Our culture and education have always pushed us to become good at one thing. Since the beginning of school, we are told to learn hard, to work hard, and perhaps no one encouraged us to learn joyfully or enjoy what we do. The system forced kids to showpieces their hard work in the form of a grading system. And we were never trained to be curious, ask questions, and take up subjects we are really interested in early in our careers.
When we grow up, we have people around us asking things like:
- You’ll never be successful unless you become an expert.
- Choose one career in life.
- You can’t do everything.
- You’re a dreamer.
- Do you want to be highly successful or not?
- You’re just scattered.
- Why can’t you just focus on one thing?
Most of the things told to us about careers make us feel limited about ourselves. But the fact is, the entire universe is endless and expanding.
The world, and all its parts and pieces, all the life on it… all the things we can do and discover… it’s all of the endless explorations. The space is multidimensional but we are taught to look at life as one straight projection of line. We go to school, then to college where we choose a particular career, later we get into a job where we train ourselves to become an expert on the particular thing.
Nothing right or wrong with the above approach but the history of humanity has always put people in front of us who have done something extraordinary in their lives.
Expert, Multipotentialitie, and Polymath
While the definition of success is very relative, and there is no ultimate pathway to extreme success, we have seen that based on the period we live in success favors a particular kind of discipline.
With the advent of the industrial age, cultural norms had shifted in favor of specialization. Even in the late 20th century, the more narrow the specialization, the higher the pay and respect accorded, for example, Ph.D. graduates, and specialized lawyers, doctors, and engineers. The aphorism Jack of all trades, master of none, or emphasis towards generalism and multiple potentials were seen as pathways to an unsuccessful or mediocre life.
However, the convergence economy, Internet age, connectivity, gave rise to the Creative Class, and other modern developments are bringing about a return of a more positive opinion for generalists and multipotentialites.
In Specialization, Polymaths And The Pareto Principle In A Convergence Economy, Jake Chapman writes:
Economists tell us that the history of human labor is one of continually increasing specialization. In the days of the hunter-gatherer, every member of the tribe would have been expected to command some degree of proficiency with each task.
As we progressed along the economic continuum from hunter-gatherer through agrarian and industrial and now into post-industrial economies, the labor force has become more fragmented, with workers having more and more specialized skill sets. … Historically, specialization has been a path to prosperity. Although specialization has certain economic advantages, in the era of technological convergence, well-educated generalists will be those who are the most valuable. It is time for a renaissance of the “Renaissance Man.” … The Renaissance thinkers recognized both the potential of individuals as well as the enormous value to being well-rounded. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way the idea of someone who dabbled in many fields lost its cultural appeal and we began to praise those who sought deep subject matter expertise.
We now live in a world where distinctions between formerly separate industries are breaking down and the real opportunities for growth are where those industries intersect. Harnessing these 21st-century opportunities will require people who are “jacks of all trades, masters of none,” or, perhaps more accurately, master polymaths.
— Jake Chapman
A specialist is an expert. He is somebody who has a broad and deep understanding and competence in terms of knowledge, skill, and experience about something, which he has developed through practice and education in a particular field.
A generalist is a multipotentialite. He is a person with a wide array of knowledge on a variety of subjects, useful or not. It can also refer to an individual whose interests span multiple fields or areas, rather than being strong in just one. Such traits are called multipotentialities, while “multipotentialite” has been suggested as a name for those with this trait.
A polymath word comes from the Greek word polymathēs, “having learned much”. He is an individual whose knowledge spans a substantial number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. The polymath can also be called an expert generalist.
While the term “multipotentialite” is often used interchangeably with “polymath” or “Renaissance Person”, the terms are not identical. One need not be an expert in any particular field to be a multipotentialite.
Indeed, Isis Jade makes a clear distinction between multipotentiality and polymaths.
Multipotentiality refers simply to one’s potential in multiple fields owing to his/her diverse interests and attempts. Polymaths, on the other hand, are distinguished by their mastery and expertise in several fields. In this sense, multipotentialites can be viewed as potential polymaths.
Why be a generalist?
The warning against being a generalist has persisted for hundreds of years in dozens of languages. “Equipped with knives all over, yet none is sharp,” warn people in China. In Estonia, it goes, “Nine trades, the tenth one — hunger.”
Yet, many of the most impactful individuals, both contemporary and historical, have been generalists: Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Richard Feynman, Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Marie Curie to name just a few.
If being a generalist was so ineffective, why are the founders of the five largest companies in the world — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Larry Page, and Jeff Bezos — all polymaths? Are these legends just genius anomalies? Or are they people we could and should imitate in order to be successful in a modern knowledge economy?
If being a generalist is an ineffective career path, why do 10+ academic studies find a correlation between the number of interests/competencies someone develops and their creative impact?
The Era of the Modern Polymath
I define a modern polymath as someone who becomes competent in at least three diverse domains and integrates them into a top 1-percent skill set.
In other words, they bring the best of what humanity has discovered from across fields to help them be more effective in their core field. Hence the T-shape below. Specialists, on the other hand, just focus on knowledge from their own field — Michael Simmons
Since Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, popularized the concept, many now believe that to become world-class in a skill, they must complete 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in order to beat the competition, going as deep as possible into one field. Modern polymaths go against the grain of this popular advice, building atypical combinations of skills and knowledge across fields and then integrating them to create breakthrough ideas and even brand new fields and industries where there is little competition.
For example, people have studied biology and sociology for hundreds of years. But no one had ever studied them together and synthesized them into a new discipline until researcher EO Wilson pioneered the field of sociobiology in the 1970s. We also have modern tech heroes like Steve Jobs, who famously combined design with hardware and software.
Elon Musk has combined an understanding of physics, engineering, programming, design, manufacturing, and business to create several multibillion-dollar companies in completely different fields. He not only makes atypical combinations of skills, he also makes atypical combinations of personality traits.
Whether you are an expert or a multipotentialite, you can still be a polymath. Just remember this newly created phrase:
No specialist is ever truly a expert, And no generalist is ever truly a multipotentialite.
So the opportunity for being a polymath is equal for everyone. Being a polymath will be the new normal, and polymaths who synthesize diverse skills to create breakthrough innovations and solve complex problems will have a huge impact. Generalists who fail to synthesize their knowledge into value for others stand to flounder in their career, perhaps having an impressive encyclopedic knowledge, but no real impact.
Read Part 2 of Blog: How to Become a Modern Polymath?