Updated: May 26
Full disclosure: Polymathism is a bit of a neologism - a "new word" to put it simply. Occasionally, it is worthwhile to show some love to the -isms of the world. I am sure you will find a way to excuse me for pushing the boundaries of linguistics.
A polymath is someone of varied learning. I have attached the -ism here because to me, it is not a stand-alone noun to describe one person but rather a characteristic devotion to intellectual curiosity - it is an ideology, a way of life. It is the thing that propels you to seek out the unknown and revel in it rather than spend life paralyzed by it. As such, I aim to cover a wide array of subjects which will require you to check your perceptions of "cannot" or worse, "don't care" at the door. I let fear of failure, foolishness or straight stubbornness hold me back from discovering some of my greatest loves in life (looking at you, biochemistry). I would hate to think that any of you are doing the same! Here we will cover three cases to demonstrate the value of polymathism: personal, business and societal.
Think back to primary school. You had all those subjects you had to learn, and they all interested you to varying degrees. As you grew older, the variety of these subjects dwindled. A lot. To add insult to injury, every adult you were met thought "what do you want to be when you grow up?" was an acceptable ice-breaker. Seriously? By the time you reach adolescence, society insisted you use your under-developed brain to commit to a field of study. Singular. Did that never strike anyone else as completely insane? If it did, congratulations you are on your way to becoming a polymath. someone who sees the folly in making any decision that would limit your knowledge. After graduation, employers wanted you to have 3 years of relevant job experience for an entry level job. The word relevant betrays a singular focus. If you didn't go to university, you adopted a vocation and that became part of your identity. So, we all end up in the same place regardless of where we started - pigeonholed into something we are expected to build expertise on by having different experiences over time in the same thing.
I find that really odd. Because all appearances indicate to me that we live in a fractal world, don’t worry there will be another full post on this! As such, there should be a sensitivity to initial conditions. That is, if you start in different places, you should end up in different places. The fact that we don't tells me somewhere along the line, society put in this framework that ensures that whether you are a surgeon or a plumber, you are identified by one thing. I think this comes from humanity's inclination to try to introduce order by putting things into neat, hierarchical boxes. But here is the thing: you are not a box. You are a meat bag awash in chemicals, falling through space at 67,000 mph on a 5.9722 x 1024 kg rock around a frankly unremarkable star. Fun fact I realized: our international system of units, SI (you may be most familiar with centi, milli, kilo etc) only goes up to 10^24 - it's called yotta. I'm not saying there is a connection there per se, but it is a funny coincidence.
Now a bit of a philosophical aside because why not? Camus wanted us to rebel against the absurdity of our existence by living fully. What better way to live fully than to learn what we want, become more than what we are and challenge society’s preconceived, and often alarmingly erroneous, notions. My friend, you are so much more than the cumulative sum of the limited experiences you have over this terribly short life. Recently, I heard a TedX Talk by Master Shi Heng Yi and something he said was seared into my memory: “I am not my body. I am not my mind. I am not my emotions. I can just see all of these aspects about me”. In the more Western tradition, I am sure at some point you've heard someone quote Descartes: cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. I reckon this is probably more aptly put as I think because I am.
So, think with me. About anything you fancy but crucially, don't let fancy stop you from seeking things out. Of course, in order to think about something constructively, you must first learn about it. So, learn wildly different things. Polymathism is not something reserved for the greatest minds - Einstein, Da Vinci, Darwin, Maya Angelou etc. It is the means by which minds become great. Let's become the best version of oursleves.
My more industrious readers may have spent the past couple of minutes wondering why they would care about this if it doesn't make any difference on their bottom line. I'm here to tell you this makes the single biggest difference on your bottom line. As I've alluded to earlier, your outreach strategy thus far has probably prioritized relevance and you've worked it into the training for your recruiters and into the programming of your applicant tracking system. You think this will help someone new integrate easier into your company, make less mistakes and probably need less direction. If I had a dime for every time I read 'self-starter' in a job specification...
But this makes you disproportionately dependent on expertise. After all no sane person would ever argue there is a viable substitute for time, and I said earlier expertise is cultivated by having different experiences in the same thing over time. But here is the kicker. You hired this "expert" because you are hoping to expand your horizons by leveraging their skills. But fundamentally, nobody can be two places at once. You are in fact limiting your options. This is why polymaths are so crucial to the work force. Though nobody can be two places at once, but somebody can be more than two things at once. Our humanity is not that one-dimensional.
