The Polymath Mindset

The art of making something out of something else.


K-Hole, a trend forecasting group, introduced us to the idea of “Chaos Magic.” In their brightly colored, surrealist PDF entitled “A Report on Doubt” (downloadable for free!), the fashion-forward startup described the concept thusly:

The fundamental element of magic is the ability to manifest or sublimate things, whether they’re emotions, states of being, people, or the Statue of Liberty. Magic is the art of making things appear or disappear, out of nowhere or into the void.

One could indeed interpret the wild fusion of disparate ideas and methods into something emotionally or tangibly valuable as magic, but the craft itself is more science than art, more methodical than mystical. “Chaos Magic” is merely the chain of events that takes a preexisting set of conditions, materials and tools and utilizes them for maximum effect.

That is the essence of creativity. But even the word “creativity” retains a bit of a pejorative or charged meaning. It can be pigeonholed into this idea this starving artist or mad genius — a Kanye West, a Michael Kors, a street-side busker or caricature painter. If we are to limit the definition of “creative” to someone in a specialized field — music, art, literature, etc — we are to ignore the practical essence of creativity: problem solving.

A creative solution is one that’s grounded in what already exists, and centered on reaching an end goal — it’s merely doing something differently, artfully or unexpectedly. The solution is the ends, and the means to it is creative, but there’s a craft — a science — to taking things that were there and turning them into something else.

Enter Synthesis. Synthesis, by the quick-and-dirty Google definition:

combination or composition, in particular

Wow … bland. Let’s dig deeper.


There is no creativity without synthesis. The concept includes a wide swath of applications — the engineer who designed the Golden Gate Bridge, the architect behind the Sydney Opera House, the human who — as a dear friend of mine once put it — “put the rag on the end of a stick and called it a ‘mop’”. Synthesis is the art of adding value to a moment, a situation, a condition, a need or relationship. Synthesis is the chain of events that takes something to its next level. It’s art. It’s heart. It’s brilliance. It’s practicality. But it’s all science. It’s A+B=C and people wonder “wait but how,” as you explain to them that it was all there beforehand, it just wasn’t arranged in the way it needed to be before.

Many who are considered creative have honed and perfected their craft through rigorous practice, and ensuing mastery. It’s this specialization that produces transcendent work — and, ultimately, imbalanced lives. These are people to be respected, adored and treasured — but not admired. More admirable is the path of the polymath.

Benjamin Franklin. Leonardo Da Vinci. Donald Glover. Janelle Monae. They possess a wide-ranging knowledge of seemingly disparate skills. But, when you break down the gifts a polymath brings to the world, you begin to understand the common thread that unites and strengthens the bonds between their passions. These are masters of synthesis — the science of taking the things around them and, of them, making something more. No specialization — just an attention to detail, a sense of the moment and a fresh perspective on the task at hand.

Synthesis is, in itself, a largely synthetic skill set. Yes, some are born with it, but it can be carefully learned and coached to the willing vessel. It’s the ability to utilize the five senses to take stock of what’s around, the motivation to transcend and/or improve on it, the knowledge to know how, and the charm to get those around you to buy in.


Synthesis is the act of seizing the moment, using the tools provided, imparting your perspective, and turning it into something different and/or better than what’s already there. The art of, not necessarily making something out of nothing — nothing is made from nothing — but of making something out of something else. That art is also a science. It’s a transferable skill set — from cooking, to music, to photography, to engineering, to math, to friendship. It’s about making the most of what you have and turning it into something new. It’s more than a skill — it’s a mindset, a methodology.

Synthesis drives someone to be both a polyglot and a world-class chef. It drives Jay-Z and Dr. Dre to be business moguls and hip-hop stalwarts. It made David Bowie … David Bowie. It’s the north-star that propels us to a seemingly legendary set of skills that leave the masses breathless.

“Belief becomes a technology that creates change. It’s radical DIY that uses reality as the only necessary operating system.”

This is why the builders, the makers, the artists and the chemists can sometimes be the same person. This is why the writers, the singers, the photographers and the chefs can all reside within you. It’s synthesis. The science of being something more than what you are, giving more than what was asked, and doing more than what was expected. The catalyst for change, art, progress, meaning and joy is within you. It’s synthesized. It’s not created. And all that separates you from your legacy is how quickly and fully you see it in yourself.


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