How to become a polymath?

Did you know that the word educate is derived from the Latin educare, which means “to draw out that which is within”?

In other words, if you want to become a polymath, you have to develop that which is “within” you – and that’s your unique individuality. Several of the wise sages of the past affirm this idea. The ancient Greek philosopher Hippias of Elis, for instance, advocated for auterkeia – the ability to be self-sufficient and independent.

More than 2000 years later, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American transcendentalist poet and polymath, similarly emphasized the value of individuality. In his essay “Self Reliance,” he stated that you should follow your unique inspirations and ideas. Why? Because only by shunning conformity and embracing individuality can you uncover your true self-worth.

Great polymathic minds are not only singular. They’re also curious. It’s curiosity that makes you uniquely human and therefore uniquely capable of polymathy.

That’s because curiosity is rooted in your biology. As evolutionary biologists confirm, humans are predisposed toward the search for knowledge. In fact, the desire for knowledge has the same roots as the desire for sex – both urges are driven by dopamine, the brain chemical that motivates you to seek gratification.

And who says curiosity killed the cat? Actually, some of the world’s greatest polymaths are distinguished by their boundless capacity for curiosity. Martin Kemp, a leading biographer of Renaissance mastermind Leonardo da Vinci, singles out Leonardo’s curiosity as a key aspect of his polymathic genius. Another polymathic genius, Albert Einstein, attributed his own great achievements to curiosity. As he put it, “‘I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.’”

Sure, curiosity is important for polymathic achievement. But so is intelligence. How can you improve your intelligence? Simple – by diversifying your interests and activities. That is, indulging in polymathy will likely have the loop effect of improving your IQ.

This is suggested by a recent study carried out at the University of Toronto. This study showed that IQ scores of children improved notably when they diversified their activities. In this case, the children added music to their routines by taking drum lessons. As the children’s improved IQs indicate, diverse skills can translate into greater intelligence.

So go ahead. Follow your inner path, indulge your curiosity and, while you’re at it, why not also take up drum lessons?

As the saying goes, change is the only constant. Our bodies, our relationships and our environments change. By its very nature, life is a process of transformation.

It’s by embracing rather than shunning change that we develop versatility, one of the fundamental features of a polymathic mindset. While change may seem hard to adjust to, our brains are in fact wired to adapt to new experiences.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman points out, for instance, that our neurons and their connections are dynamic. They’re constantly evolving, dying off or re-generating in response to new information and experiences. What’s more, exposing ourselves to new things refreshes our brain circuitry. It keeps our brains young even as we grow old.

Indulging our inherent capacity for change not only keeps our brains sharp, it also leads us to have more original insights and ideas. That’s because exposing ourselves to diverse experiences and pursuits allows us to develop another important polymathic quality – creativity.

Many experts note that original ideas involve a process of synthesis. In his book Ideas That Changed the World, author Felipe Fernández-Armesto argues that creative breakthroughs happen when ideas from different fields are synthesized into a single whole.

Psychologist Robert Root-Bernstein’s study of polymaths supports these observations about creativity. Root-Bernstein concludes that polymaths make original and groundbreaking contributions to their fields “because of, not in spite of, their broad interests.”

Indeed, if we want to think like polymaths, we need to recognize that divisions that separate different fields of knowledge are illusory.

This idea is exemplified in the work of Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci. Martin Kemp, an aforementioned expert on da Vinci, notes that the Renaissance master didn’t see divisions between his various subjects of study.

That is, when da Vinci explored the anatomy of the heart, he simultaneously thought about the movement of water. When he thought about the way that water moved, he was led to think about the way that hair curled. Beneath all of these varied inquiries was a unified interest in motion – motion of the heart, of water and of the hair.

Da Vinci’s unified approach was affirmed centuries later by Edwin Hubble, inventor of the device named after him, the Hubble telescope. Hubble stated that the division of knowledge into different fields is misleading, because reality itself is one single whole.

In other words, to see the full picture, we need to think holistically.

Is our modern educational system the best there is? Actually, there’s lots of room for improvement.

In this regard, it’s useful to look to indigenous cultures. Anthropologist Jared Diamond points out that these cultures can teach us a thing or two about how to educate children in a way that promotes polymathy.

