Polymaths No More?

An article in Intelligent Life (August 2009) bemoans the “endangered species,” the polymath–a person who is successful at many different pursuits. In contrast to the narrow specialists who seem to rule today’s world, polymaths contribute to many different specialties throughout their careers. Past centuries had plenty of polymaths (perhaps Leonardo Da Vinci is the prototype). Take Thomas Young, an English polymath who worked in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He showed light is a wave, not just a particle; he described how the eye focuses at different distances; he contributed to materials science and its understanding of elasticity; he studied the grammar of 400 languages and coined the term “Indo-European”; he even “tinkered around with life insurance” according to the article.

But of course, back in 1800 there was a lot less knowledge overall. One could acquire a working knowledge of a discipline (materials science, optics and the eye, life insurance) just by reading the few books that had been written on the topic. Today all of these fields have had another 200 years of knowledge created. That’s why creativity researchers have observed a “ten year rule”: that it seems to take ten years of working away in one specialized domain before you can make a significant creative contribution. (This rule was first published in the 19th century, when a study of telegraph operators found that the best operators had ten years of experience.) Ten years roughly corresponds to Professor Anders Ericsson’s finding that it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to attain world-class expertise.

And over time, as new knowledge is created and total knowledge accumulates, it should take longer to become an expert. Benjamin Jones (of the Kellogg School of Management) calculated the average age a person was granted a Nobel Prize, and examined how that changed over time. And sure enough: Nobel recipients in 1998 were on average six years older than those granted in 1873.

So is this a problem to worry about, or not? After all, specialization has resulted in marvelous things that no one in 1800 could have dreamed of. The one potential problem is that creativity so often comes by joining concepts from two or more different areas–so if everyone only knows one area, this creative combination might never happen. I can think of at least two possible solutions: (1) create collaborative teams that bring together people with different backgrounds; (2) educate “T-Shaped” people, who are highly specialized in one area (the vertical bar of the “T”) but who also are passingly familiar with lots of other areas (the horizontal bar). And in general, we’ll all be more creative if we choose one area to focus our expertise, but also if we actively seek out familiarity with everything else. I’ll coin an awkward saying:

Cultivate dilletantism.

23 thoughts on “Polymaths No More?

  1. An alternative, historical explanation is that ‘The multifaceted “Renaissance man” is to some extent a trick of historical perspective, which creates polymathesis out of what was simply a different classification of knowledge and a different professional division of labor.’ (Park/Daston 6)

  2. I’d say it was a problem. As the knowledge bases fragments, the gaps and inconsistencies get worse, and with less outside observation they have a way of turning in on themselves. Thus more depth, but at a trivial level, and less big creative leaps.

    PS. There are probably lots of polymaths, but they just don’t get famous anymore, so you never hear from them. Curiosity never goes out of style.


    1. I agree there are lots of polymath-ish people, but they end up being dilettantes at everything so never make a mark on any one domain. The key is to be a polymath, while at the same time being an expert at one thing. In the old days it was different because polymaths could make substantial contributions to multiple fields of knowledge; that’s not really possible any more.

      1. Yes, but in some ways it’s not a fair comparison. If you were a photographer, for instance, when it all started (100ish years ago?) a non-blurry picture could earn you a reputation as an expert. These days, the exact same effort and the same picture wouldn’t even get you a moment’s notice on Flickr.

        Oddly, Wikipedia has a list of Polymaths, and I suspect that if you graphed them with respect to time, the list would show the number increasing. But then again, that might just be better marketing ūüôā

        Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_people_who_have_been_called_%22polymaths%22

      2. Not true. I consider myself a modern polymath: three university degrees and major contributions in fields of physics, renewable energy, human physiology, mechanical engineering, weapons development, space exploration technology, and even eschatological studies. Yet, who has heard of Rick Dickson, inventor? Perhaps, only scientists at Cornell University, MIT, Stanford, Caltech, Max Planck Institute, DARPA, and the Office of Naval Research. I am only self-published and on the internet; yet, my ideas have been adopted in many fields, and scientists are scholars are using and actively investigating many of them. Like Thomas Young, there are modern polymaths like myself still plowing fertile intellectual ground quietly behind the scenes with little recognition but major impact.

  3. Education was much more well-rounded in the past than it is now. These days it’s all about chasing the money and putting points on the board. Our brightest students become stock brokers.

    Also, learning a discipline was not necessarily easier in the past than it is today, it’s just that the arts and sciences are bankrolled by markets today instead of private fortunes, so learning a discipline is no longer enough. You have to fit yourself into the market somehow, and there simply isn’t a market for individual polymaths.

  4. > “And over time, as new knowledge is created and total knowledge accumulates, it should take longer to become an expert.”

    Yes and no. It also becomes easier to access knowledge, and the educational organization of knowledge seems likely to improve (greatly).

    I suggest decomposing the question.
    (1) Can someone be indistinguishable from leading specialists in multiple fields?
    (2) Can someone be indistinguishable from average specialists in multiple fields?
    (3) Can someone make professional contributions to multiple fields?
    (4) Can someone attain a graduate student’s understanding of multiple fields?
    (5) Can someone attain a graduate student’s (hypothetical ideal) basic understanding of their field, for multiple fields?

    So, let’s see…

    (1) Here the “intractably growing knowledge” argument is plausible. You only have one life. If people as good as you are also neglecting families and filling their time with entirely with different fields, you aren’t likely to be able to be equivalent to several of them. Though “I don’t teach or do committees” provides some leverage. Note this effect saturates – once you can fill a life, additional knowledge growth doesn’t matter.

