In a previous article I explored some of the virtues of striving for a polymath lifestyle, with our creativity, adaptability and resilience all benefiting from pursuing a wide range of interests. It’s a treatise that author Waqas Ahmed explores in depth in his latest book Polymath: Unlocking the Power of Human Versatility. He outlines six steps we can each take to unlock the various aspects of our skills and knowledge.
1. Understand yourself
Ahmed readily concedes that not everyone can scale the heights of a Leonardo Da Vinci, but we can all nonetheless tap into the considerable and diverse range of talents we each possess. The first step is to truly understand ourself, and through this to focus on areas where talent or capacity meets passion or desire, as it’s where these intersect that true success usually lies. This may lead one towards a degree of eccentricity, but many of the characteristics psychologists use to describe an eccentric, such as idealism, intense curiosity, high levels of intelligence and a nonconformist attitudes are not only common in polymaths, but no bad thing to cultivate.
2. Unlock your curiosity
Many sociologists regard curiosity as something fundamental and inherent to the human condition. When we dig into the essence of this curiosity, it’s a desire to bridge the gap between what we know and what we want to know. It helps us to dispel ambiguity and uncertainty. Indeed, it was Einstein himself her proclaimed his only real talent was his passionate curiosity.
This love of learning is something that whilst being inbuilt within us all is often banged out of us by school and then work. In a previous post I explore a number of strategies you can use to reignite your curiosity and general love of learning again, but central to this is retaining an open mind and a growth mindset.
3. Nurture your various abilities
In both academic and professional life, it’s very easy to become pigeon holed, especially if we happen to excel at one particular thing. This is especially so in the workplace, where our job title provides clear constraints on the way in which we contribute in the workplace.
As Ken Robinson reminds us, intelligence is much richer, more diverse, more nuanced and intriguing than we’re led to believe by many of our cultural conceptions.
This is especially so as fields such as social and emotional intelligence have come to the fore. Indeed, in recent posts I’ve explored the importance of skills such as cooperation, whilst learning provider Udemy provided a list of the most valuable soft skills today.
4. Tap into your versatility and move between spheres of knowledge
In a world that is pushing us indelibly towards hyper-specialization, the value of versatility cannot be overestimated. In my previous post, I highlighted how this ability to switch between domains is hugely important when attempting to innovate, as most patents today are what’s known as recombinative, whereby ideas from one domain are applied in a second.
This ability to vary and switch intellectually is something TED’s Chris Anderson highlights as a key aspect in the exploration of ideas. Indeed, this ability to tap into “elastic thinking” is what science writer Leonardo Mlodinow believes will be key to surviving in this period of such rapid and disruptive change.
5. Connect the dots
Steve Jobs famously described creativity as a simple matter of connecting things; a process whereby you see something in one field and apply it in another. In the innovation literature, it’s a process known as recombination, and it contributes to the majority of patents registered today. Alas, it’s something that Jobs felt most people actively avoided.
“A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences,” he said. “So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem.”
It is at the intersection of of different worlds where innovation tends to occur, so it’s vital that you have different pools to divine inspiration from.
6. Unify various strands of knowledge to provide clarity and vision of the whole
The modern world is nothing if not complex and inter-connected, so it’s vital that you are able to understand context and how parts work together. This awareness of systems thinking allows us to appreciate the connectedness, relationships and context of the information we consume.
The world is awash with information, and being able to understand this context is vital if we’re to make sense of it all, to allow us to synthesize, paint the bigger picture and analyze what we consume effectively.
Of course, our school systems have typically compartmentalized knowledge into clearly demarcated subject areas, but our modern world demands that we find a way to connect various subject areas.
For much of our adult lives, society has tried to bash out of us the curiosity and inquisitiveness that underpins such a generalized mindset, rendering us ill equipped for the demands of the modern world. Hopefully these tips will go some way towards helping us re-energize that most vital part of our mind and spirit.