Score One For the Polymaths!

Polymath: (from the Greek polymathis, “having learned much”) a person whose expertise spans more than one subject area. Polymaths are generally curious, enthusiastic, focus on one field before moving on to the next, and most importantly, they connect different fields to create things new.

Polymaths have always been with us. Recognized examples include Leonardo da Vinci (artist and helicopter designer), Benjamin Franklin (founding father, inventor, and all-around lady-killer), Paul Robeson (scholar, athlete, actor, and civil rights activist), and Maya Angelou (poet, journalist, dancer).

What about all the polymaths who aren’t recognized? Perhaps we call them “jack of all trades, master of none.” Sure, there are people who are not really polymaths because they don’t focus on one field at a time long enough to achieve anything. Maybe for them, the negative description is warranted, even though as a group they are probably really interesting people. They’re just not polymaths.

But it’s also true, in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, factory workers were needed who could spend an entire day, day after day, screwing one nut onto one bolt on an assembly line. This is the extreme “monomath,” someone who specializes in just one thing. During the Industrial Era, polymathy was discouraged, even repressed. I recently heard the term “Art Monk/Nun,” describing persons who only paint, have no other interests, and spend all their time in a studio. OK, but I see it as a snare intended to keep the old model alive long after its useful life is over.

How things have changed! Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit and founder of Dozuki, writing for the Harvard Business Review blog: “Polymathism is a largely untapped force in business practice, but it’s also the future of problem-solving.” For example: The fabrics and paints we have today that dramatically reduce drag were inspired by shark skin; a burr stuck in a dog’s fur inspired Velcro; the Morpho butterfly’s brilliant blue wings inspired a better television display. And what examples we have seen in the arts!

Today knowledge is exploding. Increasingly, innovation occurs at the intersection of different fields. Score one for the polymaths. Maybe even score two, or three!

Eric is a polymath: