As modern society becomes increasingly complex, versatility shapes as a key asset in your ability to work, prosper and even survive. Here, we profile some modern-day polymaths and look at why it could be in your best interests to become a master of many domains.
You’re probably familiar with the saying, ‘Jack of all trades’. Perhaps you’ve even been referred to as such. The phrase is often used as a compliment to describe someone who possesses a wide range of skills. Frequently, the next part, ‘master of none’ is added, either disparagingly by a (snarky) observer or self-effacingly by a modest gent, to indicate that they haven’t attained expertise in any one field.
What you might not know, because it rarely gets uttered, is that there’s a third part to the saying. The complete phrase, revealed to me by Waqas Ahmed, author of The Polymath: Unlocking The Power of Human Versatility is this: “Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than a master of one”.
That the third part has been culturally erased is telling of the prestige we accord specialisation, says Ahmed. Different cultures have their own variations. For example, the Chinese (always good with proverbs), say ‘Equipped with knives all over, yet none is sharp’. Here’s the slightly less lyrical truth: being a human Swiss army knife is perhaps your best chance at forging a diverse and stimulating career path, achieving excellence in one or more fields and living a rich life.
So, what is a polymath? The term itself derives from Ancient Greek to mean a person with “many learnings”. How many? Ahmed puts the number at three or more and defines a polymath as someone who possesses high levels of openness and curiosity, which gives them the versatility to excel in multiple fields. While he’s either too modest or too stringent to admit it, Ahmed is something of a renaissance man himself.
Currently artistic director at The Khalili Collections, one of the most highly regarded private art collections in the world, he’s also an established painter in his own right. Previously, he’s worked as a journalist, completed postgraduate studies in neuroscience, holds a Master’s degree in the History of International Relations, is a qualified PT and trained with an elite division of the British Armed Forces. Somehow, he’s married with a one-year-old child. Perhaps the most staggering part? He’s only 37.
Ahmed, who is also founder of the multidisciplinary thinktank The DaVinci Network, makes a distinction between those who merely pursue multiple interests and those who are leaders or even pioneers in their chosen fields. “There’s a higher form of polymath who’s able to integrate the knowledge and experience they have obtained from the different fields in order to innovate and make serious contributions to each of them.” What distinguishes these people, he says, is their ability to make useful, often vital connections between their fields.
Among them you can count some of history’s greatest minds, people whose discoveries and breakthroughs expanded our understanding of the world: Newton, Galileo, Aristotle, Darwin and, of course, arguably the greatest polymath of them all, da Vinci, who once said: “Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else”.
The polymath legacy of achievement continues today. Michigan State University researchers found that Nobel Prize-winning scientists are significantly more likely to sing, dance, act, create visual art, write poetry and be a musician than the average scientist.
One of the many advantages the polymath enjoys over the specialist, Ahmed believes, is the ability to draw on knowledge and expertise from diverse fields to tackle problems from a myriad of angles. “Creativity and innovation, by their very nature, require a synthesis to bring about something new,” he says. “And that can’t happen from a set amount of variables moving forward in a linear way. You can get to a certain point but then you’ll experience a plateau, after which you’ll require fresh insight. That insight must come from outside of whatever silo you’re in, most likely from a different field.”
While a polymathic approach will increasingly drive innovation, in the longer term, Ahmed argues, it will become imperative in tackling existential threats. “Many of the problems humanity will face moving forward are likely to be very complex and have multiple dimensions to them,” he says, citing hydra-headed beasts such as climate change and AI. “And so our ability to respond to these effectively will essentially be our survival strategy. And what trait is better for survival in such a scenario than versatility? The ability to move seamlessly between different forms of knowledge, adapting effectively and making new contributions wherever they’re sought. The polymathic approach is needed now more than ever before.”
If that sounds overwhelming, rest assured you don’t have to save the world just yet. But you can help yourself today. The benefits of a rich, multifaceted life extend all the way down to the hobby or side-hustle level. “We, as human beings, were never meant to live linear, specialised, siloed lives,” Ahmed says. “Especially as most people find themselves in jobs or fields that are far from their dream or their passion.”
So, whether you want to reclaim a dream, pursue an interest you’ve always been curious about or make a career change, the onus is on you to open up new dimensions of your being. Like the high-achieving men that follow, you’ll give yourself a greater chance at finding personal fulfilment, be better placed to
make a tangible contribution to society, and, not insignificantly, be better company at dinner parties.
