Skip to main content

How Polymaths are Designed to Think From Multiple Perspectives


How do polymaths think? How would you map out their minds on a diagram?

Would it be, a Venn diagram with fields intersecting each other? Would it be a mind map? Is it a long list of things that make up you?

In a quest to visualize the mind of a polymath, I designed a simple diagram that pretty much fits every individual.

Introducing: The Polymathic Compartmental Model!
This model, referred from here onwards as PCM, is one that I believe is applicable to anyone. Well, so far, it works in my head at least when I made it.
The purpose of it is to figure out one’s polymathic tendencies: having a visual diagram of what things we know, and what goes in our head makes it easier to see what kind of individual we really are.

Let’s give it a try below.

First, imagine an upside down pyramid, with 4 rows.

The Top Row: Fields

The blocks at the top, represent the compartments, or Fields of Interest.

These are the fields that you have knowledge in, and depending on your interests they can be few or many. Specialists tend to have only a few key compartments, that are very related to each other. In the realm of physics for example, it could be particle physics, nuclear physics, and so on. These compartments are very technical, and that can explain the size of each field: specialists have larger field compartments, which act like baskets to hold such deep, technical knowledge.

For Engineers in say, Oil & Gas, they would have to know the ins-and-outs of pressure, valves, anything regarding an oil rig, safety and quality control, aspects like that. My apologies for butchering these terms, I don’t exactly have a compartment for O&G.

Some of these compartments contain our memories: memories of our friends, our families, our loved ones. It could also contain traumatic events, and how big these compartments are play a role in their influence on your life.

For polymaths, the compartments may differ in both quality, quantity, and relevance.

To accommodate one of the consistent character patterns of a polymath, which is that we like to learn everything, our PCM is top-heavy: there would be at least 3 or more different fields.

Some of my own personal fields are as follows:
Digital Marketing, Writing, Voice Acting, Social Enterprise, Philanthropy, Finance, International Studies, Macroeconomic factors, Education, Dance, Guitar.
As you can tell, some of them do not even relate to each other. What does Poetry have to do with Philanthropy? Guitar with Finance?
Confusing? Yes. It’s alright, I still have an interest in all of them.

The Second Row: Mental Models

The next row underneath, consist of our mental models.

These are the lenses that we use to view the world. There are multiple formal models that require a certain element of depth to fully understand them, but to summarize their usage, mental models are the key questions that you ask yourself in order to understand the situation you are currently in.
Are you going for a Utilitarian approach? a win-win situation? What’s your end-goal? Long-term? Short-term? What about the women, promoting equality in gender rights? What about the homeless, those displaced by society for being under the influence of flawed recovery systems? What about the disabled, or those who are dependents? What about the country, and other macro-level factors?

Some examples include the sunken cost fallacy: which essentially means, going ahead with something bad because you’ve put already so much time, effort and money into it. Another one would be the Influence of Authority: we could blindly follow an authority figure without thinking. Others take into account what benefits we gain, through things like economies of scale, and opportunity cost.

Mental models are very powerful for anyone because they tend to tell you, the individual, what YOU value the most. Is it for the family? Do it for the family. Is it for money? You’re tackling the problem with the highest chance of bankroll. Fat pockets right? Is it for recognition? To be known for being good at something?

Each powerful question, or model, makes up a block in this row. Now that we have our fields, we use that knowledge to understand the world through these lenses.

The next row is our ability to deal with emotion.

The Third Row: Emotional Intelligence

This is where it gets very complicated. Emotional Intelligence consists of how you react to different stimuli. It could be anger management, empathy, anxiety management, social awareness, Ego, and things like that.

For this row, I tend to think of people in terms of stats: what attributes do they have that are greater than others, and what traits are they also having trouble with, or lacking?

Personally, I tend to take a very Socratic approach: if we’re all in a conversation, and everyone’s trying to state their opinion on something but there’s just this slight miscommunication between us, I take a step back and ask them questions, trying to use different words to deliver the same intended meaning. It can be a sign of empathy, trying my best to listen to and understand others.

