on the Internet frequently. They always boil down to the same hypothesis: the great physicists of the 20th Century accomplished everything and modern science is spinning its wheels because we've reached the limits of what one person can do. I'll grant you that it is highly unlikely that a single person will break open a whole new field that revolutionizes society, but if you dig deep enough you'll find that has always been the case. We tend to give credit to one person in retrospect, for convenience. A recent example, the Higgs boson. Doesn't Bose get some credit? Or the huge number of people that made its observation possible.

      • Emmanuel Truthseeker

        An excellent case in point is to read the credits at the end of a movie. The three people associated with the film are the director, and the two lead actors; the hundreds of people who actually struggled day to day with the complexities of putting the thing together are only remembered for their contribution by the small number of people in their specialized little department and by friends and family who know of one's job at 'The Studio.'

      • sbhar

        "Doesn't Bose get some credit?"
        Why do you think it's called a boson?

        • RC

          Because Dirac wanted to throw some credit his way. Had he not, Bose would have vanished from history. The scientific community at-large was ready to pin his accomplishments on more famous physicists. Just like Roseland Franklin.

  • Archies_Boy

    Thank you for a wonderfully written article! It reminded me of this wry saying: "The Specialist is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing." The idea that we can all become polymathic is wonderful, but too many times the very structure of our lives — especially in Western technological cultures such as ours where time allotment is crucial — militates against it. {:-(

    • Edward Young

      Nice quote Archies_Boy! Thank you for that :) It's funny, you would think that technologically advanced cultures would be more prone to becoming more polymathic since everything is at our fingertips.

      • Jim Skibo

        Except time. :)

      • Emmanuel Truthseeker

        One must have an interest first. Alas, for most folks, interest in things was 'beaten' out of them a long time ago with the Public Fool System of their parents' choosing.

    • Emmanuel Truthseeker

      Learn to live with less and do more what you are meant to do. Eventually your 'hobbies' will pay for themselves. Mine always have paid off somehow. At least painting sales pay for materials. My books pay for my writing. I dropped out of the rat race in 2002 and would not change my lifestyle for a J.O.B and a return to my accustomed six figure income, an income which paid for a lot of crap I never needed in the first place. Now, if I at least have books, electricity for my computer, paints, sketchbooks, pens, and paints and my instruments, I am a happy camper on my little pension of 450 dollars and extra earnings.

      • Emmanuel Truthseeker

        Small pension because big pension was one of those lost to the banksters in one of their machinations back in 2003. Subsidized housing helps a great deal so that now I don't have to live in my car anymore. Yeah, not all polymaths are financial geniuses. I have never felt at ease handling 'filthy lucre,' and rather left that up to subordinates to take care of. I am a producer; and although I am adept at sales, I'd much rather leave the selling up to an agent. Although we polymaths can do just about everything, we don't necessarily prefer to, or have the time to do it all. That is the joy of living in a community where others have skills one needs right now while engaged with something else. That is where barter comes in; something I am much more comfortable with.

        • Gus Mueller

          You sound like a bullshit artist with a fake Jew name who has found someone to live off of rent-free. Tell the truth: whose tit are you suckling off of in their sleep like some sort of vampire? Relatives? Some poor deluded woman with 3 cats?

          You really should kill yourself.

  • Peter Timmerman

    That most limited of all specialists -- the well rounded man.

  • Tauri1

    "travelled with Bedouin in the Western Desert of Egypt. When we got a puncture, they used tape and an old inner tube to suck air from three tyres to inflate a fourth. It was the cook who suggested the idea; maybe he was used to making food designed for a few go further. Far from expressing shame at having no pump, they told me that carrying too many tools is the sign of a weak man; it makes him lazy. The real master has no tools at all, only a limitless capacity to improvise with what is to hand. The more fields of knowledge you cover, the greater your resources for improvisation."

    Kinda suggesting everyone should be like MacGyver... :)

  • adams2on

    Maybe he's implying that (over) specialisation and putting all your time into one thing isn't such a good idea.

  • videodude

    My grandfather built his own houses, did the plumbing and electrical and heating systems installation. My father did the same. We now live in a world of toys/tools built in factories and have no idea how they are made, don't care how they are made, don't know how they work, and pick up the phone and call someone if it doesn't work as we expect it to work. How about learning about our things, reading about our things. Doing something as simple as reading the manual would go a long way to making us better learners. Search the internet on any given subject and you will get useful information as well as a lot of useless drek. I work with customers all day long (and half of most nights) with little understanding of what they are filling their lives with. Even though I learned electrical theory and logic circuits more than 30 years ago, and can't build an electronic gadget, at least I know what makes it tick, and a few basic techniques to use when one doesn't work. Well that's enough for now, I'm off to instal a new dishwasher, something I've never done before, but reading the manual and seeing pictures and videos of it being done makes me confident that it's a do-it-yourself project that should not require a specialist.

  • I have what you need

    And how do you know if people stopped there narrow searching we wouldn't discover more novel ways and understandings, why let a role define what you can know or learn about the specific in relation to the other made up roles.

    • lol

      Why even have roles at all, because they serve a function for society yes but so what, they do nothing but force limitations on the mind.

  • Aadith Suresh

    What a great article!. I's aware of the facts stated here. But I was not convinced only by my own conviction. Thanks a lot for telling me that I's right after all.

