How to Become a Modern Polymath?

Aakash S
9 min readFeb 26, 2022

Michael Simmons, the serial entrepreneur, bestselling author, and contributor of Time, Fortune, and Harvard Business Review suggests the following steps.

Step 1: Creating an atypical combination of two or more skills that you’re merely competent in can lead to a world-class skill set.

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, one of the most popular comic strips of all time, wasn’t the funniest person in the world. He wasn’t the best cartoonist in the world, and he wasn’t the most experienced employee (he was only in his 20s when he started Dilbert). But by combining his humor and illustration skills while focusing on business culture, he became the best in the world in his niche. In an insightful blog post, he nails how he did it and how you can too:

If you want something extraordinary [in life], you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.

The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.

— Scott Adams

Scott Adam also says that Capitalism rewards things that are both rare and valuable. You make yourself rare by combining two or more “pretty goods” until no one else has your mix.

Step 2: Creative breakthroughs come via making atypical combinations of skills.

We can see the power of atypical combinations when we look back at the most influential papers throughout the history of science. Researcher Brian Uzzi, a professor at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, analyzed more than 26 million scientific papers going back hundreds of years and found that the most impactful papers often have teams with atypical combinations of backgrounds. In another comprehensive study performed by Uzzi, he compared the results of academic papers by the number of citations they received and the other papers they cited. A fascinating pattern emerged. The top performing studies cited atypical combinations of other studies (90 percent conventional citations from their own field and 10 percent from other fields).

Step 3: Become competent in a new skill.

Want to learn a new, valuable skill to add to your toolbox? It’s never been easier:

  1. The quality of knowledge in every domain is improving. Researchers and practitioners are systematically improving and testing every field of knowledge to make it more robust. Cumulatively, old fallacious ideas are being discredited and new ideas are being added. The technology field is smarter than it was 20 years ago, for example. So are the fields of physics and biology.
  2. Second, there is an abundance of free or affordable content from the world’s top experts in every medium you can think of. Need a community and expert coaching? There are now hundreds of thousands of online courses and billions of online videos. This is the golden era for people who value learning, are willing to invest in themselves, and who are disciplined enough to take action on their own.

Step 4: Pioneer a new field, industry, or skill set.

While the explosion of knowledge is making it impossible or at least more difficult for anyone to know everything, it has also made it easier to find one big, atypical combination of fields or skills. It’s easier than ever to be a polymath.

Here’s why:

First, one of the main ways that new skill sets, industries, and fields emerge is by combining them with old ones:

Second, the number of new academic fields and business industries is increasing exponentially.

And finally, as the number of new skills increases, the number of possible combinations increases exponentially. Every new chunk of knowledge can theoretically be combined with every other knowledge chunk. Every new breakthrough creates the potential for exponentially more breakthroughs.

If you have one building block (A), you can only make one combination (A). If you have two (A & B), then you can make three combinations (A, B, A+B). Once you get to four building blocks, you get to 15 possible combinations, and the numbers grow dramatically from there. Now consider that there are thousands and thousands of disciplines, industries, and skills. Each new one creates the potential for tens of thousands more.

Below are a few of the many thousands of fields that were created very recently through combination:

Step 5: Future-proofs Your career.

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” -Charles Darwin

What do the following six professions have in common?

  1. App developer
  2. Social media manager
  3. Driverless car engineer
  4. Cloud computing specialist
  5. Big data scientist
  6. YouTube content creator

Answer: None of them existed 15 years ago. Imagine the power you’d have if you could go back in time, master these skills, and then be one of the best in the world at them when they hit big? We actually don’t have to guess. You’d stand a good chance of being a millionaire. The headline below shows just how valuable a driverless car engineer is.

So what skills are going to be valuable in 20 years? Do you know?

A polymath can take the skills that she or he has learned and combine them in new ways quickly to master new fields. On the other hand, a specialist whose fields becomes obsolete would likely take much more time to adapt to the change and have to start back at the beginning.

In an environment of accelerating change, we’re going to have to become polymaths to survive. We’re going to have a dozen careers. Each one is going to require new skills.

