Polymath or PhD: Which Type of Expert Should You Become?

July 26th, 2016 No Comments Other


Image by Samantha Kibler

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.” –Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love (1973)

A polymath is someone whose expertise spans a wide variety of subjects and skills. Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Browne were not only artists, writers, and engineers, but also naturalists, politicians, and musicians. These days, we use the term jack-of- all-trades, Renaissance man, or generalist to describe such a character. Four hundred years ago, such people would have been regarded with the same level of esteem as today’s PhDs. But not anymore.


Today, information is everywhere, and more often than not it’s free. You can get an Ivy League education on iTunesU, master everything from basic algebra to cosmology with Khan Academy, and learn how to repair just about anything with iFixit. So shouldn’t there be more polymaths now than ever before?

“We live in an age where deep-specialisation is highly encouraged—the era of what tech analyst Vinnie Mirchandani calls the ‘monomath,'” says Kyle Wiens for Harvard Business Review. “Doctors specialise, lawyers specialise, academics specialise, mechanics specialise—just about everyone professionally specialises. The more deeply you specialise, the more money you’re likely to make.”

The problem with this trend is that specialists tend to get stuck on their own points of view.

“Specialists have been taught to focus so narrowly that they can’t look at a problem from different angles,” Wiens says. “And in the modern workscape we desperately need people with the ability to see big picture solutions. That’s where being a polymath has certain advantages.”

Many of the world’s greatest inventions arose as a result of cross-disciplinary thinking. Francis Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA, was originally a physicist; he claimed this background gave him the confidence to solve problems that biologists couldn’t. Percy Spencer, a radar expert, noticed that the radiation produced by microwaves melted a chocolate bar in his pocket and developed microwave ovens. Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the modern machine gun, was inspired by a self-cocking mousetrap he had made in his teens. A burr stuck in a dog’s fur became the design inspiration for velcro, the brilliantly-hued blue wings of a Morpho butterfly inspired a better television display, and fabrics and paint that dramatically cut down drag were inspired by shark skin.

All of this puts us in an odd position. Should we generalise or specialise? If we choose one over the other, will humanity suffer a loss in creativity or a loss in productivity? How do we know we’ve made the right choice? Let’s start with what history tell us.

Where Did Polymaths Come From?

Many notable polymaths lived during the Renaissance period, which began in Italy in the 14th century and spread to the rest of Europe.

These polymaths had a rounded approach to education that reflected the ideals of the humanists of the time. A gentleman or courtier of that era was expected to speak several languages, play a musical instrument, write poetry, and so on, thus fulfilling the Renaissance ideal. The idea of a universal education was essential to achieving polymath ability–hence the term “university.” At the time, universities didn’t specialise in specific areas, but rather trained students in a broad array of science, philosophy, and theology (not unlike our modern liberal arts schools).

This universal education gave them a grounding from which they could continue into apprenticeship, and eventually toward becoming a Master of a specific field.

Baldassare Castiglione, in his guide The Book of the Courtier, described how an ideal courtier should behave. He stressed the kind of attitude that should accompany the many talents of a polymath, an attitude he called “sprezzatura.” A courtier should have a detached, cool, nonchalant attitude, and speak well, sing, recite poetry, have proper bearing, be athletic, know the humanities and classics, paint and draw, and possess many other skills–always without showy or boastful behaviour.

Many of the world’s greatest inventions arose as a result of cross-disciplinary thinking. Francis Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA, was originally a physicist; he claimed this background gave him the confidence to solve problems that biologists couldn’t.

The many talents of the polymath should appear to others to be performed without effort, in an unstrained way, almost without thought. In some ways, the gentlemanly requirements of Castiglione recall the Chinese sage, Confucius, who far earlier depicted the courtly behaviour, piety, and obligations of service required of a gentleman. The easy facility in difficult tasks also resembles the effortlessness inculcated by Zen, where pure spontaneity is valued over conscious attention.

This Renaissance ideal differed slightly from our modern “polymath” in that it involved more than just intellectual advancement. Historically, it represented a person who endeavoured to develop his capacities as fully as possible, both mentally and physically, and, as Castiglione suggested, “without affectation.”

If you’re thinking that this title was exclusive to men, think again. Saint Hildegard of Bingen, also known as “Sibyl of the Rhine,” was a German writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and polymath in the 12th century. She wrote theological, botanical, and medicinal texts, as well as letters, liturgical songs, and poems, while supervising miniature illuminations in the Rupertsberg manuscript of her first work, Scivias. Elected a magistra by her fellow nuns in 1136, she founded the monasteries of Rupertsberg in 1150 and Eibingen in 1165. One of her works as a composer, the Ordo Virtutum, is an early example of liturgical drama and arguably the oldest surviving morality play.

So how did these people become skilled in so many areas? Do some of us have a more natural inclination toward polymathism than others? Researchers think they may have an answer.

How Do You Become a Polymath?

According to cognitive psychologist Seymour Epstein, most of us are either rational thinkers or experimental thinkers. Rational thinking is analytic, logical, abstract, and requires justification via logic and evidence. Experimental thinking is holistic, affective, concrete, experienced passively, processes information automatically, and is self-evidently valid (experience alone is enough for belief). What makes someone a polymath, Epstein says, is when they can use both types of thinking.