Diamond observes that in Papua New Guinea’s traditional cultures, for example, children aren’t given formal instruction. They don’t attend classes. The knowledge they develop is acquired as part of their social life and “play” amongst adults and other children.

The open, unstructured education found in these cultures allows children to learn in a holistic, unified way directly applicable to their daily lives. According to Diamond, this approach better nurtures children’s innate curiosity, as well as their creative capacities.

Indeed, notable polymaths have affirmed the importance of a non-specialized, wide-ranging education for children. Santiago Ramón y Cajal, 1906 winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine/Physiology as well as a distinguished artist, observed that the more varied a child’s pursuits are, the more likely that her talents will be strengthened. That’s to say that polymathy consolidates, rather than weakens, a child’s innate abilities.

Cajal’s observations echo the educational ideas of polymaths who came before him. Friedrich Schiller – 18th century German poet, philosopher, and physician – advocated for broad and diverse education as opposed to specialized education. Only through broad-based learning, he argued, could students achieve their full creative and intellectual potential.

The benefits of holistic learning are further suggested in the original purpose of higher education. The word university is derived from the Latin universitas, which means “universal” or “whole.” This implies that higher education should bring together a range of fields and disciplines. As a matter of fact, during medieval times, European universities instituted the studia generalia – a polymathic general studies curriculum that encompassed different disciplines.

And yet today, in places like the United Kingdom, universities drive young people away from polymathy. Students are forced to choose a specialized field of study even before setting foot in a university. By neglecting their original purpose of providing a “universal” and “whole” education, many universities inhibit young people’s curiosity, creativity and capacity for broad-based thought.

Therefore, the lesson is crystal clear – if we want our children to flourish into polymaths, exposing them to more rather than less is the way to go.

Who says that you only grow when you’re a child? As an adult, you also grow and develop as your interests change with time.

Embracing varied interests in adulthood requires pursuing polymathy in your professional life. One way to do so is to actively seek out career changes. In this regard, why not follow in the footsteps of polymaths like Albert Schweitzer? A renowned theologian and philosopher, Schweitzer was also a celebrated organist. In addition, he took up the study of medicine in his thirties to become a physician in later life.

Likewise, Takeshi Kitano, one of Japan’s most acclaimed comedians, established himself as a filmmaker only in his forties. And one of India’s most famous poets – Rabindranath Tagore – turned to painting in his sixties.

Pursuing different careers sequentially is one way to indulge in polymathy. Another way to do so is to take up simultaneous careers. Otherwise known as the portfolio career, such an approach requires juggling a number of projects at the same time.

A portfolio career not only allows you to develop your polymathic interests, it can also lead to more financial security. Author Barrie Hopson, who co-wrote 10 Steps to Creating a Portfolio Career, notes that such careers can provide a safety net. This is suggested in a study he carried out, which found that those who pursued portfolio careers earned more within two years of following this path than those who remained in conventional, full-time employment at one institution or company.

If juggling multiple jobs isn’t to your taste, then consider pursuing a polymathic profession. Many jobs allow you to indulge and develop polymathic skills. Journalism is an example of one career that can accommodate a host of different interests. A journalist can go from focusing on the economy, to religion, to music and to many other fields during the course of one career.

Or how about turning to politics to indulge your polymathic skills? A politician can go from working in the health ministry, to the arts and culture ministry, to the ministry of economics. Similarly, entrepreneurship is another job that often encompasses many fields. The founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, developed a deep grasp of psychology, product design and finance in order to create a hugely successful social media business.

When it comes to polymathic careers, you can take your pick. Why restrict yourself when the sky’s the limit?

If you want to find fulfillment and achieve success, then forget everything you’ve been told about the virtues of specialization. The answer instead lies in polymathy, that is, embracing and honing the widest possible range of interests, activities and inspirations. Don’t be afraid to blaze your polymathic path. Take up pursuits that challenge you, educate yourself about topics that are beyond your field of knowledge and indulge your inner creative spirit.

So try this. Follow your interests.  Today, devote a small slice of time to learning about a subject that piques your interest but is completely unrelated to your regular work.

Curious about coding? Look up some tutorials on programming. Want to take up artistic work? Spend half an hour sketching. Not only will your brain benefit from the variety of activity, your happiness will, too.

Check out my related post: How to find out what you are good at?

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