We all know someone who scored Straight A’s in college, lead multiple student clubs, volunteered at homeless shelters, nailed their research papers, landed high-paying jobs and gave a killer graduation speech. No, I’m not talking about your Uncle John nor I’m talking about passionate generalists who dabble into varied interests from time to time.
Polymaths are those who have a demonstrated track record of expertise in multiple, wide-ranging yet seemingly unrelated fields. According to Wikipedia, a polymath is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas—such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. You will find numerous examples of such exemplary individuals throughout the course of history. Leonardo Da Vinci was a polymath; so was Galileo and Rabindranath Tagore. Even Sherlock Holmes is a polymath.
Why is it though that we don’t see such examples in modern day and age? Why aren’t there more Leonardos and Galileos, especially in an age where no resource is out of reach and new skills can be very quickly learned? We need polymaths more than ever. Their skills and knowledge would be exponentially more useful for solving modern-day, complex challenges, especially compared to the relatively simpler times of Renaissance.
In my opinion, the problem lies with the inflexible structures and over-emphasis on hyper specialization. The concept of specialization of labor comes from economic theory. The more specialized your labor, the higher your economies of scale and lower the average total cost. As more and more organizations adopted this concept to maintain a competitive edge in the marketplace, it led to the conversion of integrated job roles into modular job roles. This, in turn, created an entire army of experts who specialize deeply into one field of study.
While hyper-specialization helps to optimize the cost at the lowest levels of the organization, it restricts the experts who execute these hyper-specialized jobs from developing higher order thinking. Almost always, these experts are unable to look at the larger picture and understand the implications of their insights. They fail to understand that their recommendations are just a piece of a larger puzzle.
Such lack of understanding is perpetuated by the modern workplace culture that restricts executives from trying things beyond their job responsibilities. Human Resource professionals pad up the job responsibilities in the hopes to attract the best talent however, only a fraction of those responsibilities are really undertaken by the employees. Usually, the bulk of the work is outsourced to specialized consultants. Even those companies that ask their employees to execute the full extent of their job description take a back seat when it comes to cross-departmental projects. Thus, a job role that seems like a polymath’s dream ends up being just another specialized role in disguise.
The worst victims of such rigid structures are entrepreneurial polymaths. Entrepreneurial polymaths excel at synthesizing ideas from multiple disciplines to develop organizations that are truly game changing. For example, consider Elon Musk’s approach to entrepreneurship. His education in Physics and understanding of the obsolescence rate of heavy engineering machines allowed him to develop The Boring Company, a tunnel construction company with a mission to reduce the traffic congestion in Los Angeles. Since the heavy engineering machines follow a low obsolescence rate, it usually takes more than a decade to completely replace them. This allows the company to keep the overall cost low and makes such an ambitious project feasible. If that were not innovative enough, Elon Musk raised the initial funding for The Boring Company by selling hats and flamethrowers.
While Elon Musk is a success story, consider an entrepreneurial polymath who has just begun developing an idea. The phase between the conceptualization and break even is usually the worst. While most entrepreneurs rely on their savings and develop side-hustles to keep their dream alive in the initial stages of the startup, polymaths are almost never able to develop side-hustles with competitive pay for the lack of their specialization and thus a source of side income usually ends up being a distraction.
However, the curse of being polymath can be broken by following a two-fold approach. Firstly, organizations need to fundamentally re-think the utilization of their human capital. In such a scenario, due to their agile nature, startups are best geared to develop a culture that allows a polymath to really shine. Google allows their employees to dedicate 20% of the working hours to develop their pet projects which can be developed through cross-departmental collaboration. We need more companies to follow suit to develop and maintain the culture of innovation. Secondly, companies also need to allow their specialists to understand the larger ecosystem within which their roles are defined, so as to promote higher order thinking. This could be done through a combination of workshops and business case analysis even at the lowest level of employment hierarchy.
Such dynamic approach to decision making and collaboration will lead the development of ideas that have profound implications not only for the future of the organizations but also for the identity of human element in the workplace that is increasingly threatened by the emergence of Artificial Intelligence.