Step 6: Solve more complex problems.

Many of the largest problems that face society and individuals benefit from solutions that integrate multiple disciplines.

Let’s take obesity as an example. As the chart below shows, diet and obesity account for four out of the top fifteen causes of death in the United States. Millions of deaths that are completely preventable.

From the outside, you could easily say that solving the obesity crisis is an easy problem. Just eat less and exercise more. Right? Not quite.

The chart below from the Diversity Bonus book by researcher Scott Page shows a portion of just how complex the obesity epidemic is. As you can see, many different fields are needed to solve this problem: exercise physiology, genetics, behavioral psychology, sociology, economics, marketing, general psychology, education system, nutrition.

Step 7: Stand out and compete in the global economy.

One of the most fundamental mental models from economics is supply and demand (see more valuable mental models). It’s relevant to the job market, to goods and services, to the world of ideas, and to many other places.

In this model, there are two ways to increase how much of a price premium you command:

  1. Decrease the supply (move the blue curve to the left).
  2. Increase the demand (move the red curve to the right).

You can have the most valuable skill set in the world, but if everyone also has that skill set, then you’re a commodity. By becoming a polymath and developing a unique skill set that few others have, then you’ll be able to differentiate yourself and charge more.

Want a quick test to see if you have rare and valuable knowledge? Then ask yourself the same question that self-made billionaire Peter Thiel, one of the top investors in Silicon Valley, asks candidates he might hire and founders he might fund, “What’s the one thing you believe is true that no one else agrees with you on?” This simple question very quickly tells you whether or not you have rare and valuable ideas. If you can’t come up with anything, it tells you that you might not be as an original thinker as thought you were.

This mental model is widely shared among the world’s top investors and performers as the following quotes demonstrate:

“You want to be greedy when others are fearful. You want to be fearful when others are greedy. It’s that simple.” — Warren Buffett, founder of Berkshire Hathaway

“In order to get into the top of the performance distribution, you have to escape from the crowd.” — Howard Marks, founder of Oaktree Capital ($2+ billion net worth)

“You can’t make money agreeing with the consensus view.” — Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates (largest hedge fund in the world)

“The best projects are likely to be overlooked, not trumpeted by a crowd; the best problems to work on are often the ones nobody else even tries to solve.” — Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal and billionaire investor ($3.3 billion net worth)

“You have to be odd to be number 1.” -Dr. Seuss

The weakness of an art is its dogma. And when I’m competing against an individual from a different discipline, I try to find the dogma of that discipline. When I’m competing with someone within a discipline, I try to find their personal dogma. — Josh Waitzkin, Chess Grandmaster & World Tai Chi Champion

How To Become a Modern Polymath

“The greatest scientists are artists as well.” — Einstein

The idea of becoming a modern polymath can be overwhelming. Where do you start? What field do you learn first? How do you find the time? How do you translate what you learn into real world value?”

When I first started learning across fields, I stumbled. I remember, for example, picking up a textbook on biology, which I hadn’t studied since high school, and trying to apply it to my life. It was slow and not that useful. In other words, I picked the wrong discipline (for me) to start with, and I used the wrong method to learn it. After a lot of trial and error, I learned techniques that make going across fields faster and easier

During the hundreds of hours I’ve spent researching how to be a polymath and interviewing polymaths, one key that I’ve discovered is mental models.

First, mental models transcend disciplines. They are the invisible links that connect disciplines together:

For example, once you learn the “80/20 Rule,” which states that, in many domains, 20 percent of your efforts produce 80 percent of your results, you can use this mental model to improve efficiency and impact in every area of your life as well as every field you study forever. You can identify the 20% of relationships that cause 80% of your feeling of connection. You can identify the 20% of clients that create 80% of your business. You can identify the 20% of tasks that create 80% of your productivity. And so on!

Furthermore, mental models help you learn multiple skills much more quickly because they gave your a stable base of useful and universal knowledge that you can use for the rest of your life. Therefore, when you go into any new discipline, even though you may not have direct experience with that field, you’ll quickly notice mental models you can use.