The Return of the Polymath

Until the industrial revolution, the idea of naming a polymath a polymath would have seemed a little odd.

Da Vinci If you were educated, you were likely to have expertise in everything from philosophy to biology to mathematics.

The separation of distinct subject matter would seemed a little arbitrary and inaccurate, as every modern subject area overlaps to a large extent.

Being highly knowledgeable & skilled in three, four, five areas would be fairly normal.

Look at Da Vinci, for example. A man famed for his artwork, but also a genius in architecture & physics, creating the blueprints for the modern helicopter way before the technology was able to catch up.

And then came the Industrial Revolution & the compartmentalisation of ideas & of people.

The school system became more standardised, with subjects separated to ease the process of curriculum-creation.

In the work place, specialisation became the norm. Workers focused on one specific task in one specific process, whether as a knowledge worker or factory worker.

So out went the idea of the polymath, of knowing a few different areas intimately well.

And that has largely continued until this day, stemming from the Victorian-era education system we have failed to modernise.

The polymath has become a rare phenomenon as a result. Somebody that has largely had to take it upon themselves to reach their status as a polymath, independent of formal education in school or in work.

True, we do learn a number of different subject areas, but we acquire mastery in none. As Peter Thiel, founder of Paypal points out:

“In middle school, we’re encouraged to start hoarding “extracurricular activities.” In high school, ambitious students compete even harder to appear omnicompetent. By the time a student gets to college, he’s spent a decade curating a bewilderingly diverse résumé to prepare for a completely unknowable future. Come what may, he’s ready — for nothing in particular.”

— Peter Thiel

And regardless of what we learn, it is for the most part disconnected from our future workalike. We go into accountancy, into law, into finance. We become more and more specialised as adults, at the very point when we need great ideas.

Because the modern world requires innovation. Requires divergent thinking.

Gone are the days of your work day being one of repetition & intellectual laziness. If you keep that up, then you’ll be automated. Or out-sourced.

The modern workplace requires divergent thinking. It needs big, innovative ideas.

And these big ideas tend to come from a variety of experiences combining in new, interesting ways others have not thought of.

Apple came from a mastery of programming, of calligraphy, of Jobs experimenting with LSD.

War & Peace from Tolstoy’s great skill as a writer, but also as a historian of the Napoleonic era.

Good product design can come from a background in User Experience Design or Graphic Design, yes. But usually great products are influenced by a deep understanding of behavioural psychology or copywriting as well.

So, whether to protect your job security, or to take your work closer to greatness, ask yourself what skill you are ready to tackle next?

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Henry Latham

Henry Latham

Founder, Prod MBA

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