The Return of the Polymath

The Return of the Polymath

We live in a time where deep-specialization is highly encouraged—what technologist Vinnie Mirchandani calls the monomath. Almost every profession specializes to an extent: doctors, lawyers, academics, consultants, and so on. This is a trend largely driven by the economy. The thought process goes, the more you specialize, the more you earn, and the better off you are.

It’s an approach built off of the idea of division of labor and compartmentalization. A throwback to the industrial age of assembly lines and maximum efficiency. If you work in the corporate world, this may sound familiar. You have your sales department, marketing department, IT department, finance department, and on goes the list.

Every department often operates in silos, focused on their core area of knowledge. They are efficient and focused, but also narrow in their understanding. They know next to nothing about what occurs in the next cubicle, on the next floor, or at the adjacent building.

And it works. It’s hard to argue that specialization isn’t effective. It’s the most obvious and straightforward path to success, which is why the idea of the polymath has fallen in modern times. The polymath is an individual that has a diverse range of knowledge and expertise. History is littered with polymaths of all eras, who served as leaders in multiple fields and made major contributions. That’s not as common today.

In fact, it is the specialists that dominate most domains of progress and innovation. There are a few reasons why polymaths have lost their edge in recent times.

1. Knowledge is increasing.

In general, knowledge is growing, which means there is more to learn before you can truly contribute. In the past, many of these domains were just getting started, so it was easier to pick things up and make major contributions. Now they are much farther along, which means a longer ramp up time.

Of course, there are always new domains to jump into, but they are also fewer and far between.

2. Competition is relentless.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with focusing on multiple things, but you have to recognize that the majority of individuals in any given field aren’t following suit. They are staying focused and building their expertise ever further.

This means that if you are splitting your time, you’re probably falling behind those that are not. Even the archetype of polymaths, Leonardo Da Vinci, warned against the challenges of dividing your attention.

Like a kingdom divided, which rushes to its doom, the mind that engages in subjects of too great variety becomes confused and weakened.Leonardo Da Vinci

You can focus on multiple things, but you must realize that it comes at a cost. The experts in your field aren’t slowing down.

3. Outsider perspective.

There’s this natural reaction to those that pursue many endeavors and explore different fields, they are viewed negatively. Like an intruder trespassing in a restricted area, a polymath is often viewed as an outsider.

Maybe it’s because of this innate need to protect what’s theirs. Maybe it’s because they need to believe what they do is difficult and valuable and important, so it shouldn’t be available to anyone.

When the insiders see an outsider try to contribute to their field, they are almost always met with resistance. Barriers go up, resistance increases, and things that should be simple become difficult. This only makes it harder for the polymath who is often assuming the role of outsider.

Suffice to say, the deck is stacked against the polymath. But that’s not to say they should be dismissed. Especially not for the future.

The Problem With Expertise Alone

In reality, just sticking with a single expertise comes with its own downside. Specialization can easily lead you into the trap of narrow thinking. You fail to recognize the value of outside ideas and lose your peripheral vision, as well as your ability to see the bigger picture.

While we may not recognize it yet, the future appears to be in need of these abilities. Things are getting faster and more complex. The domains of tomorrow don’t exist today and will be formed out of the intersection of diverse fields.

At the same time, technology is changing how we work and what we actually need to do in that work. It won’t be long before robotics, algorithms, and AI takes over more narrow tasks in the workplace, meaning we will all need to adapt. We will need to learn to be valuable to the technology, not compete against it.

Information is also exploding, as is access to it. While this is a net positive, we also need to learn how to navigate it all. How do we discern the signal from the noise? How do we find the needles in the haystack?

These coming changes mean that the abilities of the polymath will become important once again. The ability to connect and see big ideas. The vision to think beyond defined domains. The desire to learn widely and deeply. The willingness to serve as connectors and translators. The flexibility to adapt to any given situation.

Life belongs to the living, and he who lives must be prepared for changes.Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

It isn’t a clear-cut path, as we identified challenges faced by polymaths today, but even those have counter-trends working in their favor. While knowledge is increasing, it is also going obsolete. What is available to know is growing, but what we need to know may not be changing as quickly as we perceive.

Similarily, while competition will always be there, the polymath can serve as the go-between amongst the competitors and experts. They can serve in that crucial role of connector and empower us to tackle the wicked problems of tomorrow.

And while there will always be those that dislike what they offer, there will be just as many that recognize the value that polymaths provide.

The polymath represents a particular way of thinking that has been diminished in recent times, but I believe it’s making a come back. The polymath is returning.