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May 2018

Equipping Our Children to be Twenty-First Century Polymaths: The Impact of the Arts on Interdisciplinary Learning – Huffington Post

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Rebecca Boyle Suh | 10.01.2013

Interdisciplinary learning is not a new concept, but is now needed in education more than ever as our economic, social, and cultural environments develop at accelerating speed. There have been countless interdisciplinary thinkers who saw no boundaries between subjects: Aristotle was a philosopher and polymath and wrote on everything from linguistics to zoology; Albert Einstein valued imagination over knowledge, considering himself an artist as well as a scientist; most famously Leonardo Da Vinci was a scientist, philosopher, and painter, who thought across disciplines to create important works and ideas that are still celebrated today.

Without the restrictions of subject boundaries, each of these individuals found a unique way of looking at the world, and in doing so had a significant impact on how the world was viewed. To have new thoughts in any field of research relies on being able to see things differently, to challenge knowledge, and to test supposed fictions in search of truth with fearless curiosity. It should be our prerogative to nurture independent, interdisciplinary thinking in our children so that they might grow to tackle problems with imagination and confidence. Why then does our education system tend toward conformity, with separate subjects such as Maths, Science and English, a focus on the ‘academic’, and standardised testing? Rather than equipping children with the tools essential to success in an ever-evolving world, we are in danger of teaching them not to think for themselves.

Trying to find an answer, Sir Ken Robinson argues that the public education system has not changed much since it was developed in the nineteenth century, then in response to the economic necessities of the industrial revolution. He says schools are “modelled on the interests of industrialisation and in the image of it… along factory lines” with “bells, separate facilities, separate subjects” and year groups. He acknowledges the trend toward conformity, particularly with the ever-increasing focus on standardised testing and curricula. That each child learns differently, often through collaboration, must be taken into account. Robinson makes the case that children increasingly lose the capacity to think divergently as they move through school, becoming less imaginative as they become ‘educated’. Making the point that we must enliven the minds of children by removing subject boundaries, Robinson notes that the Arts largely suffer in a system geared toward the academic.

The arts provide the perfect platform for interdisciplinary learning from a young age, not only breaking down boundaries but providing children and teachers with a toolkit for developing creative, critical and lateral thought. Integrating the arts throughout the curriculum is a particularly effective method of raising standards, developing self-esteem and encouraging innovative thinking. Integration is distinct from ‘arts education’ – which valuably teaches the arts as standalone subjects – as it is a unique method of ensuring children are given the tools to explore and challenge the world around them.

In Canada, for example, the Learning Through the Arts® programme pioneered by The Royal Conservatory equips teachers with the skills to teach through the arts, in the process breaking down subject boundaries and bringing to life core-curriculum subjects for school children. Described as “a proven transformative educational program that uses arts-based activities to teach the core curriculum by providing teachers with creative tools to engage all students in math, science, language arts, social studies, and more”, a three year Queen’s University study concluded that “students in the Learning Through the Arts® programme scored an average of 11 percentile points higher in maths than their peers.”

We should be creating opportunities for individual interdisciplinary thought from the outset in our schools, if we are to give the next generation the freedom to be innovative. In order to do this we need to learn from thinkers such as Aristotle and Einstein who saw no boundaries and were infinitely inquisitive. Education is as much about developing essential skills, confidence, and an imagination as it is about facts and knowledge. Very much in the spirit of Leonardo Da Vinci, by allowing our children to be curious and independent we equip them with the skills to think across boundaries instead of within them. Using the arts to spark this lifelong discovery can only have a positive impact for our children; as Professor Robin Alexander says “taught with rigour and flair, the arts don’t only enrich children’s minds and lives; the arts engage the disengaged and raise educational standards.”

The return of the Rennaissance man – Evening Standard

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Richard Goodwin and Hannah Nathanson | 24.02.2011

We all begin as polymaths. I mean, if you ignore the true meaning of polymath (from the Greek, ‘having learned much’), put Leonardo da Vinci and Vladimir Nabokov in a holding pen, and use the term in the inaccurate sense of simply being pretty good at a lot of different things… well, we probably hit our polymathic peak at around ten years old.

Children see no contradiction between being an actor and a musician and a footballer and a spaceman. In fact, they are frequently all of these things, and a pirate, and Rastamouse, all in the space of one playtime. It’s only when we become self-conscious and adult that we cease to develop these skills, and put ourselves into compartments.

That’s what the modern multitasker rebels against. Ben Drew, aka Brit Award-winner Plan B, decided one career wasn’t enough, and has recreated himself as alter ego Strickland Banks, as well as pursuing a sideline as an actor alongside Michael Caine in Harry Brown, while his first project as a film writer/director, Ill Manors, an episodic Hip Hopera, is in development. Meanwhile, Johnny Flynn (left), another British musician, is as celebrated for his soulful folk arrangements as he is for his theatre works – currently to be seen alongside Juliet Stephenson at the Royal Court Theatre.

For James Franco, the star of 127 Hours and Howl, simply being a handsome Hollywood star did not satisfy. He has also published a collection of short stories, is presenting the Oscars on Sunday, modelled for Gucci, developed a sideline in video art, grown a moustache and was at one point pursuing four graduate courses: creative writing at Columbia, fiction at Brooklyn College, poetry at Warren Wilson in North Carolina, and film-making at NYU. ‘I didn’t want to be perceived as an actor who is just dabbling, just taking a class,’ he has said. The main task of his assistant, a former classmate from UCLA, is to whisper where he’s going when she bustles him onto the next plane. Such a list of accomplishments seems to provoke a mocking sort of jealousy. All the reviews of Franco’s book noted his film star looks disdainfully.

Recently, I was at a recital given by the classical pianist (and ex-banker) James Rhodes, who played a piece by the 18th-century Italian Alessandro Marcello, a genuine Renaissance man: composer, poet, politician, mathematician, philosopher and – Rhodes felt compelled to add – ‘bastard’. Most attempts by film stars, models or writers to launch a pop career end in extreme tedium (I’m looking at you, Minnie Driver); and it was with a wariness of this that novelist and talented jazz singer Zadie Smith gave up the mic.

But perhaps we’re wrong to see the people who excel in more than one area as strange and enviable. We all contain childhood multitudes after all. In most cases, polymathdom is not a question of their taking on more activities and finding extra time. From talking to our Renaissance men and women overleaf (from Polly ‘math’ Stenham, gallerist and playwright, to Riz Ahmed, Evening Standard Award-shortlisted actor and rather good MC), it seems more a question of having the will to let childhood interests develop in an unbroken line.

No-one thought me all that weird when I played guitar and wrote songs at school, but, oddly, people find the fact that I still do so and maintain a career in journalism the strangest thing they’ve ever heard. In fact, the one discipline informs the other: a few of my songs began as news stories and, conversely, it’s incredibly useful to understand how a song is produced, or what it’s like to perform when you’re writing about other people’s music. To lose the release of music would be like chopping off an arm (which Franco can probably sympathise with after 127 Hours).