Thus, to maximize your odds of success, you should hire a healthy mix of experts and polymaths. Think about it: polymaths are the ultimate self-starter because they consistently use their own initiative to engage with things they have never encountered before. Really make use of your expensive, busy experts by allowing them to give some direction to guide these intellectually voracious folks and watch them fly. Quite simply, hiring polymaths boosts the ROI on your entire workforce. And no, I'm not just being self-interested by saying that since I've dedicated a whole company to the endeavour - but you know, tomato, toma-to.
Remember how I said society gets so many things wrong? This is because we adopt a myopic view based on current perceived evidence and build things around it. Look no further than the explosion of outlandish conspiracy theories to support this. Once we have done this building, we allow ourselves to become embroiled in fears of sunk costs and that makes us more likely to stubbornly cling to something that doesn't work. Also, when we become invested in something, we no longer delineate between ourselves and it (think of the romantic love that has bemused poets, for example). This is to such an extent that an attack on it is perceived as an attack on the very essence of self. The real lesson here is something polymaths have probably known since antiquity: that the more you seek things out, the more likely you are to encounter something you don't agree with. Thus, integrate what you learn into your worldview but don't integrate it into your perception of self so that it becomes difficult to part with it - because you certainly will.
I find it bizarre that in considering society, we seldom refer to evolutionary biology. Part of it may be because evolution is such a polarizing subject for many so we prefer to leave it be so we can, as the British say, 'get on with it'. In statistics, when you are doing hypothesis testing, you never accept a hypothesis. You can either reject it or fail to reject it. Thus far, we have failed to reject evolution as a viable explanation for how things are. Therefore, we must consider the implications of it should we continue to fail to reject it. So, buckle up kids because we are about to do a quick paddle into the intersection of evolutionary biology and anthropology or as it is known, evolutionary anthropology (what a plot twist, I know). But we are going to use the historical perspective to engage with it.
In his pivotal book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari tells us:
"The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it? We're not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language" (p.23)
Why is this important? Well, we *love* saying "old habits die hard" but conveniently disregard literally thousands of years of habits. Harari goes on to say that the cognitive revolution "is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology" (41). This is because "from the cognitive revolution onwards, historical narratives replace biological theories as our primary means of explaining the development of Homo Sapiens" (42). As a historian and the author of a 466-page book on the subject, you cannot fault him for having a vested interest in arguing this.
But you see, I think the cognitive revolution is the ultimate testament to biology. Because 'accidental genetic mutations' are a biochemical consequence of the system, a result of the way genes are transcribed and transmitted and, at least in this case, not a third-party occurrence that acts on the system from the outside. Obviously, not everything is biology - consider the nature v. nurture paradigm in cognitive development. But it is important to delineate what arises from within a system from what acts upon it. I see our world as a Matryoshka doll of systems (those nested Russian dolls) that have properties within themselves, the biological "wiring" of our brain and body, for example. And these are acted upon by other systems (cultural, religious, etc.) - not individual events. The reason why polymathism is so crucial is it helps you parse out the recurring themes and engage in higher level systems thinking, which ultimately is what it's all about.
Sapiens is a beautiful book and comes highly recommended, for the record. I will say that I certainly agree with Harari on this front:
"Consequently, ever since the Cognitive Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution" (36)
The cognitive revolution opened the fast lane, but more traffic has been building for thousands of years. In the past few decades alone, the world has changed immeasurably with technology connecting more people and making more information available than ever before. This means the freeway is starting to get clogged up again with so many things to navigate. To paraphrase one of my favorite Doctor Who characters, River Song, you need a motorbike through traffic. That's polymathism. Though the first Cognitive Revolution seems to be accidental, we can wilfully usher in a new era of human understanding by encouraging and cultivating polymaths. Of course, a big part of this is re-evaluating our current systems to ensure they are not actively hindering development. Spoiler alert: they are.
Phew. You made it! Pardon me for the broad strokes. In this introductory post alone, we have managed to give an honorable mention to: #philosophy, #chaostheory, #recruitment, #evolutionaryanthropology and #statistics. We have tried to understand how polymathism can make us more conscious of the world around us, foster effective businesses and build a better society. In a world obsessed with personalization and coaxing us into smaller bubbles through predictive algorithms and targeting advertising, we owe it to ourselves to challenge our notions of what we like and expand the repertoire of what we know.
Harari, Y. N., Harari, Y. N., Purcell, J., & Watzman, H. (2015). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind.
TEDX. (2020, February 13). Master Shi Heng Yi: 5 hindrances to self-mastery [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-079YIasck