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Why the 21st Century Needs a Resurgence of Polymaths (Part I)

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Note: This is the first article in a two-part series on the value of polymaths in modern society and how we can promote the development of polymaths.

There are different types of people in this world. Some people are comfortable with one calling. One passion. One pursuit. One career and one purpose. We might call these people specialists – those who focus surgically on one mission.

But what about those people who are called by more than one passion? We’ve had many names for such people throughout history. “Renaissance men” (or “renaissance people” so as not to be sexist) is one such term, and another term is “multi-potentialite.” One of my favorite terms for them is “polymaths.”

Defining Polymaths

Polymath is a word with Greek origins. “Poly” means “many,” and “math” means “learning.” So polymaths are people drawn to learn about, experience and do many things, not just one.

I know this concept well because I am a polymath myself. I have degrees in hospitality management, law, aerospace studies and culinary arts. I also like to race in motocross competitions, record podcasts, play guitar and work on home improvement projects. I am drawn to many interests.

Our Society Does Not Encourage People to Become Polymaths

Being a polymath is not a new concept. But this way of thinking is firmly at odds with the modern zeitgeist around what mature, responsible people should do with their lives. Think about how our typical societal path is structured.

It starts when we’re just old enough to talk and the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” emerges harmlessly from friends and family. But you’ll notice that a single answer is still expected. It is never implied or considered by the inquirer that the response could be pluralistic.

After high school, there is an expectation that most high school students who graduate will go to college. Upon entering college – at the wise “old age” of 18 or so – newly admitted freshmen are asked to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives.

Choose quickly because you can’t dawdle around taking up space in classrooms without a direction. And you’d better be sure of your choice, because there’s no turning back – it is far too expensive and time-wasting to change your mind after you’ve set off on your path.

So these young teenagers make their choice – and it should be no surprise that many later regret their initial choices after learning in their first few semesters that they aren’t as passionate about their path as they thought they would be. Some weather the social and financial costs of changing majors. Others persist through their academic programs and reluctantly enter careers they end up loathing.

Today’s world is built around the traditionalist notion that each person should have one “thing” that they do – one thing that defines their existence and their purpose. But this way of thinking is simply in discord with who most of us are as human beings – we’re multidimensional and multifaceted.

Influential Polymaths in History

Some of the most influential individuals in recorded human history have been those who were polymaths. Examples include Aristotle, Hypatia, Alhazen, Copernicus, Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Perhaps the most noteworthy of polymaths is the original “Renaissance Man” himself, Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci is known by most for his work as an artist (such as the Mona Lisa). However, fewer people are aware that da Vinci was also an inventor, an engineer, an astronomer, an anatomist, a biologist, a geologist, a physicist and an architect.

Da Vinci made tremendous contributions to scientific inquiry. We have handwritten notes from da Vinci that show he was thinking about ideas like contact lenses, robots, scuba gear and helicopters – ideas that were impossible in his era but that would come to fruition centuries later.

Da Vinci’s multifaceted pursuits allowed him to think hundreds of years beyond his own time. Incidentally, da Vinci lived at a time when the average bachelor’s degree at a university took seven years to complete. It consisted not of specialized majors, but was a generalized study of knowledge in all of the seven “liberal arts” disciplines of the age: grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy.

But here’s a question worth pondering: Where are the polymaths today? In the second part of this article series, we’ll look at why there are so few polymaths and what we can do to encourage more people to become polymaths.

Dr. Gary Deel is an Associate Professor with the Wallace E. Boston School of Business. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University and American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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