4 Essential Lessons From the Polymaths

In The Medici Effect (here is my review), there’s a term I’m interested in: the Intersection. It’s a place where ideas and experiences from different fields meet and form new ideas. It’s a fascinating place to be because excitement from different fields come together at one place. Even more, you can get a lot of fresh ideas that make your and other people’s lives better.

Living in the Intersection has always been a dream of mine. The question, of course, is how. One good way to answer it is by learning from those who are already there. Specifically, there is a certain kind of people with Intersection experience I want to discuss here. They are the polymaths.

Polymaths are people who are extraordinarily intelligent in multiple fields. They live and thrive in the Intersection. Perhaps the most famous one is Leonardo da Vinci but there are still many others. Two examples of modern polymaths are Nathan Myhrvold and Jared Diamond.

I’m not saying that we should be polymaths but I believe we can learn from them about how to live in the Intersection. Here are several lessons I learn:

1. Be curious

Curiosity is perhaps the most obvious characteristic of a polymath. It’s their deep curiosity that fuels them to explore many different fields. They want to know about the world from different perspectives. They want to experience new adventures.

So build your curiosity. Don’t take things for granted. Keep an open mind and be on the lookout of interesting things.

2. Be enthusiastic

One thing I notice when watching polymaths speak is their level of energy and enthusiasm. Often their energy and enthusiasm are so contagious you can feel a fire ignited within you. They don’t do something because they have to. They do something because they love it.

So find things that make you excited. Find things you are passionate about and follow them.

3. Focus on one field before moving to a new one

I especially notice this with modern polymaths. Nathan Myhrvold got his doctoral degree in quantum physics and worked on cosmology. Later he moved to information technology until he became Microsoft’s Chief Technology Officer. Jared Diamond, whose book Guns, Germs and Steel requires deep understanding of multiple disciplines to write, has similar story:

After graduating from Cambridge, he returned to Harvard as a Junior Fellow until 1965, and, in 1968, became Professor of Physiology at UCLA Medical School. While in his twenties, he also developed a second, parallel, career in the ornithology of New Guinea, and has since undertaken numerous research projects in New Guinea and nearby islands. In his fifties, Diamond gradually developed a third career in environmental history, and become a Professor of Geography at UCLA, his current position.

A polymath is like a serial entrepreneur who focuses on one business and makes it successful before creating a new business. By doing it this way, he doesn’t spread his effort too thin. He has the focus necessary to gain deep understanding of the field.

So dig deep into a field before moving to a new one. This will later help you connect the different fields better.

4. Connect different fields

This a big advantage the polymaths have over many other people. While specialists usually just see from the perspective of their field, polymaths can connect one field with another. When they approach a field, they bring their knowledge and experiences in other fields with them. This enables them to see things with fresh eyes. They can see things that other people can’t.

You should do the same. When you are dealing with a field, bring your experiences and ideas in other fields with you and find connections. This is how you get fresh ideas.

Photo by OliBac

5 Comments

  1. Hey Donald.

    This is a cool message about how to build skills in an advantageous way. Going deep into one topic before switching to the next one brings about advantages that you can’t get by covering multiple topics lightly. Someone who masters high-end vocabulary, instead of learning some and moving on, will have years of time savings and comprehension improvement due to that advanced vocabulary. Other opportunities also show up when higher levels of language are regularly used.

    These folks who went deep into topics set good examples of what we can also work to do, if we take a topic to a solid level of understanding, and then connect it with something else we learned well.

    I read through Nathan Myhrvold’s Wikipedia page and it was cool to see his progression through what he did and is currently doing.

    Thanks for opening our minds.

  2. Armen,
    Thanks for the vocabulary example. I agree with your thoughts here.

  3. […] What’s a Polymath? I thought it might be something like a Sasquatch. Turns out, it’s someone who excels in many different fields. Leonardo Da Vinci was one–and he wasn’t a Bigfoot. And now Life Optimizer offers 4 lessons we can learn from Polymaths. […]

  4. […] good example is Nathan Myhrvold (whom I wrote about in my post about polymaths). Just watch his talk at TED and you will see that his interests range from cooking to photography […]

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