A negative example would be very poor anger management: on hearing a slightly offensive joke, with no intention to insult anyone, a person can get into a fit of rage and do the unthinkable. We can easily provoke each other knowing such information. Very scary stuff. I will dive into that another time.

People have different levels of Emotional Intelligence depending on the department, and an effective self-reflection helps you determine yours. Do you get anxious easily? How do you feel about deadlines? Do you like to brag? How do you react to constructive criticism? The quest to better ourselves is never-ending.

The final row consists of only one block: ourselves.

The Bottom Row: Character

This is who we are.
This is what we like, and what we don’t like. Are we cynical? Are we optimistic? Are we pessimistic? Do we value ourselves over others? Are we extroverted, introverted? Do we like socializing? How do we value recognition?

Our character forms the main core of our individuality, while our emotional intelligence and mental models dictate the conveying of such attributes. There is a slight difference there.

This is the core, and therefore it’s hard to change. Some people may not like their character, but in actual fact they could be having trouble traversing life due to poor emotional intelligence. There is a chance that we will always be pessimistic, or that there is a chance we will always be cynical about the world. But, it also highlights some of our strongest positive attributes, and that we shouldn’t have to worry about going off-course: we really don’t change in character that much.

To help understand the difference between the few rows, here are some examples:

A person could have an extremely logical mind as a character, but be very sympathetic to someone: they can rationalize that these are the right words to comfort someone in times of need. The issue their friend is going through maybe just a puzzle for them to solve. In Character, they could be caring and rational. However, they may have a naturally logical mental model in use, and in the row of Emotional Intelligence, sympathy has a greater role to play than empathy in this situation. It differs from person to person how they address this situation. The troubled friend can seek answers from an empathetic person, who understands their struggles and relates to them, and a sympathetic person, who knows that they are struggling, and feels sorry for them.

A lover of humanity at heart, in character, may have a short temper. The slight mention of an embarrassing secret or something similar and this person will easily turn red with anger. This could be due to poor anger management, which is wasted on such a strong character. One can train themselves to manage anger in different ways, providing more outlets for anger or different ways to dissipate it.

For myself, I value learning. I have a desire to learn so much that I get easily bored if it’s something I’m used to. If a routine starts to come up, I try my best to break it. I change locations to write, for example. I also write in fields that have no relevance to each other. This, in turn, creates a low attention span, which goes into my EI. It’s annoying, but I’m working on it.

Our Character can be affected by shock events, incidents that traumatize us. The death of a family member, for example, can cause such a huge shock to our character that it can affect it permanently. Like a permanent marker on a whiteboard, it will be hard to wash it off and improve as a person. Such is the wonder of life however: a rollercoaster of emotions that create meaning in ours.

Anyways, back on topic!

How does this all explain Polymaths?

In summary:

Top Row: Fields

Second Row: Mental Models

Third Row: Emotional Intelligence

Fourth Row: Character

How does this help us?

The thing about polymaths is, as mentioned before since they know quite a variety of things, their PCMs are extremely top-heavy. To compensate for that, their character would prioritize learning over other things, and to accommodate for such a variety, the number of mental models needed to maintain this shape would have to grow in number.

This leaves the Emotional Intelligence row to be slightly questionable: as mentioned before, it is difficult to dedicate one’s time to many things at once, so there is the issue of attention span and focus. These come under EI, and you might find across the polymaths of the last few centuries, attention span is something they lacked. Yes, key polymaths like Da Vinci and Young had many discoveries which are attributed to their dedication to such fields, but it’s becoming difficult to achieve the same level of greatness in contemporary times. Plus, though they were great, they were looked down upon as non-specialists: pride was a huge factor in the polymath vs. specialist battle back then.

A lack of focus and low attention span became a consistent observation.

