Where are the polymaths hiding?

5 minute read

But what if you’re someone who isn’t wired this way? What if there are a lot of different subjects that you’re curious about, and many different things you want to do? Well, there is no room for someone like you in this framework. And so you might feel alone. You might feel like you don’t have a purpose. And you might feel like there’s something wrong with you. There’s nothing wrong with you.
— Emilie Wapnick (2015) Why some of us don’t have one true calling

As a co-author of the Manifesto Ibridi I couldn’t agree more with Emilie. Our society has a clear form of rejection for people that are able to do many things well, while there’s constant praise for specialists. Specialists are the most valuable people in the framework of this society, and this message is constantly pushed across all media.

Inevitably, this message also mean that if you can do many things, you aren’t good enough. “Surely you can’t do things as well as them”. How could one be as good as someone that is a specialist? That’s the baseline message.

The problem with this line of thought is that it’s a self-reinforcing circle: this society values specialists, dismisses the value of polymath, which makes the way specialists are measured the way everyone is measured, thus making polymaths even more dismissed because they have a harder time stacking against a way to value people based on specialist metrics only.

Sure, polymath concepts sometimes make the news on top publications, like this article from 2012 “In defense of polymaths” published on the Harvard Business Review. Renaissance gets mentioned, Leonardo Da Vinci is cited, and often is made the point that entrepreneurs are often polymaths.

This however is just another evidence on how much our society is stacked against polymaths. The assumption that one can’t be as good as a specialist is so radicated that articles defending polymaths have to be written.

This is one of the consequences of industrialization: the specialization of labor, the idea that you are just a mechanism in a bigger machine. Mechanisms have an hard time with polymaths, due to their variability. That’s why in the process of the industrialization of the mind of the recent decades, where work shifted by manual labor to mental labor, polymaths were removed by the playing field.

While I’ve started noticing that most jobs can be learned at a professional level in up to 2 years of proper learning and training, I understand that many people don’t think the same. Of course: for years they have been taught that it’s not possible, and they have been forced in decades of “education”. That’s exactly what the current framework of specialization has to make people buy in, otherwise how can you justify long education trainings? How can you verify that someone really knows the subject matter?

Yet, plenty of solid intensive courses exist today, experimenting and teaching people in short amounts of time, and then moving them to training. These courses work, yet it’s still an idea too much outside of the societal pressure to accept it as effective.

A polymath is always on the defensive, and most of the attacks are internalized, like the well known impostor syndrome. There are different techniques to be a polymath and work within the system.

  1. Many polymaths don’t ever refer to themselves as such to avoid being devalued.
  2. Many polymaths communicate themselves as specialists, and they will have even great, successful careers by doing that. Some, more than one.
  3. Many polymaths present themselves with different job titles depending on the contexts.
  4. Some polymaths avoid any label at all, and compensate by communicating well their skills.
  5. Some polymaths will show their multiple skills once they were able to get some external proof, accepted by the society, so they can demostrate they can actually do many things.

The most ironic part of all of this is that when someone reaches the peak, then and only then, the polymath values and skills become suddenly celebrated: “See? They got where they are because they had all of these things together in one individual!” The Economist tried to make a short list but just to mention a few:

  • Steve Jobs? Polymath: engineer, entrepreneur, designer, marketer.
  • Noam Chomsky? Polymath: philosopher, cognitive scientist, political activist, author.
  • Elon Musk? Polymath: physicist, engineer, economist, entrepreneur.

This social pressure implies that polymaths have to defend themselves… even inventing new words to avoid the negative sides that the society pushes over the term.

This very point stroke me when I noticed that in the TED Talk, Emilie used a different word instead of polymath:

What you are is a multipotentialite.

And I recalled that Tim Brown, founder of IDEO, does a similar thing with the concept of T-shaped people:

We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they’re willing to try to do what you do. We call them T-shaped people. They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T—they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well.

Which is exactly what we did as well, in the Manifesto Ibridi and before, using instead a yet different word:

Hybrids are those people, situated in the most various professional, cultural, and scientific pathways, who are able to connect traditionally separated fields of knowledge and action.

Emily continues:

A multipotentialite is someone with many interests and creative pursuits. It’s a mouthful to say. It might help if you break it up into three parts: multi, potential, and ite. You can also use one of the other terms that connote the same idea, such as polymath, the Renaissance person. Actually, during the Renaissance period, it was considered the ideal to be well-versed in multiple disciplines. Barbara Sher refers to us as scanners. Use whichever term you like, or invent your own.

Even more ironic? We refer to the Renaissance period, yet in Italian there’s no word equivalent to polymath.

Which is why we picked “hybrids”.


Thanks to Cristiano Siri.