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POLYMATH—CURSE OR CURE?

Are you a polymath? When everything interests you, following your dreams isn’t as easy as it seems. What if you have several dreams? And don’t know which one to pursue?

This conundrum is common. But it’s also common to hear that your interests are nothing more than hobbies, that they are a waste of time. Or, that to excel, you have to choose a single path.

The good news is that this is far from the truth. In fact, in the current global market, having many interests is perhaps better than being highly skilled in one particular area. People who are adept in multiple areas as known as polymaths. Here’s how to adopt this mindset and make it work for you.

Curse or Cure?

Choosing a career or skill to pursue is one of the hardest decisions you’ll make in life. It might also be the most important. That’s why it’s the subject of so much focus and judgment. And unless you are a visible genius or some kind of prodigy, people consider multiple interests as a sign of indecisiveness, superficiality, and lack of expertise.

You’ve likely heard the saying: “Jack of all trades, master of none”. But did you know that phrase wasn’t actually an insult? The full saying goes, “Jack of all trades, master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one”. It was a compliment to people who could manage multiple jobs. Often, one person being helpful in several areas is far more beneficial and economical than having to rely on multiple individuals.

Over time, society moved away from this mentality, shaving off the end of the saying to turn it from positive to negative. But technology has changed the way we do business. Workers between 55-64 stay with an employer an average of almost ten years and average 1.9 jobs over their careers. Compare that to millennials who expect to change jobs every 3 years and it’s obvious that multiple skills are an asset in today’s job market.

The case of the polymath

Remember Leonardo da Vinci? The legendary Renaissance painter is famous for painting the Mona Lisa, but his range of interests encompassed architecture, mathematics, science, engineering, anatomy, astronomy, botany, history, even literature and music. 

More recently, we have individuals such as Umberto Eco, Carl Sagan, Stephen Fry, Steve Jobs, and even Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) as examples of people who successfully embody multiple skills and interests.

We consider them geniuses, but history will tell us that just a few hundred years ago, this was actually a pretty common thing. Specialization of knowledge is a relatively new idea that was driven by the industrial revolution. Before that, knowledge pursuers would have no qualms about straddling fields as different as astronomy and anatomy.

Some defining traits of a polymath personality would be:

  • Curiosity
  • Holistic attitude
  • Creativity
  • Ability to perceive things from multiple perspectives
  • Adaptability
  • Relentless pursuit of excellence

These traits can not only be applied to many of today’s technology-driven jobs, but they can help you excel in them. Almost all progress in our civilization has been driven by combining the knowledge and traditions of various people and fields. Someone who can holistically tackle multiple areas is an invaluable asset.

How to have a polymath mindset

Simply because you have a lot of interests in a wide range of subjects doesn’t automatically make you a polymath. Some skill is still involved. It’s important that you can combine your interests to create new results. Here are a few ways you can channel your multiple potentialities into a polymath mindset:

1. Decide on a combination

Maybe you like writing, have a web development background, and a passion for cooking. You might combine those into creating a dynamic food critic blog or restaurant consulting business. If you like photography, animals, and being outdoors, you could combine those into a pet photography business or an in-depth website on animal health and safety.

Take stock of your skills and interests. You’ll likely find that many of them work well together with a bit of creativity. Innovation is a key element of success in the modern world. By combining skills, you’re more likely to drive innovation by creating something new and unexpected than someone driving a single course of expertise.

2. Train hard

Once you decide on the combination of skills, focus on improving each component. Fine-tuning one field will likely yield you better results that trying to improve all of them. While you want to be proficient in many areas, you also want to have a deep understanding of each of them.

This might require taking classes or getting additional training. You might require more development in some areas over others. Never walk away from the opportunity to learn, whether that’s through formal education, classes on the side, or simply mining the plethora of resources available online.

3. Remember your goals

There can be a tendency to get overly excited when you learn something new. That’s why it’s vital that you keep your purpose in mind. It might tempt you to take in-depth classes on the history of veterinary care or the philosophy of literature. But unless you can use the information within your business, it might be more distracting than helpful.

If you’re working on improving your writing skills, focus on the business aspect of writing versus creative writing. That’s not to say you can’t also enjoy creative writing on the side. As we’ve discussed, you never know when those skills might help. But the more focused you are, the more likely you’ll achieve your goals.

Remember, the great polymaths throughout history dedicated themselves to each task before moving on. They focused on greatness in the moment, creating timeless works of art, foundational scientific principles, and otherwise influencing society.

Conclusion

Having too many interests is not a curse—it’s an opportunity. The future needs people who can think holistically and creatively, and adapt quickly to changes. With the right mindset and plan, you can be one of them.

‍For more on learning how to learn, watch this video:

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