For musician-artist Marcus Foster, 25, it would be bizarre to restrict his creativity. Arty musicians are not new (art school having proved the breeding ground for bands from The Who to Blur) and nor are musicky artists so unusual – the Turner Prize-winner Martin Creed regularly fronts his own band. Foster has risen in both fields discretely: his art bought by Charles Saatchi, his music signed up by Geffen UK. His father is a sculptor and painter, his mother a doctor who ‘makes strange things’, his best friend is Twilight’s Robert Pattinson, so he has grown up in an environment where self-expression is normal. What draws him uniquely to music is live performance: ‘I like the idea of controlling this unravelling moment in time,’ he tells me. ‘I like that element of communication, where you’re standing on stage and you’re not quite sure where it’s going to go next.’ With art, it’s different: it’s about making something permanent to occupy a space. It all comes from the same place.

But what of those who span science too? Take Prasanna Puwanarajah; pursuing a successful career as an actor (he’s currently touring in the National Theatre production of Hamlet, playing Rosencrantz) while maintaining a sideline in directing (he’s just made a short film with Harry Lloyd, and Yes, Prime Minister’s Henry Goodman and David Haig), the 29-year-old happens also to be a qualified, Oxford-educated doctor of medicine. He sees no contradiction: these are all things he has always enjoyed and he will continue to pursue each as long as he gets away with it. ‘Closing the door on any of medicine, directing or acting would actually be a more active decision than not. In many ways, being a ”polymath”, if you’re going to call it that, is the path of least resistance,’ he says.

In truth, however, these exploits are nothing compared to the polymaths of old. Take the quintessential Renaissance man, Pico della Mirandola, reputed to have read every book in existence in the Italy of his day. Or the French genius Blaise Pascal, who invented the calculator when he was a teenager (it was 1642), found a way of weighing air, rewrote the book on geometry, had a thing or two to say about theologyand altered the course of French literature. Or Denis Diderot, pioneer of the modern encyclopaedia, himself a one-man Wikipedia. Or Thomas Young, who established the wave theory of light, identified astigmatism, wrote a comparative grammar of 400 languages, pioneered child medicine, deciphered hieroglyphics and devised a new method of tuning musical instruments.

Nowadays, the sciences have advanced so far beyond the layman’s understanding that such broad-ranging achievements are dismissed as impossible (Young was sometimes called ‘the last man to know everything’). So it may be a comfort to know that James Franco’s achievements in particle physics, immunology, interpretive dance and macroeconomics are pretty risible.

Top of the Polymaths class
by Hannah Nathanson

Johnny Flynn

If anyone deserves to be the polymath poster boy, it’s Johnny Flynn. The 27-year-old from southern England has grown up leapfrogging between music and acting with significant success. He’s currently on stage at the Royal Court opposite Juliet Stevenson in Richard Bean’s new climate change play, The Heretic. ‘The cool thing about doing more than one thing is that you only do the jobs that appeal to you from either strand.’ And the downside to being so darned talented? ‘I sometimes feel a bit schizophrenic and I get frustrated saying no to jobs because I’m committed to something else.’

The performance gene is prominent in the Flynn family. Johnny’s father, the late Eric Flynn, was one of American composer Stephen Sondheim’s favourite musical theatre actors, and his older brother, Jerome, was part of Simon Cowell’s chart-topping pop duo Robson and Jerome. Since gaining a music scholarship to bohemian school Bedales aged 13, Johnny has learned the violin, trumpet, guitar, banjo, mandolin and ‘a bit of piano’, toured with Propeller’s production of Twelfth Night, and released two folk/soul albums. He’s just finished writing a film score for the upcoming comedy A Bag of Hammers, starring Rebecca Hall, ‘who I’m told is a fan of my music’. As is his old school friend, the model Poppy Delevingne.

In a couple of weeks Johnny will be adding another string to his banjo, becoming a father: ‘By day I’m going to antenatal classes with my girlfriend, Beatrice, and by night I’m back on stage as tree-hugging Ben.’

Polly Stenham

Whilst busy plotting her third play, award-winning playwright Polly Stenham, 24, has found the time to open an art gallery in Camden with flatmate and art history graduate Victoria Williams, whom she met whilst studying at UCL. Cob Studios & Gallery, which also houses purpose-built workshops and a 500 sq ft project space, has just hosted its first exhibition, Unnatural Nature, about humans’ faltering relationship with nature. In addition to the visual arts, the two gamine twenty-somethings have also factored in a ‘writing room’ for Polly, best known for her debut play That Face, which starred Matt ‘Dr Who’ Smith as part of an affluent family in meltdown, and enjoyed a sell-out run in the West End. Polly by name, polymath by nature, she now looks set to conquer all media as she tries her hand at screenwriting, adapting her second play, Tusk Tusk, for Film Four.

Elizabeth McGovern

American actress and singer/ songwriter Elizabeth McGovern, 49, became Hollywood’s sweetheart aged 19, starring in Robert Redford’s Oscar-winning drama Ordinary People. Brought up in LA by academic parents, she has played roles from Robert de Niro’s love interest in the 1984 gangster film Once Upon a Time in America to a fiery lesbian in Volker Schlöndorff’s thriller The Handmaid’s Tale. But neither ex-fiancé Sean Penn nor Dudley Moore’s romantic advances could keep her in Hollywood; Elizabeth, now married to Cranford director Simon Curtis, has lived in London for 20 years. Most recently, she was watched by more than nine million viewers as the canny Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey. Currently filming the period drama’s second series, Elizabeth is also working on a second album with her poppy country band Sadie and the Hotheads, whose line-up includes rockers the Nelson Brothers and Goldfrapp drummer Rowan Oliver. ‘It’s my secret life… an alter-ego for me and my musicians, who are the antithesis of hotheads.’
Sadie and the Hotheads will be at the Maverick festival in July(

Mike Skinner

Voice of The Streets, Mike Skinner is best known for bringing his confessional rap lyrics to garage music in 2002 with his debut album Original Pirate Material. Signed to Atlantic, Skinner, 32, has made five albums and had chart-topping hits with ‘Fit But You Know It’ and ‘Dry Your Eyes’. A rapper, musician and record producer from Birmingham, he has flexed his polymath pectorals on his final album, Computers and Blues, about the human relationship with technology. ‘It was written by me, it was engineered by me, it was recorded by me, it was mixed by me and it was mastered by me.’ After a valedictory Streets tour this spring, Skinner will explore different avenues. He’s co-writing his life story with a friend in his own ‘verbal style’ and making a low-budget film, a hospital-set thriller in which he will also star. Although he admits it’s not going to be a blockbuster – ‘I’m no Martin Scorsese’ – it’s clear there’s plenty more puff in this polymath.

Riz Ahmed

Actor, MC and political activist Riz Ahmed displays a prototypical polymath trait: he has, he says, ‘a hyperactive over-analytical mind’. The 27-year-old Oxford graduate from Wembley landed his first acting role, in Michael Winterbottom’s ‘Road to Guantanamo’, as one member of the Tripton Three, the group of Britons detained at the infamous Cuban prison. A surreal overlap between fiction and reality – he was detained and questioned under the Prevention of Terrorism Act as to his motives for making the film, as he was returning from its world premiere in Berlin – inspired him to start rapping and so ‘Riz MC’ was born. Although he says he uses music to explore his thoughts, and acting to escape them, Riz stands out for pushing socio-political boundaries in both music and film: his first track, ‘Post 9/11 Blues’ was banned from British airwaves for being ‘politically sensitive’ and he starred as a suicide bomber in Chris Morris’s controversial comedy Four Lions. This year, Riz will be promoting his debut album, MICroscope, as well as filming opposite Freida Pinto in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Black Gold, and looks set to climb the polymath pyramid further when he joins forces with Ben Drew (aka Plan B), starring in the BRIT winner’s new film, Ill Manor.

