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.