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

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

In the first article, I discussed how our society does not encourage polymaths and mentioned some famous polymaths from history. But where are all the modern-day polymaths?

Some people might point to an occasional oddity like Elon Musk, who started companies that have revolutionized digital currency, electric cars, space logistics and other industries. But who else? There are exponentially more people on the planet today than in da Vinci’s time. Where are all the da Vincis?

Polymaths Are Needed Today for Our Complex Society

I would argue that polymaths are needed more than ever today, due to the complexity and interconnectedness of modern affairs. For example, in business, you could add the word “technology” to almost any industry and find that there is a burgeoning field of innovation and career growth.

Don’t believe me? Try Googling “hospitality technology,” “automotive technology,” “home construction technology” or “logistics technology.” Even Fortune 500 companies are commonly adding Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) to their executive boards today – positions that did not exist just a decade or two ago.

In addition, what about the intersections of different fields? Business executives need to understand the law so that they can evaluate contracts and avoid liability. Entrepreneurs have to understand finance and accounting principles so they can secure funding for their inventions and ideas. Marketing professionals must understand the science of human psychology in order to maximize their return on advertisement spending.

The fact is that there are far more points of intersections between fields than there are individual fields. We desperately need people who are well positioned to work at those points of intersection in order to drive our industries forward.

Specialists Are Still Important in Our Society

Take me as an example. My education and experience in hospitality allowed me to work in the tourism industry for years. But my training and licensure as an attorney also enabled me to litigate cases involving tourism incidents and to consult for tourism businesses who need guidance on how to manage their operations.

My work as an educator also enables me to teach the next generation of tourism professionals at colleges and universities around the country. My degrees in space studies also enable me to write and lecture about what the future of space tourism might look like. Again, the intersections of disciplines are where all of these things are happening.

Specialists are still important, however. Over the last few thousand years, we humans have amassed a tremendous accumulation of knowledge in countless different fields and areas. There is simply far too much today for any one human being to ever acquire in a lifetime, so specialization became a sensical approach.

Specialization may not be a bad thing; some people are better wired for specialization. The laser focus of specialists could be beneficial in areas where their exclusive attention is necessary or beneficial.

For example, if you’re about to have a high-risk operation, do you want a surgeon who does occasional surgeries but also spends equal time painting and running a life coaching business? Probably not – you want the doctor who is in the OR all the time.

If you’re going to trial on murder charges, do you want the public defender who practices law sometimes but is more interested in competitive cycling and traveling the world? No – you want the lawyer who eats, breathes and sleeps criminal defense work.

Why Don’t Our Educational Institutions Produce More Polymaths?

There is clearly a need for a resurgence in polymaths as our modern-day businesses and institutions evolve in complexity. So what is the source of the problem?

Part of it lies with the way higher education institutions are designed today. The seven liberal arts of old have now been relegated to general education prerequisites in individual degree programs. These requirements seem to be perpetually shrinking with fewer and fewer classes offering a narrower and narrower scope of learning opportunities.

Little effort is made to expose undergraduate students to different disciplines, fields and areas of interest. As a result, students can’t know what they enjoy or what they are good at if they are never introduced to the full spectrum of possibilities.

Other circumstances also stifle the learning process. College is more expensive than it should be, and the tremendous cost of getting a degree is a major deterrent to continued learning and the pursuit of passions. There are also credit caps and excess credit penalties that discourage students from taking additional classes.

Modern businesses and organizations also play a role in discouraging the development of polymaths. First, vertical organizational structures compartmentalize workers so that they are rarely exposed to learning opportunities outside their individual work units. Cross-training is the exception, not the rule. Employees exist on a need-to-know basis, so information and knowledge is not shared across an organization.

Second, hiring specifications also discourage people from becoming polymaths. Job requirements often demand specialization with 10 or 20 years of specific experience for candidates to be considered for senior-level roles. But these expectations are totally unrealistic unless applicants have invested a lifetime in being a specialist and nothing else.

Society Needs to View Polymaths Differently

Also, think about how society looks at polymaths. Our common views and expectations make little room for people who are inclined toward generalization. If you do many things at once, you’re confused, fickle or uncommitted. You’re not diverse; you’re considered a dilettante.

As a result, people who might otherwise explore all of their talents and interests do not do so for fear of judgment and alienation. To be a polymath in today’s world is, to a certain extent, to be a social pariah.

But imagine what genius is lost because those individuals don’t feel encouraged and supported to explore all of their talents. How many da Vincis will never reveal themselves and share their gifts with the world? That question keeps me up at night.

How Can We Promote the Development of Polymaths?

So how can we promote polymaths in today’s world? For schools, making college low-cost or tuition-free would be a really big help. The idea of government subsidies to promote free college is being proposed right now – so it’s not outside the scope of possibility.

Also, in recognizing that students don’t always know what they want to be when they first enter college, more exposure to different disciplines in initial freshman coursework would encourage more students toward developing a broader range of potential opportunities.

Similarly, more focus on continued learning and inspiring passions would do a lot to ease the pressure behind getting in and getting out. For this reason, interdisciplinary degree programs – which often allow students to build their degree plans a la carte from different classes that interest them as opposed to being confined to a rigid track of coursework – are fantastic options that should be promoted in every higher learning institution.

At our University, there is an emphasis on lifelong learning and continued education to help encourage students to pursue their interests and explore different passions.

In businesses and organizations, we can do a lot to support polymaths by tearing down the barriers of isolation between work teams and promoting more sharing. Cross-training of employees should be encouraged, as versatility is good for businesses.

More investment in employee development has been shown to lead to higher levels of employee loyalty and commitment, so this is a win-win for companies everywhere. Environments that reward learning and growth are likely to outperform competitors who do not value these ideals.

Lastly, non-polymath members of society should be less judgmental about polymaths’ interests and ambitions. It’s OK if your neighbor wants to teach elementary school math, write poetry, play the didgeridoo, take classes in nuclear physics and serve as a volunteer firefighter in your community. It will all work out – and the development of all of that knowledge might just lead to something great in the end.

To my fellow polymaths, I offer the following words of encouragement:

  • Don’t allow social norms or rules to dictate your pursuits.
  • Don’t worry about what your friends and family will think about you.
  • Don’t worry about what your workplace is looking for in promotional opportunities.
  • Don’t worry about what your school encourages or discourages in terms of the “right” learning path.

If you follow your passions, you will find a way to make a living out of it all. You’ll figure it out. Don’t let external pressure suffocate who you are. There is greatness in the quirky combination of interests that is uniquely you.

In the words of the legendary Michelangelo, “Ancora Imparo.”(“Still I learn.”)

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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