When I was growing up there were no computers masquerading as radios. But I do remember my first transistor radio.
It had both AM and FM and would fit in my hand. This allowed me to lay in the front yard on warm summer evenings listening to the Detroit Tigers baseball game. But baseball games had a lot of downtime which allowed me to think, observe the Milky Way, and listen to the sounds of summer nights.
I thought a lot about being a polymath.
Not really; I didn’t even know the word polymath. A polymath is an individual whose knowledge spans a substantial number of subjects and is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. Those long evenings in the front yard allowed me to think about many ideas and subjects.
I was always curious. I was always asking a question related to seemingly unrelated topics. While this drove my mother crazy, my father seemed to get it and would always question me about the source of the question. My dad had a degree from the high school in our small community. But now that I know the term, I considered him a polymath.
One article written by Zat Rana is titled “The Expert Generalist: Why the Future Belongs to Polymaths.”
While I don’t consider myself comparable to them:
- Aristotle invented half a dozen fields across philosophy
- Galileo was as much a physicist as an engineer
- da Vinci might have been more famous as an inventor than an artist if his notebooks were published
The polymath is interested in learning.
Don’t get me wrong, the world needs specialists. In fact, there are a lot more specialists than there are polymaths. The difference is that a specialist picks a topic and then goes deep. The world couldn’t live without them. The polymath, however, specializes in a domain or two of specialty.
Learning Is a Discipline
As I said above, the polymath is interesting in learning. Learning itself is a skill and when you exercise that skill across domains, you get specialized as a learner. When I was growing up it was common for people to have a single career and then retire. In the future (while it has arrived) people will likely have multiple careers that differ significantly. In such a world, learning becomes even more valuable.
Engineering and Microcomputers
I received an engineering degree from the University of Michigan. It was assumed I would spend my career working in the engineering industry. But then, I saw my first microcomputer. It had dual floppy drives and a 5″ green screen. I knew my career was going to change right there. When I arrived back at headquarters, I informed my boss that I was leaving the engineering business and going into microcomputers. His words were “What’s a microcomputer?” I said, just wait, you’ll find out.
After many years in the microcomputer business, I realized that I was being asked by key executives to help them think about their business more broadly. I didn’t realize it at the time, but they were asking me to be a polymath. I still didn’t know what the word meant but I did realize I was being asked about a broad range of businesses from construction to pharmaceuticals to food and other industries. They were asking me to learn about their business from a broad “polymath” viewpoint.
From that point, I worked on three continents, in multiple countries and cultures. I was being paid to think as a polymath. Once again, I’ll make the point that specialists are required. They invent things and get things at peak efficiency. But without polymaths, no ideas are sweeping across disciplines. They are also required and often seem to be thinking before the specialists understand their topic. Polymaths can often seem ahead of their time.