We need more polymaths

“The incessant concentration of thought upon one subject, however interesting, tethers a man’s mind in a narrow field.”

— Sir William Osler (The Father of Modern Medicine)

Ever since Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, the world has become more and more specialized. This was for a very good reason. As outlined in The Wealth of Nations, specialization makes economic sense. A group of ten people each making an entire pin by themselves are no match for another group of ten people each specializing in making just one portion of that pin. The economy as a whole becomes more efficient and wealthier when people (businesses and countries too) stick with what they are good at.

These market effects make daily life for everyone better as well. You do not have to worry about growing your own food, building your own home, or making your own clothes because others specialize in doing that for you. Leaving you free time to specialize in something else so the baker, carpenter, and fashion designer have more time to dedicate to their craft. Not only does this make things more efficient, but by doing so it also lowers the cost of everything. This is why hand-crafted furniture from a local woodshop is much more expensive than buying furniture from Ikea.

Ok, enough of the economics lecture, if specialization is so great for society then why is the title of this essay We Need More Polymaths? What’s good for society is not necessarily good for the individual! It may be the case that society works well when lots of people are specializing but this essay is not about maximizing society’s well-being, it is about increasing your well-being. But it is also true that society can benefit by having more individuals take a multi-disciplined approach as detailed below.

Today’s workforce are needing to change jobs/careers at an increasing rate. It used to be that if you got a job at an established firm, assuming you showed up and worked, you held that job for the rest of your life. Times have changed. Everyone needs to adapt to the changing work landscape faster and faster.

The innovation word gets thrown around a lot now but do we know what it takes to innovate and be creative? It takes the ability to combine ideas in new ways. If you only understand one world, it’s going to be really hard to combine ideas from different disciplines.

That’s why innovators like Steve Jobs, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Ben Franklin were so successful. They did not learn just one discipline and stick to it. They learned across a range of subjects and were able to create new things no one else saw. By taking the multi-disciplined approach, you will see things that others will not be able to see, further separating yourself from your peers.

There is also a growing concern in society that the ‘machines’ are taking jobs away from humans. To a certain degree this is true. If your job can be broken down into a set of repeatable instructions then you should be worried, because if a piece of software is not already doing your job, it will be soon. But the best defense to future-proofing yourself is to be able to do what machines are not good at. One of those things is thinking creatively. And like mentioned above, the way to think creatively is to be able to combine old ideas in new ways (hint: across disciplines).

Unfortunately, our education system is doing a poor job to encourage this kind of thinking. Classrooms and subjects in schools are silos with teachers never talking about the connections between them. They should be encouraging cross studying. It would make education both improved and more interesting. But since the education system is not helping us think this way, we have to do it on our own.

Today’s world is very different from the world in which Adam Smith created his theory. We need to move past what got us here and start thinking about how we can move forward. And I think a good way to do this is to encourage the multi-disciplined mind and not the singular one.


For more information about this, read/watch Charlie Munger’s talk A Lesson on Elementary, Worldly Wisdom.

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