The most comprehensive case that has ever been made for why nearly everyone should become a polymath in a modern knowledge economy.
“Jack of all trades, master of none.”
The warning against being a generalist has persisted for hundreds of years in dozens of languages. “Equipped with knives all over, yet none is sharp,” warn people in China. In Estonia, it goes, “Nine trades, the tenth one — hunger.”
Yet, many of the most impactful individuals , both contemporary and historical, have been generalists: Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Richard Feynman, Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Marie Curie to name just a few.
What’s going on here?
If being a generalist was the path to mediocrity, why did the most comprehensive study of the most significant scientists in all of history uncover that 15 of the 20 were polymaths? Newton. Galileo. Aristotle. Kepler. Descartes. Huygens. Laplace. Faraday. Pasteur. Ptolemy. Hooke. Leibniz. Euler. Darwin. Maxwell — all polymaths.
If being a generalist was so ineffective, why are the founders of the five largest companies in the world — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Larry Page, and Jeff Bezos — all polymaths (who also follow the 5-hour rule)? Are these legends just genius anomalies? Or are they people we could and should imitate in order to be successful in a modern knowledge economy?
If being a generalist is an ineffective career path, why do 10+ academic studies find a correlation between the number of interests/competencies someone develops and their creative impact?
The Era of the Modern Polymath
“The future belongs to the integrators.” — Educator Ernest Boyer
I define a modern polymath is someone who becomes competent in at least three diverse domains and integrates them into a top 1-percent skill set.
In another words, they bring the best of what humanity has discovered from across fields to help them be more effective in their core field. Hence the T-shape below. Specialists, on the other hand, just focus on knowledge from their own field
Since Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, popularized the concept, many now believe that to become world-class in a skill, they must complete 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in order to beat the competition, going as deep as possible into one field. Modern polymaths go against the grain of this popular advice, building atypical combinations of skills and knowledge across fields and then integrating them to create breakthrough ideas and even brand new fields and industries where there is little competition.
For example, people have studied biology and sociology for hundreds of years. But no one had ever studied them together and synthesized them into a new discipline until researcher EO Wilson pioneered the field of sociobiology in the 1970s. We also have modern tech heroes like Steve Jobs (who I write about here) who famously combined design with hardware and software.