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Polymaths, Specialists and Their Advantages


Let’s discuss polymaths: namely, the lifelong battle between Generalists and Specialists.

It’s kind of difficult to explain what a polymath is without seeing just how capable a polymath could be in the modern world. But, we’re going to try it anyway.

On one hand, a specialist is easier to determine: When in their element, specialists thrive on their deep understanding of a certain field. If you are in need of an expert, look no further than a specialist in that field.

In contrast, a polymath is known as an expert-generalist: A jack of all trades, a master of none. As one, I can dive into a field of my interest, read up about it, hold a proper justified opinion on said field, and create value from there.

Note that it becomes harder for me to create greater specific value than say, a specialist, aka. someone with decades of experience down the line.

But, having the tendencies of a polymath compared to others holds a few advantages that no other can provide.

For example:

Adaptability through Diversity

When put into conversation together, specialists can talk for hours on the same topic: whether it be on quantum physics, stoicism and its impact on a global perspective, and recent macroeconomic events that will affect the world over time.

For the average individual, it’ll be hard to contribute anything into this kind of conversation, unless you have pre-read materials and/or kept up to date on latest developments.

Specialists, however, lose value in conversations where their realm of knowledge holds little relevance. Why talk to someone about building a rocket, when they want to help the homeless? Why discuss the principles of Plato’s Republic with a hedge fund manager? Why talk when you can listen?

A polymath can talk themselves into any conversation and stand their ground. They can deliver any intended message in a manner that’s easy to understand. If it’s a topic they don’t know anything about, they keep themselves quiet and listen: we can build ourselves by listening to the wisdom of others.

Yes, anyone can listen, but to what extent does this newfound knowledge have an effect on you as an individual?

For polymaths, it does have an influence, for they have such a huge thirst for learning that they create value through such characteristics.

In this case, it can be research into a specific topic, whether it be current financial literacy rates, public social sentiment or e-banking. It can be current practices for self-publishing, as well as various business models aiding philanthropy and social enterprise.

It can be creative as well: Epigrams to short stories, to outlines for a full book. Recently, I had a discussion with a friend about the practices of imported raw materials to make scents and perfumes, looking into potentially making blends. But, that’s a story for another day.

The point is that adaptability becomes second-nature when jumping from field to field. Having a diverse knowledge makes it easier for polymaths to do this, and depending on the situation we can introduce new perspectives which can come in handy.

Mental Models are Abundant

Let’s take an example: a FinTech app.

It’ll be challenging for, say, a banker to talk about creating an app for trading stocks: they would have to describe the app’s architecture, create the necessary technical documentation, design a full notification system, notify what type of data sources are present and relevant, which data is premium/sensitive, etc. and all this to their team of developers.

If this banker, specialized in finance, doesn’t know anything about building apps, coding, and developing, how does he/she describe it perfectly? If they have experience in coding, however, it would be easier to do so. But, not all of us are coders: I’m not a coder, I don’t know anything about coding. I love languages, but these tend to be languages for people, not for the PC.

Having had experience creating technical docs, app architectures, contributing to app design, etc. I would find it easier in this regard. This was back when I was Head of Marketing for a FinTech company. Note that I was not the banker or developer, but the writer and translator.

Being the middleman, I could translate everything sent from both parties as they are intended to be, and minimize any mistakes. There could be financial terms that must be addressed but are handled differently when coded into an application. Likewise, there could be limitations to developments and costs when it comes to implementing a complex financial service. I became the bridge between the two parties.

In the above case, there could be the notion of biases that affect message delivery: repeating one’s expert knowledge to another of a different field would not result in mutual understanding. For effective delivery, having a broad range of knowledge requires us to possess multiple mental models in order to understand all of them.
These models are tools: formal perspectives that we use to shift outlooks from party to party so that we can ensure complete message delivery. Certain biases prevent us from translating said specialized knowledge effectively.

Polymaths can reduce that. Breaking down the barriers between different fields, we can use multiple mental models to tackle what needs to be communicated, and what issues we should prioritize. Very useful indeed. When jumping from one field to the next, having a toolbox full of mental models helps with that transition greatly.

Of course, Specialists can also have many mental models, however, this is a rare case: the number of mental models you naturally learn to depend on the field you are involved in. Most fields do not stray too far away from their prerequisite mental models in order to understand technical knowledge. With that in mind, specialists can resort to enhancing their ability to work well in a few mental models effectively, in order to make the most out of their chosen field.

It all depends on the situation: how many perspectives and mental models do you need to tackle one issue? 1, 2 or more?

Polymaths can connect unrelated dots

The greatest polymaths have learned how to innovate. Actually no, that’s wrong: the greatest polymaths have made innovation part of their daily lives.

They play with a new idea, create something new, find out more about a new field, connect with someone better than them at said field, and create value.

One popular example, Elon Musk, by definition is a polymath: he co-founded PayPal, took up a physics textbook and learned how to make rockets. He built SpaceX, made rockets, and got stuck in traffic. The jam inspired him to learn about building tunnels, and from there he built the Boring Company. Financial services, rocket science, and building tunnels. They are fundamentally different, right? Note that there are many different breeds of polymaths, I will expand on that someday.

Of course, specialists can also connect the dots in their own manner, depending on the situation. It may be valued greater in that regard. Therein lies a certain issue when it comes to innovating in depth: there is a low possibility of that new idea to be applied in other, outside fields. If that is no issue, then that’s okay.

For myself, I tend to connect the dots across a variety of fields: From the creative to macroeconomic, they are very different, but that difference is what makes it a challenge, and challenge is fun.

By innovating wide as opposed to deep, you might find some interesting ideas somewhere in there. Most of them can be useless, but some can be potentially viable. Then, it becomes all about what you are capable of creating using the broad knowledge you have: rockets in tunnels? Transporting yourself using social media? What wild ideas can you come up with? Once again, very situational.

The human mind is fascinating.

With that said, how is it that we are all capable of achieving this? Our brains can take different pieces of information, mash them together, and create something new in our minds.

Whether we can find these new ideas depends on our tendencies: can we find connections between information that at first glance has no relation to each other? Some can, some can’t. Our ability to diverge away from our chosen fields and apply newfound knowledge depends on us as individuals. This is all possible with the complexity of the human mind, and that is a beautiful thought.

Specialists dive deep into one field, knowing that focus creates value. Polymaths dive into many fields, knowing that there is value in bringing them together.
Yet, we all can specialize and we all can diversify at the same time. It’s just a matter of what fits us the most.

Are you a polymath, or a specialist? Do you like many things, or are you in love with one (or two) things? Let me know!