“People who are high in both thinking style are Renaissance people,” he says. “They have the brains of scientists and the sensibilities of poets. In other words, they have the positive features of both thinking styles and do not have their negative features because they are kept under control by the other thinking style.”

Do you have what it takes? See for yourself how positive attributes of both rational and experimental thinking you have:

Rational Thinking

  • High level of intellectual performance
  • High meaningfulness in life
  • Low stress of living
  • High self-esteem
  • Positive world view
  • Low neuroticism
  • Low depression
  • Realistic thinking
  • Low anxiety
  • Conscientiousness
  • Openmindedness
  • Less deficiency in describing emotions
  • High personal growth
  • High self-acceptance

Experimental Thinking

  • Favourable interpersonal relationships
  • High social popularity
  • High agreeableness
  • High empathy
  • High spontaneity
  • Emotionally expressive
  • Good sense of humour
  • Imaginative thinking
  • Good aesthetic sense
  • Creativity
  • High openmindedness
  • High intuition ability
  • High personal growth

If you want to be a polymath, you have to start thinking like one. Harnessing additional thinking styles only works to your advantage, as long as you have the good sense, flexibility, and openness—as polymaths do—to know when a particular thinking style is appropriate and when it is going to get in your way.

Should You Become a Polymath?

“With the amount of information that’s around, if you really want to understand your topic thoroughly, then you have to specialise,” says Chris Leek, the chairman of British Mensa, a club for people who score well on IQ tests. “And if you want to speak with authority, then it’s important to be seen to specialise.”

That is why modern institutions tend to exclude polymaths, he says. “It’s very hard to show yourself as a polymath in the current academic climate. If you’ve got someone interested in going across departments, spending part of the time in physics and part of the time elsewhere, their colleagues are going to kick them out. They’re not contributing fully to any single department.” Britain goes out of its way to create monomaths, by asking students aged 15 to choose just three or four subjects to study at A-level.

But every moment devoted to one area is a moment less to give over to something else. Researchers are focused on narrower areas of work. In the sciences this means that you often need to put together a team to do anything useful. Most scientific papers have more than one author; papers in some disciplines have 20 or 30. No one tries do do anything as general as “cure cancer.” You have to specialise. “These days,” Leek says, “no scientist makes a unique contribution.”

Besides, most fields today are full of experts, which leaves little room for dabblers. “It is not only the explosion of knowledge that puts polymaths at a disadvantage, but also the vast increase in the number of specialists and experts in every field,” writes Edward Carr in his 2009 piece for The Economist. “This is because the learning that creates would-be polymaths creates monomaths too, and in overwhelming numbers. If you have a multitude who give their lives to a specialism, their combined knowledge will drown out even a gifted generalist. And while the polymath tries to take possession of a second expertise in some distant discipline, his or her first expertise is being colonised by someone else. The arts are more forgiving than the sciences, but it’s still a thorny issue.”

It would seem, then, that being a specialist is ultimately the way to go. But Robert Twigger, a British academic with an interest in polymaths, thinks not.

“Our age reveres the specialist,” Twigger writes in a recent article in Aeon Magazine, “but humans are natural polymaths, at our best when we turn our minds to many things.” The problem, he says, is the way we perceive learning these days. “The pessimistic assumption that learning somehow stops when you leave school or university or hit thirty is at odds with the evidence.”

Neuroscience says that learning depends most heavily on the nucleus basalis, located in the basal forebrain. Among other things, this bit of the brain produces significant amounts of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that regulates the rate at which new connections are made between brain cells. This in turn dictates how readily we form memories of various kinds, and how strongly we retain them. When the nucleus basalisis switches on, acetylcholine flows and new connections occur.

When it is switched off, we make far fewer new connections.

Between birth and the age of ten or eleven, the nucleus basalisis is permanently switched on. It contains an abundance of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and this means new connections are being made all the time.

“Typically this means that a child will be learning almost all the time—if they see or hear something once, they remember it,” Twigger says. “But as we progress towards the later teenage years, the brain becomes more selective. From research into the way stroke victims recover lost skills, it has been observed that the nucleus basalis only switches on when one of three conditions occur: a novel situation, a shock, or intense focus, maintained through repetition or continuous application.”

This means we desperately need to broaden our interests as we age. And yes, learning about new things does increase the flow of acetylcholine. People as old as 90 who actively acquire new interests that involve learning retain their ability to learn.

“There is, I think, a case to be made for a new area of study to counter the monopathic drift of the modern world,” says Twigger. “[It] might focus on rapid methods of learning that allow you to master multiple fields. It might also work to develop transferable learning methods. A large part of it would naturally be concerned with creativity—crossing unrelated things to invent something new. But [it] would not just be another name for innovation. It would, I believe, help build better judgement in all areas.”

Still, there are those who say our current world just isn’t designed for such things.

“Polymaths were the product of a particular time, when great learning was a mark of distinction and few people had money and leisure,” writes Carr. “Their moment has passed, like great houses or the horse-drawn carriage.”

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which path to follow. Some of us may only have one true interest, and some of us may feel bored unless we’re taking on multiple projects at once. And in an age where the greatest polymath of all is Google, what the ideal expert really looks like is anyone’s guess.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

Leave a Reply