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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?

How To Be A Renaissance Man – Art Of Manliness

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Ross Crooks and Jason Lankow | 27.05.2008

Every man should strive to reach his full potential. The competitive world in which we live stresses hyper-specialization as the way to get ahead. University graduate degrees narrow down a student’s area of expertise to enable them fill a specific niche. Young boys are encouraged to choose a single sporting event in which they excel if they are to have any hope for a collegiate or professional career down the road. Sadly, this trend is slowly eliminating the once-popular aspiration of becoming a well-rounded man.

A gentleman should have a firm handle on not just one or two, but every aspect of his humanity, working to strengthen himself in every way possible. If he is blessed with the gift of intelligence, his academic pursuits should not be chased to the expense of his physical health. Similarly, a creative personality should not lead a man to isolate himself and ignore the social aspect of his being. Excellence in one of these areas does not take attention away from the pursuit of the others but rather serves only to increase competence in complimentary areas, giving man a greater understanding of himself and the world around him.

The ideal of the Renaissance Man originated in Italy, and is based on the belief that a man’s capacity for personal development is without limits; competence in a broad range of abilities and areas of knowledge should be every man’s goal and is within every man’s grasp. What follows is a breakdown of the areas you need to master in order to become a true Renaissance Man.


The attainment of knowledge is central to a man’s development. A look at notable Renaissance Men throughout history makes it clear that this aspect is the most common and most extensive of all their aspirations. A man must have a diverse knowledge of all academic fields in order to assure his competence. The traditional Renaissance Man was seen to possess not only a general understanding of many topics, but rather a display of expertise in at least two or more of these areas. Science, literature, mathematics, grammar, cultural history and politics are a good place to start.

Subscribe to periodicals that will stretch your scope of knowledge rather than limit it. Do not only peruse blogs that confirm what you already believe. If you must watch television, view programs that will sharpen your intelligence and wit while increasing your awareness of historical events and the current political landscape. Purchase a map of the world or globe and study it. Most men would be embarrassed by what they don’t know when put to the test. Make a list of classic books, which you have not yet read, and schedule a time each day to start working your way down the list. Nothing exposes a man’s ignorance and lack of culture quicker than faulty geography or a lack of literary knowledge.

Subject yourself to material that is yet unknown to you, or opposes your current ideas. A lack of time is no excuse. Borrow from the library audiobooks on non-partisan politics, scientific developments, and religious practices of which you are somewhat or completely unaware and listen to them on your daily commute. Or tune into National Public Radio. This is essential to broadening your personal viewpoints, and will increase both your competence and confidence.

Physical Development

Not every man possesses superb athleticism, but that is hardly an excuse to neglect the maintenance of one’s physical self. Exercise of the body is every bit as important as that of the mind, and research shows that the two are actually quite complimentary. Leonardo da Vinci, whom many consider to be the ideal model of the Renaissance Man, was known to have been a brilliant scientist, inventor, painter, and musician. He was also said to have maintained an impeccable physique throughout his life.

Most men are not involved in physical activity as part of their livelihood, so it is an area that must be maintained by personal discipline. Develop a proper diet and moderate your intake of unhealthy food and drink. This is an essential part of every man’s health. You must set aside time every week for an exercise routine, be it running, cycling, or lifting weights. Find activities that you enjoy and that will not seem like drudgery.

Establish personal goals for distance or duration of your workout, and increase these goals as they are met. Work with others who have similar objectives and abilities to hold each other accountable for the routine. If you are not self-motivated at first, participate in community races or marathons in order to keep yourself responsible. The physical changes you will witness and the discipline you establish will surely have positive manifestations in all other areas of your life.

Social Accomplishments

A well-adjusted social life is perhaps the most important factor for a man to maintain his personal sanity and mental health. Not to mention the fact that strong interpersonal skills make a man an appealing candidate for both friendship and relationship. It is also a man’s responsibility as a citizen to make a significant contribution to his community throughout the course of his life, whether it be through time or money or both.

A man’s social life begins with his own personality, an area that demands a great deal of attention and introspection. You must recognize what you have to offer to others and constantly work to increase your contribution. Hone your listening skills, for everyone wants to be heard. Become a strong conversationalist. This is a combination of taking interest in the lives of others while bringing something of interest to the table yourself. The former consists only of the realization of the intrinsic value of others. The latter is dependent on your knowledge of social issues and influences, as well as your ability to convey them in an appropriate manner by reading others’ reactions. You will find that this personal development of charismatic demeanor may benefit you more than any other pursuit in your life.

Contribution to your community is also a vital part of maintaining a healthy social life. Whether this is involvement in local government, enrollment in the military, or investment of time in social work, it is a responsibility that every man should take seriously. Make sure you are aware of the happenings in society, both locally and nationally. Assess your personal strengths and find a way to use them to benefit the greater good. Coach a Little League baseball team, become a Scoutmaster, lend a hand at a homeless shelter, or organize a community event. This contribution and interaction as part of a group is a great way of developing yourself as a multi-faceted individual.


In our society, some view artistic pursuits as effeminate or limited to the elite class who possess the free time to engage in such frivolity (or alternatively, to those who have opted out of mainstream society and do not work). The Renaissance ideal is in sharp contrast to this mentality. Galileo painted and played the lute alongside his mastery of science and philosophy. Thomas Jefferson was an accomplished architect and designed innovative furniture and fixtures for his personal home throughout his illustrious political career.

A modern man must recognize his creative self as an integral part of the whole. Knowledge of the Arts, as well as personal exercise of his own form of expression prove important in personal development. Many men overlook their personal talents in this area because they are seen as less valuable or profitable than other strengths. Find an area of the arts that you enjoy and give it a go. Having trouble getting started? Many community colleges offer inexpensive art classes for beginners.

Many of history’s greatest minds wrote poetry to express their visions that could not be conveyed in scientific findings or political theory. Pick up a pen and put it to paper, you may be surprised with the result. If you take particular interest in music or painting, use this as your means of expression. It will expand your mind and teach you more about yourself. The exercise of your creative side will likely prove an inspiration not only to yourself, but to others as well.

Jack of All Trades, Master of None OR True Renaissance Man?

As a result of the proliferation of knowledge and the creation of new fields and many subcategories within existing fields, it is impossible to have expert-level knowledge in all fields. And some may argue that those aspiring to extensive knowledge in a variety of fields do not ever master a field, and that only a few distinguished individuals can truly be polymathic Renaissance men. In truth, you may master that which you are passionate about, and yet aspire for competence in many areas. The true benefit comes in making the attempt, not in achieving perfection. By simply aspiring and seeking knowledge and wisdom in fields that impact all of our lives, you will become a better man, and certainly have a shot at being an indisputable Renaissance man.

The Polymath’s Advantage – Viacom

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Kiel Berry | 12.04.2017

History has proven that those with wide-ranging skills and diverse expertise will pave the way of the future

pol·y·math [noun]: a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.

