Carl Djerassi is a polymath. Strictly speaking that means he is someone who knows a lot about a lot. But Djerassi also passes a sterner test: he can do a lot, too. As a chemist (synthesising cortisone and helping invent the Pill); an art collector (he assembled one of the world’s largest collections of works by Paul Klee); and an author (19 books and plays), he has accomplished more than enough for one lifetime.
-moreintelligentlife.com, Last of the Polymaths by Edward Carr
One of the most interesting things I’ve been studying has been the idea the Polymath. A Polymath is an individual who and explores multiple realms of fields in great detail. Think of a polymath as the man who can code a computer program on Monday, write the next Great American Novel on Tuesday, then fix your car and improve it’s transmission on Wednesday. They just do a lot, and do all of it very well.
Polymaths are an unusual brand of people, but their nature has a familiar tone. We’ve all likely met people who are like this to one extent or another. Then there are those who strive to be Polymathic, and be good at a number of different things. I know that I am one who has polymathic tendencies. My tendencies are mainly focused on reading and writing, but I’ve found that I’m fairly good at certain arts, that I can converse with people over topics of political and social matters, and still fix a computer with little hassle. I don’t think I would say I am a full Polymath yet, but I do feel pretty close.
It is this similarity to my own behavior that has caused me to have a strong interest in this. So, I went to the origins of Polymaths to start understanding them.
A Polymathic History
As I dug through a history of Polymathic men, I found that these men were all considered “Renaissance Men”. The term of “Renaissance Man” was invented during the Renaissance, and was applied classically to men like Leonardo Da Vinci and Galileo Galilei. We heard stories of these amazing men who could do or make anything. They loved multiple subjects, and created dozens of technological and artistic artifacts.
But Renaissance Men didn’t just exist in their respective period. Historians have noted that many characters have Polymathic traits throughout history, including men like Aristotle, Imhotep, and Roger Bacon. Modern-day examples of this Polymathic lifestyle include renowned author Isaac Asimov and Apple CEO Steve Jobs. And people continue to copy these patterns. But is this people group growing in number, or shrinking?
Losing the Polymathic Mindset
Edward Carr wrote on this topic in huge amounts, and noted that this group of people are slowly shrinking because of social pressures:
For a polymath, the charge of dabbling never lies far below the surface. “With the amount of information that’s around, if you really want to understand your topic thoroughly then, yes, you have to specialise,” says Chris Leek, the chairman of British Mensa, a club for people who score well on IQ tests. “And if you want to speak with authority, then it’s important to be seen to specialise.”
That is why modern institutions tend to exclude polymaths, he says. “It’s very hard to show yourself as a polymath in the current academic climate. If you’ve got someone interested in going across departments, spending part of the time in physics and part of the time elsewhere, their colleagues are going to kick them out. They’re not contributing fully to any single department. OK, every so often you’re going to get a huge benefit, but from day to day, where the universities are making appointments, they want the focus in one field.”
So, is this okay? Should men be focusing on one topic only, or should they be extending themselves into the various arenas of life? While certain institutions do frown on these groups, their actions do not condone the idea that Polymaths are not helpful.
A man who enjoys and is an expert on many things is a man who you can rely on for much. He is one who can serve a community well, and leave an impact. But the culture seems to be causing this people group to slowly diminish. So, how can we encourage the world to value the Polymathic mindset? The easiest way is to encourage these trends within ourselves.
It is for this reason that Liter8 Ideas exists. I recommend that you explore and consider the many articles here to start your Polymathic journey. It will be worth your time.