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Polymath: The Search For Renaissance Men

I had the epiphany to turn this blog into a home for the Polymath: one who knows a broad range of things.

I had to ask myself a question: in what direction should I go towards?

Would it be about philosophy, its inner workings and how it empowers us as individuals? Or, would it be about money, and how it plays such a big part in our lives? 

But first, a definition!

Polymaths: The Renaissance Men

Polymath. Generalist. Multidisciplinary.

A Jack of All Trades, Master of None. Have you heard that phrase before?

A polymath, or expert-generalist, is someone who satisfies their undying curiosity by branching out to multiple fields. Every day is a different topic, every minute is a different thought and every second you could be learning something completely different.There are a few similarities with other words. Polyglotism is having an affinity to learn multiple languages. A Polygraph is an author who writes in multiple fields. Sounds amazing, right? I aspire to be all of them at once. That would be amazing.

Word Origin

Let’s get a little Greek, shall we? The following image illustrates the origins of a polymath (thanks Google!):

Taken from Wikipedia:

In Western Europe, the first work to use polymathy in its title (De Polymathia tractatio: integri operis de studiis veterum) was published in 1603 by Johann von Wower, a Hamburg philosopher.

So! We have a general idea of what a polymath is. Who are some famous ones, you (never) asked?

Leonardo Da Vinci, The Renaissance Man

The main man himself. LDV (or Leo, which is easier) has a ton of achievements under his belt, one of his most renowned being this lady right here:

The one and only.

Beyond one famous painting though, he has done a lot more.

According to this secondary school project (thanks guys!):

Da Vinci studied philosophy, natural history, anatomy, biology, medicine, optics, acoustics, science, mathematics, and hydraulics. He was an architect, musician, engineer, scientist, and inventor.

Damn, man. He sketched and contributed to multiple machines that we use today (the first parachute, first helicopter, first airplane, tank, rifle, swinging bridge, paddle boat, and motor car). He sculpts and designs costumes. He was a man of many minds.

An amazing figure to look up to.

Thomas Jefferson

Most Americans may know him as President, but in our case, he is much more than that. A linguistics expert (having mastered French, Greek, Italian, Latin, and German), the 3rd U.S. President (also Draftsman of the Declaration of Independence), a Lawyer and revamped the University of Virginia, setting the foundation for what it became today.

That’s a whole ton of achievements under one man’s belt. Very badass indeed.

I’d also like to point out that he also liked mathematics, just as Da Vinci did. Maybe there’s a pattern here? (Hard to tell, I was only good at statistics, and I’m not really confident in my maths since high school. Woops.)

I can get into more names: Descartes, Leibniz, etc. but it’s going to take a full book to talk about them all. Actually, that’s a very interesting idea, I’ll explore that soon…

Do we have powerful figures like the above these days?

Defining the modern polymath

In society today, how would a polymath fit in? Let’s explore this.

What is the likelihood that you will read about something outside of your specialty? As an example, it is unlikely that a rocket scientist would read about the study of Indo-European languages. It is also unlikely, that the chef of a 5-star restaurant would read about nuclear physics.

Think of a spectrum: On a scale of 0 to 1, to what extent does learning something different have an effect on you as an individual?

I call this the Polymathic Divergence Scale (PDS). It’s mine guys, I made it up.

This spectrum focuses more on the divergence of information: Rather than looking at what you’ve studied at university, or what books you have read according to your discipline, we are here to figure out our affinity to exploration.

Do you care about Chemistry? Poetry? Policy? Conversational Design? Organizational Psychology? None of them at all?

If you read about any of these things, and they have very little influence on your everyday life, you tend to not diverge from what you are specialized in, ie. You don’t like to go far off the path. Which is great, for a specialist: Someone who is interested in finance might read up about artificial intelligence and puppies, but they do not play any part in his day to day routine. Unless of course, you trade puppies as a commodity using AI, which doesn’t sound so nice.