  • John Paul Hampstead

    I appreciate the thrust of your argument, but you include many very bad examples of polymaths. Unless I am mistaken about what polymathy is, someone like Hiram Maxim who as a boy displayed an aptitude for mechanics (the mousetrap) and then went on to invent a machine (the machine-gun) is not a 'polymath'; neither are artists like Banksy or Basquiat who simply worked in genres not valued by galleries but who were then 'discovered'. And who would consider Percy Spencer, who moved (easily enough, it seems) from radar waves to microwaves, a 'polymath'? He sounds like an especially bright electrical engineer, but it's not as if he was composing string quartets on the side. A better example, I think, is someone like Vladimir Nabokov, who was an expert on butterflies and chess in addition to his novel-writing.

    • winter

      I felt that the author was using these people as examples of ways people brought two or more areas together for something novel and/or innovative, not actually as examples of polymaths which, as you rightly point out, they are not.

    • Gus Mueller

      Article sucks. It basically boils down to work hard and you will get results. Duh. Also, would it kill you to choose a smaller font? If the answer is yes, please do so.

      And yes, everyone got your subtle brag about your black belt. Big fucking deal. Banksy is a fag and should be killed.

  • John

    "Percy Spencer, a radar expert, noticed that the radiation produced by microwaves melted a chocolate bar in his pocket and developed microwave ovens."

    No doubt the radiation was also cooking ol' Percy's innards as well.

  • BobI

    Most enjoyable article, thank you. Minor correction:

    I'm pretty sure Feynman wasn't 'an expert safe cracker' at all. What he actually did was convince his co-workers he was by various forms of trickery. He states this quite clearly, and with true Feynmanian glee, in Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman. Which in no way diminishes the life and legacy of this wonderful man.

  • Alex

    "Industrialism tends toward monopathy because of the growth of divided labour, but it is only when the physical element is removed that the real problems begin." Ummm yep, so I guess the labourers working in the 'dark satanic mills' of of early 19th-century London factories didn't have any 'real problems' because their work still had a robust 'physical element'.

  • Jonathan_Briggs

    The modern world is run by bean counters and bean counters hate polymaths, they can't be fitted into convenient boxes. Most modern research scientists research for money, usually, if not always, for someone else's benefit; no distractions allowed as they probably won't be marketable, and universities are now devoted to researching the marketable, much to the detriment of the teaching of the future thinkers hoping to receive adequate teaching and guidance.

    • Thomas Mrak

      That's part of the problem. How are people supposed to create advances in business, art, technology, etc. if they have to fit into a box?

      True innovation and expression usually doesn't happen in the Temple of Micromanagement.

      it happens organically.

  • ben

    expert .ls a drip under pressure

  • Alexander Ainslie (@AAinslie)

    +1 and new work paradigms such as @GitHub's super-lean management strategy, drives #innovation & fosters polymath development in the workplace:

  • Bernecky

    Can a work of art be commissioned, and what do the gods say is the quality of the citizen who uses his hard-earned money to bet that it can?

    Following 9/11, some body of discerning representatives in the US commissioned John Updike to write a poem commemorating the events of that day. The result is embarrassment.

    The US government chose to forgo an investigation of the events of 9/11, and instead to have its military create a work of art of what it claimed were the homes of the accused. The result is other than a miracle and less than the sum of its parts.

    How does a nation of 350-million individuals become a monolith.

    I marvel at the fact that the man who wrote Planet of the Apes also wrote The Bridge over the River Kwai. We know that man as Pierre Boulle.

  • terrapyn

    I still like Heinlein's take: "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects".

    • Susan Collingwood

      That was exactly the quote that came to my mind when reading this article. ;)

      • winter

        And mine!

      • Emmanuel Truthseeker

        Heinlein was a brilliant man. I think he is exactly correct. I have always believed that we can do whatever we set our minds to doing. It is odd to me so few actually get it. I got it; and thank God everyday I was infected with the Polymath virus. Actually, being an Aryan, multiple talents is in my blood and most everything is possible for me; painting any kind of image, representational or abstraction, writing on any topic, composing music, writing and directing a play, framing a house, building a cabinet, whatever...

        • Dave_Mowers

          Yeah, just imagine what the 151 million minds of the lost Americans wallowing in poverty could have achieved if they too had been given access to advanced education and unlimited credit or capital through one the seven secret federal reserve programs established after the recession to fully cover the losses and recapitalize the firms of the richest, most successful people in history.

          Too bad America is so limited in talent and imagination that the stupid masses don't understand the power that easy money gives one over pursuing their dreams and the 1% still don't get how beneficial it is to have a diversified society where multiple new markets are created daily by fully-funded creative minds.

          ...but hey, we got another internet venture that will be gone in a decade today so I guess that makes sense. Who needs space travel, planetary colonization and art anyway when you can read fake text messages promoting products you don't want or need?

          • Thomas Mrak

            I wasn't born rich or well-connected, and I am learning and experimenting constantly.

            I agree, advanced education and easy access to money can and does open doors, but using one's birth as an excuse to not learn or try anything new is just as criminal as telling people you consider to be beneath you to know their place.

            People choose to believe the garbage that there should be an elite who determines everything for them in exchange for compliance.

          • Hugh Lancaster

            Agree.... Some people are just flat out lazy! Others use this excuse to advance an ideology.

          • Thomas Mrak

            Besides, there is no guarantee that even if you DO become successful (i.e. rich/famous, which is the definition of "success" which seems to be popular), people do not always keep it.

            It's better to learn how to deal with failure and learn from it, than to focus on how to avoid losing.

          • Thomas Mrak

            A lot of it is jealousy and fear. Many people gain a lot of power over others by pandering to this fear. It's not just people claiming they have a right to lead, but members of your social group.

            Some people only genuinely like you if you're struggling and grinding it out like them- if you even SAY you want to do more than that, out come the claws.

            It's called the "Crab Mentality" a lot of poor and lower middle class people have it especially. They don't see how supporting someone else's success can benefit them. They only see the world in terms of "you win, so I lose!". That's called a zero sum game.