The Birth of the Neo-Polymath

Once upon a time, in 15th century Florence, during the Age of Discovery, toiling away for hours in a studio was Leonardo da Vinci. His unquenchable curiosity and inventive imagination throughout his life had him bouncing between painting the “Mona Lisa” and conceptualizing flying machines and armored fighting vehicles. This was the birth of the polymath. Flash-forward to 2017 and the world has changed dramatically. Just a few decades ago, the internet was born, and it plunged us into the accelerated Information Age, where we now have smartphones in our pocket, more powerful than NASA’s combined computing that propelled a human to the moon in 1969. The role of the polymath therefore has also changed, and has given birth to what is referred to as the “neo-polymath.”

Unlike the polymath of the 15th century, the neo-polymath is sitting bravely at the intersection of industries that are naturally colliding due to the influx of knowledge and communication without geographic limits.

The neo-polymath is someone who can harness a level of expertise in multiple disciplines and act as the translator between seemingly unrelated fields. Prolific investor Marc Andreessen famously declared that “software is eating the world” as more major businesses and industries are being disrupted by their overlap with technology—from movies to agriculture to national defense.

This phenomenon can be applied to technologists venturing into more traditional industries, but also to creatives who cover multiple disciplines such as music, film, and architecture. The common denominator is the multi-hyphenate nature of the individual and their ability to facilitate collaboration. They are able to drive the innovation at the eye of the storm, or the center of the Venn diagram.

Individuals with this neo-polymath mindset will constantly be “out of the box”—and will not be contained within or defined by any one industry vertical. Here are a couple specific neo-polymath examples:

Neri Oxman

Oxman is a professor at MIT Media Lab, where she has started to codify this neo-polymath mindset into new forms of education. She has pioneered a new field of study, called Material Ecology, to leverage computer science, design, and biology as it applies to technology, fabrics, and even buildings. Named one of the 10 Most Creative Women in Business by Fast Company, and with permanent works in the MoMA, Oxman’s unique approach has sparked a worldwide dialogue on how formerly disparate areas of study can be combined to create cross-disciplinary innovations. MoMA curator Paola Antonelli called her “a person ahead of her time, not of her time.”

Donald Glover

Glover is a millennial neo-polymath, born into this new internet-driven age. Starting his career as a writer on 30 Rock, Glover has gone on to be a touring comedian, a respected hip-hop artist, and now a producer/writer/director of the two-time Golden Globe-winning TV series Atlanta. His ability to focus the kinetic energy of his creativity into multiple fields is a direct result of his frictionless communication of creative vision across mediums. Those of the next generation are natural hyphenates, and therefore will not define themselves by one title or role.

Benefits of the Neo-Polymath Mindset

Glover, a writer who seamlessly switches between stand-up comedy and music, and Oxman, a pioneer in design and biology inventing new fields of study, both serve to show the manifestations of the neo-polymath mindset.

The amount of combinations and permutations are endless, which make it such a powerful mindset to adopt.

Some of the key benefits of this neo-polymath mindset are the ability to:

  • navigate an increasingly complex world, ripe with new business models, interest groups, and burgeoning trends
  • recognize patterns that can be applied across industries ripe for disruption
  • communicate with new unlikely business partners, and translate effectively across disciplines and business units
  • empathize with opposing viewpoints and opinions

The Future of Work

As industries themselves continue to overlap and affect each other, new jobs will emerge that require multidisciplinary expertise. Future jobs will be based on the intersection of industries we could have never predicted.

A neo-polymath mindset will become the baseline for this future. We will live in a world where:

  • creative design-thinking will be at the center of all business innovation
  • organizational structures will facilitate seamless collaboration across divisions
  • cross-disciplinary employees will become some of the most valuable assets

We all have the ability to look through the lens of the neo-polymath. The question then becomes, how will you adapt, learn to incorporate new disciplines into the work that you do, and prepare for this bright future? In the 15th century, while most people were farmers planting seeds to feed their family, da Vinci was nurturing a different seed; the seed of curiosity. The da Vincis of tomorrow will be the ones who nurture the seeds of the polymath mindset, learn to plant them in proactive collaborations across disciplines, and through the execution of new and innovative ideas… add water to the fertile soil of our society.

Where are the polymaths hiding? – Intense Minimalism

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Davide ‘Folletto’ Casali | 22.10.2015

But what if you’re someone who isn’t wired this way? What if there are a lot of different subjects that you’re curious about, and many different things you want to do? Well, there is no room for someone like you in this framework. And so you might feel alone. You might feel like you don’t have a purpose. And you might feel like there’s something wrong with you. There’s nothing wrong with you.
— Emilie Wapnick (2015) Why some of us don’t have one true calling

As a co-author of the Manifesto Ibridi I couldn’t agree more with Emilie. Our society has a clear form of rejection for people that are able to do many things well, while there’s constant praise for specialists. Specialists are the most valuable people in the framework of this society, and this message is constantly pushed across all media.

Inevitably, this message also mean that if you can do many things, you aren’t good enough. “Surely you can’t do things as well as them”. How could one be as good as someone that is a specialist? That’s the baseline message.

The problem with this line of thought is that it’s a self-reinforcing circle: this society values specialists, dismisses the value of polymath, which makes the way specialists are measured the way everyone is measured, thus making polymaths even more dismissed because they have a harder time stacking against a way to value people based on specialist metrics only.

Sure, polymath concepts sometimes make the news on top publications, like this article from 2012 “In defense of polymaths” published on the Harvard Business Review. Renaissance gets mentioned, Leonardo Da Vinci is cited, and often is made the point that entrepreneurs are often polymaths.

This however is just another evidence on how much our society is stacked against polymaths. The assumption that one can’t be as good as a specialist is so radicated that articles defending polymaths have to be written.

This is one of the consequences of industrialization: the specialization of labor, the idea that you are just a mechanism in a bigger machine. Mechanisms have an hard time with polymaths, due to their variability. That’s why in the process of the industrialization of the mind of the recent decades, where work shifted by manual labor to mental labor, polymaths were removed by the playing field.

While I’ve started noticing that most jobs can be learned at a professional level in up to 2 years of proper learning and training, I understand that many people don’t think the same. Of course: for years they have been taught that it’s not possible, and they have been forced in decades of “education”. That’s exactly what the current framework of specialization has to make people buy in, otherwise how can you justify long education trainings? How can you verify that someone really knows the subject matter?

Yet, plenty of solid intensive courses exist today, experimenting and teaching people in short amounts of time, and then moving them to training. These courses work, yet it’s still an idea too much outside of the societal pressure to accept it as effective.

A polymath is always on the defensive, and most of the attacks are internalized, like the well known impostor syndrome. There are different techniques to be a polymath and work within the system.

  1. Many polymaths don’t ever refer to themselves as such to avoid being devalued.
  2. Many polymaths communicate themselves as specialists, and they will have even great, successful careers by doing that. Some, more than one.
  3. Many polymaths present themselves with different job titles depending on the contexts.
  4. Some polymaths avoid any label at all, and compensate by communicating well their skills.
  5. Some polymaths will show their multiple skills once they were able to get some external proof, accepted by the society, so they can demostrate they can actually do many things.

