How To Be a Polymath

Many successful creators are polymaths: people who seek knowledge relentlessly, who teach themselves a broad range of odd things. The successful venture capitalist Paul Maeda noted that entrepreneurs have a common trait: they all keep educating themselves. For example, John Mackay, founder of Whole Foods, reads a new book every week.

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.

In 2012, The New York Times reported on a UCLA student, Jeremy Gleick, who has a unique habit: every day he finds time for a “learning hour”—one hour devoted to learning something new. In 2012, he passed his 1,000th hour of self-study, most of it done online.

Gleick has logged every hour of learning in a spreadsheet. The topics range over the breadth of human knowledge: Seventeen hours total on art history; 39 on the Civil War; 14 on weaponry; 41 hours on hypnosis. He’s also learned juggling, glass blowing, banjo, and mandolin. He is, unabashedly, a “dilettante”—defined as a dabbler, an amateur, a nonprofessional. And he says he has yet to find a subject that isn’t at least somewhat interesting to him.

Jeremy Gleick’s Favorite One-Hour Learning Topics:

Humanities (354 total hours):

  • “Papyrus of Ani” Book of the Dead (Internet Sacred Text Archive)
  • “Jazz Insights” audio series with Gordon Vernick of Georgia State (WMLB 1690 AM)
  • “History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps” audio podcast by Peter Adamson of King’s College London (iTunes U)

Science (254 total hours):

  • A Brief History of Time, 1998 book by physicist Stephen Hawking
  • “Introduction to Psychology” audio lectures by Jeremy Wolfe (MIT OpenCourseWare)
  • “What Technology Wants” lecture by Kevin Kelly (

Skills (423 total hours):

  • Blacksmithing class, The Crucible arts center, Oakland, CA
  • “The Street Hypnotist’s Handbook” steps to hypnosis by Nathan Thomas (
  • ASLPro online dictionary, American Sign Language
  • Card trick tutorials, videos (Expert Village channel, YouTube)

As I write in my forthcoming book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity (coming in March, 2013):

Learning is a lifelong scavenger hunt. The wonderful beauty of the creative life is that no authentic, thoughtful experience, no new glimmer of knowledge, is ever wasted.

3 thoughts on “How To Be a Polymath

  1. Knowledge for its own sake is useless and not being able to see that the knowledge you’re reading is in fact incorrect makes the knowledge just as useless. You’re basically saying that polymaths are like libraries and that they strive towards having a library in their brain. This is incorrect.

    Polymaths are born, not made. They don’t thrive in the educational system. Hence why we aren’t seen. Stop trying to be us. It isn’t our fault that we are born with a supernatural energy in our brain with many thinking pathways.

  2. It’s good to hear from a true polymath! The definition of a polymath is “a person of encyclopedic learning” (Merriam Webster) or “a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas” (Wikipedia). “Expertise” and “learning” are not with you when you are born, right? So, are you saying that some people are born with a greater ability to learn, than other people?

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