            We do unfortunately live in a world with a ton of red tape, political corruption and gatekeeping, however, there are ways around it, and not fighting for your principles is practically the same as complying with those who wish to destroy Independence, Intelligence, and Creativity.

          • Emmanuel Truthseeker

            The divide and conquering of the people began, in recent history, with the sophistry of Saul of Tarsus. Over the last couple of millennia the people have been so horribly indoctrinated into a sophistry that is totally contrary to what Jesus of Nazareth was teaching. Paulinian theology; ie: Christianity, is a religion which has made people turn the other cheek to evil and reduced them to sheep bowing and scraping before other men in spite of the admonishments of Jesus telling us NOT to call any man MASTER and not be a respecter of persons and a worshipper of things. Jesus showed that His way was the way of a FREE thinker Who questioned authorities at every opportunity. Jesus Christ would be regarded as a politically incorrect 'terrist', (sic), today. By Christians, btw.

            Christians today have been divided and conquered. There is no cohesive Christian army today. There are over 40,000 sects all vying for converts and soaking themselves in guilt with the blood of Christ while believing The Greatest Lie ever told about My Father hanging My Older Brother and Sovereign on a cross.

            I say, you who believe the Apostle Paul are not followers of Jesus Christ but the followers of a Jew; Saul of Tarsus who saw a light, alright. Now, perhaps you will understand a little better that the 'light' that Judaist saw was the 'eureka' moment when he realized a very effective way to realize the admonitions of the Babylonian Talmud and further the NWO agenda through the division and conquering of the minds of men. Those of you familiar with the history of the western world, you know to what lengths 'they' went through the ages to 'convince' unbelievers; they being the ones who heeded the actual teachings of the Anointed One, My Brother and Sovereign. Take note what was done to the Cathars, for example. Google, The Albigensian Crusade, and you will clearly see what is done with those who practiced what My Brother taught and also knew about 'Them' ; the Archons. But, that is a whole other story, isn't it?

            It is time, my dear brothers and sisters. It is time to follow the Archangel Michael and take up your swords. The pruning is about to begin. I would recommend you have a talk with Your Father in Heaven and get on side; the right side; the side of the Sons of God; who by their fruits you will know them. Their fruits are good cheer in the face of adversity and a willingness to go the distance and not be afraid. There is nothing to fear because FEAR is merely False Evidence Appearing Real.

            May Our Father Bless you and keep you safe.


        • Gus Mueller

          You should be raped by niggers and then killed.

    • Emmanuel Truthseeker

      There's a lot of those buzzing about here and there and being very important little insects. Several species are particularly dangerous and should be avoided at all costs; The Bankster Bug, The Poly Tick, and The Courtroach.

      • Gus Mueller

        Saying "Bankster" is code for "I'm an enormous fag."

    • Gus Mueller

      Yeah, that Heinlein really knew how to bullshit. "Solve equations" covers a buttload of territory.

    • Bobby

      Ah, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, my Childhood heros, among others,etc. Too bad so many kids today haven't even been exposed to them......peace.

    • advancedatheist

      Ironically Heinlein didn't do several of those things. Program a computer? He wrote that passage in the early 1970's, so when did he do that? And he didn't have children that I know of, so when did he change a diaper? Tuberculosis also cut his naval career short and the Navy wouldn't let him re-enlist after Pearl Harbor, so I doubt that he conned a shipped, planned an invasion (except in his imagination) or fought efficiently.

      He did come from a white trash family, however, so he probably had the sorts of manual skills like manure pitching, hog butchering, wall building, etc., that many poor men of his generation acquired while growing up.

      • Hale

        Wasn't that quote from the fictional character Jubal Harshaw, in the novel "Time Enough For Love," and not Heinlein himself? By the same token, it's not "ironic" that Shakespeare did not, as his character Hamlet did, slaughter family and friends.

      • Brian D. Meeks

        Computers were programmed before the 70's. It was done with punch cards.

  • guest

    Fyi - I came here from A&L Daily. Great article - pushing back on Adam Smith's specialization argument from 250 years ago.

  • Al_de_Baran

    "Just look at the bitter arguments over how far the sciences should be allowed to encroach on the humanities."

    This an ignorant, if not disingenuous, comment. The implication is that evil humanists are desperately defending their "patches" against the inquiries of poor, well-intentioned scientists, who, after all, are just trying to help, and to find a small place at the table. While this may be true in some instances, the reality of the matter is that humanists are defending their discipline against intellectual imperialists who seek not merely a place at the table, but at the head of it.

    • Ryan

      I think he is just pointing out the fact that such arguments occur, and is not actually taking a stance...

      • Serge

        It definitely represented a stance, as this was given as an example of "ancient" academics becoming too stupid to learn anything new.

        • Al_de_Baran

          As Serge states, the author's implication is quite clear, given the context of the statement that I quoted, above:

          "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".

          P.S. to Flarn Buckholter: Thanks for the chuckle.

          • Emmanuel Truthseeker

            An 'ex spurt' (sic) is a drip under pressure.

    • Nom de Plume

      I'm with Ryan, but I still upvoted you because I'm scared to death of third culturalists.

    • Flarn Buckholter

      How many lives has literature saved versus technologies for medicine or drinking water? Science innovation drives modern development and longer life spans so that's where the money is.
      Humanities professors are like horse farmers protesting on a highway, calling for equal treatment with cars because WITHOUT HORSES CARS WOULDN'T WORK SO WELL!

      • Emily Bronte

        i'm sure literature has saved plenty of lives (especially the writers, hah). What is life without purpose?