Want To Do It All: Creative Polymathy – Psychcentral

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Douglas Eby | 06.2011

“I want to do wardrobe. I want to do hair. I want to do makeup. I want to do writing. I want to do directing. And I want to do producing. I want to do all of it. I like it.“ Abigail Breslin

Breslin shares that kind of ambitious passion with many other people blessed – and challenged – with multiple creative talents.

Her films include Signs (at age 5), Little Miss Sunshine, Nim’s Island, and Zombieland. Her credits on the movie database are still for acting – but then, she is only 15 and has plenty of time to develop her other interests.

The Wikipedia List of people who have been called “polymaths” has a fascinating variety of names throughout history, including, of course Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) – “the prototype of the universal genius, the ‘Renaissance man’… a prodigious polymath.”

In his post That’s DR. Winnie to you: A New Child Star Stereotype, creativity researcher James C. Kaufman, Ph.D. writes about a number of well-known child stars, now grown up, who have explored talents outside of acting.

He writes: “One of the research topics in creativity that has always fascinated me has been creative polymathy – the ability to be creative in more than one domain.”

One example he mentions is actor Danica McKellar (‘Winnie’ on The Wonder Years), who earned her Ph.D. from UCLA in mathematics, and still acts in addition to writing books promoting math. In 2000, she was invited to speak to Congress about the importance of women in mathematics.

[More in my Women and Talent site post Gifted women in science: Danica McKellar on being girly and tech savvy.]

In her article Picking their next role: Joe College or hot young star?, Amy Kaufman (Los Angeles Times, June 12, 2011) mentions Emma Watson, Blake Lively, Brad Pitt, Jodie Foster, Natalie Portman, Shia LaBeouf and others who make decisions about developing their talents outside of acting.

James Franco, the article notes, “has been perhaps the most active actor-scholar of late: He is enrolled in Yale University’s English PhD program and North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College for poetry. In May, he earned a master’s degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and Columbia University’s MFA writing program, after already graduating from Brooklyn College for fiction writing last year.”

Another example is actor Mayim Bialik, who earned her Ph.D. from UCLA in Neuroscience. On “The Big Bang Theory” tv series, she plays Amy Farrah Fowler, a neurobiologist and “not-girlfriend” of physicist Sheldon Cooper.

Bialik commented that “having an understanding of both mental illness and neurosis has been tremendously helpful to me in my acting career.”

From my post: Actors and creative polymathy: Mayim Bialik, James Franco and others.

Many other talented actors I have interviewed or read about also refer to the value of understanding psychology and even making use of therapy to enhance their acting.

How does polymathy work?

In his post How Renaissance People Think – The thinking style of polymaths, Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD asks, “Do you think like a polymath? Here’s a quick test: Are you more of a rational or experiential/intuitive thinker?

“If you cringed as you read the question and thought to yourself ‘I love constantly shifting between both modes of thought’, then you’re on the polymath path.”

He says psychologist Seymour Epstein told him that “people who are high in both thinking style are Renaissance people. They have the brains of scientists and the sensibilities of poets. In other words they have the positive features of both thinking styles and do not have their negative features because they are kept under control by the other thinking style.”

Kaufman notes he makes a distinction between “controlled” and “spontaneous” thought in his (Kaufman’s) Dual-Process (DP) Theory of Human Intelligence, in which “both controlled thought (which consumes limited attentional resources) as well as more spontaneous forms of cognition (which are freer of a central executive) are important contributors to nearly every intelligent behavior.”

Multifaceted or Scattered

But polymaths may be negatively labelled with something like “scattered” rather than “multifaceted” – perhaps a result of insecurities some people feel around those who are exceptional and uncommon.

We may also condemn ourselves with this sort of pejorative label.

In her article: Are You a Scanner?, Barbara Sher talks about being multifaceted as an identity to celebrate: “If you’re a Scanner, you are a very special kind of thinker… genetically wired to be interested in many things.”

Earl Nightingale, who co-founded personal development resources company Nightingale Conant, said in an article of his: “Each of us has a tendency to underestimate his or her own abilities. We should realize that we have deep within ourselves deep reservoirs of great ability, even genius that can be tapped if we’ll just dig deep enough.”

The Secret Power Of The Generalist – And How They’ll Rule The Future – Forbes

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Meghan Casserly | 10.07.2012

When discussing the animal kingdom, each creature resides on a species scale of generalists to specialists. Specialist creatures like the koala bear can only survive on an extremely limited set of conditions: diet (eucalyptus), climate (warm), environment (trees). Generalists, on the other hand (think mice) are able to survive just about anywhere. They can withstand heat and cold, eat your organic breakfast cereal or seeds and berries foraged in the wild.

As a result, specialist species thrive only when conditions are perfect. They serve a very specific purpose within their particular ecosystem and are extremely adept at navigating it. However, should those conditions change—as a result of nature or, more commonly, an outside force—specialist species often become extinct. In contrast, mice can move from spot to spot on the globe, adapt to different cultures, diets and weather systems. And most importantly, stay alive.

In a professional setting, employees operate on a similar spectrum. We are either specialists (not just a historian, but a historian of Civil War powder muskets) or generalists. In recent decades, particularly as the American workforce has moved towards technology firms, specialists have become a hot commodity. In Silicon Valley, for example, employers wage wars for much-coveted technical engineers and coders who build the search engines and social networks we value so highly.

This makes sense: once again referring to nature, environments with more competition breed more specialists. Rainforests, for example, are chock-o-block full of diversity and competition for survival, which results in hundreds of thousands of highly specialized species. Silicon Valley, New York City and most of the other highly-productive, highly-competitive business landscapes, operate similarly. Instead of countless species of spider, the modern workforce has become a highly specialized mass of MicroNuclear Physicists, Fiber Optics Engineers and Java Developers who all function brilliantly when conditions are perfect.

But what happens when the ecosystem shifts?

Despite the corporate world’s insistence on specialization, the workers most likely to come out on top are generalists—but not just because of their innate ability to adapt to new workplaces, job descriptions or cultural shifts. Instead, according to writer Carter Phipps, author of 2012’s Evolutionaries generalists will thrive in a culture where it’s becoming increasingly valuable to know “a little bit about a lot.” Meaning that where you fall on the spectrum of specialist to generalist could be one of the most important aspects of your personality—and your survival in an ever-changing workplace.

“We’ve become a society that’s data rich and meaning poor,” he says. “A rise in specialists in all areas—science, math, history, psychology—has left us with tremendous content but how valuable is that knowledge without context?” Context, he says, which can only be provided by generalists whose breadth of knowledge can serve as the link between the hard-won scientific breakthroughs (think the recent Higgs-Boson discovery) and the rest of the world.