For specialists, all the value created from the first 3 rows is focused on only a small number of fields at the top. This creates depth, and in a specialist’s world is highly valuable. Many field-specific discoveries are found this way: if you dedicate enough time, you might find something new in one compartment.
However, some forms of innovation come from the breakdown of walls between compartments to create something new, Something innovative.

This becomes harder to come by in a specialist model – whereas you can find wild ideas putting 2 or more irrelevant fields together, specialists innovate mainly through depth. A specialist can fine-tune their few but strong mental models to create something new, and specific to that field.

For polymaths, however, we have many more compartments and therefore avenues for breakdowns. Because our models are large enough to accommodate multiple compartments, combined with a vast number of mental models, you can start to build wild ideas. They may be stupid, wild, and crazy ideas, but they can be unheard of in this world: validating their application makes it all the more innovative.

One example is FinTech, aka. Financial Technology: who would ever guess that you can have an entire functioning bank in an app on your phone? Polymathic tendencies came into play here: the mixture of financial services, technology, coding, developing and agile team management combined to create something innovative. Maybe, it didn’t exactly create a new service, but in this case, we are focusing more on the delivery of such service. The innovation was in its design, and method of delivery.
As individuals, we can capitalize on this model: the more we train our EI and build upon our mental models, the more we can apply their advantages to the fields we know. We can build our own ideas that way, and they can work.
That’s about it really. There are pros and cons to being either one. Naturally, we tend to lean towards what fits our character the best. In my case, it’s very polymathic. Most of the people I know are specialists, and I look at them to learn something new. We can be hybrids too: learning mental models from different fields, but applying them in specialized knowledge only we possess.
Polymaths are few and far in between, and as we favor towards training specialists in the contemporary world, these specialists are needed more. It makes sense: there were a plethora of discoveries only in the last few hundreds of years. Now that the scientific frontier is becoming more and more saturated, we would need specialists in all fields.

Are you a Polymath or a Specialist?

Try this model out on yourself. What fields do you like? How detailed can you go in every one of them? Are you really, really good at more than one field? A good writer, surfer and a Ph.D. in neuroscience? You may be a polymath. Are you extremely specialized in rocket science, capable of managing multiple missions? You could be a scientific specialist.

Most tend to think they’re specialists, but if they take the time to self-reflect then they might find they can be good at other things too. There can be a polymath in all of us. It’s all about whether or not you’re willing to commit. It’s all about whether or not you are willing to create a new compartment in your head to learn about a field in more detail.
A reminder that the PCM only describes what we know, and our tendencies to shift to different fields. It is only a visual tool, and it is up to you to make good use of that information.

What if I want to make a new field?

One question you may ask is:

What if I want to try something new?

When attempting to create a new field, some people say things like ‘oh I’ve always wanted to be an actor, but I never got the time’, or ‘I wanted to do this but I’m not good, no money, etc.’.

These are all excuses. We are natural learners, it’s all in our character. We thrive, we explore. We innovate. That’s who we are. That’s what humans are born to do.
You do have time. 24 hours in a day in fact. But that time is limited. Don’t waste your life wondering if you can do it, just do it. Just be smart about it. Plan it out, dedicate 20 minutes of your time a day to read up about it.

Is it Dance? Start practicing in front of a mirror, learn from YouTube. Is it Poetry? Vomit random words into a piece of paper; see how much it sucks, then read other people’s poems and understand why they work. Try again.

Want to build a rocket? Pick up the same books that current companies have studied from, and try to understand them, a chapter at a time. It only takes 30 minutes a day.

This is how you start building your fields: you don’t have to be good to justify having a field, you just need to have an interest. Everything starts with curiosity, and then action. You can just build your fields now.

If it helps, here’s another question to consider: Self-satisfaction. If I do this, will I truly be happy? If I start this, will I love the struggle? If I finally get good at this, can I even wipe off the smile on my face?

There are specialists and polymaths in all of us, we just need to know who we truly are.