        You can't rate qualitative things like quantitative things. Here's a theme against the sciences; why should NASA spend billions of dollars every year exploring space when people are starving on the streets?

        My point: Plenty of things have their purpose, NASA and humanities included, I think humanities is a BS major to spend $40k a year on, but I also think a lot of science is BS. Antibiotics, antidepressants, teflon, and splenda are all things that were more or less stumbled upon / created in anomalies of "the perfect lab environment"

    • Emily Bronte

      I read this as a comment on how scientists and mostly everyone in academia has their heads up their ass.

      I don't see science > humanities anywhere in here, rather: intelligent prowess > bullshit turf wars

  • Marie Clarke

    An incredible well written article. Thanks very much! I am often disheartened when people criticise my education- psychology, advertising and design, and say I'm undecided. I find all the things I have learnt, complement each other and give me a perspective that siloed 'experts' cannot conceive. I've decided to give dancing a go after reading this! Thanks for the encouragement and for helping me believe in myself!

    • Tanguero

      Marie if you are intent on taking up dancing, I want to recommend the Argentine Tango.(I.e., not ballroom tango). Apart from being beautiful, enjoyable and promoting of fitness, it is a profound meditation on life.

      • Emmanuel Truthseeker

        And start listening to the great Astor Piazzola. If anything, do yourself a favour and listen to the music of that marvelous composer of Tango on the bandoneon; the instrument for your 'profound meditation on life.'

    • Emmanuel Truthseeker

      A sad reflection on today's monoculture is the obsession with grass. People are nuts about their lawns and devote billions of dollars per year on crap to make grass grow. To some people the spreading of manure on their 'perfect' lawn is a sacrament of their religion Monoculturalism which worships the Grass God by cutting its head off every couple of weeks.

      Another very sad reflection of monoculture is the demand of visual artists to basically paint the same way for ever, so that their work is easily recognized as being a; JoeFartenheimer, or a LucyGoosy, or whatever, for example. I have never allowed galleries to dictate what I paint or how I paint, hence, I have a huge inventory of very ecclectic work because just about everything interests me, but galleries are not interested in artists who paint outside the box; hence the huge inventory. I paint abstracts, I paint portraits, landscapes, seascapes, fantasy scapes..., in acrylics, oils, watercolours, mixed media; a stick with ink.... Same for my writing; I have written training programs, I have written about the history and philosophy of law, I have written about esoteric researches into genetic science or hollow earth theories. One of my plays won a literary award. My novels are historic fictions, science fictions, adventures, comedies... I am now at work on my 18th book. I absolutely refuse monoculture because I could never fit into the box, being somewhat tall and ungainly, I suppose.

  • Vince in MN

    "Jack of all trades, master of none" was the old phrase. "Polymath" has a much greater aura of expertise about it, which should make it more palatable in modern times.

    • Serge

      A straw man. DaVinci, for example, was hardly a "master of none".

  • Shaik Zakeer Hussain
  • Darnton

    Ok. But how, exactly, does the polymath differ from the ideal of the well-rounded, liberally educated man or woman? And the notion of a "sound mind in a sound body" predates the Renaissance; it goes back to the Greeks.

  • Nom de Plume

    This article succeeds as food for thought, but there are glaring flaws.

    First of all, it goes after a straw man: it doesn't pit monopaths against polymaths; it pits bores (monopaths) against Leonardo Da Vinci (polymaths). There's no point in arguing why I should prefer to be Leonardo Da Vinci. The way you framed it, you won by default.

    Secondly, why would polymathics be an adequate response to monopathy? Quoting the article: "Polymathics might focus on rapid methods of learning that allow you to master multiple fields." So if I were to make my one skill that of acquiring new skills, would I not be a monopath? In fact, mathematics may be said to be a subfield of polymathics, under that definition, and mathematicians are definitely not known to have diverse interests.

    Lastly, why are monopaths bores? The article frequently brings up the charge but never justifies it. The answer I'd propose: specialization is believed to be the most efficient way to get things done cooperatively, the demands of the economy (which demands efficiency) are thought to trump those of society as a whole, and the one thing people are taught to prize most about themselves is what they do. So of course good citizens will be boring monopaths: they'll surrender to their tiny job, and have nothing to say about themselves besides their tiny job -- they ARE their tiny job. In other words: the monopath's identity and value comes from single-minded mastery. If we accept this, here comes the most glaring flaw of all: the article states that "The polymath’s identity and value comes from multiple mastery." So of course the article never tells us why exactly monopaths are bores: in a Shyamalan twist, the polymaths have been bores all along. This article is just marketing one brand of boring over another.

    • Flarn Buckholter

      You are the master of this thread

      • Fogy

        Thank you for neat articulation of my gut reaction to this article.

    • Repo Man

      there's no flaw, since multiple mastery isn't boring, and, as the article says, it's good for the brain. while single-minded mastery becomes monotony and is not. try re-reading the article.
      and no, "good citizens will be boring monopaths" is false, since no one except themselves is stopping them from mastering other skills outside the single job that pays their bills.

      • Nom de Plume

        The whole article is founded on the premise that good citizens will be boring monopaths -- read the second paragraph. If the premise is false, why are you defending the article?

        I did read the article thoroughly the first time. Read the part about martial arts:

        "I know from my own experience of studying martial arts in Japan that
        intense study brings rewards that are impossible to achieve by casual
        application. For a year I studied an hour a day three days a week and
        made minimal progress. For a further year I switched to an intensive
        course of five hours a day five days a week. The gains were dramatic and
        permanent, resulting in a black belt and an instructor certificate."

