Polymath is one of those words more likely to show up on the SAT than in everyday conversation. But the reason we don’t use the word much these days has less to do with vocabulary than it has to do with practicality: there aren’t a lot of polymaths around anymore.
In case you don’t have your pocket dictionary handy, a polymath is a person with a wide range of knowledge or learning. Think people like Leonardo da Vinci (artist and helicopter designer), Benjamin Franklin (founding father, inventor, and all-around lady-killer), Paul Robeson (scholar, athlete, actor, and civil rights activist), and even Steve Jobs (engineer, businessman extraordinaire, and marketing mastermind).
Still, while we admire the select “geniuses” that can do it all, we tend to disparage the regular folk who attempt to spread their knowledge around a little. If they are so foolish as to dabble instead of devoting themselves to a single calling, those unfortunates sometimes earn the time-dishonored label of “Jack of all trades, master of none.”
But why? What’s so wrong with trying to learn new things? Here’s what Maya Angelou — herself a polymath (poet, journalist, dancer) — has to say about the saying:
“It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Angelou said to the Smithsonian. “I think you can be a jack-of-all-trades and a mistress-of-all-trades. If you study it, and you put reasonable intelligence and reasonable energy, reasonable electricity to it, you can do that. You may not become Max Roach on the drums. But you can learn the drums.”
What’s more, in the digital age, learning has really never been easier — and not just for the “geniuses” that walk among us. Polymath status is accessible to just about anyone with a modem, a library card, and the desire to learn.
Information is everywhere, and it’s often free. iTunesU gives your everyday-Joe an opportunity to get a free, virtual Ivy-league education from his couch. Khan Academy teaches people everything from beginning algebra to cosmology. Sign into Google’s Code University to learn programming languages in the moments snatched during lunch breaks or while the baby’s napping. My company iFixit teaches people how to repair their electronics — no prior experience necessary. And, most recently, MIT and Harvard teamed up to launch edX, a “planet-scale, technology-enabled” online education platform that offers college courses for free. And these types of free online learning institutions are more the rule than the exception these days.
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So, why aren’t there more of us polymaths?
We live in an age where deep-specialization is highly encouraged — the era of what tech analyst Vinnie Mirchandani calls the “monomath.” Doctors specialize, lawyers specialize, academics specialize, mechanics specialize … just about everyone professionally specializes. The more deeply you specialize, the more money you’re likely to make.
And that’s fine. Except when it’s not. The problem with deep specialization is that specialists tend to get stuck in their own points of view. They’ve been taught to focus so narrowly that they can’t look at a problem from different angles. And in the modern workscape we desperately need people with the ability to see big picture solutions. That’s where being a polymath has certain advantages.
Was Steve Jobs a better product designer than Apple’s lead designer Jonathan Ive? “No,” says author, entrepreneur, and popular blogger Tim Ferriss. “But [Jobs] has a broad range of skills and sees the unseen interconnectedness. As technology becomes a commodity with the democratization of information, it’s the big-picture generalists who will predict, innovate, and rise to power fastest.”
Polymathism is an idea that I’m pretty committed to (after all, I’ve started two businesses — iFixit and Dozuki — based on the premise of teaching pretty much everything to as many people as possible, whether it’s via work instructions or product manuals). And I look for that same desire to learn new things in the people who I hire. I don’t want coders who are just good at coding, designers who are just good at designing, or technical writers who can only write.
I don’t believe in overly-strict specialization. It’s too limiting. So, we push our coders to learn how to write well. We encourage our technicians to learn programming. We even bought a laser cutter to help our designers tinker. We push them out of their particular specializations to keep them learning. It’s a little uncomfortable, and sometimes they get things wrong the first time around. But, together, we usually discover a solution that we wouldn’t have discovered if we were all stuck in our own little knowledge cubicles.
And spreading knowledge little around can be a great path to innovation.
Take the burgeoning field of biomimicry, for example. Biomimicry looks to nature for solutions to modern problems — after all, Mother Earth has had 3.8 billion years to work out all the design kinks. Biomimetics requires practitioners to be more than engineers, more than biologists, more than ecologists, more than designers, and more than inventors. In true polymathic fashion, they must inhabit the mindframe of all of the above. And incredible innovation has come out of the field: a burr stuck in a dog’s fur became the design inspiration for velcro; the brilliantly-hued blue wings of a Morpho butterfly inspired a better television display; fabrics and paint that dramatically cut down drag were inspired by shark skin.
And that’s just the beginning. What insights might physicists bring to international relations? What might plumbers bring to cardiology? Polymathism is largely untapped force in business practice, but it’s also the future of problem-solving.
Those are the perks of being a polymath. May they inherit the earth.