The most ironic part of all of this is that when someone reaches the peak, then and only then, the polymath values and skills become suddenly celebrated: “See? They got where they are because they had all of these things together in one individual!” The Economist tried to make a short list but just to mention a few:

  • Steve Jobs? Polymath: engineer, entrepreneur, designer, marketer.
  • Noam Chomsky? Polymath: philosopher, cognitive scientist, political activist, author.
  • Elon Musk? Polymath: physicist, engineer, economist, entrepreneur.

This social pressure implies that polymaths have to defend themselves… even inventing new words to avoid the negative sides that the society pushes over the term.

This very point stroke me when I noticed that in the TED Talk, Emilie used a different word instead of polymath:

What you are is a multipotentialite.

And I recalled that Tim Brown, founder of IDEO, does a similar thing with the concept of T-shaped people:

We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they’re willing to try to do what you do. We call them T-shaped people. They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T—they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well.

Which is exactly what we did as well, in the Manifesto Ibridi and before, using instead a yet different word:

Hybrids are those people, situated in the most various professional, cultural, and scientific pathways, who are able to connect traditionally separated fields of knowledge and action.

Emily continues:

A multipotentialite is someone with many interests and creative pursuits. It’s a mouthful to say. It might help if you break it up into three parts: multi, potential, and ite. You can also use one of the other terms that connote the same idea, such as polymath, the Renaissance person. Actually, during the Renaissance period, it was considered the ideal to be well-versed in multiple disciplines. Barbara Sher refers to us as scanners. Use whichever term you like, or invent your own.

Even more ironic? We refer to the Renaissance period, yet in Italian there’s no word equivalent to polymath.

Which is why we picked “hybrids”.

Thanks to Cristiano Siri.

Umberto Eco: The Productivity Patterns of a Polymath – Better Humans

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Charles Chu | 18.06.2017

An interviewer once asked Umberto Eco, “Do you ever not work?”

“No, it doesn’t happen.” he replied. Pausing for a moment, he added, “Oh, well, yes, there was a period of two days when I had my surgery.”

Umberto Eco was a modern polymath. He was fluent five languages, published dozens of books (ranging from academic monographs to bestselling novels), was an esteemed professor of semiotics (from Greek sēmeiotikos, meaning ‘of signs’), and owned two private libraries totalling over 50,000 books.

How did he fit it all into a lifetime?

A defeatist would say, “It’s simple. He was a genius. The rest of us will have to settle for enough food on the table and a handful of books a year.”

That, I think, is disrespectful.

Sure, Eco was smart. But let us not ignore his efforts. Waving all excellence away as “genius” or “talent” is easy — it saves us from having to put in any effort at all.

Instead, let us see what he has to teach us.

Dissecting a Polymath

Just how hard did Eco work?

Let us look to an essay from Umberto Eco’s How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays, titled How to Spend Time. Eco describes how his life is organized over a year:

“In a normal year (not a leap year) there are 8,760 hours. Reckon eight hours’ sleep per night, one hour a day to get up, shave, and dress, add a half hour for undressing and setting the glass of water on the commode, and no more than two hours for meals, and we reach a total of 4,197.5 hours.”

The calculations continue, running through teaching duties, academic papers, advising, email, writing, travel, conferences, until…

“It all adds up to 8,121.5 hours. Subtracting them from the 8,760 hours in a year, I am left with 638.5 hours, in other words about 1 hour 40 minutes per day, which I can devote to sex, conversation with friends and family, funerals, medical care, shopping, sport, theater.”

First, Eco’s time was spent doing real work. He did not stop every fifteen minutes to check his email, ‘invest’ in cryptocurrency, text his girlfriend what underwear he was wearing, post selfies to Facebook, or submit to any of the other distractions that assault us each day.

Second, these numbers Eco mentions are “assuming I do not write a book” (he wrote dozens). Eco also mentions he has “not calculated the time spent reading printed matter” (he read tens of thousands of books in his lifetime).

But plenty of academics, creatives and entrepreneurs work just as hard. Is there anything else that made Eco special?

Is it really genius after all?

A Quick Time Slip

One Sunday, after afternoon tea, I hop through the wormhole in my bathroom cupboard (no one ever thinks to look there) and travel to the Italy of half a century ago.

After shaking off the travel sickness (wormholes always leave me feeling a bit stretched), I scour the streets of Milan until I find what I am looking for — a younger, less-wrinkled Umberto Eco.

I sneak up behind him (it is a simple matter, he is absorbed in a book), wrap my hands around his neck and, with a little hop, climb onto his back. There, hanging off of him like some hairless monkey, I accompany Eco for the next fifty years. Each day, I peer over his shoulder, observing him as he reads philosophy papers, writes his novels, smokes cigars, sips scotch, and yes, even as he soaps himself in the shower.

After fifty years, I know Umberto Eco better than anyone — more than his colleagues, his children, his wife. Yet, after fifty years, there is something I still do not know: what went on inside his head.

We can study Eco’s routines and habits; weigh his brain on a kitchen scale; scan the caffeine content, roast, and origin of his morning espresso; stab him with a syringe and sequence his genome; but, at the end of our “lifehacking” experiments, we barely learn anything at all.

Too much of a man is what happens inside his head.

How did Eco think? How did he see the world? The best we can do is extract little hints from the voluminous writings he left behind — for example, this quote from the Paris Review:

“I always say that I am able to use the interstices. There is a lot of space between atom and atom and electron and electron, and if we reduced the matter of the universe by eliminating all the space in between, the entire universe would be compressed into a ball. Our lives are full of interstices. This morning you rang, but then you had to wait for the elevator, and several seconds elapsed before you showed up at the door. During those seconds, waiting for you, I was thinking of this new piece I’m writing. I can work in the water closet, in the train. While swimming I produce a lot of things, especially in the sea. Less so in the bathtub, but there too.”

Or we can look at this quote, from the same interview:

“I’ve spent my life examining my behavior and my ideas, and criticizing myself. I’m so severe that I would never tell you what my worst self-criticism is, not even for a million dollars.”

We cannot ever become Umberto Eco. There was only one, and there will only ever be one.

But here is a question you can ponder:

What do you think about in the elevator?

What Happened to the Polymaths? Some Modern Examples of Homo Universalis and How to Emulate Great Th – Health Guidance

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Adam Sinicki | 25.03.2015

A polymath is someone who is considered an expert or even a genius in multiple fields. The most classic example perhaps is Leonardo da Vinci, who has been celebrated as an inventor, a painter, a scientist and much more. Other examples include Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei, Alexander Graham Bell, Imhotep, Pythagoras and Aristotle.

During the renaissance, and also in the decades prior to that time period, it was much more common to be a polymath or a ‘homo universalis’. It wasn’t uncommon for instance, for a politician during the Tudor era, to spend their free time painting, translating famous works of literature, and conducting experiments in their quarters. Go to the National Portrait Gallery in London and read about these characters and it seemed like all of them had a wide range of fascinating interests.

These days though few people even read in their spare time – let alone translating foreign texts or making scientific discoveries…

So the question is, what has happened to the polymaths? And have we ironically reached an age of widespread ignorance in an age where we have more available knowledge, tools and education than ever before?


