Student studying with books

Upskill Like Da Vinci: 5 Reasons to Become a Polymath

Mastering the Skills of a Polymath to build and advance your skill set 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 completely wrong. Well, not wrong, but incomplete. Somewhere along the line to was truncated to reflect society’s fixation on specialisation as the only path to advancement and enlightenment. The original phrase reads, “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one”. In other words, those who ahve a diverse knowledge base of set of skills can can usually solve a problem better than a specialist.

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 – like a polymath.

The proof is in the petri dish – the majority of Scientific Nobel Prize winners were skilled in creative skillsets vastly different to their scientific field.  That’s where polymathy comes in.

In fact, in research spanning 25 years, Bernice Eiduson of UCLA found that scientists and artists had shared psychological profiles. They had diverse intellectual interests, extravagant fantasies, were very responsive to sensory experiences, and always strived to find diverse ways to express these experiences. In fact, out of 50 variables studied, only 2 differences between scientists and artists emerged. Scientists were more willing to work in structured situations, and were less introspective about sex. Take from that what you will.

Albert Einstein playing the violin

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. Polymathy is no different.

Broadly speaking, a polymath must exercise the three components of breadth, depth, and integration.  It’s the component of integration that makes becoming a polymath more achievable.  There is much to be explored in the components of breadth, depth, and integration, but this is outside the scope of this article.

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.

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. 

5 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.

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2. Handle Complex Tasks with Ease

Complex tasks require a multidisciplinary approach.  Think about all the different skills or knowledge that goes into the design and construction of a major building or bridge.  Because their brains need to delve into new and diverse fields regularly, polymaths may often have better faculties to improve productivity, efficiency, creativity, and resource management. 

Multitasking at a computer

3. Non-Bias

 Bias is hard to avoid, no matter who you are, but research has found that those engaged or advanced in a numbers 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 follow 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 on a range of different of different subjects and skills sets are constantly stimulated and challenged.  Variety is the spice of life, of course, but it goes deeper.  When there’s always new project that piques your interest, you’re never stuck in a rut or bored. For this reason polymaths often have extended motivation, their willingness to expend effort is constantly renewed by pursuing meaningful objectives.

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 in a range of topics, in particular, the top that they are interested in.  Polymaths are more likely to know enough about that field to have a great conversation without dominating it.

Dinner Party

Imagine how much we could achieve if we cast away our preconceived notions of specialization and started using the Polymath method of breadth, depth, and integration with our personal knowledge and skill sets. These are the approaches that make discoveries, create new ideas, fresh art and, if not the course of history, the course of your life. 

We need to stop thinking about the idea of being a Polymath as something only geniuses can achieve, to a learning and lifestyle approach that values all fields of human knowledge and the links between them.

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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