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Let’s Bring The Polymath — and the Dabblers — Back – Wired

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Samuel Arbesman | 12.13.2013

I noticed recently that books with the phrase “The Last Man Who Knew Everything” all share in common that their subjects lived during the period close to the Scientific Revolution, roughly between 1550 to 1700. (The examples I own are about Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit priest born in 1602; Thomas Young, who studied topics such as optics and philology and was born in 1773; and Philadelphia area professor Joseph Leidy, who was born in 1823.)

It’s as if the Scientific Revolution – and the knowledge it spawned – killed the ability to Know Everything. Before then, it was not only possible to be a generalist or polymath (someone with a wide range of expertise) – but the weaving together of different disciplines was actually rather unexceptional. The Ancients discussed topics such as ethics, biology, and metaphysics alongside each other. The Babylonian Talmud discusses everything from astronomy and biology to morality and law, weaving them together into a single compendium.

So what changed? Scientific knowledge exploded in size, mainly due to the application of the scientific method to our surroundings. As that knowledge base and its domain experts grew exponentially, we began classifying and ordering all that we understood – from the classification taxonomy of Carl Linnaeus to manuals for categorizing mental disease. We made sense of our world by dividing information into manageable portions and distinct areas of proficiency.

But as people began to specialize, knowledge became fragmented. We chose to know more and more about less and less. We may have expanded what we as a society know – but it was at the price of no single individual being able to truly know it all.

Now, we obviously require specialized experts (as opposed to dilettantes) to solve specific problems; think about the field of medicine, for example. Yet the most exciting inventions occur at the boundaries of disciplines, among those who can bring different ideas from different fields together. As Robert Twigger noted, “Invention fights specialisation at every turn.”

In fact, some of the most exciting advancements in computing right now come from the field of deep learning – which itself draws from multiple fields: neuroscience, cognitive psychology, machine learning, natural language/ linguistics, computer vision, mathematics – to make the next step of AI possible. Companies such as Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft are all involved.

But frankly, this kind of interdisciplinary approach isn’t happening more broadly in corporations, let alone in academia. There are institutional barriers (nearly all training, and data, lives in silos) as well as cognitive and biological ones. Even though the information storage capacity in our brains is vast (multiple petabytes), we eventually bump up against what we can truly understand (what some call The End of Insight) – or we just can’t hold all the relevant knowledge in our heads.

Still, we needn’t despair. There are ways to foster a culture of interdisciplinarity in a fragmented world.

We Need to Focus on the Tools, Not the Fields

Several years ago, a team of scientists examined hundreds of millions of clicks on scientific papers in order to discern the “clickstream” – the path readers take from one page to the next.

This data revealed patterns of how people moved from one subject area to the next. For example, nursing connects medicine to the fields of psychology and education. Organic chemistry bridges physical chemistry and analytic chemistry; economics is tightly intertwined with sociology and law; and the field of music stands quite distinct.

Of course, these are oversimplifications. Music incorporates concepts from physics and psychology while economics draws heavily from mathematics. But it’s one way to explore the interconnected nature of ideas, and it reminds us that we need to identify the tools necessary to bridge different domains and place them into a connected framework.

Let’s take a simple analogy. What do the following things have in common: doing Sudoku, constructing crossword puzzles, conducting logistics for large companies, playing Super Mario Brothers?

Well, in content terms, not much. They appear to be a collection of tasks that are easy to understand but not master. And it turns out that they’re all hard in a specific way: They’re what are known in theoretical computer science as NP-complete problems. Knowing this means each of these problems can be converted into a version of the other – I can construct a Sudoku puzzle that, if solved, could potentially shed light on how Walmart should route its delivery trucks.

Specialization Polymaths And The Pareto Principle In A Convergence Economy – Tech Crunch

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Jake Chapman | 17.11.2015

Economists tell us that the history of human labor is one of continually increasing specialization. In the days of the hunter-gatherer, every member of the tribe would have been expected to command some degree of proficiency with each task.