Dr Chris Brown, 42, is a vet, TV presenter and an accomplished wildlife photographer who works as an ambassador for Canon. As Brown has found, skills in one field can set you up for success in another
“I grew up with my dad being the local vet and my mum being a physio, so that interest in animals and the way the body and the world works has always been there. I probably used to annoy the hell out of Dad by bringing home just about every animal that appeared in the schoolyard.
I’ve always had a curious mind. I also don’t like to settle. I find it very hard to do just one thing. I consider myself someone who has a crack at a lot of things and is successful to varying degrees.
I’m intrigued by science, by the weather, by nature, by how animals are put together, what makes them ill and how you can change that. That extends to the natural world and that’s where photography comes in. I love beautiful landscapes and wildlife and just capturing the wonder of the world at different times.
Mum’s quite arty. She always had a camera with her and that was an object of fascination for me as a kid. I used to borrow it and just go on these little photo sprees from the age of five or six.
I’ve done a bit of work for Canon where I’ve been sent to photograph whales in the Azores, to Japan to photograph shooting stars. That’s enabled me to make it a bit more than a hobby. I sell prints and the money from those goes to different animal charities. I love it because it really distracts me. You go out and shoot a nice sunset or try to find a particular animal to capture on film and it’s almost like meditation.
I think photography gives me a little bit of creative stimulation that the science and the precision of being a vet doesn’t. It enables me to colour outside the lines if you like. And to appreciate something that doesn’t necessarily play by the rules. At the same time, when you’re trying to photograph wildlife, your animal knowledge becomes incredibly useful. You can pick the body language of what an animal’s about to do. Like, when an eagle’s about to fly or whether a leopard is hunting or not. You can also understand whether they’re sick or not. I’ve been on veterinary cases where you’re out tracking a lion or a rhino and sometimes a photo with a really long lens gives you a great piece of information around how you’re going to treat that animal. So, the two fields can cross over and be complementary.
TV was an unexpected bonus. From a veterinary perspective, it means you’re exposed to some really fascinating cases and animals you otherwise wouldn’t get in your normal suburban vet hospital. But there are moments doing live TV where there’s a lot of pressure. I think the vet background really helps because when you’ve dealt with emergency animal cases where you have to think quickly and calmly, it’s really not that different to live TV. My background helps contextualise things, too. You can be doing a finale of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, but it’s not as stressful as trying to put a dog back together after it’s been hit by a car.
I do wonder whether the idea of getting bored in one field has made me seek out all these other things. I don’t handle repetition well. I always like to be challenged with different things. The downside is you can be so caught up in all these exciting opportunities that important elements of life can pass you by. Of my group of mates, I’m one of the few who hasn’t had kids yet.
I took up guitar during COVID because suddenly I had this time at home. It’s one of my favourite things to do because it forces you, again, not to be too precise, not to be too scientific. Anything I learn is a bonus. I don’t feel a need to master it because it’s never been part of my makeup.
I still consider myself a vet first because that’s at the heart of who I am. All the other interests provide a bit of balance and intrigue during the week. It makes it a hell of a lot of fun.”
Dr Vyom Sharma, 34, is a Melbourne GP and an award-winning magician who’s performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and was a grand finalist on Australia’s Got Talent. He’s also a health commentator and writer. While his fields are distinct, his skills often overlap.
“I was born in India and came to Australia when I was eight years old. I grew up in a fairly standard, middle-class Indian family that was very career- and education-focused.
As a kid it I didn’t have one fixed dream, but I was always dreaming. I was like, ‘I wonder what it would be like to be an astronaut, be in space, or to be a magician, or to be a doctor’.
In terms of getting into magic, there were two key moments. The first was when I was six years old in India and I was watching a TV show and this guy was just making playing cards appear and fly and bounce. It was just incredible. Then at medical school, this fellow student did these incredible pieces of sleight-of-hand magic. I wanted to find out how the trick was done. I went to magic shops but the books are so expensive and they’re incredibly rare. One day I was walking past the State Library of Victoria and decided to go in and see if they had the book I needed. It turns out the State Library has the world’s largest collection of magic books, called the Alma Conjuring Collection.
There began this parallel education. I was doing medical school on one hand, magic on the other. It started off as something that I just liked. I didn’t have any particular ambition. But it was such a powerful force to be completely obsessed with something because the amount of improvement and knowledge you can get is remarkable.
I think the trope is you tell your parents, ‘Mum and Dad, I want to be a magician’, and there’s a look of horror on their faces. Sometimes we romanticise that dichotomy of, ‘You’re at a crossroads, you’ve got to pick one or the other’. Oddly enough, I never saw it that way and I just couldn’t see any reason why I had to pick one or the other. I think a lot of the time that dichotomy is an illusion. That’s not to say that there isn’t a trade-off when you’re trying to do multiple things at once. But the point is that’s a trade-off that’s your choice and these are not permanent decisions. I think it’s really important to let things happen first and then decide.