    But that’s the last case where the “no polymaths” argument works.

    (2) People vary a great deal in capabilities, and in how they allocate their time. So someone good, focused on being a polymath, and benefiting from the overlap and synergy between fields, should have no problem with this. Regardless of knowledge growth.

    (3) Of course. Some high-school students do real research for science fairs. Some institutions require research of their masters students. As information access gets easier, so to does becoming a domain expert for some narrow domain, sufficient to make research contributions. Not all narrow domains will have that property, but such domains will exist. Though perhaps if everyone becomes a polymath, such domains will eventually become scarcer?

    (4) Of course. Witness people doing multiple degrees.

    (5) As above. But more interestingly, this becomes easier as science education improves. At present, all science fields are profoundly unhappy with their pre- and introductory college education. As that improves, the broad insightful grasp of multiple fields which at present would constitute a rare polymath, may become general science literacy.

    So how about a contrasting question.

    As science education ceases to suck, will you be able to get into a good college without being a polymath?

    Not “Polymaths No More?”,
    but “Polymaths Pervasive?”

  5. Yes, a good liberal arts education followed by a specialisation is a good model to start with but encouraging curiosity is another. I’m astounded that we bunker down in our own little worlds and have not even a passing interest in seeing the wide world from the many different points of view it can be seen from. btw one American polymath worth mentioning is C.S. Peirce.

  6. Polymathy is a life philosophy. When you set a life goal “to be a ______”, you are choosing a specialty. Whereas if you set goals “to *do* X, Y, and Z”, you are thinking in terms of accomplishments rather than fields. The skills required in the pursuit of most nontrivial accomplishments actually span many formal disciplines of study, the boundaries of which are fairly arbitrarily drawn. Other common polymathic traits (historically) were a deep sense of curiosity about how knowledge and ideas mesh together and a certain amount of rigor in time management – the last being an artifact of having so many pursuits to choose from at any given moment.

    I’m a member of a group which is attempting to found a polymathic school and empower students to use their full potential based on these and other ideas: projectpolymath.org.

  7. […] Keith Sawyer notes the decline of the polymath, the person with world-class expertise in multiple fields. Modern social science has had its share — John von Neumann and Herbert Simon come to mind. I’ve had the privilege of knowing a couple, Murray Rothbard and David Gordon. But the increasing emphasis on hyper-specialization in most academic disciplines makes it hard to be a generalist, unlike, say, the 1800s: […]

  8. HR makes it hard to be a generalist/polymath. Either you had the job title, or you won’t get the job. The simplest resume sorting algorithm is what gets used by humans. Worse are the keyword search engines. You won’t get hired. Your accomplishments in a corporation won’t generate PR.

    Instead, start your own company. Make a name. Be indispensable.

  9. I authored a book a few months ago titled The New Polymath, (book site at http://www.thenewpolymath.com) to describe “compound innovation” at GE, BASF, BMW, Kleiner’s clean tech portfolio and number of other companies which are blending 3,5,10 strands of infotech, biotech,cleantech, healthtech, nanotech etc to create breakthrough new products and services. So, it was as you mention above in the form of collaborative teams with wide range of disciplines. The book touched on individual Polymaths, historical like Da Vinci and modern like Bill Joy and Nathan Myhrvold – but the prime emphasis was on Polymath teams, products and enterprises.

    On the book tour a regular question has been “how do I individually become a Polymath?” and my answer is don’t beat your self up. Even during the Renaissance when there were plenty of Polymaths, they were still a minority. Find your self diverse teams to be part of every couple of years where you can contribute your unique specialty, and grow in other dimensions as part of such teams. The problem is most of us seem to stay in one job too long, so lose the curiousity to learn new stuff – the diversity in teams every couple of years is key. Progressive companies allow those opportunities.

    In the book, I cite Isiah Berlin “Foxes know many things; whereas hedgehogs know one big thing. The foxes used to roam free across the hills. Today the hedgehogs rule.”

    1. Thank you for the link to your book site! I agree with your observation: In innovative organizations, collaborative teams create “polymathic structures” that I call “group genius.” It helps if each member of the team is “T-shaped,” meaning that in addition to their deep expertise in one thing (the vertical line of the “T”) they also know a little bit about a lot of other things (the horizontal bar of the “T”). It’s this latter “foxy” knowledge that is a bit like the polymath of yore. (“foxy knowledge” will be a book title some day: you heard it here first!)

    1. At your web site, I like the “library of Alexandria” metaphor. Another literary metaphor that connects to polymaths is Herman Hesse’s glass bead game, in the book _Magister Ludi_.

  10. The two suggestions given by the author have a ring of compromise to them, something that is alien to the very psyche of a polymath. No one can breed or create a polymath … All we can do is to locate them, encourage them and create an acceptance for them. People with polymathic inclinations will always be there, no matter how the knowledge system or the society changes with time.

  11. […] One of my most popular posts, from 2011, summarized a 2009 article in Intelligent Life suggesting that today’s world is too complicated for anyone to be a polymath. Back in the 1700s, a smart person could actually learn just about everything humanity had ever discovered, whereas¬†today, there is simply too much knowledge out there. In a way, that’s true. But there are still polymaths out there, and their thirst for diverse knowledge leads to greater creativity.¬†And you can do it, too. […]

  12. I am a polymath scientist…. ;)… I came up with 10 years it takes as well…. In my 20’s…i am unknown to most of mankind…but ….not for long…..

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