As we progressed along the economic continuum from hunter-gatherer through agrarian and industrial and now into post-industrial economies, the labor force has become more fragmented, with workers having more and more specialized skill sets.

Historically, specialization has been a path to prosperity. Although specialization has certain economic advantages, in the era of technological convergence, well-educated generalists will be those who are the most valuable. It is time for a renaissance of the “Renaissance Man.”

The idea of the “Renaissance Man” or polymath came about during the Renaissance period, and is the idea that anyone who applies themselves can be exceptional at poetry, art, science, mathematics, athletics and any other field that catches their attention.

The Renaissance thinkers recognized both the potential of individuals as well as the enormous value to being well-rounded. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way the idea of someone who dabbled in many fields lost its cultural appeal and we began to praise those who sought deep subject matter expertise.

We now live in a world where distinctions between formerly separate industries are breaking down and the real opportunities for growth are where those industries intersect. Harnessing these 21st-century opportunities will require people who are “jacks of all trades, masters of none,” or, perhaps more accurately, master polymaths.

Being a polymath is not only an advantage in the modern economy, but it is extremely efficient. Many people are familiar with the Pareto Principle, or as it is more commonly known, the 80/20 rule. The 80/20 rule is a specific expression of the power law and says, in many instances, 80 percent of the outputs are the result of 20 percent of the inputs.

Researchers have found the Pareto Principle at work in many economic and natural realities, including wealth distributions, employee productivity, revenue from customers, app engagement and even in agricultural yields. The 80/20 rule is also divisible, meaning that where the 80/20 rule applies, it is also true that 20 percent of 20 percent of the inputs (4 percent) generate 80 percent of 80 percent of the outputs (64 percent), and so on.

While the 80/20 dynamic is powerful enough, it only gets more lopsided as it progresses. Consider, for instance, that with only three steps you arrive at 0.16 percent of inputs being responsible for an astonishing 41 percent of output. Figure 1 demonstrates how quickly the Pareto Principle results in astonishing force multiplication.

Input Output Ratio
20 80 4X
4 64 16X
0.8 51 64X
.16 41 256X
.03 33 1024X
.006 26 4096X

Figure 1

The implications of the 80/20 rule are powerful. For instance, many organizations could focus on satisfying the needs of only 20 percent of their customers and still maintain 80 percent of their revenue. Imagine what those businesses could then do with all the resources they’ve saved. As humans we are predisposed to linear thinking, which makes the implications of a power law distribution hard to internalize.

Figure 2 contrasts the relationship between effort and results in an 80/20 world with an imaginary world where every unit of input yielded the same marginal output. The area under the curve essentially represents the opportunity presented by applying the Pareto Principle. The simple takeaway: Stop beating your head against the wall on the far right side of the figure.

Figure 2
The 80/20 Rule In Learning

Where I think the Pareto Principle is at its most interesting is when thinking about our own growth potential as human beings. Imagine if you had 100 units of learning (like experience points in a role-playing game) to assign to various skills throughout your life. How should you spend those points? Do you spend all of them in one subject and try hard to become a true subject-matter expert? Or do you diversify your skill set, trying to make yourself into a well-rounded person?

These questions are some of the most fundamental questions we face as humans. Who do we want to be and what do we want to do with our lives? The Pareto Principle says that you will overwhelmingly get more bang for your buck if you spread those points around (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

Let’s assume that achieving mastery of a subject takes 20 years of dedicated training, and work backward from there applying the 80/20 rule (see Figure 4). In applying the 80/20 rule to developing ourselves, we see that 80 percent mastery might be achieved in 20 percent of the time.