        In short: he was a monopath for a year, and the gains were dramatic and permanent. The polymath, here, is just a monopath who doesn't make a lifetime commitment to his obsessions; but, importantly, he is still supposed to nourish obsessions. Monopaths will bore everyone around them talking about car motors; polymaths will bore everyone around them talking about martial arts and the river Nile. To people who don't share their interests, they're equally boring. Besides, focusing on many subjects isn't necessarily more stimulating than focusing on a single subject: how many lifetimes would it take to learn all there is to physics vs. all there is to make-up and Oscar winning movies from the 60s?

  • Kate

    Thank you for the beautiful, inspiring article. May I suggest another type of polymath for you to consider -- the "home makers." If I consider my mother's attributes I find my thoughts taking the structure of that famous Heinlein quote; she laid tile and brick, worked part-time jobs waitressing or in retail, converted our camping stove into an oven for my birthday cake, sewed a ten-foot-long lightweight Brontosaurus head for a joke to please her kids, a decade later made a giant lightweight dragon for ballerinas to carry, spent a summer obsessed with caterpillar pupation (reaching a point where she could muse, "I bet this little guy's going to make a chrysalis in about five hours" and be proven correct), taught me what an analogy was, taught me one way to consider the idea of (spatial) infinity, taught me to draw mirror images of abstract things, sang songs to her kids, drove us around in the minivan, packed our school lunches, did all our laundry, built a good relationship with my father, cooked a healthy dinner for five every day for decades, was nice to our neighbors, installed drywall, made replicas of Alexander Calder's jewelry, shopped almost exclusively at thrift stores, read Scientific American, landscaped a succulent garden, taught herself to paint impressionistic oil landscapes, coached our elementary school theater team, and dances hilariously.

    Good parents are underrated, I think, in our "monopathic" modern world.

    • Ruth

      Please send this to your mother

    • Emmanuel Truthseeker

      Well said, Kate. Since so much of our reality is patriarchal we read mainly His story and not Her story. When I think back on all what my Mother accomplished; yeah, I'd say she's a polymath; as most moms are; which you so succinctly reminded us of, Kate. Thank you.

    • ncgh

      Sadly this valuable skills have been underrated by those (on left and right) who view working in the 'outside world' as the only validation.

  • zola

    manopathic? at this level of discourse it is disappointing the word 'woman' doesn't appear alongside 'man' anywhere in this article. 'Man' is not generic, it is exclusionary. Use both, or exclusively use 'human'

    • AJ

      No-one cares about you or your life. Accept that and move on.

    • Darryl Strawberry

      Speaking of monopaths and bores...

      • Flarn Buckholter

        She has no skills so she has to get her attention, somehow.

    • Fear the Same

      Strictly speaking, I believe a 'manopath" would refer to hands not the male of the species.

    • Juan Le

      where was the word manopathic ever mentioned? Is manopathic the same as monopathic or am i misunderstanding something?

  • Ian’s Polymathic Creations

    I think the polymathic route may have been for some time inaccessible to the majority of the population because of said rigidification and compartmentalization. But now we have so much time and access to the experience of the fellow man at our fingertips. Not only is population density so high as to put "experts" of all sorts throughout the globe, but social media allows experts and amateur to share their practices and progress, in fact even insights. It is also worth mentioning the tremendous efforts being put forth by many to convey free high quality education of some cutting edge knowledge and skills.

    I would like to share some of my polymathicity.

    I have a bachelors in physics, will have a phd in biochemistry with a focus in bioinformatics very soon and a future position in biomedical informatics. I've been playing several instruments for years, and made a rap album in 2006; self produce. I became a handbalancer/gymnast in the past 3 years to the quality that I performed hand balancing and an acrobatic adagio last year. I've taught several students in several subjects, and will likely teach as long as I learn. Drawing isn't my "strong" suit, but I've at least sketched a single self portrait that is pretty darn ok.

    This may seem like a running list of bragging, but I thought this to be an appropriate canvas to paint the picture I see in the mirror.

    Of course, I haven't listed all of my "abilities", ,have varying aptitude in these abilities, and always intend to reach some much more impossible amalgam of abilities.

    For a bit of "proof".

    • Flarn Buckholter

      All of us have skills like you do. Really. We all do.
      It takes just some interest and time to build a skill set in ANY topic or field. With a year of practice, you can get to journeyman level in just about anything. I've been drawing for 20 years, I play 2 instruments, I've studied Asian religions extensively, I speak a foreign language fluently....but none of those are primary skills.
      My primary skill is lab-based science, much like yours. It's what we are spending 5 or 6 years doing every day. After your PhD, you will have about 5000 hours of practice on that. That is what makes you good at it.
      I think we need to stress that people get really good at ONE thing but have hobbies that compliment it.

      • idespair

        It isn't about "building skills". Maybe someday, if it hasn't already happened, you will have an 'aha' moment at work when you realize that some little tidbit of Asian religious thought perfectly solves a problem or suggests a way to improve your performance. If you are lucky it will make you richer. At the least, it should make you happier.

      • Ian’s Polymathic Creations

        Perhaps even denoting a primary skill is reducing your valuation of your "hobbies"? I really don't know how to label my "skills" by any rank. Each has had its own time for extreme dedication, and time for sparse practice. Either way, I always maintain that each skill only gets better with each practice regardless of how much time exists between practices. In addition, I feel that I've brought each skill that I've listed to a level where even experts can acknowledge my aptitude as being beyond that of a "hobbyist", and I can always perform each skill to that level.

        Many people have hobbies that really do stay stuck at some very basic/common level, even if they practice for decades. I am not referring to such practices in the list above. For example, my guitar/piano playing is far beyond knowing a few songs or chords, hand balancing is far beyond "doing a handstand", and my knowledge of the sciences that I do not have degrees in, in some ways is commensurate to the knowledge that graduate students in those science have degrees in.

