24symbols collaborates with the radio program Talenta Mundi, where we tell stories inspired by the books that move and captivate us. On 24stories we share these stories with you. Today: The Polymaths.
We all have this one friend who knows it all, right? Frankly speaking, it’s annoying… He’s read the latest art, fiction and science books. Last weekend he attended the inauguration of this new exhibition that everybody is talking about. In one single conversation he starts with the musical notation of the 19th century only to end up talking about the shooting techniques of the best NBA players and their obvious relation with mechanical physics. Without him knowing, we’ve signed him up for “Who wants to be a millionaire” so that, if he wins, he’ll invite us for a drink and, if he loses, he’ll finally recognize his limits.
From a professional point of view, these persons have been carrying different labels for a long time. The one that is currently popular is the term Polymath. The “official” definition is that of a person that knows about different fields of study be it science, technology, art or humanities. The classic example for a polymath is of course Leonardo da Vinci, the uomo universale, whose biography by Gabriel Séailles we highly recommend:
There have been many other polymaths throughout history, such as Hypatia of Alexandria, Avicenna, Isaac Newton, Hedy Lamarr (the Hollywood actress that also patented several industrial inventions), Descartes or, of course, Tony Stark, comedian and creator of Iron Man.
The necessity to include polymaths in our professional lives is not new. For many years it has been said that all teams need a person that represents what Tom Kelley calls in his book “The Art of Innovation” the role of the cross-pollinator. Because it’s not only important to know many things but also to be able to apply one’s knowledge from one area to another. This allows us to create mechanic structures based on bee colonies or adapting NASA innovations for everyday life (i.e. LEDs, viscoelastic beds, etc.)
The digital world refers to these persons as T-Shaped people; meaning that the horizontal line embodies the knowledge of a wide range of things while the vertical line exemplifies how this person is an expert with profound knowledge in one specific area. This way, the polymath is more effective because he understands how to take something from one area and use it in another industry or specific segment.
One can take this thought even further, as did Tom Chi in 2014. Tom Chi was the first product manager of Google Glasses, this Google invention that never quite fit in but is now finding new opportunities in the industrial arena. During a talk at the event Mind the Product, Tom explained that he’s always been looking for “PI-shaped” professionals – meaning that instead of being an expert in one area, they should be experts in two areas, one of each hemisphere of the brain: Basically engineers and designers. I always think that finding these professionals must be like seeing a unicorn…
Above I mentioned Tony Stark but we can’t ignore that one of the reasons that everybody is talking about polymaths these days is Elon Musk, one of the founders of PayPal, founder of SpaceX, Tesla and instigator of Hyperloop. Musk is not an inventor but rather an entrepreneur, still he’s a perfect example of what it means to be a polymath nowadays: To pursue ideas that are technologically advanced, highly creative and whose execution requires a strong background in various disciplines. Obviously it helps being a millionaire… We recommend Elon Musk’s biography by Ashlee Vance, which was a New York Times Bestseller a few years ago.
How do we become polymaths? Or is it something reserved for a chosen few? Well, as with everything, experts say that there are limits but we can all nurse passion for more than one field of knowledge. Especially in today’s world where most people can access culture like never before: affordable online courses with the world’s best professors, logistics that allow us to buy any book, electronic or paperbound, in a matter of seconds, subscription services where we can browse through a wide range of books, documentaries or songs, etc. In other words, access to technology that becomes more affordable by the minute – but let’s not be foolish, becoming a polymath takes a lot of effort. Nobody said it would be easy!
Remember that all books mentioned in the program can be found on 24symbols in the bookshelf Talenta Mundi.