Intuitively this feels right. If someone were to spend .16 percent of 20 years (12 days) in focused study on a subject, they should be able to achieve cocktail-party mastery of that subject. Similarly, someone who spends .80 percent of 20 years, or about two months, in focused study on a subject should still be deemed a novice, but could be ready to begin a career in the field. A great example of this is the ability for laymen to enter coding boot camps and graduate months later prepared to enter the job market as software developers.
Category Input Output Time to Mastery of a Subject Equivalent

100 percent

99 percent 20 years Expert in a field, unique insights.
Journeyman 20 percent 80 percent 48 months Journeyman in a field with some unique insight.
Apprentice 4 percent 64 percent 10 months Mastery of basic concepts in a field.
Beginner 0.80 percent 51 percent 2 months Working understanding of broad concepts and field underpinnings.
Layman 0.16 percent 41 percent 12 days Cocktail-party conversational in a field. Can ask smart questions.

Figure 4

While the numbers in Figure 3 align fairly closely to my own observations, I don’t want to imply that these numbers are in any way a precise representation of the world. While the Pareto Principle is most often 80/20, there are plenty of 70/30 or 90/10 examples, as well. The point is, since learning follows a Pareto distribution, no matter which numbers you plug in, there is value to diversifying your skill set.

Why We Need More Polymaths In Tech

The most exciting things happening in technology are happening where fields converge. The barriers between medical, nanotech, synthetic biology, automotive, agriculture, food and other startups are quickly deteriorating. Startups used to clearly fall into one vertical, but increasingly that is not the case. Synthetic biology companies like Synbiota are actually software companies, and food companies like Hampton Creek are actually synthetic biology companies.

To build the cross-disciplinary companies of the future, we need a pool of cross-disciplinary expert polymaths from which to draw. Self-driving cars don’t just need automotive engineers, they need people who understand software, traffic engineering, the psychology of drivers and regulatory processes.

There are two ways to assemble teams for building cross-disciplinary companies. You can either hire a few polymaths, or you can hire a large team of crack subject-matter experts. Unfortunately, the latter strategy has two huge limitations.

First, the strategy of assembling a group of disparate subject-matter experts to build a cross-disciplinary company invites organizational morass. Without sufficient polymaths to function as the glue between these experts it is very hard for these kinds of teams to pull in the same direction.

Second, and more importantly, the cost in time and money to assemble a large team of diverse subject-matter experts is exponentially higher than hiring a team of polymaths. These high costs will make it much more difficult for entrepreneurs to be the driver of the cross-disciplinary companies of the future. As cross-disciplinary companies make up a larger and larger portion of innovation, innovation will become the sole province of corporate R&D departments (see self-driving cars).

If we want entrepreneurs — and not corporate R&D — to continue to be the largest driver of the U.S. economy, we need a renaissance of the “Renaissance (Wo)Man.”

Applying The Pareto Principle To Your Life

There are four very practical implications of the Pareto Principle for how we live our lives.

Diversify your learning. If you give up on the idea of mastering any single topic (20 years) in the short to medium term, you could instead reach Journeyman level in 3 subjects (12 years), Apprentice level in 6 subjects (5 years) and beginner level in 18 subjects (3 years). To reiterate, beginner level is still equivalent to 2 months of concerted study.

In the modern world, where a very common job might require someone to be a social-media expert, public speaker, writer and data analyst, the polymath wins and the deep subject-matter expert is relegated to a back corner to be used as a resource for others. As an investor, if I were going to pick the perfect team, it would be a group of rock-star polymaths with a single subject matter expert as a resource.

It’s never too late. One particularly empowering implication of the Pareto Principle is that it is never too late to get a new start in life. Someone who has spent 30 years meandering through the world can dedicate themselves to new areas of study and within a relatively short span of time can reach levels of proficiency not terribly far off from others who have dedicated their life to the same subject.

As an example, someone could pick up cybersecurity as a specialty, spend 4 years on the subject (roughly hitting the magic 10,000 hours) and have 80 percent the proficiency of a lifelong expert. This is even truer in technology fields; because they evolve so quickly, old leanings are rendered obsolete.

Level the playing field. For people who learn more slowly than others, they can apply the Pareto Principle to level the playing field. While others spin their wheels trying to gain the last bits of insight in a single field, learners who play the game can quickly accumulate a broad set of skills and insights to help them succeed in life. Once you get past a certain baseline IQ, there is very little correlation between IQ and success.

