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 (Fora.tv)

Skills (423 total hours):

  • Blacksmithing class, The Crucible arts center, Oakland, CA
  • “The Street Hypnotist’s Handbook” steps to hypnosis by Nathan Thomas (keystothemind.com)
  • 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.

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.