Only by understanding the work within fields to the right and the left of your own can you understand the bigger picture, he says, whether you’re talking about a corporation (sales analysts understanding the supply chain as well as internal operations) or the world as a whole. “We’ve become so focused on specialization, but just as there are truths that can only be found as a specialist,” he says, “There are truths that can only be revealed by a generalist who can weave these ideas in the broader fabric of understanding.” He references the historian David Christian whose 2011 TED talk presented a “Big History” of the entire universe from the big bang to present in 18 minutes, using principals of physics, chemistry, biology , information architecture and human psychology. Generalism at work.

In other arguments for the rise of the generalist, consider this research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Phillip Tetlock, as referenced in a recent Harvard Business Review blog post. Tetlock studied 248 professional forecasters over 20 years to determine whether experts or non-experts make more accurate predictions in their areas of expertise.

After collecting more than 80,000 forecasts he concluded that when seeking accurate predictions, the non-experts were the best bet. It’s better, he said, to turn to those who “know many things, draw from an eclectic array or traditions and accept ambiguity and contradictions” than so-called experts. Relying on a single perspective, he found, was problematic, even detrimental to predicting an accurate outcome.

Why? Quite simply because a single-minded person can’t predict variables they don’t know anything about.

The Surprising Benefits (and Pitfalls) of Being a “Jack of All Trades” – Life Hacker

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Patrick Allan | 03.03.2015

People look down on the multitalented—even the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none” has a bit of a negative caveat. But there are a lot of hidden perks that come with being a Jack. These are the best reasons you might want to reconsider the notion that a Jack of All Trades can’t be equally as successful.

What a Jack of All Trades Is

A Jack of All Trades is competently skilled at a lot of different types of work. A “Jack” (or Jill, for that matter) knows how to do a little bit of everything, but it sometimes comes at the cost of never having the time to master one particular skill. For example, you might know how to do a little programming, build furniture, and cook decent meals well enough to get work, but you’re not amazing at any of those particular things. Imagine you’re a multi-tool, like a Swiss Army knife, as opposed to being just a screwdriver. A multi-tool can get the job done, but a good screwdriver does it better.

In general, we’re taught throughout our lives to pick something and specialize at it. Think of the classic “what do you want to be when you grow up?” question, as if you can only be one thing. Specializing certainly has a multitude of undeniable benefits, but it’s not necessarily the only way to find success in life. Not everyone believes you have to choose, or that being a Jack of All Trades comes at such a high cost. Many people—myself included—believe being a Jack can make it easier to master certain skills. James Liu, the founder of BoxCat Games suggests being a Jack is a necessity:

Over my many years of learning, iterating, and teaching, I’ve arrived at the conclusions that the process of learning, as humans, can be abused, tuned, and scaled easily. There comes a specific point in your life where you can reach or obtain near mastery of one specific subject. After that, there’s a base of knowledge that you can (and will) build analogies on. By doing so, you take one industry and mirror it into another industry. I would emphasize, you can not be a jack-of-all-trades without being a master of at least one. Perhaps it is social skill, doll making, mathematics, language, emotional awareness—you must be a master of at least one in order to be a jack of many others.

No matter where you land with the concept, being a Jack of All Trades has plenty of benefits for those who want to try and do it all. Of course, you can’t talk about the benefits without talking about the pitfalls too. If you know what to expect, though, you might have an easier time as you go.

The Benefits

First of all, let’s talk about the benefits—starting with the obvious…

You Are Adaptable

As a Jack of All Trades, you’re able to take on a wide range of jobs and situations. Your expansive knowledge base can make you just as comfortable doing manual labor as you would be in an office chair processing data. You may not be a superstar at everything you do, but you can do things just well enough that you’re never stressed about what might come next. You know how to use the knowledge and skills you’ve developed doing other things to make any job easier.

When opportunity arises, you’re also likely to be the first one to dive in and go for it. You develop a go-getter attitude that can make you look really good. Lots of different fields have problems arise that sometimes require a different approach what’s considered normal, making you a go-to employee—or friend, or family member—that’s ideal for the job. Essentially, adaptability is usefulness, and that’s what you want to be: useful.

You Learn How to Learn

A Jack of All Trades is not content learning about just one thing. Your thirst for knowledge gives you the best skill you can learn: knowing how to learn. When you learn how to do one thing, curiosity takes hold and you start to learn associated skills too. You develop a sense for the best ways to learn something efficiently so you can be good enough at whatever you choose. It might sound a little silly, but when you know how to approach new skills properly, no mountain is too high. It just takes a little elbow grease and time. Will you be the first person to climb Mt. Everest, or be the fastest? No, but you’ll sure as shit get to the top in one piece.

You Fit Well Into Leadership Roles

When you think of a good leader, you think of someone with experience. A lot of great leaders have a wide range of experience, though. Leaders that know all the aspects of a business have an edge on someone who rose through the ranks doing only one job. Author and leadership adviser Tim Ferriss explains:

In a world of dogmatic specialists, it’s the generalist who ends up running the show. Is the CEO a better accountant than the CFO or CPA? Was Steve Jobs a better programmer than top coders at Apple? No, but he had a broad range of skills and saw the unseen interconnectedness. As technology becomes a commodity with the democratization of information, it’s the big-picture generalists who will predict, innovate, and rise to power fastest. There is a reason military “generals” are called such.

If you’re not interested in being a leader, there’s nothing wrong with that, but a good deal of people want to make their way to the top. Even if you just want to be your own boss, having a wide variety of skills can mean needing to hire fewer people, or give you a jumpstart on an idea since you don’t need help with it.

The Top 5 Reasons to Be a Jack of All Trades – Tim

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Tim Ferriss | 14.09.2007

Are the days of Da Vinci dead? Is it possible to, at once, be a world-class painter, engineer, scientist, and more?

“No way. Those times are long gone. Nothing was discovered then. Now the best you can do is pick your field and master it.”

The devout specialist is fond of labeling the impetuous learner–Da Vinci and Ben Franklin being just two forgotten examples–“jack of all trades, master of none.” The chorus unites: In the modern world, it is he who specializes who survives and thrives. There is no place for Renaissance men or women. Starry-eyed amateurs.

Is it true? I don’t think so. Here are the top five reasons why being a “jack of all trades,” what I prefer to call a “generalist,” is making a comeback:

5) “Jack of all trades, master of none” is an artificial pairing.

It is entirely possible to be a jack of all trades, master of many. How? Specialists overestimate the time needed to “master” a skill and confuse “master” with “perfect”…

Generalists recognize that the 80/20 principle applies to skills: 20% of a language’s vocabulary will enable you to communicate and understand at least 80%, 20% of a dance like tango (lead and footwork) separates the novice from the pro, 20% of the moves in a sport account for 80% of the scoring, etc. Is this settling for mediocre?

Not at all. Generalists take the condensed study up to, but not beyond, the point of rapidly diminishing returns. There is perhaps a 5% comprehension difference between the focused generalist who studies Japanese systematically for 2 years vs. the specialist who studies Japanese for 10 with the lack of urgency typical of those who claim that something “takes a lifetime to learn.” Hogwash. Based on my experience and research, it is possible to become world-class in almost any skill within one year.