If you think about it, there are any number of reasons that we might be becoming less interested and spending less time in academic pursuits. One obvious theory might be that we are simply becoming less intelligent – and indeed scientists agree that our brains have actually been getting smaller ever since the Stone Age.

Actually, this is unlikely to have much to do with our smarts and more to do with our smaller bodies and reduced muscle mass compared with our ancestors. Conversely, better health and nutrition should mean that we actually have more brain power than ever before.

Instead then you could blame a variety of modern lifestyle factors. Take for instance the fact that we now have so much entertainment available right at our fingertips. It may be that we spent more time reading, writing, painting and thinking historically because we didn’t have TVs or other distractions.

Another possibility is that we’re now much too overworked. If you look around the National Portrait Gallery you’ll find it was mostly the upper classes who fitted the ‘polymath mould’ – and that’s probably got a lot to do with them having so little to do during the day. The working classes weren’t polymaths because they spent all day working (and often couldn’t read) for the same reasons they didn’t get portraits painted. These days most of us will work hugely long hours in brain-intensive jobs, and then when we get home in the evenings we will just want to ‘switch off’.

We can also argue that there are fewer polymaths these days because we know so much more now. The average person may have been much more curious and inquisitive in a time when we knew far less about the world around us and it would have been much easier to get recognised in a given field. For instance, making a breakthrough in physiques today would involve a complete understanding of a huge number of different concepts and likely access to some kind of high-powered machine like a hadron collider. To get to the level of someone like Stephen Hawking you would probably need years’ worth of education which would likely necessitate specialisation to a degree.

So is it simply no longer viable to become a polymath? Are we too tired, too distracted, not curious enough and too specialised to hope to become modern day da Vincis?

Modern Examples of Polymaths

I have another theory – and that’s that it’s perfectly possible to become a Polymath in the modern era, it’s just not that common. But this has likely always been the case. History remembers the polymath, and so it’s easy to look back in time and think that we were all so much more enlightened.

To make my point, here are some great examples of modern-day polymaths who have made genuine contributions in multiple different fields.

Sylvester Stallone: You probably wouldn’t imagine me to put a famous action hero on this list, but consider that Sylvester Stallone not only acts in his films, but also writes them. His most famous creation was Rocky which was nominated for multiple Oscars and which had people comparing him to Marlon Brando. On top of this though, Stallone also helped to lead the physical fitness movement throughout the 80s and brought out a number of fitness products including supplements and a book. More recently Stallone has also been recognised for his paintings which sell for thousands of dollars.

Tim Ferriss: Tim Ferriss first rose to prominence when his book ‘The Four Hour Workweek’ made the best seller list. Tim Ferriss is a highly successful author (now of three books and a blog) and life coach, but is also an investor in many Silicon Valley start-ups. He also advises on fitness and has helped many people build muscle and lose fat, and is interested in ‘accelerated learning’ in which he breaks down a skill – such as language acquisition – and attempts to become competent in the minimum amount of time.

Arnold Schwarzenegger: It’s my belief that there’s some connection between physical fitness and becoming a polymath, which would explain why both Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger should make this list. While Arnie may be known for playing macho men who are more interested in blowing things up than making contributions to multiple disciplines, Arnold Schwarzenegger is in many ways a polymath having been a highly successful actor, athlete and politician. Arnie has also written several books and had earned millions as a businessman and property investor even before he became a bodybuilder. There’s something you probably didn’t know!

Eric Lander: Eric Lander is co-chair of Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He is a professor of biology at MIT and won the Westinghouse Prize for a paper he wrote on quasiperfect numbers… at age 17. He has written books on information theory too, but is best known for cracking the human genome.

Viggo Mortensen: Viggo Mortensen is an actor who is best known for his roles in Carlito’s Way, Lord of the Rings and A Dangerous Method. When he’s not acting though, he might be signing, writing poetry (in three languages – he speaks four), running his own publishing company or having his paintings displayed in galleries.

Douglas Hofstadter: Douglas Hofstadter (son of Nobel-Prize-Winning physicist Robert Hofstadter) is a professor of cognitive science and also a Pulitzer Prize winner. He has fellowships in the Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as the American Philosophical Society. And as though that wasn’t enough, he is also a Pulitzer Prize winner, calligrapher, composer, physicist and programmer. He speaks three languages fluently and has studied eight others.

What’s Your Excuse?

There are plenty of other examples of recent polymaths too, so in short there’s really no reason why you can’t make a splash in more than one field – you just need the energy, the drive and the intellectual curiosity.

To help give you a chance of being successful, it’s also a good idea to try and reduce your other commitments, to spend less time watching TV, and engage in some exercise to give yourself the time and energy you need to pursue multiple areas. Start by expanding your mind by reading about physics and learning other languages, and then look for areas where you might be able to do something noteworthy. You probably can’t discover a new element or have a new law of physics named after you, but perhaps you could write a book on philosophy? Maybe you could make an app? Or maybe you could start a successful business? There is plenty out there to be made and discovered, so perhaps it’s time to start using your time a little more creatively…

Everyone’s a Polymath on the Internet – Pop Matters

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David J. Berg | 15.09.2016

A polymath trumpeter, a swimming polymath, a tax polymath, a modern polymath, a polymath seeking a serious relationship. These are just some of the “polymaths”, self-proclaimed and otherwise, that can be found these days in newspapers, books, and magazines, and on social media, blogs, personal ads, and elsewhere on the internet (everyone’s a polymath on the internet). The concept of polymath has become a pop culture meme. Here are just a couple of examples: from The Boston Globe, “Witty, Wide-Ranging Journeys With a Musical Polymath”; a book honoring a tax lawyer and judge, Tax Polymath: A life in International Taxation, Essays in Honour of John F. Avery Jones; and from a respected medical journal, the complimenting of an OB/GYN as “a polymath in reproductive health”. But what is a polymath, really?

“A scientist who composes operas and writes novels is more of a polymath than a novelist who can turn out a play or a painter who can sculpt.”
A polymath may strike you as a really smart person, possibly even a person with multiple, even disparate, interests, hobbies, or avocations, but how many different accomplishments or interests qualifies one as polymathic? How intellectual and/or widely disparate must these accomplishments be? Can excellence at, for example, both dog breeding and cross-country skiing qualify as polymathic accomplishments? Was the 20th century leading actress, the gorgeous and brilliant Hedy Lamarr, who (among other things) co-invented and patented a guidance system for torpedoes, a polymath?

Knowing what polymathy really is might get journalists, critics, and others to stop throwing the term around so loosely and certainly will permit us to have a more informed debate about polymathy and its merits (or lack of). After all, as Socrates might have said, How can we really talk about something until it has been defined?

Thus, we need to tease out the true definition of polymathy in the modern era. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a polymath is a person of great or varied learning; a person acquainted with many fields of study; or an accomplished scholar. What is great or varied learning? How many fields of study is polymathic study, and how much acquaintance with these fields of study does someone have to have in order to be considered a polymath?