Learn with intention. Finally, it is important to learn with intention. Many people stumble from place to place in life, simply letting their careers develop organically. This is a terrible “strategy,” as our culture is predisposed toward increasing specialization over time. If you don’t take the reigns of your own destiny, you will increasingly be pigeonholed in your career and in your life.

People plan out their weekends, they plan out their lunches, they plan out their children’s sports schedules — but rarely do they plan out their own lives. Take a few hours; write down where you are today and where you want to be in 5 or 10 years, then map out how to make it happen. I bet it will involve learning quite a few new skills.

If you’ve ever wondered why professors are often unable to connect the dots between their own fields and the real world, or are often socially inept, it is because they have sacrificed a great deal of their potential understanding of the world so that they can gain a relatively minor (but significant) deeper understanding of their one or two chosen topics.

By contrast, the one characteristic that commonly unites the movers and shakers of the world is an insatiable need to consume content on wildly varying topics. Those who consciously or unconsciously apply the 80/20 rule to their own development emerge as business, political and social leaders. These are the people whose vision is seemingly prescient, and who can bring together disparate groups behind a common cause. These are the people who will build the American economy for the foreseeable future.

A new discovery for science and art: the cultural divide is all in the mind – The Gaurdian

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Vanessa Thorpe | 24.11.2012

Lucy Prebble’s latest play and a Barbican season on science and art show the barrier between the ‘two cultures’ is crumbling

This autumn a group of neuroscientists, medical students, doctors and psychiatrists got together at the University of Warwick to work out what we now know about the way the brain works. But they were not hunched over a pile of Cat scans, academic theses and medical notes. Instead they were looking at the theatrical work of Samuel Beckett. The great Irish playwright, some argued, understood and demonstrated patterns of human thought and emotion at a level of sophistication scientists have yet to reach.

With the success this month of The Effect, Lucy Prebble’s play about the effect of chemicals on the brain, and the announcement of a new season of performance and debate about art and neuroscience at the Barbican in 2013, it looks as if the long struggle to break down barriers between science and creativity has entered a new phase. Not only is it conceded that scientific discoveries are fertile artistic territory, but scientists are being increasingly open about the value of the arts when fresh perspectives are required.

“Our common sense is often our worst enemy,” said Marcus du Sautoy, the Oxford maths professor who will be appearing in the Barbican season. “After all, the discovery of anti-matter was only made because of the imagination of those scientists who said maybe there is something there when they kept coming up with all these strange negative solutions to their calculations.”

Audiences at The Effect, the National Theatre production starring Billie Piper and Jonjo O’Neill as participants in a trial for a new drug, are being treated to a nightly debate about the nature of love and how we can be sure of what we are feeling. Prebble, the playwright who made her name with Enron, takes as her starting point the medical testing of an antidepressant and launches into a wider discussion about the nature of perception and the value of sadness and depression as life experiences. As the human guinea pigs take bigger doses they start to fall in love, but they also have to question whether their emotions are merely a byproduct of dopamine.

Medical discoveries, even mistaken ones, have inspired poets and playwrights since the beginning of the written word, from the influential notion that four “humours” (choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic) determined character, to the more metaphorical use made of medicine by poets such as John Donne. So while Shakespeare had his “canker in the bud”, voguish words such as palsy, purge, apoplexy, ague and balm were used by Donne repeatedly to make his work sound cutting-edge.

With the arrival of the theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung two centuries later came a whole new territory for writers, painters and poets to play in: the scientific analysis of the mind. Artist Salvador Dalí was endlessly excited by Freud’s work on dreams, while film-makers such as Alfred Hitchcock, who made the thrillers Spellbound and Marnie in response to Freud, were directly influenced by the clinical doctrines of psychiatry and psychology. Others, such as Beckett and Harold Pinter, took a more surreal approach to distilling the neurotic preoccupations of the characters they put on stage.