4) In a world of dogmatic specialists, it’s the generalist who ends up running the show.

Is the CEO a better accountant than the CFO or CPA? Was Steve Jobs a better programmer than top coders at Apple? No, but he had a broad range of skills and saw the unseen interconnectedness. As technology becomes a commodity with the democratization of information, it’s the big-picture generalists who will predict, innovate, and rise to power fastest. There is a reason military “generals” are called such.

3) Boredom is failure.

In a first-world economy where we have the physical necessities covered with even low-class income, Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs drives us to need more for any measure of comparative “success.” Lack of intellectual stimulation, not superlative material wealth, is what drives us to depression and emotional bankruptcy. Generalizing and experimenting prevents this, while over-specialization guarantees it.

2) Diversity of intellectual playgrounds breeds confidence instead of fear of the unknown.

It also breeds empathy with the broadest range of human conditions and appreciation of the broadest range of human accomplishments. The alternative is the defensive xenophobia and smugness uniquely common to those whose identities are defined by their job title or single skill, which they pursue out of obligation and not enjoyment.

1) It’s more fun, in the most serious existential sense.

The jack of all trades maximizes his number of peak experiences in life and learns to enjoy the pursuit of excellence unrelated to material gain, all while finding the few things he is truly uniquely suited to dominate.

The specialist who imprisons himself in self-inflicted one-dimensionality — pursuing and impossible perfection — spends decades stagnant or making imperceptible incremental improvements while the curious generalist consistently measures improvement in quantum leaps. It is only the latter who enjoys the process of pursuing excellence.

Don’t put on experiential blinders in the name of specializing. It’s both unnecessary and crippling. Those who label you a “jack of all trades, master of none” are seldom satisfied with themselves.

Why take their advice?

Here is a description of the incredible Alfred Lee Loomis, a generalist of the highest order who changed the course of World War II with his private science experiments, here taken from the incredible portrait of his life, Tuxedo Park:

Loomis did not conform to the conventional measure of a great scientist. He was too complex to categorize — financier, philanthropist, society figure, physicist, inventor, amateur, dilettante — a contradiction in terms.

Be too complex to categorize.

Look far and wide. There are worlds to conquer.

If you want to stay successful, learn to think like Leonardo da Vinci – Quartz

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Zat Rana | 15.03.2018

Some of history’s greatest contributions have come from polymaths.

Aristotle practically invented half a dozen fields of study across philosophy. Galileo was as much a physicist as he was an engineer when he helped kick-start the scientific revolution. Da Vinci might have been even more famous as an inventor than an artist if his notebooks were ever published.

Even in the last 100 years, we have had people like John Von Neumann and Herbert Simon who have made breakthrough advances across fields as diverse as computer science, economics, and psychology.

That is, of course, not to detract from the specialists who have pushed our progress forward. In fact, until now, these specialists have far outnumbered the polymaths in both their historical ranks and their contributions.

After all, it takes a lot of time to master the depths of a specific field so that you can eventually add something that pushes it ahead. From this point of view, it makes sense that polymaths have been as scarce as they have been.

Still, it’s clear that whenever we have had giants like Aristotle, Galileo, and da Vinci, the contributions they made even in specialized fields may not have been made in the same way if they hadn’t attacked a problem with a diverse inventory of mental knowledge and understanding.

Polymaths see the world differently. They make connections that are otherwise ignored, and they have the advantage of a unique perspective.

In a world increasingly dominated by machines, I have a feeling that this approach is going to become increasingly valuable.

The redundancy of reality

One of the reasons Aristotle created so many sub-fields of philosophy and early forms of science is because these fields were so young back then.

They were branches of the same underlying tree trunk, and Aristotle had a deep enough understanding of what was contained in that trunk to then divide it into different parts and make his early contributions.

Even so, however, the questions he asked and the answers he provided are still up for debate, and he is still a highly influential figure in philosophy. He didn’t just collect all of the low-hanging fruit, but he went the full length in developing the path that lay ahead.

The lesson here extends beyond philosophy. Reality is categorized in our mind by words. That’s how specialization is born. We move from a general observation through our senses and then we divide this observation into specializations like philosophy, psychology, economics, and art.

The tree trunk is reality, and the branches are the different disciplines, which then become their own trunks of knowledge with branches.

What polymaths realize by studying the different branches is that many of them have the same foundation, and if this foundation is deeply understood then all they need to do is apply that ingrained knowledge to a different context rather than do the work of surface-level specialization.

For example, as a writer, if I want my work read, I need to know marketing.

I’ve been fortunate and done relatively well for myself in the time I’ve been active, and yet I don’t read marketing books, and nor do I spend all that much time trying to formally learn about it. Why is that?

Well, because I’ve always had a deep fascination with psychology, and to me, marketing is just psychology dressed up in a particular context. Psychology is the trunk, and it’s a trunk I’ve thought about a lot, and as a result, I can already see the patterns that most people think of as marketing tactics.

Reality is redundant, and when you learn widely, that becomes clearer and clearer. The more you explore, the more you can exploit these redundancies.

A higher rate of learning

The big difference between the approaches of a polymath and a specialist is that the specialist picks a spot and then goes deep, whereas the polymath is on a lane that continuously gets wider.

These are obviously not mutually exclusive, and the ideal combination to me is one that relies on a strong understanding of the fundamentals of many disciplines with a specific domain or two in which you specialize.

That said, if we take just a specialist and a polymath separately, beyond just the benefit of the creative connections that are available from having studied broadly, the polymath also has a learning advantage.

Learning itself is a skill, and when you exercise that skill across domains, you get specialized as a learner in a way that someone who goes deep doesn’t.

You learn how to learn by continuously challenging yourself to grasp concepts of a broad variety. This ironically then allows you to specialize in something else faster if you so choose. This is an incredibly valuable advantage.

It explains how some of history’s polymaths were able to contribute in such a specialized way even though they were primarily focused on going broad.

Now, in a world where narrow Artificial Intelligence systems are going to displace most routine, specialized work, it isn’t too much of stretch to assume that this skill of learning to learn across disciplines may just be the difference between those who reinvent themselves and those who don’t.

In fact, chances are that our current distinctions between disciplines will start to fade away and new ones will arise. Many of them will likely reside between areas that aren’t currently covered by specialization.

Traditionally, the idea of having a single career over the course of a life wasn’t unreasonable. The future, however, looks different. People will likely have multiple careers that differ significantly. Even if they don’t, we will see more and more project-based work, which will require similar skills.

In such a world, the learning ability of a polymath may just be the difference.

The takeaway

At any point in history, most of our knowledge is contained outside of individual minds. It’s contained in the cultures that spring up around us.

A big part of today’s culture is the internet. It’s not only democratized knowledge, but it’s made it so accessible that those who are curious enough can’t help but embrace the approach of a polymath. As such, we’re going to see more and more people playing at the intersection of different disciplines.

While specialization will still have its place, the boundaries between the many aspects of reality are going to continue to be blurred, and those who can comfortably embrace such blurring will thrive.

Although this may appear to many as unfamiliar, the truth is that it’s actually a far more accurate representation of what is going on. We’ve just been conditioned to think otherwise.

