Our culture idealises a narrowly-focused life. From childhood through school, university and your early career, you’re encouraged to find your One True Calling. You’re told to specialise in order to fulfil your potential. But what if you’re more stimulated by learning and living wide – not (just) deep?
Have you ever drifted through the seemingly endless platitudes of a social gathering, only to stumble upon a saviour: someone deeply engaging, with an awesome array of knowledge and interests?
This guy’s wide interests make him truly rounded, perhaps even multi-specialised. His polymath lifestyle makes him damn interesting, too. He can add value to any conversation, either through his familiarity with a particular area or his ability to draw parallels across subjects. He can connect with a wider range of people – he’s as good on a date as he is with his bosses and clients at work.
The polymath lifestyle v The cult of specialisation
Our society encourages a life of narrow focus organised around what, for many, is a bit of a fallacy: finding your true calling. We’re led to prize mastery in all that we do, and since we can’t excel at everything, best to just find something we’re good at and specialise. Most personalities dominating the media are hyper-specialists: athletes, scientists, finance moguls.
Those who instead live the polymath lifestyle are frequently misunderstood as a little flakey. Unfocused dilettantes, incapable of committing to one thing. Jacks of all trades, masters of none. Sure, it’s cool you’re into so many things, but really, you should just pick a couple and be really good at those. After all, aren’t we all meant to have our Thing?
But what if that’s not how you’re actually designed? What if you want to cultivate a huge variety of different interests, with equal drive? What if you just want to enjoy the freedom to know and experience as many things as possible?
The polymath lifestyle as a natural state
The good news is, you’re not alone. In fact, in our natural state, we tend to seek discovery and stimulation across a broad range of areas. Humans are natural polymaths. We’ve just been encouraged to shun this instinct.
As Walt Whitman, one of America’s Great poets, put it in Song Of Myself:
I am large, I contain multitudes.
Just remember how you were as a child. Curious about everything, always open to engaging with new ideas and experiences. Whole worlds out there, just waiting to be discovered and explored. You didn’t just have one or two interests, you were positively bursting with creative energy that you’d apply doing anything from dissecting worms, to reading about the Romans, to accidentally setting your cat’s tail on fire with makeshift Molotov cocktails.
This is who we are in our natural state. And it’s who we should aspire to be, in our everyday lives.
It’s not like this isn’t tried and tested.
The Renaissance Mind
Once upon a time, cultivating a broad range of pursuits was seen as the richest way to live, and the surest path to Great discoveries. During the Renaissance in particular, having a breadth of work, interests and knowledge was highly prized. Not coincidentally, so-called polymaths, with their multitude of pursuits, were at the forefront of one of our Greatest ages of cultural and scientific advancement. Broad knowledge was similarly prized in Ancient Greece, Rome and China, as well as in the European aristocracies.
Even today, in a time where Adam Smith’s model of efficiency via hyper-specialisation has shifted our focus from ideas to output, the envelope-shifters we most look up to are polymaths. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk spring to mind. As Stephen Johnson points out (without even meaning to discuss the polymath lifestyle) in Where Good Ideas Come From, ideas are a network. Today’s Great discoveries and innovations sprout from connected minds.
The one requirement of a polymath lifestyle
At this point, you may be thinking: Ok, but me? A polymath? Really?
Sure, it sounds ridiculous. After all, we associate the term with multi-specialist geniuses like Aristotle and Da Vinci. But their genius isn’t the point. As Einstein (another notable polymath) famously said:
Curiosity is all it takes to cultivate your inner polymath.
And it doesn’t just have potential to make some people more successful and fulfilled. It’s actually good for you, too.
Health benefits of a polymath lifestyle
There’s this neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. It mainly pops up in your basal lobe (specifically the cluster of neurons known as the nucleus basalis) and it controls new connections between your brain cells. Basically, it regulates how we make and retain new memories, including learning new stuffs.
When we’re learning something genuinely new (as opposed say, to just adding to prior knowledge on a favourite topic), our nucleus basalis is firing on all cylinders, with acetylcholine spraying all over the place like an over-excited 14 year old.
But if we stop stretching ourselves and fixate on our current interests and activities (even if we’re upgrading our expertise in those fields), our nucleus basalis dries up. We stop producing acetylcholine. In fact, we see low levels of acetylcholine in most cases of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. In its early stages, Alzheimer’s is actually treated by artificially raising acetylcholine levels.
If you’ve had the misfortune of seeing your dad slowly go loopy in a hospital bed, thinking he was in Mozambique being chased by lions, you probably know he’d have been better off picking up a clarinet or learning French.
Rediscover the polymath lifestyle
If you’re happy to be a specialist – that’s cool too. The world needs and admires your deep expertise. Keep doing what you love.
But if you’re inclined to rediscover the rich, rounded polymath lifestyle, here’s a few small steps to help get you started:
1. You can start by reading magazines and blogs that expand your knowledge rather than reinforcing existing areas of knowledge (hint) – get to grips with new fields;
2. Sign up to a course in something new. Whether it’s molecular cooking, breakdancing, Mandarin, coding or taiko drums, it will help add extra dimensions to your life experience.
3. Pick a new sport – a true polymath cultivates his physique. Leonardo was famously just as proud of his ability to bend iron bars with his hands as he was of his scientific prowess.
4. Subscribe to puttylike.com. This home for polymaths (or multipotentialites) was created by quirky Renaissance Mind blogger / artist / lawyer / entrepreneur Emilie Wapnick. It exposes the myth of the One True Calling, and helps you establish a polymath life working around your many interests. She’s a bit of a hero of ours so you should check her stuff out.