        Obviously I could be bullshitting/exaggerating, but to be honest that would not benefit me in anyway. I, as well as those that know me, believe that my practices in many areas are far beyond a "hobby" level. This partially stems from the fact that I've approached every practice with heavy research, technicality and exposure from others.

  • Gary Olson

    You raise an interesting aspect of learning when you discuss the role of physicality. Undertake a vigorous, rhythmic, repetitive exercise like cycling to feel first-hand how the brain responds. Having taken up painting at an advanced age, it is the physical aspect of making art that seems to light up or stimulate whole new areas of my brain, leading me to greater resolve to be a creator rather than a consumer.

  • Flarn Buckholter

    It was easier to be a polymath when medicine consisted of "laxatives and bloodletting", science consisted of "fire is hot and the Earth is at the center of the universe" and the literature requirement was 5 books and 2 extra languages.
    There is SO much knowledge to know about each area of information today that knowing 1% in 50 areas isn't going to solve critical problems in any area. I see this all the time in college kids, who don't want to study hard for their class but are content with knowing just a handful of facts. They all want to be "idea guys" who come up with awesome ideas for a company....but they don't yet understand that if you do not know all of the pathways involved in stem cell development, you're not going to GUESS how to differentiate them into neurons. If you don't know your physics, you're not going to GUESS at a new lifting body design.
    Most of the really game changing scientists out there today are NOT polymaths. They are monomaths who have hobbies that foster creativity. That creativity then allows them to draw connections into the wide body of knowledge they already possess.

  • RC

    "There is often something rather obvious about people with narrow
    interests — they are bores, and bores always lack a sense of humour.
    They just don’t see that it’s absurd to devote your life to a tiny area
    of study and have no other outside interests."

    Unfortunately these uncreative, humorless trolls are the gatekeepers of modern science because they comprise the bulk of peer-reviewers and "publish or perish" is not an exaggeration. In reality, brilliant discoveries that are driven by cross pollination tend to be hard fought and hard won because they step in too many peoples' backyards. The 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry is an excellent example of how thinking outside of the narrow niches enforced by uninspired scientists turns you into Sisyphus.

  • Truth Venson

    Excellent article! However, I have to point out that Crick and Watson stole much of their research from Rosalind Franklin, who was the first to take X ray photos of DNA, and who's research was shown to the two scientists without her permission. So perhaps he is not the best example.

    • Rodger

      She was not the first to take X ray photos of DNA. Excellent pictures had already beeen taken before she even starteed working on DNA (not her own choice). She was a very very minor cog in the whole thing.

      "In January 1951, Franklin started working as a research associate at King's College London in the Medical Research Council's (MRC) Biophysics Unit, directed by John Randall. Although originally she was to have worked on X-ray diffraction of proteins and lipids in solution, Randall redirected her work to DNA fibres before she started working at King's since Franklin was to be the only experienced experimental diffraction researcher at King's in 1951. He made this reassignment, even before she started working at King's, because of the following pioneering work by Maurice Wilkins and Raymond Gosling – a Ph.D. student assigned to help Franklin.

      Even using crude equipment, these two men had obtained an outstanding diffraction picture of DNA which sparked further interest in this molecule. Wilkins and Gosling had been carrying out X-ray diffraction analysis of DNA in the unit since May 1950, but Randall had not informed them that he had asked Franklin to take over both the DNA diffraction work and guidance of Gosling's thesis. Randall's lack of communication about this reassignment significantly contributed to the well documented friction that developed between Wilkins and Franklin.

  • MrMorph

    Brilliant article, thank you!

  • Doug Doakes

    Natural curiosity makes the polymath.

  • abinico

    Gee, guess I'm a simpleton - can only do one thing at a time.

  • steve barwick

    Thanks for the great article. I think being a polymath is not necessarily feasible for all people, because it requires a burning curiosity about multiple things. And most people nowadays just aren't that curious about anything beyond a very narrow interest usually centering around work and sports. They have limited attention spans, limited focus and limited curiosity. Very little sense of exploration (self, or outside of self). And television seems to take up great amounts of their spare time.

    Even in the business world, most people today fall under the oft-stated adage, "Find what your passion is, and pursue it." And that's exactly what they do. In the singular. As if a person can have only one passion, and must pursue it doggedly and to the exclusion of everything else for the rest of their born days. And that's perfectly fine if it's satisfying.

    Quite the contrary, however, when people ask me what I do for a living, I have a helluva time deciding what to tell them, because I do so many things. I'm a writer. (And inside that genre I'm an article writer, a book writer, a direct mail copywriter, and internet website writer, and a social media writer -- each of which constitute their own specialty.)

    But in the course of my business I'm also a salesman. I'm a marketer. I'm a manufacturer. I'm a publisher. I'm a developer/formulator of nutritional supplement products. I'm a developer of business products. I'm an inventor. I'm also a real estate investor. A hard money investor. A stock market investor (from time to time). A collector. And more. But when asked, I always seem to end up telling people I'm "in marketing" or I'm "an investor" because those two terms broadly pretty much cover the many things I enjoy doing as part of my living.

    Of course, it's not that I do all of these business endeavors at the same time. But I'm willing and quite able to switch over from one to another at a moment's notice if one thing seems to be more profitable, or otherwise satisfying, than another at a certain point in time.