As Leonardo da Vinci would remind himself,

“Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses—especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”

What makes the world interesting is the interaction between objects and not the objects in and of themselves. If we’re always restricting these interactions by creating boundaries, we’re also taking away from our comprehension.

Nothing exists independently of its surroundings and that fact doesn’t change just because we decide to be blind to it with narrowed disciplines.

In an evolving world, those who can see that will have the edge.

How Renaissance People Think – Psychology Today

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Scott Barry Kaufman | 11.06.2011

The thinking style of polymaths

Do you think like a polymath? Here’s a quick test: Are you more of a rational or experiential/intuitive thinker?

If you cringed as you read the question and thought to yourself “I love constantly shifting between both modes of thought”, then you’re on the polymath path.

According to psychologist Seymour Epstein’s cognitive-experiential self-theory, humans have two parallel but interacting modes of information processing. The rational system is analytic, logical, abstract, and requires justification via logic and evidence. In contrast, the experiential system is holistic, affective, concrete, experienced passively, processes information automatically, and is self-evidently valid (experience alone is enough for belief).

According to Epstein [1],

“The two systems have unique disadvantages as well as advantages. Thus, the rational system, although superior to the experiential system in abstract thinking, is inferior in its ability to automatically and effortlessly direct everyday behavior, and the experiential system, although superior in directing everyday behavior is inferior in its ability to think abstractly, to comprehend cause-and-effect relations, to delay gratification, and to plan for the distant future. Since each system has equally important advantages and disadvantages, neither system can be considered superior to the other system.”

A large body of research by Epstein and others, including a hot-off-the-press article in the Journal of Personality [1], supports the importance of harnessing both modes of thought. In Epstein’s latest research, an experiential thinking style (System 1), but not a rational thinking style (System 2) was positively associated with performance measures of creativity, humor, aesthetic judgment, and intuition, as well as self-report measures of empathy and social popularity. A rational thinking style was associated some measures of adjustment, and both thinking styles were positively related to personal growth. Interestingly, what people reported about their own thinking style tended to agree with other people’s observations of their thinking style.

Heavily influenced by the important work of Epstein and many other psychologists investigating the dual-process nature of the human mind [2][3], I make a distinction between “goal-directed” and “spontaneous” thought in my Dual-Process (DP) Theory of Human Intelligence [3][4]. According to my theory, both goal-directed (which consumes limited attentional resources) as well as more spontaneous forms of cognition (which are freer of a central executive (link is external)) are important contributors to nearly every intelligent behavior (in differing degrees depending on the behavior). According to the theory, neither mode of thought is absolutely more important, and neither mode is intelligence. Instead, the key to intelligence is the ability to flexibility switch between mode of thought depending on the task demands.

To see how each mode of thought comes with both advantages and disadvantages, here is a summary of a number of findings over the years showing both the positive and negative attributes associated with each thinking style:

What a terrific list of positive attributes to have! It would be nice to have all of the positive attributes, while minimizing the negative effects of each, no? As Epstein told me in personal communication,

“people who are high in both thinking style are Renaissance people. They have the brains of scientists and the sensibilities of poets. In other words they have the positive features of both thinking styles and do not have their negative features because they are kept under control by the other thinking style.”

Being open to both modes of thought isn’t just conducive to creativity, but also for facilitating harmonious social relationships. The experiential thinking style is related to lots of important elements of a positive relationship, such as empathy and agreeableness. However, what if you’re an experiential thinker but want to form a relationship with someone who is predominantly an analytical thinker? Or vice-versa, what if you’re a huge analytical thinker but wish to form a relationship with an experiential thinker? This isn’t purely theoretical. For instance, research shows that males, on average, use more of an analytical thinking style than females and females, on average, rely more on experiential thinking to make decisions than males [1]. Of course there is much variation within each gender, but still these gross differences may lead to unnecessary miscommunication between the sexes.

If only everyone, regardless of gender, learned to harness and appreciate both forms of thinking, we could minimize instances where people seem to just be talking past each other. Many, many years of psychological research has shown quite convincingly (to me, at least) that each mode of thought is fundamentally different from the other and when we are in a particular mode of thought we actually perceive everything around us differently and use different information to make decisions. Those who are open to experiencing both analytical thought and experiential thought and are flexible enough to switch between the two depending on the task demands have the greatest chances of not only changing the world for the better, but also forming deep, empathic connections with others.

It’s not easy being a polymath these days. Knowledge is being generated and transmitted at light speed. The sheer quantity of knowledge required to become an expert in almost any domain is phenomenal, with barely any time left to master additional domains.

None of this means that you can’t think like a polymath though in whatever domain you want to master. The good news is that thinking styles are at least partially separate from actual abilities and correlate with important outcomes. Harnessing more thinking styles only works to your advantage, as long as you have the good sense, flexibility, and openness to know when a particular thinking style is appropriate and when it is likely to get in your way.

So want to be a Renaissance person? First step: start thinking like one.

The Courage to Venture Beyond: Of Polymaths and Multidisciplinarians – Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

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Jalees Rehman | 30.06.2015

Established scientists often share this sort of advice with their younger peers who are about to embark on their academic career. It isn’t a bad advice and I have known many scientists who have succeeded in academia by following it. Every day, more than a thousand original scientific papers are published. A major aspect of scientific research is placing your own findings into context of already existing knowledge. How is your work different from what is already known? What impact will your work have in your scientific field? Have you developed a new tool or concept that will be of significant value to your peers? To engage in cutting-edge research therefore requires that one stays abreast of the amassing scientific literature, carefully curating which of the numerous published findings are most relevant to one’s own work.

A scientist with too broad of an area of scientific expertise or too many distinct scientific interests may drown in the ocean of newly generated knowledge. Keeping up with the scientific literature and actively conducting experiments in multiple scientific disciplines may take up so much effort that it leaves little time and resources to dig deeply and unearth high-impact knowledge in any one area.

Some scientists devote decades of research to studying a single protein in a cell. Considering the complexity of biological phenomena, a single protein X can supply a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of research questions. How is the synthesis of the protein regulated? Which molecular pathways lead to the degradation of the protein? Which are the proteins that interact with X? Are there specific environmental signals which control the expression of the gene which is transcribed and translated into protein X? How does a transgenic mouse behave when protein X levels are over-expressed in selected organs or tissues? Answering each one of these questions by carefully interrogating all the detailed molecular mechanisms involved can take several years. A scientist who uses her creativity and perseverance in order to develop unique molecular tools and animal models to address these questions will likely receive national or international recognition and a steady stream of research funding for her expertise in all matters relating to protein X.

Yet there are a number of scientists who forsake this traditional path. Such a scientist may start out studying protein X in a cell but after discovering that biomechanical forces regulate the levels of protein X, shift the focus of her research to cellular biomechanics. Her work on biomechanics may then lead to the engineering of novel devices and tools to control biomechanical forces, to pursue broader questions regarding how cells sense mechanical forces and even address philosophical questions about the validity of applying physical concepts of force and tension to biological systems. Protein X may have been the initial trigger for the research but as her research progresses, her interests become broader and integrate various disciplines ranging from molecular biology to engineering and biophysics and protein X may just become a distant memory. Such a multidisciplinary path comes with a greater risk of failure because the scientist will not have any circumscribed area of expertise on which to build an academic reputation and because every transition from one discipline to another requires that the scholar devote an extraordinary amount of effort to acquiring skills and knowledge in the new discipline. But the potential for ground-breaking discoveries is also greater because the scholar’s checkered background and intellectual diversity could lead to a cross-fertilization of ideas from various disciplines and create a whole new area of research.

