Have you ever heard someone say they want to be a polymath? Have you ever heard anyone ask, how do I become a polymath? I haven’t. The word comes from the Greek polymathes or having learned much. A polymath is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. When we think of polymaths we tend to think of dead scientists from another era like Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci. Rarely do we apply the moniker in modern times. We need more polymaths. We need a generation of youth who want to be polymaths when they grow up.
It’s easy to wrap our minds around the idea of a polymath in the context of ancient eras long gone. The entire body of knowledge on earth was accessible to an elite few. Those with an exceptional mind, privileged access, and the freedom to focus on interdisciplinary study, could become polymaths. In 384 – 322 BC Aristotle studied under Plato in ancient Greece. His writings spanned many subjects including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theatre, music, logic, rhetoric, politics, government, ethics, biology and zoology. In the late 15th and early 16th century Leonardo da Vinci was a prototype of the universal genius or Renaissance man. He was a painter, sculptor, engineer, astronomer, anatomist, biologist, geologist, physicist, architect, philosopher and humanist. Where have all the polymaths gone?
Polymaths need not apply in an industrial era defined by specialization. As the entire body of knowledge exploded beyond human capacity to absorb it, silos creating manageable chunks were inevitable. Each silo represents an opportunity to develop expertise and deludes us into thinking the brightest and hardest working among us can absorb all the available knowledge within it. The industrial era constrained knowledge access, limiting it to the privileged few. Barriers to entry proliferated along silo and socio-economic lines with exclusive professional credentials established in the name of protecting the public interest from charlatans without prerequisite experience and knowledge. In the industrial era, knowledge in the wrong hands was thought to be dangerous. Our current education and workforce development systems were designed for an era defined by specialization. It worked fine until it didn’t.
Three important inflection points have emerged calling to question an over reliance on specialization.
1) Knowledge is expanding at ever increasing rates. Knowledge flows are moving so fast that it’s ludicrous to think experts or groups of specialists can absorb all available knowledge in any silo. What we learned yesterday is less and less relevant. What we learn today and how prepared we are to learn tomorrow is far more important.
2) Knowledge is more accessible than ever in human history. Access isn’t limited to the elite few. We are on our way to democratizing the entire body of knowledge. Think about that. The entire logic of the industrial era is no longer operative. Any of us can access the knowledge we need without relying on specialists. Specialization has been disrupted by the web and broadband connectivity. Specialists command a body of knowledge that is becoming increasingly less relevant every day.
3) The gold is in between knowledge silos. The biggest opportunities to create value and to solve today’s challenges require us to recognize patterns across silos connecting ideas across disciplines and sectors. Solutions are increasingly interdisciplinary. The future is trans-disciplinary. Designing the future isn’t the domain of specialists it’s the domain of collaboration and about tapping into the adjacent possible across disciplines. Those with the best access to knowledge flows across silos get the gold.
If the new era is about collaboration and finding value in the gray areas between silos we need more polymaths. If the new era is about recognizing patterns and defining new disciplines we need more polymaths. If knowledge is changing faster than professional boundaries and job definitions can accommodate we need more polymaths. If we need more polymaths we will have to rethink everything we know about education and workforce development. We need a generation of youth that want to be polymaths when they grow up. Calling all Polymaths.
Saul Kaplan is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory (BIF). Saul shares innovation musings on his blog at It’s Saul Connected and on Twitter at @skap5.