The word’s origin is found in ancient Greece. It comes from the ancient Greek polymathis, which means having learnt much. And that’s what it means today; so it turns out that the word hasn’t changed at all in 2,500 years. But we still have the same problem; what does it really mean?

It was the philosopher Heraclitus, who is most well-known today for having said that one could not step twice into the same river, who coined the term, saying, “Much learning (polymathy) does not teach understanding. For it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and also Xenophanes and Hecataeus.” Regrettably, no one knows anymore what Heraclitus actually meant by polymathy, but perhaps examining who Heraclitus’s polymaths actually were might shed some light on what he actually meant. So who were Hesiod, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Hecataeus, and what did they do?

Hesiod was the second great early Greek poet, after Homer. The Greeks considered Hesiod to be the authoritative source of history, the gods, astronomy, farming, and other useful information. Pythagoras was renowned for his excellence in mathematics and geometry (the Pythagorean Theorem), philosophy, astronomy, and music. Xenophanes was a poet and early scientist who wrote about the elements, the earth and cosmos, the gods, history, philosophy, and the weather and meteorological phenomena, and Hecataeus was a celebrated geographer, historian, and cartographer.

So Heraclitus’s subjects do help us. The first three had a truly extraordinary depth and breadth of knowledge and intellectual accomplishments, and Hecataeus was distinguished in three fields. Thus, a polymath to Heraclitus could be said to have been a person of outstanding achievements in at least three fields. That’s very helpful information.

We don’t get any other real definitions of the word from later Greeks, however, so we need to jump far ahead to an obscure 17th century German intellectual named Ioannes Wower, who defined polymathy in his 1603 De polymathia tractatio (Treatise on Polymathy) as “knowledge of diverse things, drawing on every kind of discipline and ranging very widely.” A later, far more renowned German, Daniel Georg Morhof, then defined polymathy in his 1688 Polyhistor as “the extent and actual state of all living knowledge.” The 1728 Chambers Cyclopedia, an early encyclopedia that predated the famous French Encyclopédie, described polymathy as “the knowledge of many Arts and Sciences; or an Acquaintance with a great Number of different Subjects.” So, by the 17th and 18th centuries, polymathy had an outrageously broad definition, and a polymath was seen as a person who possessed a staggering amount of knowledge.

Moving into the modern era, some good definitions come from a 2007 presentation at the Royal Institution of Great Britain with the fascinating title of “What happened to the polymaths?” Oliver Morton, then Chief News and Features editor at Nature, offered a rigorous definition of the polymath as “someone who makes contributions to four widely conceived as distinct areas of science and culture” at a “professional level.” John Whitfield, author of a biography of the British polymath D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, argued that a polymath was one who made “a contribution to more than one field that would stand on its own.” Andrew Robinson, author of a biography of another British polymath, Thomas Young, thought that a polymath had to have broad learning and curiosity that led to something original.

A prolific polymathy researcher at Michigan State University, Robert Root-Bernstein, has used two alternate definitions: those who have “become world famous in one field of endeavor and have demonstrable competence (and even excellence) in one or more avocations that they have not developed to professional levels”; and “a balance of abilities, as indicated by a range of avocations practiced at an intensive level, or high scores on both the verbal and mathematical portions of SAT tests, or a range of well-developed ‘multiple intelligences.’” Journalist Edward Carr, in a 2009 article in Intelligent Life, used a “breadth” test, explaining that “a scientist who composes operas and writes novels is more of a polymath than a novelist who can turn out a play or a painter who can sculpt.” He believed that success in thoroughly unrelated fields enhanced one’s polymath status. In his article, Carr interviewed the polymathic Carl Djerassi, one of the inventors of the birth control pill, who held that influence / acceptance was an essential requirement. For Djerassi, one was not a true polymath unless he or she was accepted as an expert by practitioners in each field that the polymath claimed to master.

The Cambridge historian Peter Burke, who has done a lot of thinking about polymathy recently, proposed a new understanding of the modern polymath that has attempted to take into account the limitations on polymathy caused by specialization. He lamented that polymathy “has been diluted to refer to people who have mastered two or three disciplines,” and suggested categorizing the modern polymath into four distinct groups:

1. The passive polymaths, who read widely but make their reputation in one discipline alone.

2. The limited polymaths, active in a small cluster of neighboring disciplines.

3. The serial polymaths, whose interests gradually shifted from one discipline to others.

4. Most remarkable of all, is a fourth group, proper polymaths who have continued to work in several fields and to make serious contributions to all of them, keeping several balls in the air at the same time rather than picking them up one by one.

These definitions help us to come up with a definition for the modern polymath that best matches not only the original Greek concept, but also how polymaths have been viewed throughout the centuries.

Let’s begin by eliminating the weakest candidates. Wower’s, Morhof’s, the Cyclopedia’s, and Morton’s definitions set the bar too high. Outside of perhaps The Big Bang Theory’s Dr. Sheldon Cooper, no modern brainiac knows everything. No one can contribute to four distinct areas of science and culture at a professional level, anymore. Unfortunately, specialization, the sheer explosion of knowledge, the increasing number of specialists, and the fragmentation of the sciences into separate disciplines that have had less and less connection with each other all have contributed to the decline of the polymath and the generalist.

On the other hand, Whitfield’s definition, contributions to more than one field, might not be rigorous enough. Polymathy has always meant “great learning”, and “great learning” might require excellence in more than two disciplines. Root-Bernstein’s first definition (world famous in one field) is too rigorous. While polymathy status certainly requires mastering a field, it should not require international fame. His second definition, range of avocations or high SAT scores, as well as Burke’s passive polymath, are too hard to measure without a serious investigation.

Heraclitus’s original definition of a polymath, mastery of three or more fields, could be a good fit for a modern interpretation. If two disciplines might be too few and four too many, three might be just right. Carr’s, Djerassi’s, and Robinson’s ideas (breadth, acceptance, and curiosity) are all critical. The aspiring polymath must have significant breadth of knowledge and must be accepted as a true member of the fields in question. This would also knock out Burke’s limited polymath.

Putting it all together, the best standard for the modern polymath is a combination of Burke’s serial and proper polymaths with Carr’s and Djerassi’s breadth and acceptance requirements. Burke’s prerequisite of “several” fields of expertise pays homage to Heraclitus’s original concept and is a good middle ground between requiring too many fields of expertise and too few and acknowledges that a real polymath should work in “several” disciplines.

Accordingly, the modern polymath should be one who is proficient in or who has made significant accomplishments in at least two widely disparate fields or three less disparate fields; the more unrelated the fields, the more polymathic the person. This definition can be gauged objectively and satisfies the breadth test. The acceptance requirement can be satisfied by professional licensure, by publications, or by acceptance by experts in those fields. The acceptance requirement also allows for the conclusion that, the more generally accepted as an expert such a person is in each of his/her fields, the more polymathic the person is.

This definition puts Hedy Lamarr squarely in polymath status (acting and electronics are about as far apart as two fields can be), but easily knocks out the swimming, trumpeting, and tax polymaths discussed earlier (and probably almost all of the alleged modern polymaths and personal ad polymaths as well). However, it will allow us to recognize and appreciate the incredible achievement of a real modern polymath.

