We live in a culture that pressures us to specialize. At university, we’re urged to focus on a single field of study. After university, we’re encouraged to pursue a single career path. Our parents, teachers and colleagues hammer home the message – to succeed, specialize, don’t generalize.
But what if this message is completely wrong? The fact of the matter is, as human beings, we evolved to have various skills and abilities. We’re naturally multifaceted and multi-talented. That’s why the cult of specialization that’s so prevalent in today’s society is likely to leave us unfulfilled, frustrated and bored.
Why limit yourself to being a doctor or a musician when you can pursue both of these activities at once? Why only stick to philosophy when you’re also into botany and art? The truth is, if you want to lead a richer and more optimal life, then you need to get in touch with your inner polymath as suggested in the book, The Polymath by Waqas Ahmed.
As human beings, we’re all born with multifaceted potential and multiple talents. In other words, we’re all inherently polymaths. How do we know this? Because polymaths have existed throughout human history.
Let’s return to the very earliest human societies. Back then, we needed to be practical generalists – we needed to acquire a wide range of knowledge and skills in order to survive and adapt to hostile environments. In those early societies, it would have been necessary to develop many abilities in order not to die of disease, or starvation, or – worse yet – to be eaten by a hungry bear or wild cat.
Living in such a hostile environment, we might have developed the knowledge to heal, as well as the skills to hunt for food and the skills to build safe and durable shelter. All of these abilities would have been crucial for our survival. The instinctive, polymathic capacity that helped us survive the threats and challenges of our early lives in the wild continues to live on in us.
It’s reflected in the fact that as children, we act and play as polymaths. After all, we’re born with a boundless curiosity about the world, and a desire to explore and grasp it in multiple ways.
This urge we have as children to indulge in various activities – to play physically, to draw, to sing, to make up stories – points to our inherent human capacity for polymathy, and to our innate human need to express ourselves across multiple spheres. As such, those of us who pursue polymathic interests satisfy that essential human potential that evolution has endowed us with.
In this regard, one role model is Nathan Myhrvold, former chief technology officer of the tech giant Microsoft.
That’s because Myhrvold isn’t just a techie. He’s also a wildlife photographer and a professional chef, as well as an inventor who has secured multiple patents. In fact, Myhrvold’s talents are so numerous that the media organization the TED Conference described him as a “professional jack of all trades.”
Myrhvold himself affirmed how important it was for him to embrace his polymathic capacities. In a 2007 TED talk, he described how his pursuit of varied interests allowed him to live out his full potential.
We should follow in Myrhvold’s footsteps by pursuing our polymathic interests. Why? It’s really good for us. What’s more, it’s good for those around us.
Do you want to make a difference in the world? Then a turn to polymathy might be a good idea. The capacity to think polymathically is essential to tackling many of today’s major challenges.
Take climate change. Saving the planet depends on being able to synthesize advances in science and technology with political policy and smart economics that benefits people’s livelihoods. In other words, the climate crisis requires interconnected thinking.
Indeed, if you look back in history, you’ll find that those who’ve made the biggest contributions to society were often polymaths. This is demonstrated by one wide-ranging study of the world’s most influential scientists, which concluded that 15 of the 20 most important scientists were polymaths.
Among the most remarkable of such figures was Shen Kuo, a scientist of the Chinese Song Dynasty.
He made major contributions in the fields of mathematics, optics, geology, astronomy and anatomy. One of Kuo’s important discoveries was that a compass doesn’t point exactly north, but to the magnetic north pole. Kuo wasn’t just a scientific polymath. He was also a statesman, an accomplished poet, a painter and a musician.
Yet another polymathic prodigy was Winston Churchill, prime minister of the United Kingdom during World War II.
Churchill is most famous for the crucial role he played in helping to defeat fascism and Hitler. But did you know that he also won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 for his accomplishments as a writer? As philosopher Roger Scruton notes, Churchill’s many talents were integral to his achievements. Scruton credits Churchill’s political genius – and his ability to recognize the dangers that the rise of Hitler posed, when others couldn’t – to his polymathic mind.
What about business? In that realm, too, polymathy plays an important role.
