January 27, 2020

Polymaths and the importance of diversity in expertise

In an era where we prize specialization over generalization, where are polymaths to be found in the mix? We look at what makes a polymath and where they fit in the bigger equation needs them along with specialists and other types of experts.

What’s a polymath?

We can generally agree that a polymath is someone who is highly knowledgeable about or is at least very good at several fields. In a BBC article by David Robson, he compares more precise definitions reached by Waqas Ahmed and Dr. Angela Meyers Cotellessa, who have both studied polymaths extensively.

For Ahmed, who wrote the book The Polymath: Unlocking the Power of Human Versatility, he ascribes the title to those who have made significant contributions to at least three fields, particularly those considered polymathic in the historical or classical understanding such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Hypatia, Al-Biruni, Florence Nightingale and Rabindranath Tagore.

For Meyers Cotellessa, who focuses on modern polymaths in her doctoral dissertation, In Pursuit of Polymaths: Understanding Renaissance Persons of the 21st Century, the participants in her research “had to have had successful careers in at least two separate domains – one arts and one science – and self-identify as a polymath.”

What makes a polymath?

According to Ahmed, the common traits he examined between the polymaths he researched included:

  • Above-average intelligence
  • Open-mindedness and curiosity
  • Independent and autodidactic (self-teaching)
  • Strong desire for personal fulfilment

These traits overlap with those in the abstract for Meyers Cotellessa’s work, where she found seven conclusions revolving around the traits of polymaths:

  1. Contradictory: being a polymath means embodying “apparent contradictions” and being “intrapersonally diverse.”
  2. Time Management: “polymaths are exposed broadly, think creatively and strategically, and juggle their many interests and obligations through effective time management”
  3. Double-edge sword: polymathy enriches life but also makes it harder.
  4. Creativity: polymaths excel at creative problem-solving.
  5. Nature & Nurture: polymaths develop as a result of their circumstances but their abilities are maintained in adulthood when they continue to teach themselves and focus on self-improvement.
  6. Not fitting in: “polymath identity is discovered from not fitting in; polymath identity can be difficult to fully own and to explain to others.”
  7. Actualizing: family and financial resources impact the realization of these traits as children grow.

When you consider all of these traits together, it becomes readily apparent that in a lot of ways, many people are polymathic by nature, but that there is something to be said about the external factors that can help to actualize or suppress these traits.

Over-emphasis on specialization

Unfortunately, society and culture have pushed us towards the latter. “Ahmed points out that many children are fascinated by many different areas – but our schools, universities and then employment tend to push us towards ever greater specialisation,” Robson says in his article. “So many more people may have the capacity to be polymaths, if only they are encouraged in the right way.”

“We have been living in a world sold on depth—the era of the ultra-specialist. In our globalizing, technology-driven, ever-more-complex world, we convinced ourselves that the route to excellence and progress lies in narrow specialization—in obsessive concentration and focus,” says Nick Lovegrove, author of The Mosaic Principle: The Six Dimensions of a Remarkable Life and Career.

Both he and Robson argue that today’s increasingly complex problems cannot be solved and actually are not always solved by specialist experts. In Lovegrove’s words, they might even cause some of them: “pretty much every major business crisis of recent years—from Enron to Lehman Brothers to Wells Fargo—stems from having experts on top, not on tap.”

And even if it doesn’t outright cause an issue, myopically focusing on specialization hampers creativity. “Increasing specialization has created a ‘system of parallel trenches’ in the quest for innovation,” says David Epsetin in Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. “Everyone is digging deeper into their own trench and rarely standing up to look in the next trench over, even though the solution to their problem happens to reside there.”

The title doesn’t matter: bringing us all together

Whether we realize it or not, everyone who becomes used to living and thinking in a certain way for a sustained period will find themselves in a bubble. When we think of narrow-mindedness today, we might strongly associate it with selective ignorance towards certain people, cultures or facts. But what flies under the radar is the sort of “positive” narrow-mindedness that comes with excluding other avenues of exploration and the danger of blindly prizing those who put all their intellectual eggs in one basket (to be fair, blatantly ignoring people who know what they’re talking about isn’t good either).

Make no mistake, none of this is to argue for the elimination of specialization or skilled unitasking, and for polymaths, flexperts, and multi-hyphens to be “at the top” instead; we’re not even saying that dabblers are the worst of all. For the sake of enriching one’s life, it doesn’t matter which one you are, only that can pursue your genuine curiosity (not necessarily advancement) without regard to its externally-appraised utility. After all, your career isn’t your identity any more than your work is your entire life.

That said, when it comes to the greater context of solving culture’s big problems in the present and future, these will inevitably span many fields and affect all of us. For these, we absolutely do need polymaths who can bridge those fields to be recognized and brought to the table to work with specialists because they need each other: where specialists will eventually reach the limits of their field, polymaths will eventually need more depth across the breadth of their fields. As such, there needs to be diversity in experts just as much as diversity in expertise.

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