Dave Berg is a lawyer and legal writer in Milwaukee who has been thinking about polymaths and polymathy for the last ten years and has started a blog on polymaths at He does not claim to be a polymath himself.

The last days of the polymath – The Economist

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Edward Carr | Autumn 2009

Carl Djerassi can remember the moment when he became a writer. It was 1993, he was a professor of chemistry at Stanford University in California and he had already written books about science and about his life as one of the inventors of the Pill. Now he wanted to write a literary novel about writers’ insecurities, with a central character loosely modelled on Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and Gore Vidal.

His wife, Diane Middlebrook, thought it was a ridiculous idea. She was also a professor—of literature. “She admired the fact that I was a scientist who also wrote,” Djerassi says. He remembers her telling him, “‘You’ve been writing about a world that writers know little about. You’re writing the real truth inside of almost a closed tribe. But there are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who know more about writing than you do. I advise you not to do this.’”

Even at 85, slight and snowy-haired, Djerassi is a det­ermined man. You sense his need to prove that he can, he will prevail. Sitting in his London flat, he leans forward to fix me with his hazel eyes. “I said, ‘ok. I’m not going to show it to you till I finish. And if I find a publisher then I’ll give it to you.’ ”

Eventually Djerassi got the bound galleys of his book. “We were leaving San Francisco for London for our usual summer and I said ‘Look, would you read this now?’ She said, ‘Sure, on the plane.’ So my wife sits next to me and of course I sit and look over. And I still remember, I had a Trollope, 700 pages long, and I couldn’t read anything because I wanted to see her expression.”

Diane Middlebrook died of cancer in 2007 and, as Djerassi speaks, her presence grows stronger. By the end it is as if there are three of us in the room. “She was always a fantastic reader,” he says. “She read fast and continuously. And suddenly you hear the snap of the book closing, like a thunder clap. And I looked at her, and she then looked at me. She always used to call me, not ‘Carl’ or ‘Darling’, she used to call me ‘Chemist’ in a dear, affectionate sort of way. It was always ‘Chemist’. And she said, ‘Chemist, this is good’.”

Carl Djerassi is a polymath. Strictly speaking that means he is someone who knows a lot about a lot. But Djerassi also passes a sterner test: he can do a lot, too. As a chemist (synthesising cortisone and helping invent the Pill); an art collector (he assembled one of the world’s largest collections of works by Paul Klee); and an author (19 books and plays), he has accomplished more than enough for one lifetime.

His latest book, “Four Jews on Parnassus”, is an ima­gined series of debates between Theodor Adorno, Arnold Schönberg, Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, which touches on art, music, philosophy and Jewish identity. In itself, the book is an exercise in polymathy. At a reading in the Austrian Cultural Forum in London this summer, complete with Schönberg’s songs and four actors, including Djerassi himself, it drew a good crowd and bewitched them for an hour and a half. Sitting down with the book the next day, I found it sharp, funny, mannered and dazzlingly erudite—sometimes, like a bumptious student, too erudite for its own good. I enjoy Djerassi’s writing, though not everyone will. But even his critics would admit that he really is more than “a scientist who writes”.

The word “polymath” teeters somewhere between Leo­nardo da Vinci and Stephen Fry. Embracing both one of history’s great intellects and a brainy actor, writer, director and TV personality, it is at once presumptuous and banal. Djerassi doesn’t want much to do with it. “Nowadays people that are called polymaths are dabblers—are dabblers in many different areas,” he says. “I aspire to be an intellectual polygamist. And I deliberately use that metaphor to provoke with its sexual allusion and to point out the real difference to me between polygamy and promiscuity.”

“To me, promiscuity is a way of flitting around. Polygamy, serious polygamy, is where you have various marriages and each of them is important. And in the ideal polygamy I suspect there’s no number one wife and no number six wife. You have a deep connection with each person.”

Djerassi is right to be suspicious of flitting. We all know a gifted person who cannot stick at anything. In his book “Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture” Stefan Zweig describes an extreme case:

[Casanova] excelled in mathematics no less than in philosophy. He was a competent theologian, preaching his first sermon in a Venetian church when he was not yet 16 years old. As a violinist, he earned his daily bread for a whole year in the San Samuele theatre. When he was 18 he became doctor of laws at the University of Padua—though down to the present day the Casanovists are still disputing whether the degree was genuine or spurious…He was well informed in chemistry, medicine, history, philosophy, literature, and, above all, in the more lucrative (because perplexing) sciences of astrology and alchemy…As universal dilettante, indeed, he was perfect, knowing an incredible amount of all the arts and all the sciences; but he lacked one thing, and this lack made it impossible for him to become truly productive. He lacked will, resolution, patience.

Mindful of that sort of promiscuity, I asked my colleagues to suggest living polymaths of the polygamous sort—doers, not dabblers. One test I imposed was breadth. A scientist who composes operas and writes novels is more of a polymath than a novelist who can turn out a play or a painter who can sculpt. For Djerassi, influence is essential too. “It means that your polymath activities have passed a certain quality control that is exerted within each field by the competition. If they accept you at their level, then I think you have reached that state rather than just dabbling.” They mentioned a score of names—Djerassi was prominent among them. Others included Jared Diamond, Noam Chomsky, Umberto Eco, Brian Eno, Michael Frayn and Oliver Sacks.

It is an impressive list, by anyone’s standards. You can find scientists, writers, actors, artists—the whole range of human creativity. Even so, what struck me most strongly was how poorly today’s polymaths compare with the polymaths of the past.

In the first half of 1802 a physician and scientist called Thomas Young gave a series of 50 lectures at London’s new Royal Institution, arranged into subjects like “Mechanics” and “Hydro­dynamics”. By the end, says Young’s biographer Andrew Robinson, he had pretty much laid out the sum of scientific knowledge. Robinson called his book “The Last Man Who Knew Everything”.

Young’s achievements are staggering. He smashed Newtonian orthodoxy by showing that light is a wave, not just a particle; he described how the eye can vary its focus; and he proposed the three-colour theory of vision. In materials science, engineers dealing with elasticity still talk about Young’s modulus; in linguistics, Young studied the grammar and voc­abulary of 400 or so languages and coined the term “Indo-European”; in Egyptology, Jean-François Champollion drew on his work to decode the Rosetta stone. Young even tinkered around with life insurance.

When Young was alive the world contained about a billion people. Few of them were literate and fewer still had the chance to experiment on the nature of light or to examine the Rosetta stone. Today the planet teems with 6.7 billion minds. Never have so many been taught to read and write and think, and then been free to choose what they would do with their lives. The electronic age has broken the shackles of knowledge. Never has it been easier to find something out, or to get someone to explain it to you.