Consider Steve Jobs, founder of Apple. As a leader, Jobs was known for his polymathic grasp of all fields related to his business, from visual design to IT engineering to marketing and finance. It was Jobs’ ability to synthesize his knowledge of these fields into a whole that enabled him to build a revolutionary business that transformed people’s engagement with technology.
Given that the greatest challenges require thinking across multiple fields, it’s no wonder that those who’ve made the biggest contributions were often polymaths. So it begs one to ask why does society pressure you to specialize?
Are you bored by your work? Does your job leave you longing for change, excitement and adventure? Well, you’re not alone. A lot of us suffer from the monotony of our occupations.
For one thing, many of today’s specialized white-collar jobs lack variety in a fundamental way – they don’t even allow us to move. This sedentary, “desk-job culture” which is common in today’s working world inhibits our physical well-being.
This is demonstrated by the fact that in 2018 alone, over 30 million workdays were lost in the United Kingdom to back, neck and muscle problems stemming primarily from sedentary lifestyles. Why do the long sitting hours required by white-collar jobs take such a toll? Because our bodies are designed to move, not to stay put!
This lack of variety in today’s working world not only affects our physical health, it also affects our mental health.
Hard evidence suggests that many of us are unhappy and disillusioned in our jobs. A 2010 UK survey is telling in this regard. It revealed that only 20 percent of employees were content with their work. That means that a whopping 80 percent were dissatisfied with the employment they held.
Similarly, a 2008 UK survey revealed that over 50 percent of employees were under stimulated or disengaged by the work they did.
Yet another survey, which looked at workers in 18 different countries spanning Europe to South America, found that over half felt that their work wasn’t challenging enough, indicating widespread feelings of frustration.
As these surveys suggest, at the bottom of our unhappiness and disillusionment is an unfulfilled desire for variety, change and challenge in our employment.
How common is this desire to escape our monotonous work? A study carried out by The School of Life, an educational organization established by author Alain de Botton, indicates that it’s indeed quite common.
This study found that 60 percent of workers would follow a different career path if they could begin again from scratch. The same study also found that 20 percent of employees believe that they’ve never held a role to which they were well-suited.
As such, for many of us, today’s working culture clearly isn’t working. Long desk hours as well as lack of variety and challenge in our employment leave us physically and mentally drained. Not only that, but specialization ultimately limits, rather than expands, our career horizons.
You’d better watch out; robots are coming for your jobs! So what can you do? Well, you can start by taking a lesson from evolutionary biology.
In his book The Naked Ape, zoologist and sociobiologist Desmond Morris compares animals that have a limited variety of diet and habitation to those that have much wider ranges.
In this comparative study, Morris found that the koala – an animal whose diet is largely limited to eucalyptus leaves and which can only live in the environment of Eastern Australia – is becoming endangered.
The racoon, on the other hand, has a varied diet that includes anything from berries, to eggs, to small animals. It can survive in the fairly extreme climates of most of North and Central America.
Which animal do you think is faring better? You guessed it. The racoon, a “generalist” animal, has population numbers that are robust, while the koala, a “specialist” animal, is having difficulty surviving.
What goes for animals also goes for humans. People who have a wider range of skills and talents – polymaths – are better equipped to survive today’s volatile working world.
This is especially the case given that the “‘job for life’” model that was the bedrock of traditional working culture is disappearing. This is demonstrated by the fact that jobs that used to be secure – such as university teaching – are now on shaky ground.
It’s for this reason that the historian and best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari argues in his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century that adaptability – the ability to cultivate a range of skills – will be essential for workers in the future, who will find it necessary to switch frequently between careers and jobs.
These uncertain economic times are further compounded by the rise of artificial intelligence.
How radically will artificial intelligence change the working world? It’s estimated that up to 47 percent of American jobs will become automated in the coming decades. Most of those jobs at risk for automation involve specialized tasks, such as machine operation, data collecting and processing.
In the face of automation, it’s the jobs that involve broader, more interconnected thinking that will continue to be the preserve of humans. Therefore, people whose occupations are difficult to define, and whose work encompasses polymathic skills, are more likely to survive the age of AI.
Time to brush up on those polymathic skills, don’t you think?
Check out my related post: How to find out what you are good at?