Upskill Like Da Vinci: 5 Reasons to Become a Polymath

Mastering the Skills of a Polymath to link and build skills and advance your skills without going back to school is achievable, here’s why you should start thinking like one.

The old adage, “Jack of all trades, master of none,” is dead.  Irrelevant. Always has been.  Da Vinci knew it, Albert Einstein knew it, and many of the world’s most successful people know it.  Sure, great focus and specialisation often leads to mastery but to standout and advance in this world one needs to think, link and synthesise.

The proof is in the petri dish – a recent study found that the majority of Scientific Nobel Prize winners were skilled in creative skillsets vastly different to their scientific field.  That’s where polymathy comes in. See a list of creatively inclined polymath scientists here.

Yes, Einstein too. Polymaths change the world

You’ve probably heard about Leonardo Da Vinci being a polymath, using his knowledge of mathematics, skills as an artist, and understanding of the principles of physics, to create striking works of art and design inventions centuries ahead of their time.  This classical example, however, is so far removed from modern times that we often fail to realize that the potential for such capacity lies within us too.  Da Vinci was just a meat-and-bones human, like you and me.

You don’t have to be a genius to be a polymath. Nor do you need to dedicate ‘10,000 hours’ to the mastery of dozens of different areas of study. Like all educational approaches it can be broken down into its components, implemented, and exercised.

Broadly speaking, a polymath must exercise these three components: breadth, depth, and integration.  It’s the component of integration that makes becoming a polymath more achievable.

Each skill or field of knowledge, no matter how disparate, shares a set of practices of understandings with several others.  It’s the integration of these that gives the polymath their unique perspective from which to set their skills apart and re-imagine concepts.  Many of history’s ground-breaking scientists, for example, are very talented creatives, either in Music, Visual Arts, or Poetry.

In research spanning 25 years, Bernice Eiduson of UCLA explicitly investigated the psychological profiles of professionals from various fields. She found that, while they were distinct from others in the test group, the psychological profiles of Scientists and Artists could not be distinguished from each other.  Why?  Both groups shared these key traits: they had diverse intellectual interests, extravagant fantasies, were very responsive to sensory experiences, and strived to find diverse ways to express these

Now more than ever we need to have a diverse and adaptable skillset.  Jobs are becoming more multi-faceted and work itself is moving towards more of a ‘gig economy’.  Teachers have known this for years.  Even 15 years ago the research was telling us that our students will need to draw on a wide range of fields and skills in order to be successful in the jobs of the future. 

Imagine how far you could take your that one thing that you’re good at, using it to inform your learning of another.  Then, bring fresh perspectives and unique skills to another field, or back to your own. These are the approaches that make discoveries, create new ideas, fresh art and, if not the course of history, change your life. 

Five benefits to thinking like a polymath:

  1. Innovation.  Recent research has shown that the majority of leading scientific studies were executed by teams with diverse fields of experience.  This research also found that, while 90% of their citations were from resources in their field, the remaining 10% were from fields normally considered completely unrelated.
  2. Super complex tasks generally require a multidisciplinary approach.  So many projects require a team of experts, but imagine leading a team with at least a sound knowledge of each of those fields of expertise.
  3. Non-bias.  Bias is hard to avoid, no matter who you are, but research has found that those engaged or advanced in a number of fields (polymaths) are more open to differing perspectives, new ideas and approaches to problems.  On the other hand, specialists in one field tend to typically engage in ‘groupthink’. As Aristotle said, “It’s the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
  4. Contentment.  Polymaths, who get to engage in a range of different subjects and skill sets are constantly stimulated and challenged.  Variety is the spice of life, of course, but it goes deeper.  When there’s always a new project that piques your interest, you’re never stuck in a rut or bored.  And constantly achieving new goals in different fields boosts self-esteem.
  5. Social standing.  Forget this ‘smartest person in the room mentality,’ everyone hates that guy.  What truly impresses and engages people is someone who can hold a discourse on a range of topics, in particular, the topic that they are interested in.  Polymaths are more likely to know enough about that field to have a great conversation without dominating it.

There are a number of approaches and learnable skills that can help you become a modern day polymath.  Start by thinking about those shared skills and knowledge:  what’s something that you’re good at?  Now in what other field do they also use this skill? Or, even better, in what field could I use this skill?

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