Yet as human learning has flowered, the man or woman who does great things in many fields has become a rare species. Young was hardly Aristotle, but his capacity to do important work in such a range of fields startled his contemporaries and today seems quite bewildering. The dead cast a large shadow but, even allowing for that, the 21st century has no one to match Michelangelo, who was a poet as well as a sculptor, an architect and a painter. It has no Alexander von Humboldt, who towered over early-19th-century geography and science. And no Leibniz, who invented calculus at the same time as Newton and also wrote on technology, philosophy, biology, politics and just about everything else.

Although you may be able to think of a few living polymaths who rival the breadth of Young’s knowledge, not one of them beg­ins to rival the breadth of his achievements. Over the past 200 years the nature of intellectual endeavour has changed profoundly. The polymaths of old were one-brain universities. These days you count as a polymath if you excel at one thing and go on to write a decent book about another.

Young was just 29 when he gave his lectures at the Royal Institution. Back in the early 19th century you could grasp a field with a little reading and a ready wit. But the distinction between the dabbling and doing is more demanding these days, because breaking new ground is so much harder. There is so much further to trek through other researchers’ territory before you can find a patch of unploughed earth of your own.

Even the best scientists have to make that journey. Benjamin Jones, of the Kellogg School of Management near Chicago, looked at the careers of Nobel laureates. Slightly under half of them did their path-breaking work in their 30s, a smattering in their 20s—Einstein, at 26, was unusually precocious. Yet when the laureates of 1998 did their seminal research, they were typically six years older than the laureates of 1873 had been. It was the same with great inventors.

Once you have reached the vanguard, you have to work harder to stay there, especially in the sciences. So many scientists are publishing research in each specialism that merely to keep up with the reading is a full-time job. “The frontier of knowledge is getting longer,” says Professor Martin Rees, the president of the Royal Society, where Young was a leading light for over three decades. “It is impossible now for anyone to focus on more than one part at a time.”

Specialisation is hard on polymaths. Every moment devoted to one area is a moment less to give over to something else. Researchers are focused on narrower areas of work. In the sciences this means that you often need to put together a team to do anything useful. Most scientific papers have more than one author; papers in some disciplines have 20 or 30. Only a fool sets out to cure cancer, Rees says. You need to concentrate on some detail—while remembering the big question you are ultimately trying to answer. “These days”, he says, “no scientist makes a unique contribution.”

It is not only the explosion of knowledge that puts polymaths at a disadvantage, but also the vast increase in the number of specialists and experts in every field. This is because the learning that creates would-be polymaths creates monomaths too and in overwhelming numbers. If you have a multitude who give their lives to a specialism, their combined knowledge will drown out even a gifted generalist. And while the polymath tries to take possession of a second expertise in some distant discipline, his or her first expertise is being colonised by someone else.

The arts are more forgiving than the sciences. Rees is reminded of a remark by Peter Medawar, the zoologist, who pointed out that, after finishing a draft of “Siegfried” in 1857, Wagner was able to put the opera aside for 12 years before setting out to complete his Ring Cycle with “Götterdämmerung”. A scientist would have had to worry about a rival stealing his thunder. But nobody else was about to compose the destruction of Valhalla.

Perhaps that explains why would-be polymaths these days so often turn to writing books. Yet, as Richard Posner has discovered, even that is often enemy territory.

Unlike France, America and Britain don’t tend to encourage public intellectuals. But if they did, Richard Posner would be their standard-bearer. Posner’s day job is as an appeals-court judge in Chicago—a career founded upon his reputation as America’s pre-eminent thinker on anti-trust law. But Posner is not just a lawyer. In his spare time he has written on sex, security, politics, Hegel, Homeric society, medieval Iceland and a whole lot more. The Wall Street Journal once called him a “one-man think-tank”.

Posner thinks like a polymath. “I’m impatient and I’m restless,” he says, in a matter-of-fact way. “After I graduated from law school, I worked first in government for six years. I enjoyed it but I didn’t really want to make a career of that. I went into teaching without any great sense of commitment, but I couldn’t think of anything else. But gradually I lost int­erest, as the 1970s wore on, I became involved in consulting. So when the judgeship came along in 1981—quite out of the blue—I was happy to take that. I just kind of slid into law. It is sort of the default career choice in the United States.”

Posner first made his name as a monomath. “I had a very big intellectual commitment for many years to anti-trust law. I wrote a lot about that.” Eventually, though, the polymath rose to the surface and he put anti-trust behind him. “I just got bored with it, I think the field slowed down—it happens with fields,” he says. These days most people cling to their expertise; Posner talks about it as if he were trading in an old car.

After he became immersed in the intellectual life of the University of Chicago, Posner started to apply insights from economics to a broad range of subjects. In his book “Sex and Reason”, written in 1990, he used economics to explain a part of life that specialist lawyers and economists had tended to think was beyond their reach. To take a simple example, the AIDS epidemic made gay sex unavoidably more costly, either because of the risk of disease or of switching to safe sex. It therefore reduced the amount of gay sex—and, by the same mechanism, cut the number of illegitimate births and inc­reased the number of legitimate ones.

The book was a success because Posner had the field pretty much to himself. “Sometimes one goes into a new area and there hasn’t been much done in it and then you are a little ahead of the curve,” he says. Even then, the monomaths were in hot pursuit. “After a while there is so much in it that you don’t know what you’re going to do. Since 1990 the field has become extremely crowded because of specialisation and not very attractive.” Time to move on.

The monomaths do not only swarm over a specialism, they also play dirty. In each new area that Posner picks—policy or science—the experts start to erect barricades. “Even in relatively soft fields, specialists tend to develop a specialised vocabulary which creates barriers to entry,” Posner says with his economic hat pulled down over his head. “Specialists want to fend off the generalists. They may also want to convince themselves that what they are doing is really very difficult and challenging. One of the ways they do that is to develop what they regard a rigorous methodology—often mathematical.

“The specialist will always be able to nail the generalists by pointing out that they don’t use the vocabulary quite right and they make mistakes that an insider would never make. It’s a defence mechanism. They don’t like people invading their turf, especially outsiders criticising insiders. So if I make mistakes about this economic situation, it doesn’t really bother me tremendously. It’s not my field. I can make mistakes. On the other hand for me to be criticising someone whose whole career is committed to a particular outlook and method and so on, that is very painful.”

For a polymath, the charge of dabbling never lies far below the surface. “With the amount of information that’s around, if you really want to understand your topic thoroughly then, yes, you have to specialise,” says Chris Leek, the chairman of British Mensa, a club for people who score well on IQ tests. “And if you want to speak with authority, then it’s important to be seen to specialise.”

That is why modern institutions tend to exclude polymaths, he says. “It’s very hard to show yourself as a polymath in the current academic climate. If you’ve got someone interested in going across departments, spending part of the time in physics and part of the time elsewhere, their colleagues are going to kick them out. They’re not contributing fully to any single department. OK, every so often you’re going to get a huge benefit, but from day to day, where the universities are making appointments, they want the focus in one field.”

Britain goes out of its way to create monomaths, by asking students aged 15 to choose just three or four subjects to study at A-level. Djerassi thinks this is a mistake. “There’ll be students here at age 16 or 17 who are much better than many Americans at French or maths or something, but abysmally ignorant in another area,” he says. “We really preach intellectual monogamy more and more in this day and age. That’s by necessity, but we’re overdoing it. And what we really ought to do is start with intellectual polygamy.”

