Polymaths Aren’t Generalists

Sean Norton
May 7, 2018 · 6 min read
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Polymath has become a big buzzword lately. Everyone wants to be one — it’s the apparent key to success: whether it’s making it in our tough labor market, or protecting yourself from being replaced by artificial intelligence. But I don’t think many people really know what the word means.

Polymath literally means someone with a diverse set of skills or knowledge — but it actually connotes someone with encyclopedic knowledge who is also highly gifted in its application. Leonardo Da Vinci was a polymath; Stephen Hawking — although certainly a genius — was not.

As far as I can tell, the misuse has little to do with poor vocabulary and more to do with a collective rebranding. A large part of this rebranding is a reaction to the growth of specialization over the past century. Polymath has lately become a designation — a euphemism if you will — for someone who never really specialized in anything; if you subscribe to the specialist-generalist worldview, a polymath is nothing more than a dressed-up generalist.

All of this has been coming on since at least the 1950s, when two closely-related trends started growing: an increase towards deeper specialization in both academia and the workplace; and, in Western countries at least, an increase in the number of specialists, or people trained as specialists. The reason behind these trends is that our hypercompetitive economies drive individual specialization as a means to get ahead in the labor market. This means that individuals have to become highly specialized just to be barely competitive.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask the Harvard Business Review.

Much of the prosperity our world now enjoys comes from the productivity gains of dividing work into ever smaller tasks performed by ever more specialized workers. Today, thanks to the rise of knowledge work and communications technology, this subdivision of labor has advanced to a point where the next difference in degree will constitute a difference in kind. We are entering an era of hyperspecialization…

Oddly enough, however, a good way to hedge the competition is to diversify. So where does polymathy come into all of this? In a way, it’s also a form of specialization — being able to combine a disparate series of skills into a unique service is a specialty. More importantly, being able to combine skills, while also being a genius, is an even more highly sought-after specialty. Most folks never accomplish the latter; that’s why most modern ‘polymaths,’ well, aren’t polymaths.

In other words: polymaths are valuable because they’re unique. They specialize in a combining their knowledge into inimitable solutions, which ultimately makes them invaluable. At least in theory. In reality, even lacking the critical element of individual genius, most “polymaths” don’t have enough knowledge in any single field to be particularly competitive. Despite this, anyone who wants to achieve real polymathy has to become a specialist first. Because all polymaths are just specialists who took their specialties into other areas (or, conversely, brought other areas into their specialty).

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Specialization Isn’t Going Away Anytime Soon

There’s a reason why terms — like “polymath,” “renaissance man,” and “polyhistor” — are identified with figures from earlier epochs. Specialization required far less time in the past; especially in the wake of the middle ages when rigid scholasticism ruled academia. Yet these figures still took time to master the (relatively) limited amount of material in their particular fields.

During these earlier eras: science, philosophy, and the humanities were not incredibly extensive fields. (The “Scientific Revolution” is usually cited as beginning in 1543 with Copernicus; Da Vinci died in 1519. Relatively — there wasn’t much to delve into regarding science.) In contrast, today’s knowledge has become so esoteric that even geniuses have to spend decades before even becoming proficient in their fields. And still yet, even in light of this, Da Vinci didn’t just pick up a brush and become a painter.

Da Vinci spent years honing his craft in the guild before becoming a master. As a young child, the village priest of Vinci supposedly taught him the rudiments of the art form. Then, at age fourteen (14), Da Vinci was apprenticed to Master Andrea del Verrochio — himself a painter, sculptor, and goldsmith — where he remained for approximately a decade while learning to paint alongside other guild craftsmen and apprentices. Even during the early Renaissance, being a polymath required years of specialization. It requires even more time now.

For example, while a bachelor’s in physics might make someone more well-rounded, most people couldn’t use it alone to contribute to another (highly distinct) field, e.g., Consciousness Studies. At least not without specializing in one or the other for a significant period of time. (And even if they could, they were probably enough of a genius to make those contributions even before becoming a specialist.) In any case, it’s almost required to specialize before being able to usefully apply certain forms of knowledge — because other fields are, themselves, very specialized.

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Generalization and Specialization Aren’t Opposites

All of this operates on the belief that being a generalist doesn’t require specialization — but it most certainly does. It just doesn’t require continued specialization beyond a certain point. If someone wants to be a generalist, at some point they’ll have to sit down and learn something — that is, they will have to specialize in something until they grasp enough to apply it in general.

But the same applies in the reverse: specialization requires generalization. For instance, no one can learn physics if they don’t also have knowledge of mathematics; nor can anyone obtain a doctorate-level understanding of economics before they have the ability to read.

If you want to be a generalist — and not just a Jeopardy contestant — then you must specialize in a certain field until you’ve grasped enough of it to make use of it. If you want to be a polymath — you’re going to have to specialize in a field long enough to be able to make constructive contributions in the face of people who have already spent years professionally studying their field. You must become a specialist.

Along the way you’ll have plenty of time to pick up a wide variety of complementary knowledge, and after becoming an expert, you’ll be able to seek new fields that correlate with your own in unexpected ways. But the first step starts with mastering just one area.

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Get updates on future articles and projects: follow me on Twitter. If you disagree with my politics or my posts, even better. I don’t bite; engage me! Tell me what I got wrong.

(And as a final aside — the non-existence of a specialization-generalization dichotomy is what is so damn scary about artificial intelligence. It may be more difficult to have machine learning accomplish both of these things at the same — especially now — but it is entirely feasible that machines can specialize in hundreds of fields at the same time and combine them to solve problems: making them polymaths in the original sense. Keeping humanity relevant in the age of AI is going to take much more than mere generalization.)

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