Polymath personality type

Are you a polymath?

What is a polymath?

A polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, "having learned much") is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.

You may draw parallels to the term "Renaissance man" however I think this is too restrictive to a time in history.  Easily recognizable polymaths were Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo or more recently Benjamin Franklin.

In the modern age you can look to individuals like Nathan Myhrvold: Computer scientist, physicist, entrepreneur, photographer, chef or Brian Eno: Musician, record producer, visual artist, political activist, diarist. What makes them unique is the level of proficiency they can demonstrate in multiple disciplines.  The true polymath is not a personality such as the fictional “know it all” persona of Cliff Claven (Cheers TV series 1982-1993).  The “know it all” appear as if they're an expert on a subject while there are signals that this person doesn't know very much on the subject or at least as much as they're acting like they do on the subject.

The polymath is restless, inquisitive and driven to explore, and potentially master, a range of diverse subject areas.  They easily shift between rational and experiential/intuitive thinker. The rational system is analytic, logical, abstract, and requires justification via logic and evidence. In contrast, the experiential system is holistic, affective, concrete, experienced passively, processes information automatically, and is self-evidently valid. This ability to not be confined by either and embrace both is at the core of the polymath and a very unique trait.

Why are polymaths an endangered species?

Today the polymath tends to appear on the fringes of societal norms. Their behaviors are seen as quirky, unique and unconventional. When they become interested in an area they tend to become engrossed and even detached until they fulfill a void. The depth and expanse of this void is truly the difference between the dabbler and polymath.

My own personal opinion is a true polymath demonstrates competency when they are able successfully utilize diverse knowledge and skills to provide new insights and creative solutions. The profound nature of these insights and solutions distinguishes the level of skill the polymath possess (again just my thoughts).

Our modern academic world pushes talented individuals to specialize. It is extremely difficult to appear relevant and standout amongst the growing numbers of experts in a field and propose an alternative view.   For a polymath, the charge of dabbling never lies far below the surface. “With the amount of information that’s around, if you really want to understand your topic thoroughly then, yes, you have to specialize,” says Chris Leek, the chairman of British Mensa, a club for people who score well on IQ tests. “And if you want to speak with authority, then it’s important to be seen to specialize.” Science fiction author Robert Heinlein had a very different view He believed that everyone should attempt to be a polymath and that specialization was for insects. In today’s information society we drown out the uniqueness the polymath can bring through relational thinking and diversity of perspective.

Modern day claims of heresy are as popular as ever?

During Galileo's time his opinions that the Sun lies motionless at the center of the universe and that the Earth is not at its center and that it moves in an orbit were declared contrary to Holy Scripture. He was sentenced to formal imprisonment at the pleasure of the Inquisition. Immanuel Velikovsky is an example of a recent scientific exoheretic; he did not have appropriate scientific credentials or did not publish in scientific journals. While the details of his work are in scientific disrepute, the concept of catastrophic change (extinction event and punctuated equilibrium) has gained acceptance in recent decades.

Today’s creative thinkers are challenged by specialist with deep rooted knowledge and perspectives and when a point of view is raised by an individual without the proper pedigree, they no longer admonishment of their heretical views, rather they are ignored and pushed out of circles of influence. I am not sure which punishment may be harsher to the creative mind.

Are we on the brink of second coming of the dark ages?

No, I do not think so, however we are in an age where access to information is just a few clicks away and while this should be encouraging creative exploration and ideas, it also is a two edged sword that allows ideas to be easily ridiculed and dismissed as irrelevant. The inquisitive autodidact needs to be encouraged to explore their passions and develop a multitude of skills and productive knowledge thus possibly yielding new ideas and innovation through a less than intuitive combination of experiences and skills. I do fear that some of our most productive minds may look for secret safe havens locked in member "only groups" and we may find ourselves asking "who is John Galt". 

Skill mastery 10,000 hours or skill proficiency in 20 hours?

We have all heard the quote it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of a skill this is true in an ultra competitive field in a very narrow subject area. This pushes us to believe specialization and time are the key. The reality is that for most skills it may take only twenty hours. Josh does a nice job of explaining the basis of this claim and an easy to use process.  This process can be applied to just about anything, if you give it a full effort I would like to hear about your results.


Is there a home on the internet for the polymath?

I enjoy the Quora website as it sparks many new ideas and a starting place to become more interested in diverse topics and perspectives. There are other sites dedicated to collaborative solving of difficult mathematical problems and research believing that diverse perspectives yield new discoveries. 

As always, I enjoy comments and appreciate pushing the "thumbs-up" like button if you found this interesting and thought provoking.




A polymath life : What is a polymath?

Renaissance Woman


What is a Polymath?

polymath is a person who excels across a diverse range of areas.

It isn’t enough to merely have broad interests or superficial knowledge of several topics. Polymaths are more than proficient across multiple fields, possessing expertise at a level that enables them to draw upon advanced knowledge as innovators and problem solvers.

Characteristics of a Polymath