Is Polymathy Possible In Our Generation?


Nothing has irked me more than the master of none part of that painfully familiar adage. Sarah, a close friend of mine, was thrown the good-ol’ jack-of-all-trades thing after she shared her many interests. Like her, I am keen on many things. I am a biologist by training, but oh I so adore playing the piano and the cello. I like dancing and acting – I used to major in theatre arts before I changed my path to biology. Writing and reading are close to my heart, and so are the experiments that we perform in our university’s laboratories.

People like Sarah and myself are often told to “make up our minds” and follow a single path: work diligently, get promoted, save up for retirement. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, and we know that people who tell us so mean well, but the concept is limiting. Yet, it is understandable why this is the logic advised to us.

Capitalism urges us to be specialized individuals. It does so perhaps because of the ideal of division of labour – when a task is divided into its minutiae parts, the efficiency of production will be increased exponentially. Adam Smith stressed that it is by specialization that economies grow. He maintains that a pin-maker may finish 20 pins a day, “a team of 10 pin-makers well-arrange can create 48 thousand pins.”

Born out of the industrial revolution, the same still holds true for today: the typical occupation in the modern world is one that is constrained in front of a monitor, situated in a team of a large corporation eight hours a day, five days a week. An employee’s task is but a small part in a long chain – and because it is so, he can hardly identify with it, adding alienation to the work’s limiting factor. When one labours enough years of the same task, one is awarded a raise in wage, or perhaps even a promotion – which in some cases further ‘specializes’ the role.

While we may refer to these specialists as monomaths, there are people who we refer to as polymaths. A polymath is someone who has ‘learned much.’ While we can say the idea of a specialist was born in the industrial revolution (and evolved to today’s ‘monomath’), the polymath was perhaps born in the Renaissance, expressed in the idea of humanist Leon Battista Alberti [1404 – 1472] – the epitome of a Renaissance man and a polymath himselfthat anyone can “do all things” if one wills it.

A polymath is someone who excels at many different fields: da Vinci was a painter, sculpture, inventor, and scientist; Michelangelo was a poet, architect, sculptor and painter; Dr. Jose Rizal, ophthalmologist by profession, was also a novelist, poet, fencer, and later national hero of the Philippines. Actress Hedy Lamarr, working with a composer, invented technology that is incorporated in today’s Wi-Fi tech. Polymaths are people who widens their capabilities as much as they can.

Dr. Maya Angelou reverberates this idea: she has lived a diverse life as a journalist, poet, singer, dancer, and civil rights activist. Asked by the Smithsonian how Dr. Angelou is able to “move easily from one thing to another”, the late autobiographer responds:

So I think we’ve done a real disservice to young people by telling them, “Oh, you be careful. You’ll be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.” It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. I think you can be a jack-of-all-trades and a mistress-of-all-trades. If you study it, and you put reasonable intelligence and reasonable energy, reasonable electricity to it, you can do that…

Goethe, who people know mostly as a literary figure, was also a scientist. Working with the scientist and polymath Alexander von Humboldt, Goethe was largely interested in anatomy and geology. In her work ‘the Invention of Nature’, Andrea Wulf points out that while Goethe composed his epic poem Hermann and Dorothea, Goethe “examined worms, dissected worms and snails, and continued his studies in geology.” Goethe spent a lot of his time with his friend Humboldt, who was accused by Schilling – another acquaintance of Goethe – that he was distracting Goethe from his aesthetical pursuits. Schilling, bearing a similar likeness to many of today’s voices, thought “that Humboldt would never accomplish anything great because he dabbled in too many subjects,” Wulf wrote.

With today’s information technology, it would seem that people have more opportunities to become a polymath than ever before. However, a lot of people lack the commodities which are time and money to do it. After all, a lot of us render 9:00-5:00 jobs and barely has savings, and yet Da Vinci and Michelangelo had patrons who allowed them to focus on their learning, while Goethe was born in an aristocratic family. Even Aristotle declared once that the “life of the mind is open only to rich people.”

It would seem that polymaths were the children of their time when a group of people were so filthy rich they were free of day-to-day worries, while another group worked day and night to clothe and shelter themselves. It seems so, but again a lot of us struggle to leave rat race while a small group of people have tea and biscuits after lunch.

Perhaps the way of the modern polymath—or would-be polymath such as myself—is to draw from a range of knowledge and experience in order to design a lifestyle that would liberate them into a lifetime of learning. Tim Ferris, in his book the 4-hour Workweek, formulates a strategy in how we can earn income while diminishing our need to input time, which is a commodity as much as money. A lot of personal finance books have the same aim – but Ferris’ book resonated with me because it has a framework that is suitable for the digital age. Personally, I am still a little unsure about taking the steps he prescribes, but the “case studies” he also presented are comforting. (No, this is not a paid advertorial).

Far too many people are told that we can only thread one path in a lifetime. I think there is a way for us to change this, to design a life best suitable for us. Luckily, in this era of technology, I believe it would be easier for us to do. After all, the gig economy is growing, and perhaps it could be the beginning of a new wave of polymathy.