The work of the neurologist Oliver Sacks, in his 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, prompted Michael Nyman to compose a chamber opera and inspired Peter Brook to adapt it for the stage in France in 1993.

And the relationship between psychiatry and the theatre has remained fruitful. In 1996 Stephen Poliakoff’s play Sweet Panic premiered in London. Revived more recently in the West End, it tells of a children’s psychiatrist whose life unravels as she examines three children who are suffering variations of contemporary neuroses. Bryony Lavery’s award-winning 1998 play Frozen looks at a doctor’s attempt to unravel the motivations of a child killer.

More recently still, greater understanding of conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome and autism have fed into literature and drama. This month the producers of the stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time announced it will transfer from the National Theatre to the West End after a sell-out run. It tells of a 15-year-old maths genius with Asperger’s and how he sets out to solve the mystery behind the death of a neighbour’s dog.

The Barbican’s new season, Wonder: Art & Science on the Brain, a collaboration with the Wellcome Trust, will put the relationship between the arts and neuroscience literally under the spotlight. Among the main attractions are an audio-visual lecture and “episodic concert” on the theme of consciousness with Du Sautoy, and a talk from the comedian Ruby Wax which gives an insight into her struggles with fame and depression.

Running from March to April 2013, the season will also feature films about neuroscience and mental health and a “theatrical 19th-century Parisian salon debating the big topics of 21st-century thought” for which participants will be kitted out in appropriate historic dress.

Launching the season, Nicholas Kenyon, the Barbican’s managing director, spoke of the enduring “two cultures of art and science” problem. The collaboration with the trust will, he hopes, allow “the riches of creativity and perception” to be seen afresh.

The very nature of the season has already broken down some barriers. The idea came out of a realisation that the decision of the British Neuroscience Association to hold a festival at the Barbican could be made mutually beneficial.

“We really wanted to give the public a sense of what is going on in the building as well as give the scientists a sense they are in an arts centre,” said Sean Gregory, the Barbican’s director of creative learning.

Perhaps one of the most outward-looking elements, Gregory believes, will be this year’s Barbican Box project, put together with the innovative theatre company Complicite due to the long-held interest in neuroscience of Simon McBurney, its artistic director. A battered suitcase, full of clues about a particular scientist and their discoveries, will be delivered to schools in surrounding London boroughs.

Du Sautoy, who has worked with McBurney in the past, said he is delighted to be part of a season aimed at bringing the “two cultures” together. “I have always been of the view that it is a false dichotomy, and one that is pretty much built-in by our education system unfortunately,” he said this weekend. “Scientists and writers and artists are often homing in on the same structures. When Keats wrote ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’ I wonder whether the truth is that we call things beautiful because we recognise something useful in their structures.”

The professor admits there can be pitfalls to blurring the boundaries: for instance, when artists misrepresent science to create drama. But he argues that there is something “deep-rooted” driving both to attempt to understand the world. “Sometimes you find artists coming across structures that scientists are also finding. The composer Olivier Messiaen worked with 12-row tones without knowing science was looking at the same thing.”

Du Sautoy will be performing at the Barbican alongside James Holden, an electronic musician and DJ as well as an Oxford maths graduate. He will be using a specially commissioned soundtrack “to engender a higher state of consciousness in the audience”.

“It is what I have been interested in for the last 10 years,” said Holden, who has worked on the similarities between rhythmic musical traditions from Steve Reich to Tibetan drumming. “It is as likely to work as not that audience members will fall into a trance, but you never know.”

The Wellcome Trust was keen to become involved with the project because it would allow scientists and artists “to engage on an equal footing”, according to Dr Daniel Glaser, the trust’s head of special public engagement projects.

“Science is part of culture, but scientists are sometimes not very good about being reflexive, or reflective for that matter. They are not as good as artists usually are at talking about what they do, so it will be good to see them interacting.”

By the end of the Barbican season we may find that we intuitively knew more about the human brain than we ever thought we did. If not, then at least Beckett’s exhortation to artists to “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” is compatible with the scientists’ empirical creed of trial and error.

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.