In 2019, David Epstein published his fascinating book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World” challenging the belief that specialised expertise as the only route to success. In that book, he contrasts the lives of Tiger Woods who picked up the golf club as a toddler to Roger Federer who played a whole range of sports well into his late teens to show how a multi-disciplinary exposure adds to your ability to succeed in your chosen area. The polymaths from the Renaissance era have been credible exhibits to this theory. Here’s a study by two professors from Michigan State University that shows even Nobel Prize winners often defy specialisation.
“As part of our creativity research over the past 20 years, we have gathered information about the work, hobbies and interests of 773 laureates in economics, literature, peace, physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine between 1901 and 2008.
We found that the vast majority of laureates have or had formal – and often also informal – education in more than one discipline, developed intensive and extensive hobbies and changed fields. Most importantly, we found, they have intentionally sought out useful connections among their diverse activities as a formal strategy for stimulating creativity.
Our analysis finds that scientists who win a Nobel Prize are about nine times more likely to have training in crafts such as wood- and metalworking or fine arts than the typical scientist.
And unlike most social scientists or other students of the humanities, Nobel laureates in economics are almost universally trained in mathematics, physics or astronomy. Nobel Prize winners in literature are about three times as likely to be fine artists and 20 times as likely to be actors than members of the general public.”
The authors note that paradoxically typical professionals tend to shun other interests in favour of staying focussed on their jobs. But can creative polymathy be fostered?
“We believe it is possible to foster the fruitful interaction of wide-ranging interests. One study found that people who double major in college are more likely to exhibit creative behaviors or become entrepreneurs than people who majored in one subject.
Another research study found that having a persistent, intellectually challenging hobby – such as musical performance, acting, visual art exhibition, competitive chess or computer programming – is a better predictor of career success in any field than are grades, standardized test scores or IQ. Similarly, our own research has found that science professionals with persistent crafts hobbies are significantly more likely to file patents and set up new companies than those without.
In our view, an increasingly complex and diverse world needs not only specialized experts but also creative generalists – the polymathic types who specialize in the breadth and integration that drive knowledge beyond what people already believe is possible.”

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