    I also think it's not as difficult as one might think to enjoy polymathy, if one doesn't limit it solely to one's business profession. For example, even if I limit myself for the moment to the label of "marketer," I also love fishing and shooting, and in my spare time strive to become accomplished in both of those arenas. I love reading the Scriptures each day, and as a result have a passing familiarity with Biblical Aramaic, Syriac, Greek and Hebrew languages.

    Does all of this make me a bona fide polymath? Well, no, not if Davinci is your model for polymathy. The truth is, I probably couldn't hold a candle in any of my favorite fields to an individual who has devoted his or her entire life to specializing in one of them.

    But I do agree Mr. Twigger that those who have only one overriding interest in life can be quite insular. And therefore I choose to enjoy more than one, if only for my own sense of adventure and accomplishment.

  • Eystein Raude

    How many polymaths are there per one hundred randomly selected young adults?

  • johnmerryman

    There are a lot of feedback loops in these conversations. Specialization is an aspect of economic complexity and complexity has a nasty tendency to multiply, until it becomes unstable, then collapses back to a more basic level. At which point, being multitalented can be quite useful. Sometimes you want to focus and sometimes it's best to take the broad view. The trick is to know when to do what.
    Yes, it does take a great deal of study to master many of today's professions, but sometimes it only takes an objective perspective and a little common sense to see when those experts have massively screwed up. Financial derivatives and multiverses come to mind.

  • zahariel

    There is a valid argument to this. The consequence of action. Think of the rifle marksman, verses the pistol marksman. Which of the two is the 'better' marksman?
    Which one takes more expertise? How would you argue both or either? When defining a polymath, are they becoming experts at the easy targets or the long ones. Suggesting the polymath represents the rifle and the monopath represents the pistol.
    Does a person who focus' their entire life on inventing a cure for Polio, with no other focus in their life, have any lesser value to a meaningful life than someone who masters many schools and contributes nothing? This a difficult question to answer? Seeing how all us cerebral types reading this article are still very mortal at the end of a life.
    To equate the accomplishments of one life against another suggests that a person is actually qualifying their judgment based on their experiences in their slice of time being alive.
    I read the article and had a knee jerk reaction to agree entirely with the author then, I applied rational skepticism. I made a judgment call, thinking that a polymath with 5 mastered skills is the same as 5 monopaths who have master one skill.
    Then I asked myself, where is the value in either types of brains? There are more than over a hundred neurotransmitters and science does not know if there is a finite amount of types. To attribute one, ACh as the key to learning, is very fool hardy for sure.
    Before writing a long post, think about the consequences people cause in the world, and if being a polymath or a monopath really has any credibility. Also, be skeptical before believing. Who am I to judge the entire human races actions or lack of actions on the impact of the future of humanity? Either of the types of human beings mentioned in this article could be influential negatively or positively? Was Adolf Hitler a Polymath... think of the evil genious' of the world. The stories of Sherlock Holmes delve deeply into this subject. Who was the better human being: Holmes or Watson? Or do the both compliment each other in their successes and failures?
    Cheers, Peace, and Great Journey!

  • Bernecky

    When a mass-produced pin fails, it's difficult to know who's responsible.

    Funny thing. A comment on my Disqus Dashboard is reported to have been 'graded' by one person (who voted it up). When I look at that same comment--which happens to have been posted to this very page, 5 days ago--it's been 'graded' by one person (who voted it down).

  • freakystyley

    ADD is real, and causes issues with funtioning in this world, but I
    have wondered many times if maybe it's the world that's not right. Perhaps it should be that I am not the one that needs to be medicated, but more the ones who are willing to sit still and do as they are told their entire lives.

    • billjitsu

      I believe you're mistaking blind obedience/subservience with being able to singularly focus on one thing for an extended period of time.

  • SmilingAhab

    The productivity gains made through mechanization and specialization of the workforce are what foster monopathy. Because of this, only polymaths that are good enough at something to match their monopathic competitors for job slots, or are great salespeople, would be able to get jobs. There's no "but it takes naturals / we only learn while we're young" to the monopathic culture, it's that unless your polymathic learning makes you a heap of cash, you specialize and fill a job slot or starve.

  • Byron Gordon

    This isn't about how one can do whatever one wants. It's about how much time it will take! Every human brain is wired differently. Some get the answer on the first try. Some miss a few times. Some pass the test on the first try. Some fail. Some pass the bar the first time. Some take 3 or 4 times to pass the bar.

  • Astrid D. Morrell

    I've always wondered if I am a polymath. I have a high degree of skill in music, art, photography and graphic design. I also noticed I tend to pick up on things very quickly, ie. I became quite advanced at 3D modeling compared to my class in college, despite never writing a note down or having prior experience.

    I don't put this down to being a "genius" because I don't see myself as particularly intelligent. Perhaps I just have a knack for certain things.

  • Vionardo da Lenci

    Jack Welch made General Electric great with his motto of being "number 1 or 2 in the field of industries" that GE participated in.

    The same applies to polymaths of today: you will hear about the kid who learns 20 languages by the age 16...

    ...but not about the 16 year-old-kid who learns 5 languages, and is an also-ran in weightlifting and architecture.

    In other words, polymaths will find someone in all of their fields who has put more of his 10 000+ hours of deliberate practice to that one pursuit.

    But to suggest that someone who has achieved mastery in one field is a "bore" is certainly not correct. In fact, mastery, even if it happens in one field only, should be celebrated.

    The real promise of polymaths, as the article suggests, is in entrepreneurship & innovation, doing novel combinations of fields, as Frans Johansson suggests in his book "The Medici Effect".

    To create mastery in a field that does not even exist yet.

  • Rick

    Thank you, I really liked this article.
    It brings to mind Philip Tetlock's "accuracy of expert prediction" work and his foxes (polymath) versus hedgehogs (monopath) analogy.
    The same line of thinking can also be applied to over-specialization in youth sports and its possible detriments to athletic (and overall) development.

