This word has been echoing in my head for the past few years. I have brought this word up on multiple occasions and typically those that I share it with do not know its definition. It is unfortunate, but not surprising in our culture that we are not very familiar with this word.
Our culture favors experts. We push people to specialize their skills and knowledge and go deep in one area. This has yielded many benefits and increased our learning and efficiency, but not all of us were built to specialize.
So what do those of us who don’t have this drive for lifelong specialization in a subject do? Are we generalists? Jack or Jills of all trades? The watered down masses?
How can we stay committed to reaching our full potential without sacrificing our desire to experience more than one stream of learning?
I think the answer is we seek to lead polymathic lives.
Polymath: a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning.
A polymath seeks to cultivate the multiple potentialities that live inside of each of us. In the Renaissance, there was an idea of the “perfected man” a person who was highly capable in both intellectual, artistic and physical pursuits.
While the monomath, someone with extensive knowledge or skill in a specific subject, may be able to stand out more quickly by going deep in one area, the polymath has the potential to explore and synthesize more connections because of their varied pursuits. This can lead to unique breakthroughs that specialists may miss.
In agriculture, a monoculture is the cultivation of a single crop in one area. While this leads to some efficiencies of production, it goes against the natural biodiversity of growth that the earth effortlessly creates. Monocultures also more susceptible to disease, and can upset the naturally occurring ecosystem causing the death of species of plants, insects and animals.
What if this is the same for us as humans. What if this drive to over-specialize has made our lives and minds monocultural, seemingly more productive, but working against the natural rhythms of our potential?
Polymathic living isn’t just for exceptional people like DaVinci. I think in the future, our best innovators, designers, leaders and organizations will be polymathic in nature. The polymathic business will be competent in multiple disciplines, bringing revenue and value from multiple streams. The polymathic leader will be able to provide more wisdom than just expertise because of the synthesis of disciplines they have been building. The polymathic designer will be able to cross-disciplines effectively to produce a more interesting body of work.
Cultivating multiple potentialities will allow you to adapt to the changing nature of our world and help you reach your fullest potential. I think there is more in us.
What areas could you see yourself becoming polymathic in?
“Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses — especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
— Leonardo Da Vinci
Someone I would consider a modern polymath is Virgil Abloh. Virgil’s expertise is not limited to but spans architecture, fashion, music, and design. Follow him on Instagram for a first-hand look at polymathy.
Longer article on polymathy: https://aeon.co/essays/we-live-in-a-one-track-world-but-anyone-can-become-a-polymath
If you connected with the idea of polymathic living, you will love this TED Talk on multiple potentialities: https://www.ted.com/talks/emilie_wapnick_why_some_of_us_don_t_have_one_true_calling?language=en