Polymaths and Multidisciplinarians

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the expression “polymath” refers to “a person of great or varied learning; a person acquainted with many fields of study; an accomplished scholar”. This is a rather broad definition which does not give any specific guidelines as to what qualifies as being “acquainted with many fields of study”. Does one need formal academic training in multiple areas of study to be considered a polymath? Is it a requirement to make original and creative contributions to a multiple disciplines? Perhaps even garner national and international recognition?

When prompted to name individuals who are polymaths, people educated in the European tradition often associate “polymaths with the Renaissance because that era symbolizes the integration of the arts, humanities and sciences and has led to “Renaissance man” being used as a synonym for polymath. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is a prime example of such a polymath, known not only for his paintings such as The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, but also his numerous inventions and innovative designs of flying machines as well as his extensive anatomical studies based on the dissection of human corpses.

The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is also a front-runner in the pantheon of polymaths because of his interests in geology, paleontology and optics. During his lifetime, Goethe assembled one of the largest collections of rocks, minerals and fossils ever owned by an individual person, consisting of 18,000 specimens! Even though he is revered as the greatest poet of the German language, Goethe’s longest published work is his treatise on a theory of color, the Farbenlehre. He devoted two decades of his life to studying light and he thought that this 1000-page tome would be his most meaningful contribution to humankind.

In the Farbenlehre, Goethe vehemently disagreed with Newton about the nature of light. According to Newton, white light was a heterogeneous composite of colors and darkness was the absence of light. Goethe, on the other hand, felt that white light was a homogenous entity and that darkness was the polar opposite of light and not just its absence. Goethe also ascribed aesthetic qualities to specific colors such as “beautiful” to red and “useful” to green.

Goethe’s theory of color is not a scientific theory in the conventional sense because it did not offer any clear scientific hypotheses that could be tested and falsified by experiments. This did not prevent Goethe from viciously attacking Newton and those who accepted the Newtonian theory of light and color. In fact a whole portion of Goethe’s Farbenlehre is titled “Polemics” and attempts to document the incompetence and errors of Newton. Some of Goethe’s attacks are so embarrassing that many editions and translations of the Farbenlehre completely omit this portion. After it was published, the Farbenlehre did not gain much traction with scientists in the 19th century because Newton had made a far more compelling case for describing the physical nature of light. However, in recent decades, the Farbenlehre has experienced somewhat of a revival in the academic world. Recent works such as “Goethe’s Way of Science” and “Goethe Contra Newton”, authored by philosophers, physicists and other scholars, have pointed out that Goethe‘s approach to color and light was rooted in his background as a poet. He was not studying light in its physical form but the perception of light, and the Farbenlehre even contains extensive passages about the nature of scientific paradigms. His work is now experiencing a renaissance, if you will, as it is being re-evaluated by psychologists, cognitive scientists and philosophers of science.

Goethe and da Vinci are excellent examples of the creative synergy that arises when individuals are actively engaged in multiple disciplines. By approaching light and color from the perspective of a poet, Goethe stumbled on important scientific questions revolving around the perception of light which were quite distinct from the questions raised by Newton’s work which centered on the physical nature of light. And Goethe’s work as a writer also greatly benefited from his scientific endeavors. It is estimated that Goethe used a vocabulary of roughly 90,000 words in his work, four to five times more than the vocabulary of an average educated German living today and also substantially more than the vocabulary of Shakespeare (estimated at about 30,000 words). It is very likely that Goethe’s extensive readings and work in geology, paleontology, optics as well as his work as a cabinet minister and civil servant greatly enriched his vocabulary and allowed him to tap into words and metaphors that may not have been easily accessible to other poets.

Are the da Vincis and Goethes anachronisms of the past? Many of us still revere the brilliance of the individual who straddles and demonstrates excellence in multiple disciplines and we continue to recognize the value of new knowledge and creative ideas that are formed when supposedly distinct disciplines converge. But we also need to recognize that the nature of knowledge and disciplines is changing. The painter Leonardo da Vinci was one of the few individuals in Europe who was allowed to dissect human corpses and conduct anatomical studies. If he were to design “flying machines” today, it would be reasonable to expect that he first receive training in aeronautical engineering or at the very least perform a comprehensive review of existing designs and document whether his designs would abide by contemporary standards of efficiency and safety.

Our bar for what is an acceptable scholarly contribution today is very different from what it was five centuries ago. Peer review in its current form may have its flaws but it does prevent individuals from pontificating about scholarly topics based on idiosyncratic standards and whims. If Goethe had spent two decades studying the nature of light today and viewed his work as a scholarly endeavor, we would expect him to regularly present his findings at conferences, publish peer reviewed abstracts and papers, and solicit critical input from other scientists at every stage of his work to test whether it was truly up to par.

Because of the dizzying growth of knowledge and technologies available to the modern scholar, most contemporary scientific research is conducted by individuals who are members of teams, in which each team member has years or even decades of training to achieve the required level of mastery. This shift in the nature of how we generate knowledge in order to accommodate the growing complexity of knowledge also requires that we rethink our veneration of the age-old “polymath”, a person who as an individual achieves recognition and fame in a multitude of disciplines. A more apt term for today’s polymath may be a “multidisciplinarian”, an individual who is actively engaged in multiple scholarly, artistic or creative disciplines either as an individual or as a member of multidisciplinary teams.

Martin Chalfie received the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering and developing green fluorescent protein and is a great example of a contemporary multidisciplinarian. He sees himself as a neurogeneticist, but routinely collaborates with physicists, engineers, biologists and physicians to study sensors.

Using a newer expression such as multidisciplinarian may also help remove some of the other connotations associated with the polymath. The historical association of polymaths with the Renaissance also links it to an age of patriarchy in which men but not women were considered to be scholars. The expression “Renaissance man” as a synonym for polymath reminds us of this gender bias. When the staff of the British magazines The Economist and Intelligent Life profiled 20 contemporary polymaths, they did not include a single woman on the list. The British law professor and novelist Alexander McCall Smith made the list, whereas the accomplished philosopher, novelist, essayist and professor of creative writing Rebecca Goldstein did not.

Merely switching from the expression “polymath” to “multidisciplinarian” is obviously not going to change existing prejudices or biases but it symbolizes that a contemporary view of multidisciplinarity ought to be more inclusive and take into account a team-based approach to scholarly endeavors than historical concepts which primarily centered on individuals.

The Cornerstones of Multidisciplinarity: Courage and Humility

How do we define multidisciplinarity today? The very nature of multidisciplinarity defies a precise definition, but a key feature of multidisciplinarity is the active engagement in scholarly, artistic or creative endeavors involving multiple disciplines. Active is the key word here. We would probably not consider a molecular biologist who enjoys watching TV documentaries about quantum physics and listens to classical music a multidisciplinarian. A more active engagement would take the form of conducting experiments, presenting papers or performing on stage. Such active engagement also comes with the risk of rejection and failure. This brings us to one of the key characteristics of a multidisciplinarian: courage.

