Becoming A Polymath With Skill Layering
Tl;Dr — Becoming a “monopoly of one,” recharging your mind like a car battery, and why side projects will excel your career.
“Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold, this is what they understood.” — Terence McKenna
We’re living in a time period where it’s never been easier to become a polymath.
But in practicality, there are many cultural and social hurdles to this achievement. The idea of becoming an expert at many things seems daunting to many people, so they never begin. As time elapses, it’s easy to fall prey to many fallacies that prevent us from ever exploring our own ambitions. This is foolish because the earliest time we have to begin anything is in the present moment. Personally, I believe that there is always a hidden path waiting for us to begin, no matter what age or life circumstance we’re at. This hidden path always stands ready and waiting, and it’s our own failure of imagination that prevents us from starting on our own unique path of perfection.
So why is it so difficult to become a polymath or monopoly of one today?
The secret that all polymaths know is that it becomes easier to learn when we increase our workload. When we have many things going at once, we can cycle through projects appropriately. In order to tap into the full power of our brains, it helps to have the right amount of projects (sometimes dozens) going at once. We can start slowly, but by moving in and out of overwhelm, we’ll be able to increase our mental capacities to handle it all.
There have never been more low-cost learning resources available to speed up our learning. For those who have the faith, willpower, and patience to teach themselves, the time to learn how to learn is now. The standout men and women of history have all been self-taught, skill layering, life-long learners. Consider Leonardo DaVinci, Lucius Seneca, Ben Franklin, Mother Teresa, and Elon Musk. Many of these people started far behind where we are in terms of resources, familial love, and technology that we now have access to.
Each of these monopolies of one suffered through adversities and were able to prosper without all the advantages we have in front of us today. They managed to become self-taught masters of many skills. No matter what circumstances we find ourselves in right now, others have triumphed over worse.
But how did these guys and gals do it? The simple answer, most ignore (even after hundreds of years of it being repeated!), is that they learned how to learn through doing and taking massive action. They read, they wrote, they experimented, and they sought to be around others who were doing the same. They came up with ideas and then figured out how to begin pursuing them with the limited resources they (initially) possessed. They started small projects, they tinkered on and allowed their creativity to guide them from one project to the next. They didn’t look for their passions; they looked where it was easiest for them to invest huge amounts of effort and willpower.
One of my favorite cartoon strips of all time is Calvin and Hobbes. The creator of the cartoon strip, Bill Watterson, rarely gave interviews. During one of those rare interviews, he was asked about creativity, productivity, and recharging. Watterson said,
“Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery — it recharges by running.”
This phrase can feel overwhelming until we stumble over the power of it for ourselves. When we find work or a pursuit that is making the world a better place, serving others, or spreading meaning… ten-hour days of work can feel short! Or, if we don’t have that luxury right now, we can explore recharging by coming home from our job and immediately switching over to a creative pursuit. The body and mind will revolt at first, but if we keep going, we’ll soon find a blissful, mission-driven state of rejuvenation.
One of the last hurdles to beginning to learn is that some people think we have to become world-class at something before it gets interesting. They severely overestimate how long it takes to become skilled enough before new skills will provide us with meaning.
This hurdle is unfortunate because there are many things we can become “expert enough” at within only a few months. Expert enough means that we learn enough that we can begin to create valuable work that makes us feel mission-driven.
The process of skill acquisition on the road to mastery has been discussed extensively by several authors and researchers. These notable authors include Malcolm Gladwell, Tim Ferriss, and Robert Greene.
Gladwell says it takes around 10 years to become world-class. Greene takes a more strategic, Machiavellian-meets-Aristotelian view and says 10–20 years. But Ferriss comes in with the exciting reality that if we use the right stakes and incentives, we can become expert enough in a few months.
- Mastery: top .01% of a field — takes 20 years
- Budding Master: top 1% of a field — takes 10 years (outliers)
- World Class: top 3% in a field — takes 5 years
- Expert: top 5% in a field — takes 1–3 years
- Expert Enough: top 10% in a field — takes 3 months to 1 year
More authors and researchers are beginning to emerge showcasing that “expert enough” can be accessible after only a few months of highly concentrated effort, stakes, and incentives.
We’re also prone to underestimating the small victories that we’ll unlock along the way towards “expert enough.” Those small victories will compound. Compounding is, as Ben Franklin said, the eighth wonder of the world. Humans have a hard time imagining the sheer joy and meaning of their skills compounding, so they never begin.
At the expert enough level, there are plenty of ways for us to be compensated for our newfound skill or service. Also, consider how we can make the math part of the mastery equation work in our favor. To become the top .01% in a given field, it may take 20 years. But we can become the top .01% in a brand new field we create that combines several skills together. This is why becoming a monopoly of one doesn’t take nearly as long as traditional mastery in old, tired fields. Our mission lies in boldly exploring new combinations of skills for greater service.
To become a monopoly of one and create a fulfilling and opportunity-packed life, we only need to concentrate on becoming expert enough at that first high-demand skill, break it down to a pursuit that only takes a few months, and then layer it with the next high-demand skill. The person who takes the 20-year path to become an expert in a field will likely be eating ramen noodles as a teaching assistant while the person who layers her skills is busy reimagining a brighter future for us all.
This was a shorter version of a longer article by Mission CEO Chad Grills. For the full version and for more actionable steps, go here.
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