I recently read a post which stated that the days of the polymath are numbered. A polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs) is a person of wide knowledge or learning, one whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas.
But this definition applies to everyone today, right?
Politics, world affairs, human rights, economics, stock markets, business, productivity, motivation, solving crime – everyone knows about everything. Is the polymath really dying?
A few weeks ago, I met Dave, a US resident who worked for a reputed consultancy in the Middle East. During our conversation, he introduced me to cognitive laziness.
Cognitive laziness is of two forms. One is to accept the initial perception of the problem. The other is to get limited information on a subject, and form a perception about it. “People don’t like to research by themselves,” Dave told me. “They ask me about a topic. When I tell them to look it up, they say, ’Just tell me something about it.’ Then they go around behaving like they know everything on the subject. It’s like we turn into experts on every subject within 30 seconds.”
The first polymaths were thinkers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, who excelled at several fields. Leonardo da Vinci was an inventor, a painter, sculptor, architect, scientist and more. Michelangelo was a poet, sculptor, architect and painter. They developed skills by learning, which included action.Polymaths didn’t just know about a field; they could contribute to it too. They put skin in the game.
Today, people can expound opinions, but have no skin in the game. We have many dabblers, and barely any polymaths. The difference between dabblers and polymaths, according to late scientist, author and art collector Carl Djerassi, is like promiscuity and polygamy.
“To me, promiscuity is a way of flitting around. Polygamy, serious polygamy, is where you have various marriages and each of them is important. And in the ideal polygamy I suspect there’s no number one wife and no number six wife. You have a deep connection with each person.”
Words shouldn’t determine ability. Actions should. If mere words were enough, the people most active on Facebook and Twitter would’ve become Nobel Laureates.
The Promiscuous and the Polygamist
Consider two individuals in their early twenties, Ajay and Arun. Their careers start off at the same time. While Ajay collects new knowledge each week, Arun does nothing to improve. When they converse, it is difficult to differentiate between expertise and opinion. Ajay shares perspectives from knowledge. But Arun makes up points from what he consumes – social media, television and overhearing others’ conversations. Arun impresses people with his words and ‘knowledge’. Why should he let the world know that Ajay is better informed than him?
Now imagine both of them ten years later. Ajay has progressed in leaps and bounds, while Arun stagnated. But Arun refuses to acknowledge Ajay’s efforts, and instead attributes it to luck. While Ajay kept improving due to the compound effect of his work, Arun turned himself away from potential improvements. Instead, like most people today, he became a ‘flat-line learner‘. He resorted to passive entertainment and consumption, satisfied with the superficial knowledge he accumulated over time.
It is easy to be drawn towards passive entertainment, which requires less from us, over more energetic, active understanding. Inconvenience might be an alibi: “I don’t have time for continuous learning as I am too busy with real life”. But that excuse doesn’t withstand close scrutiny, as experiences (coupled with reflection) can be the richest of all sources of investigation and discovery.
Passive entertainment, or relentless consumption, makes dabblers appear knowledgeable. Listeners drop their jaws in admiration, stunned at their intelligence. But it’s not real. Dabblers stop learning. They become complacent and intolerant of alternate perspective. This reduces their focus too. I know plenty of dabblers who wear distraction like a badge. They gloat over their incapability to read 1200-word articles. Imagine how many books they must read, despite calling themselves bibliophiles.
Doers usher in progress. Dabblers slow civilization down. Doers bleed. Through experience and first-hand knowledge, they can help us improve. They show us how we can tap into our latent potential to achieve more. Dabblers bring stagnation.
But the doer, is dying. And we’re killing him. Our preference for speech over action has turned us into a society of pseudo intellectuals with scant knowledge. It has also robbed us of memorable experiences and the potential to make a difference.
Revive Your Senses
Mankind is gifted with six senses. More talk and less action means we rarely stimulate senses beyond sight and sound. We feel stressed because we do little to develop ourselves. We do little to satiate our mind and soul.
To experience the others senses, take more action. Don’t complain that Jack is a master of none. Instead, recognize that Jack is open-minded because of his genuine knowledge about many trades. Emulate him. Increase action instead of words. Not just in one field, but three. This won’t just help you focus better. You’ll turn smarter, because you’ll connect the dots between seemingly unrelated fields. You’ll experience true inner joy, the feeling you’ve been looking for since time unknown.
Your can’t dictate which way the winds blow. But you can adjust the sail of your boat. Adjusting the sail requires taking action. So take action. Revive the doer, in yourself more than the world. As a human, you’re blessed with the ability to take action for more than getting food, procreating or keeping yourself safe. Don’t ignore this beautiful gift.