By leaving the beaten path, the multidisciplinarian will invariably find herself in a situation where she is a novice. A physicist who embarks on studies of epigenetic regulation in cells, mathematicians who begin writing poetry or physicians who engineer novel devices not only have to learn a whole new set of skills, they also have to confront doubts that some of their specialist colleagues have regarding their qualifications. More established peers with narrow areas of expertise may reject the ideas of the multidisciplinarian because these are plain naïve, or because they be too far ahead of their time. Physicians who work as basic scientists are often plagued by self-doubt, not knowing whether they can achieve true excellence in medicine and science. The intellectual curiosity and restlessness which triggers the desire to venture beyond the boundaries of one’s primary discipline can only be sustained with a strong measure of courage and at times even over-confidence to overcome the inevitable episodes of disappointment, rejection and failure. On the other, it is equally important that this courage and over-confidence not turn into arrogance. The courage of a multidisciplinarian has to be paired with the humility of recognizing one’s own limitations and seeking appropriate guidance in order to overcome these limitations. The lack of introspection and humility in Goethe’s polemics against Newton make it very difficult to see Goethe as a role model for multidisciplinarians.

The physicist Steven Chu is a multidisciplinarian who epitomizes both courage and humility. He received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997 for developing methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light, but the breadth of his research interests are astonishing. Chu has introduced methods to visualize and manipulate single biomolecules, measure the force on actin filaments inside a cell and the mechanisms of how ribosomes “proofread” to ensure the accuracy of translated proteins, all in collaboration with biologists and physiologist from all around the world. One of the most remarkable demonstrations of his courage to take on new challenges was his acceptance of the post to become the U.S. Secretary of Energy in 2009. During his tenure as the head of the Department of Energy, there was a doubling of renewable energy deployment in the U.S. and solar energy deployment even increased 10-fold.

Encouraging Multidisciplinarity in a Scientific Laboratory

As appealing as the idea of multidisciplinarity may sound, implementing it in a contemporary scientific environment can be challenging. It takes years of meticulously designed experiments to address specific scientific questions. How can one afford to vacillate between scientific disciplines, arts and humanities and still end up with tangible, defined scientific results?

Eric Betzig is a physicist who received the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his ground-breaking work on super-resolution microscopy which has allowed biologists to study the interactions of individual protein molecules inside a cell. Betzig clarifies that multidisciplinary scientific work does not mean giving up focus. Instead, periods of intense focus alternate with periods of searching for inspiration from other disciplines.

William Moerner, who shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Eric Betzig, describes a deeply personal relationship with the arts, especially music. In his experience, the listening to music and performing music excites and stimulates the brain. Like Chalfie, he too, elaborated on his views on interdisciplinarity in a short essay for the Lindau blog.

Each multidisciplinary scientist has to develop her own path to grapple with the challenges of multidisciplinary work and many scientists may find a more focused scientific career more appealing than the life of a “scattered dilettante”. In my own cell biology laboratory, we try to foster multidisciplinary thinking without necessarily forcing it onto my lab members. At the end of a weekly laboratory meeting in which experimental data is presented, we devote a brief period of time to discussing a book (fiction or non-fiction) that a lab member has recently read or touching on philosophical questions that relate to the broader scientific enterprise such as the nature of causality or experimentation. These are not meant to be exhaustive discussions but just serve as gentle nudges that it may be fun to engage in various creative and intellectual enterprises outside of cell biology. More recently, I asked my graduate students to write science-related haikus.

Megan Rexius-Hall is a bioengineering Ph.D. student who designs microfluidic devices to study intercellular communication and is specifically asking the question of how stem cells undergoing differentiation into a mature cell type communicate with their undifferentiated neighbors:

Our nearest neighbors
By their fate or commitment

– Megan Rexius-Hall (Ph.D. student in Bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago)

Sarah Krantz is a Pharmacology Ph.D. student investigating whether inflamed cells activate anti-inflammatory mechanisms to ensure that there is some defined endpoint to the inflammatory process.

Hot red fire burns strong
Searing foes but for too long
Calls rain and lives on

– Sarah Krantz (Ph.D. student in Pharmacology at the University of Illinois at Chicago)

I am not sure that there is a direct tangible benefit of encouraging graduate students to write haikus or reading books outside of science. The students definitely learned to appreciate the power of language, imagery and metaphors. Distilling the essence of their research project down to a three verse haiku may also help them remember the “big picture” of their respective projects. But the most important feedback I received from the students was that they enjoyed thinking about the haikus and tinkering with the words to perfect their poem. Isn’t it the joy of discovery and playful tinkering that makes us want to be scientists?

What makes a Renaissance man? – The Telegraph

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Olivia Goldhill | 18.12.2014

A painting by Sir Winston Churchill has sold for £1.8m – so why are some people brilliant at everything?

If Churchill hadn’t been prime minister during World War Two, he would still be one of the most accomplished men of the past century. The great wartime leader won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 and one of his paintings recently sold for £1.8m.

Polymaths – those who have expertise in many different areas – are known as Renaissance men, because so many all-round geniuses emerged in the period. The painter/ scientist/ philosopher/ engineer Leonardo da Vinci is the archetypal example – but what leads some people to be brilliant at everything?

Geniuses are incredibly rare (some argue there are no more than one genius per million people), and it seems inconceivable that a brilliant physicist could also be a first-rate musician.

But Robert Plomin, professor of behavioural genetics at King’s College London, argues that those with exceptional intelligence tend to be brilliant in many areas, not just one. “If you’re smarter then you think more strategically, regardless of the role,” he says. “The idea is, if you’re very smart then you play your cards better.”

Somebody who excels – whether in sports, music or the arts – tends to have above average IQ. And those who insist that they’re brilliant in just one subject aren’t simply being modest – they consider their other talents to be poor compared to their greatest achievement.

“People will often say, ‘I’m good at this but no good at that’, but really what they mean is that they’re less relatively good at the other thing. Compared to everybody, they’re actually good in both,” says Plomin.

The stereotype of a scientist with no social skills or appreciation for the arts is nothing more than a myth. “A lot of people think that boffins are only good at one thing. I think that’s a bit of envy,” says Plomin. “People say, ‘They’re good at that but horrible human beings’, and that’s generally not true.”

But although geniuses may have the potential to be brilliant in many ways, we can only measure performance, not abstract ability. The contemporary focus on specialisation means that modern geniuses aren’t encouraged to expand their knowledge in the same way as Renaissance men.

An Aesop’s fable tells the tale of a hedgehog who knows a lot about one little subject, and a fox who knows a little about a lot of subjects – academia today seems more receptive to hedgehogs than foxes, says Plomin.

“Nowadays the training is so specialised, they wouldn’t let you develop talent in other areas. But the big advances come from the foxes who know a little bit about a lot of things and can put two and two together, rather than the hedgehogs in the trenches who are burrowing away and trying to find out more and more about less,” he says.

Of course, most of us would love the chance to be a hedgehog and be considered a genius in our field. But if you’re already a hedgehog then it’s difficult not to wonder: how does the world look from the perspective of a fox?