Are You A Polymath? Why it matters

Photo by Peshkova/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Peshkova/iStock / Getty Images

We all know that the days of working in one company until we retire are gone but do we each understand the risks we take by working in only one field our entire careers? As we watch companies, products, services and professions emerge which weren’t even a glimmer of a thought 15 years ago, how do we prepare to continue to be relevant 15 years from now?

Embodying the basic tenet that humans are limitless in our capacity for development, this notion first became mainstream during the Renaissance when a Renaissance man was labeled thusly because he was well rounded. Studying biology and reading poetry, understanding engineering and art, learning to draw and studying Aristotle. Leonardo de Vinci is the poster child for the concept that one with an insatiable curiosity and pursuit of sport will make an indelible mark on humanity.

We now have centuries of research that people with ‘too many interests’ are more likely to be successful. If you don't know what you want to be when you get older, you're in good company.  We live and work in a knowledge economy now and as with so many other disruptions, this requires us to give our career paths some more thought. In the words of Ferris Bueller, "Life moves pretty fast"

Albert Einstein wrote, “The greatest scientists are artists as well” long after Leonardo de Vinci said that “To develop a complete mind: Study the science of art; Study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”

Maybe you are well-rounded. Maybe you can talk to anyone at a party, unless the anyone is not intellectually curious; but what happens if you are not a polymath professionally?

A dear friend called me a few weeks to ask for my opinion about a fantastic job offer. She also happens to be a single mom of a smart son so the consideration points for her choices look different than mine; but she knows that and we’ve talked about these things for years as colleagues and now friends. On paper, this new role checks all of the boxes for her. She is leaving a VP role, the compensation is fantastic and most importantly to her, she will no longer have International travel and will have flexibility in the hours she is in the office. As her friend, it’s my job to point her mind to some things she is not considering and the first one I shared was, “Are you comfortable with this being your 12th year in this field, your third company in this field? At your age, are you boxing yourself in?”

We talked about this honestly. She knows I am less risk averse than she but I also don’t have a child to rear by myself. This was not her plan for her life, but she manages the unexpected better than anyone I know.

You may already be a polymath if you find yourself voraciously reading different genres, if your podcast library looks as if three different people are using your phone, if you have all non-fiction on your Audible account but fiction in your handbag/ on your e-Reader (or the reverse), if you have switched fields, you might be a polymath. Maybe you were in Sales, now you are in Marketing. You were in Marketing, you are now in Consulting. You were once not a client facing employee but now you are.

Leonardo de Vinci lamented that everything had already been invented. He was wrong. We of course, know that some of the biggest advances for humankind and the planet are still ahead of us. We are grateful to Polymaths like Marie Curie, Aristotle, de Vinci, and Steve Jobs and we need more. 

It’s perfectly okay to be a specialist and in fact, if your career is not one spanning decades, it may be wise to be a specialist, as it allows you to write your own ticket.  We would die without specialists in the medical field, often report to them in our careers and we give them accolades as they age, retire and we express gratitude for their service. If they are the best in their fields, we are all better because of them.  Being fantastic at something will get you far in your career and life, especially if you are in the top 25% of your field. 

What we should all be mindful of, is that the human brain is limitless in its capacity to learn and every single one of us can be a lot more intellectually curious and well-rounded. You only get this one wild and precious life, to quote the poet Mary Oliver. Do everything you can with it and when it kicks your plans to the curb and you find yourself in need of Plan B, you’ll already have one. 

As for my friend?  She starts her new gig soon and she was able to negotiate every thing she wanted because she is so good at what she does, because she is a specialist. Her last words? “I can do this for six years until he’s more independent and then I’ll be ready for a new challenge”

Being intellectually curious with a bipolar bookcase and a desire to push boundaries in every corner of our lives, ensures we will be ready for a new challenge.

Dorothy JohnsonComment