As we get closer to 1, anything you learn or read about starts to have an effect on you: a writer may gain inspiration from reading about East Asian history, or a dancer would study film as gaining such knowledge may help create value for them in return. These have a greater influence on one’s career if they have greater polymathic tendencies.

This spectrum gives a brief overview of your willingness to explore. Pick a field, and see how much it interests you. As you start to read more about other things, you might not care about them that much: This puts those fields closer to 0. You might still read about them, but they’re not your specialty so you may not delve into it that much.

This doesn’t mean that we are all polymathic: we can read about anything we want. It is all about the application, and the tendency to mix and match all that we know: that is where our paths start to diverge. Specialists go in-depth about a field, while polymaths diversify their knowledge. This is purely because they want to, and what they believe is natural.

If you are a polymath, you wouldn’t mind reading more about different fields, even if at first glance they are so different. As you build up your knowledge and apply it in real life, their relevance to your day-to-day routine increases: anything above 0.5 and you may have a field that you are confident enough to have knowledge over. You may have multiple 0.5s. If you are an obsessive learner of them all, they all might be 1s.

How does it look like in society today?

Society loves zeroes now

There are huge advantages to specialists as opposed to expert-generalists.

In contemporary society, filled to the brim with specialist knowledge for free (given that you know where to find it), the demand for specialists had been growing exponentially. The world is becoming saturated with knowledge and the application of it, and compared to the romantic ages where an expert-generalist had ample opportunity to showcase their broad minds, specialists now thrive today.

As a modern polymath, the only proper advantage that we have is that we can connect the dots on a broad range of topics. We can transfer over different fields and adapt ourselves accordingly, hence wielding a broader range of tools to survive. We are capable of seeing the hidden pockets between different fields, and therein create innovative value from there.

Yes, polymaths are very useful: but in a realm of discovery, it’s becoming difficult to find a place for us. Where would we go when any field we dive into, there are a thousand experts waiting to kick us out?

There is one other advantage: the privilege of understanding. We can jump from field to field; by doing so, we become capable of understanding terms that experts may use, naturally immersing ourselves in that environment. Note, that we may never understand a topic fully as compared to a specialist: nothing beats experience, after all. 

With a basic understanding, however, we can help translate for others various complex theories and terms into the language of a layman. 

For example, a Professor on Natural Philosophy may have a hard time talking to the head of the CIA. But, if there was a polymath in between (a CIA agent with a philosophy background, perhaps) we can make for easier connection. Through connection, innovation can be achieved.

Using tools at our disposal (eg. Design Thinking), we can help make anyone relevant, and provide clarity for other interested parties. Understand, that ultimately the value is found within the specialist in the end. The polymath creates value through accessibility and connection.

That connection, is our home. But time is limited, and as Ones, our focus tends to shift.

Why are you so interested in polymaths?

I’ve always felt that I think like them. It’s hard to answer the question: “What do you do?” when you are involved in so many fields.

On one hand, I freelance in writing and marketing. On the other hand, I consult on cryptocurrencies and the like.

In my spare time, I do independent research in macroeconomic factors for international relations and philanthropy. When I’m bored, I play guitar, dance and write: I have a short stories podcast running. If I don’t understand something, I’ll switch to a different language.

As you can tell, they are quite different from each other. I am a One, through and through.

What are you? a Zero, or a One? Are you a specialist, or do you have polymathic tendencies?

Let me know. I’d love to see how people think.

N.T.C.

Footnotes

    • Burns, Peter, “What makes a Renaissance Man?”.

2 Comments

  1. I get what you are trying to say, but this article and the previous one about you quitting your job makes it sound like you have a bit too much pride and overconfidence in yourself. Confidence isn’t a bad thing, but I find it a bit off-putting in writing form, which is a shame as you do give quite a bit of insight into these topics.

    1. Hey there Monomath,
      Thank you for the comment, I did not intend to come off as one boasting/prideful of what they are doing, and it is the insights that give the most value to readers. Let me know which parts are off-putting for you, I can take the time to edit them as I go on!
      -N

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