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:
- Contradictory: being a polymath means embodying “apparent contradictions” and being “intrapersonally diverse.”
- Time Management: “polymaths are exposed broadly, think creatively and strategically, and juggle their many interests and obligations through effective time management”
- Double-edge sword: polymathy enriches life but also makes it harder.
- Creativity: polymaths excel at creative problem-solving.
- 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.
- Not fitting in: “polymath identity is discovered from not fitting in; polymath identity can be difficult to fully own and to explain to others.”
- 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.