  • billjitsu

    While I love the romantic notion of being a poet, philosopher, cabinetmaker, programmer, photographer, writer and legislator like the Renaissance men in the past, the reality is that if you only dabble in any of those fields you're unlikely to achieve any sort of success these days because mastery (or advanced competence) requires dedication and specialization. The jack of all trades/master of none was decimated by the information age/knowledge economy. It used to be advised for adolescents to 'get into computers' so they would have a job after high school but that field has become so specialized that such advice almost has no meaning any longer. Do you mean they should write code? Design the front end? Perform QA? Be a database administrator? Provide support / training for end users? Manage the development team? Or do you just want to get really, really good at using the applications others have created? Each of those paths requires a good deal of study and dedication to stay up on current trends and to keep your skills sharp. I'm not discounting the value of being a well-rounded person; I'd argue it's vital to getting the most out of life, but it's a horrible way to plan a career, which (let's face it) is the most important thing in most people's lives outside of maybe family / personal relationships.

    • Dave_Mowers

      If there is a God then one day, some time in the near future, it will align the earth and Sun at the precise moment a class-X sustained flare launches off the surface of the fiery orb. The day after and forevermore will be known as the extinction that ended the Information Age as nothing electronic or electronically-stored will survive. Sure, we can build it all again but the dominance of computers as part of our everyday life and economy will be ruined since no one will want to put their money in something that cannot last when the Sun is unpredictable.

  • Brendan McCaughey

    This was one of the best and most applicable things I've read in recent memory. This is exactly what I want in life. Very well written and informative. Loved it.

    Check out my blog to see me progress on the path to Polymathics.

  • Rob

    At St. John's College in Annapolis and Santa Fe, one course of study, including literature, languages, math, science, and music, is pursued by all students, and taught by all teachers. I know of no other college where there is as much serious engagement and real learning.

  • PierrePinkFlamingo

    One of my favorite quotes...

    "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an
    invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet,
    balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take
    orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a
    new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight
    efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."— Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

  • CT

    What's missing from this discussion is whether he's advocating for Renaissance-man multi-mastery, or a "good enough" approach to learning and skills development. I doubt Feynmann was very good at the bongos, and spinning a plate was a source of inspiration, and it is too reductive to think it was the one and only source that could have inspired insights into intrinsic spin. Clearly, there is an upper limit on time, neuroplasticity, and efficacy. I know some plants, but does that mean I have a "skill" for plant identification? And the author's examples all had their areas of expertise for which they are remembered. Rather than an emphasis on specialization, I think what keeps people from taking a da Vinci approach to skill-acquisition is simply that they won't be remembered or paid for their appreciative knowledge of architecture or ability to juggle bananas. People feel that if they can't be masters worthy of note, then what's the point of pouring our limited lifespans into multiple fields long enough to master them? We aren't all rich kids with piano lessons and second language-immersion environments, so when we have to compare ourselves with those who are, what's the point of beginning French with passion at age 30? Sustained commitment requires a sense of pay-off, and a string of early successes. It's always been my dream to be a polymath, but it's impossible for me to stick to one thing long enough to get particularly good at it, because I'm too late a starter to get good enough to be of note (and just making enough to survive leaves little time for much else).

  • jhr13

    I love this article, and have had this feeling for quite some time. This was a major criticism of capitalism espoused by Marx, and obviously has gone widely ignored until recently due to the stigma of teaching his work in school. But with the economic collapse, many scholars are finding Marx's criticisms of capitalism to be at least somewhat accurate, and this one I think is entirely true - particularly the element of separating body from mind.

    My only critique of this article, although it is somewhat implied by the term Renaissance, is that the concept of "polymathics" is not a Renaissance idea or ideal. Aristotle, and perhaps those before him, preached the necessity of a balanced life, and he himself practiced polymathics by espousing on topics ranging from biology to rhetoric. One thing that struck me from the Nichomaccean (sp?) Ethics is his ideas about how to be truly virtuous, a man must exercise both his mind and body.

    I always felt that in the pursuit of my studies, I ignored shaping my body as well. When you focus primarily on strengthening your mind, your body suffers - but it is equally important, and that's something that I feel gets lost in the fold of modern life where only a few elite athletes can make a living off of their physical prowess.

  • Timothy

    yo g's, what are the implications of this idea on my life as a student and as a human?

  • Max

    Is it not rather the strive the strive to become a polymath, therefore to be a philomath?

    From my point of view, reaching the hard-to-define state of a polymath is only important to the self-conscious and it is more about the here described attitude.



  • Howard Treesong

    Polymaths will tend to have a more rounded view of the world, seeing so many angles. For some fields of study you're going to want to have a deep knowledge of the field, pushing most everything else out, much though I agree with the idea that even for those people having a different point of view would be a big help as well.

  • Mel

    Good essay. Although, I would really like to have the sources cited for the various technical details. Readers that enjoyed this offering may also appreciate "Where good ideas come from", by Steven Johnson.

  • JonT

    I have recently stopped describing myself as a "Jack of All-Trades" with it's implication of sloppiness and mediocre skills, and have rebranded myself as a "Wide Achiever".

  • bmusil1

    Here I am as a young man. Add a few pounds, rimless glasses, some gray, and a computer and see me as I am today. Specialty? Imagining a better world, and acting on it.

  • Stan Astan

    "Shun no toil to make yourself remarkable by some talent or other; yet do not devote yourself to one branch exclusively. Strive to get clear notions about all. Give up no science entirely; for science is but one." - Seneca the Younger

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