Djerassi has also suffered in his own work because of monomaths’ hostility, especially as a playwright. “They always keep crying out ‘the co-inventor, father, the mother of the Pill’,” he growls. “Without having any knowledge about the play, they start with it. As if it’s got anything to do with it.” Djerassi thinks that this means he has to work harder to promote his work. “No agent has ever been interested in me. They want 29-year-old Irish playwrights, not 86-year-old expatriates.” A trace of bitterness creeps into his voice, but he concedes: “If I were an agent I’d feel the same way.”

Overwhelmed by specialists and attacked by experts as dilettantes, it is amazing that there are any polymaths at all. How do they manage?

Alexander McCall Smith is a natural writer. “I just have to do it,” he says. “I suppose I write four novels a year now, which I don’t have to do. In one sense, that is breaking all the rules in publishing: you’re only meant to write one, but I write four, sometimes five. But I just feel that I have got to do it and I enjoy it greatly. I suppose I am very fortunate. The way I work is I go into a trance and write. I don’t have to sit there and think: it happens. It just comes, so I am very, very lucky.”

These days McCall Smith is best-known as the man behind “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”. But his first career, as a university professor, was eminent in its own right. “My interest was medical law. That, I suppose, was cross-disciplinary. You had to be able to understand the scientific issues and the medical issues, but you just had to have a sound lay understanding of them. So, for example, I worked as a member of the Human Genetics Commission for a while. And that meant I had to go off and make sure that I understood what the issues in genetics were.”

He is also musical—though in a dabbling way. “I play wind instruments, but I don’t play them very well,” he says. “My wife and I set up an orchestra, which is called the Really Terrible Orchestra, and indeed that is absolutely accurate. Virtually everybody I know is better at music than I am.”

McCall Smith is a polymath by necessity. He wrote while he was an academic, producing fiction, about 30 children’s books, short stories and plays for radio. He paid a price. “I probably would have made more of my academic career had I not had another interest, I think, yes. Academia requires a lot of commitment, so I suppose I could have done more.” But, speaking to him, I don’t think he had a choice.

Circumstance also played its part. McCall Smith was able to write because university life allowed it. “It would have been different had I been somebody who practised commercial law in a law firm, for instance. That wouldn’t be compatible with doing anything else. If you were a futures trader or something like that—there are some jobs where the pressure is so intense that it must be very difficult to have any energy by the time you come home at night.”

Posner could become a polymath because he has a unifying set of ideas. “A lot of this work is economic theory in new areas. So applying a method to a new field is not the same thing as mastering multiple fields. To achieve mastery in unrelated areas in an age of specialisation is exceedingly difficult. On the other hand, to take a technique that can be applied to a variety of substantive fields is not as difficult. So if I write about the economics of old age and the economics of sex and the economics of the national security and intelligence services, I am not mastering the field. I am not becoming a sociologist, or a psychiatrist or what have you.”

Djerassi could become a polymath because he has had two careers, one after the other—he did his science and, having made a fortune, he concentrated on his writing. He was helped by his wife. “She was a very sophisticated writer and an extremely tough critic and she managed to divorce affection from criticism. She thought ‘this is terrible’ or ‘this is clichéd’.” He also has ambition and the willpower of someone on borrowed time. At 62 he was diagnosed with cancer. “Suddenly, from one day to another, I didn’t even know what my life expectancy would be before I got the pathology back after the operation. And I remember being very depressed and afterwards I didn’t want to talk to anyone.” He said to himself, “‘Gee, now if I’d known five years earlier it would come out that I’d have cancer and be told I’d live for another few years, would I live a different life?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely’.”

Not all polymaths find their way. Andrew Robinson, Young’s biographer, gives the example of Michael Ventris, who died aged 34, having tried to satisfy both his urge to be an architect and also his fascination with codes. Ventris was the first to make sense of Linear B, an early Greek script, but he could not apply himself as successfully to architecture.

“With Michael Ventris, the polymathy gradually des­troyed him,” Robinson says. “He was famous for cracking Linear B, but I believe he was depressed. Architecture was not enough. He was a logician. Linear B took him over. He couldn’t reach the standard he had set in another field, he couldn’t do justice to his own gifts, he couldn’t let it all go and give it up.”

Robinson thinks that Young also ran up against his limits. “Young understood after 1814 that he couldn’t carry on with serious medicine. He could have pursued it but even then it was clear that he wouldn’t be taken seriously. People love a sole genius with tunnel vision—a focus,” Robinson says. Darwin spent several years thinking about barnacles. But because Young’s work was in so many different fields, he was accused of being a dilettante. “Polymaths are disconcerting,” Robinson says. “People feel they are trespassing.”

Even Leonardo warned against being spread thin. The other day Robinson came across one of his late notebooks, in which he had written, “Like a kingdom divided, which rushes to its doom, the mind that engages in subjects of too great variety becomes confused and weakened.”

In an age of specialists, does it matter that generalists no longer thrive? The world is hardly short of knowledge. Countless books are written, canvases painted and songs recorded. A torrent of research is pouring out. A new orthodoxy, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, sees obsessive focus as the key that unlocks genius.

Just knowing about a lot of things has never been easier. Never before have dabblers been so free to paddle along the shore and dip into the first rock pool that catches the eye. If you have an urge to take off your shoes and test the water, countless specialists are ready to hold your hand.

And yet you will never get very deep. Depth is for monomaths—which is why experts so often seem to miss what really matters. Specialisation has made the study of English so sterile that students lose much of the joy in reading great literature for its own sake. A generation of mathematically inclined economists neglected many of Keynes’s insights about the Depression because he put them into words. For decades economists sweated over fiendish mathematical equations, only to be brought down to earth by the credit crunch: Keynes’s well-turned phrases had come back to life.

Part of my regret at the scarcity of polymaths is sentimental. Polymaths were the product of a particular time, when great learning was a mark of distinction and few people had money and leisure. Their moment has passed, like great houses or the horse-drawn carriage. The world may well be a better place for the specialisation that has come along instead. The pity is that progress has to come at a price. Civilisation has put up fences that people can no longer leap across; a certain type of mind is worth less. The choices modern life imposes are duller, more cramped.

The question is whether their loss has affected the course of human thought. Polymaths possess something that monomaths do not. Time and again, innovations come from a fresh eye or from another discipline. Most scientists devote their careers to solving the everyday problems in their specialism. Everyone knows what they are and it takes ingenuity and perseverance to crack them. But breakthroughs—the sort of idea that opens up whole sets of new problems—often come from other fields. The work in the early 20th century that showed how nerves work and, later, how DNA is structured originally came from a marriage of physics and biology. Today, Einstein’s old employer, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, is laid out especially so that different disciplines rub shoulders. I suspect that it is a poor substitute.

Isaiah Berlin once divided thinkers into two types. Foxes, he wrote, know many things; whereas hedgehogs know one big thing. The foxes used to roam free across the hills. Today the hedgehogs rule.