On Polymaths: Why You Should Master Everything

Leonardo-Polymath, Badass

For those unfamiliar with polymaths, they are “a person of great learning in several fields of study.” In more general terms, a polymath is a renaissance man. Da Vinci is the quintessential polymath. He was an expert painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and all around great guy. So what? Why should anyone care? Isn’t the whole idea of the renaissance man dead?

We live in a world of hyper-specialization. We are urged to pick one aspect, one niche, a small corner of the market, and pursue it relentlessly until we are better and more efficient than anyone else. While this works great in business (doing everything is a surefire way to kill your company), it doesn’t lead to a satisfying or experiential life. Your identity becomes intertwined with your job function and you guarantee yourself a mid-life crisis (or mid-twenties crisis).

Now, You don’t have to be Da Vinci to be a polymath. By all means, don’t attempt to master architecture, botany, painting, engineering, etc. all at the same time. He was certainly an outlier of the population, even by today’s standards. Dedicated learning takes time, patience, and process. Neil Rackham, author of the classic book SPIN Selling urged sales consultants to focus on one new skill at a time, aim for quantity, try it out a few times, then go for quality. Once you’ve mastered one skill you can move on to the next one. Use time blocking techniques for focused, head down time, to concentrate on developing new skills. Look for the most impactful thing to learn first and focus on that. In The One Thing Gary Keller preaches the use of “the focusing question.” “What is the one thing I can do today that will make everything else easier or unnecessary?” Take this approach to developing new skills. “What is the one thing I can learn that will make the next thing easier?” Believe me, this is much easier said than done.

In my limited experience of adult life, I have attempted careers in fantasy illustration, photography retouching, phone sales, marketing for health insurance, and now entrepreneurship. While not every experience has been satisfying, rewarding, or yielded success, I have not regretted the experiential learning that has come along with it. Each has had a skill or knowledge base that has carried from one to the other. The journal of Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair (Vol. 27:3) stated in 2013, “successful training not only prompts skill-specific changes in the brain, but also more global changes that are consistent across many different types of skills. As you become more adept at a skill, your brain no longer needs to work as hard at it. The brain shifts from more controlled to more automatic processing as a skill is learned, regardless of the specific type of training.” Learning new things is great. It makes you better at the things you were already good at.

Recently Tim Ferriss, of Four-Hour fame, published a podcast “essay” on the “top 5 reasons to be a jack of all trades.” I couldn’t agree more with his sentiment and I highly recommend you listen to it. Try picking up a new habit or skill. Why not? It’s time we bring back the polymath.


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