The common dilemma while pursuing career paths is whether to be a master of one or jack of all. And most people choose either of the two, based on their interests and personality. But what if I told you that there’s a third route.
Be a polymath.
A polymath is an individual whose knowledge spans a substantial number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. Simply speaking, a polymath is someone who can hop from one field to the other, almost being an expert in each one of them.
Tasting many, getting in-depth in a few seemingly unrelated fields.
Leonardo da Vinci and Charles Darwin are great examples of polymaths who mastered different fields and brought ideas from one to the other in unimaginable ways from their unique perspectives.
Leonardo da Vinci is known for painting, science, engineering, and even anatomy whereas Charles Darwin worked on both evolution and geology.
Being a polymath allows you to be a beginner again and again, and look at new ideas with a fresh perspective. Not like an expert, who is limited to his own beliefs and notions the way they were taught but like a curious mind seeking answers to novel questions. The benefit is the flexibility it allows to adapt and the ability to cross-pollinate ideas between disparate fields.
From the ‘Information Age’, we are now moving towards a ‘Decision Age’ with ‘Creativity Age’ to follow next. Automation due to artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies is going to change the way we live and work. The mode of thinking and skills required would be ever-changing. This brings a unique opportunity for a polymath to shine uniquely and build a personal monopoly at the intersection of their interests.
It’s easy to find someone who has an interest in let's say music. It might be less common but still possible to find people who love music deeply along with math or science as Albert Einstein did. But it would be rare to find a person with a combination of music, science, and business. The people who have been passionate for each of them at one time or the other would carve out a beautiful niche for themselves. They would be running in their own race and competing against themselves. This is similar to the blue ocean strategy where the blue ocean in business refers to previously unknown market space. In blue oceans, demand is created rather than fought over. There is ample opportunity for growth that is both profitable and rapid.
Leveraging our unique set of talents in a world that had been previously defined by strict roles and specialties might be difficult. During the renaissance, the discovery of knowledge was almost one single field, even when you had mathematicians and scientists as separate professions, the line was still blurred. You could cross the boundaries easily which led to new ways of thinking.
Although there has been a push for interdisciplinary fields of study, the common belief has been to specialize in a field for life. And if somehow people switch, it seems like a not so optimum path. But time and again, polymaths have outperformed experts not because of their competence but through their fresh perspectives and creativity.
Our brain is like a muscle. The capacities it gains while learning a particular task can transfer to another task. It’s akin to asking a cricket player, to learn baseball, and so some adjusting might be needed but a lot of skills would still be transferable.
Understanding the power of polymaths is important since a lot of people would like to transition fields. Simply discarding their previous skills and knowledge to work for an unrelated field would seem silly.
But no education or learning is a waste.
I like the concept of T-shaped skills. The vertical bar on the letter T represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own. And you can have multiple vertical bars as well.
What I believe is that having multiple interests and having the ability to be good at a few of them, and integrating them to create a unique path for yourself that you are passionate about is one of the fulfilling work you can do.
Finding that intersection.
I really like how Austin Kleon puts it. Decide the process first, the verb, the things you would like to do, practice them and get reasonably good at it and then invent the destination, the noun, a unique role and career, path. If you like to write, code, and have an interest in biology let’s say, you can still create a pathway at the intersection.
In the end, to have a fulfilling life, it’s important to find and nurture your Ikigai. Ikigai entails actions of devoting oneself to pursuits one enjoys and is associated with feelings of accomplishment and fulfillment. That is achieved when you align your interests, abilities, and opportunities. And in the present age of abundant opportunities, you don’t have to stick to one path, you can meander or make a collage out of your unique skills and passion. It’s just you need to try different things and then hone down on a few, and so basically having lots of inputs and a strong filter.
I hope you find your niche, your intersection.