The thing that’s helped me in both fields is what I’ve learned about communicating and relating to people, and one’s helped in the other. Having to communicate professionally about quite sensitive things in medicine has really given me an advantage when it comes to performing on stage, in terms of being able to communicate effectively and creating a rapport very rapidly. And vice versa, the performance aspect of magic has helped to quickly create rapport with people in general practice, where you’re seeing 30 patients a day. As a GP, so much of the decision-making just comes down to, does the patient trust you? There are ways you can convey that very authentically that you learn from performing on stage.
Last year this third path opened up for me, as I began doing a lot of health commentating. It requires a very special skillset and yet it’s a perfect overlap of the other two things I do. Speaking accurately and truthfully about medical things is obviously important, but the key from performing on stage is making it accessible, being able to pull people in.
People ask me how I balance it all. A lot of us are very busy. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re short on time. Sometimes when you’re working on things that you’re highly engaged in, it’s incredibly energising and it’s amazing how much you can get done in a short amount of time.
I’m at my best when I’m doing both things in parallel. It lets you bounce between the two, and sometimes, when you’re having difficulty with one discipline, that doesn’t need to become your whole world. You know there are other experiences you can have. It’s a very freeing thought.”
Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, 48, holds academic qualifications that span mathematics, mathematical logic, artificial intelligence, physics and computational neuroscience. He is founder of the multidisciplinary Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) at the University of Oxford, which investigates big-picture questions about humanity and existential risk. He has dabbled in stand-up comedy and is an occasional poet
It was only when I became a teenager that I started to take my education seriously. I thought, ‘I don’t really know what the meaning of life is, but I could start by trying to put myself in a better position to find out’. I was just interested in questions that didn’t fall within any one particular discipline and I kind of pursued those questions, wherever they led. What would be the relevant things to study if that is your goal? Philosophy, physics, psychology, artificial intelligence. So, that’s what I tried to do, building up general cognitive tools that might be useful for a wide range of different applications. The FHI, which focuses on big-picture questions for humanity, is intrinsically a very multidisciplinary area where it’s very valuable to have a broad background. I think there is some advantage to studying two fields, with one major focus, but then know something about another area where you might then draw inspiration. You get a little bit more perspective on what your main focus is because you have something to compare it with and you can more easily see what’s not working.
Also, different questions arise if you’re not too narrowly shaped by one particular academic program. Take the COVID-19 pandemic. When it first erupted a lot of people in my circles had a relatively more informed view of it than even people who are supposedly experts in public health, through having a broader ability to understand and evaluate science and compare what’s important and what’s not. It’s hard to get that perspective if you’re too immersed in one particular sub-discipline.
The other thing with specialising is that sometimes what you discover after you start working on a problem is that it just might not be possible to make progress. That happens all the time. Also, what can happen is that you realise that maybe progress on a particular problem would not actually be desirable or advantageous for humanity. So, by being multifaceted you have the ability to abandon various research directions that are too full of information hazards. In that case, if you have three other equally interesting research directions to fall back on, you don’t have to give up your academic career.
I think a lot of the big challenges that face humanity involve many different aspects that somehow need to be integrated. The modern world is hyper-specialised. That’s a big part of how we’ve made progress as a civilisation. But I see multidisciplinary scholarship almost as the next step of that specialisation process. We can now have people who specialise in being generalists, doing this more synthesising or integrating type of work.
For me, there is always so much more to learn within each field. You always feel like you’re falling behind. Maybe you read up on the latest in one particular subfield, then at the same time you’re falling behind in all the others. In a sense it’s kind of a hopeless proposition. So, what you have to do is to keep some general level of familiarity and follow your curiosity. And then when you’re working on a particular project, make a focused effort to find the most relevant literature and make sure you’re familiar with it.
These days, anybody with an internet connection has access to information. It’s all there. So, it’s a matter of cultivating your curiosity and then allowing it to crisscross and roam and to be asking questions and be asking yourself questions. Then find a community of other people who have sufficiently similar interests to bounce
ideas off and challenge you.
I never wanted to become a poet or a stand-up comedian as a career. The stand-up comedy was more a way of adding some equipment to my repertoire, like communication skills, performance skills. Poetry is something I’m almost trying not to do, but every once in a while, like an alcoholic who sees a bottle and can’t help themselves, I fall back into it. I don’t think the world’s biggest problem is a deficit of poems.”