The definition of a polymath
Recently, I’ve started to write and share more about embracing the polymath lifestyle and identity. In doing so, I’ve encountered some new anxieties from taking on that title. My inner ‘shadows’ started to appear, challenging me as to whether I’m qualified to write about polymaths, or call myself one. I’ve spoken to a lot of peers who feel this same hesitation toward referring to themselves as polymaths (even though they clearly embody the lifestyle).
I’m not a huge fan of labels, but I suppose it’s helpful to at least clarify how I perceive a polymath for my own purposes. I think a polymath is someone who does both of these:
- Engages in extended learning in disparate fields, industries and/or skills.
- Applies learnings by connecting ideas from different areas to solve problems in unique ways.
In order to do these effectively, it usually means that an individual is working professionally in these different fields for extended periods of time. They need both longevity in the pursuit, as well as complexity to challenge them enough to seek out unique solutions to problems they face.
But working professionally in each pursuit (i.e. in a labor setting) isn’t strictly necessary. For example, you may be working in one field while dedicating extended time toward a passion project for many years. One day, you see a connection between your work and your passion, and are able to create things / solve problems in ways that virtually no one else can. This is a prime example of the polymath approach.
In my view, the key is application of learnings. I think if you’re learning about a ton of fields without applying them in practice, that makes you more of a scholar than a polymath (and more power to you!). Similarly, if you’re working primarily in one field/role, and have a wide variety of personal interests that you don’t really pursue in earnest, it’s unlikely you’re making any connections between your interests and your work.
I want to caveat all of the above and say that the purpose of clarifying these conditions is to guide aspirational polymaths on how to maximize the potential benefits of multiple pursuits. We have to be careful with labeling and avoid “gatekeeping” others (e.g. by classifying them as ‘just a hobbyist’, ‘dilettante’, etc.). When I see these kinds of delineations, I worry that a budding polymath may be discouraged and give up, rather than be inspired and educated. As a society, we could benefit from having far more polymaths around, and thus we should be embracing and welcoming folks as much as possible.
That’s my goal anyway. I want to embody the practices of a polymath and seek to garner some of those unique benefits, but I also want to set an example in how I do it. A big part of that, for me, is openly sharing what I learn, and keeping my arms wide open to embrace anyone who wants to learn more.
For even more of my thoughts on polymaths, check out my essay The Polymath Playbook where I share my personal learnings and experiences with the polymath approach. In a world built for specialization, the polymath approach can help us build unique mental models to differentiate ourselves, and the opportunity to discover meaningful work.