This is the third consecutive week we have featured a piece form Michael Simmons, this time a slightly dated 2018 blog on generalists or polymaths. In his book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World”, released last year, David Epstein, contested the “10,000 hrs of focussed effort” belief made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in the Outliers. In the context of parenting, Epstein stacked up Roger Federer as an example of someone who played multiple sports even into his late teens as opposed to the specialists’ poster boy – Tiger Woods who picked up the club as a nine month old baby and pursued golf with relentless focus. My colleague Saurabh Mukherjea expounded on that in his blog “Bruce Lee And The Rise Of The “Generalist””. In this blog, Michael Simmons highlights whilst history has been peppered with geniuses who have also been polymaths, why the modern era necessitates a generalist approach to success. He uses the T-shaped model to drive home the point of drawing upon a wide array of subjects to be applied in a specific domain to get the best result.
“Jack of all trades, master of none.” The warning against being a generalist has persisted for hundreds of years in dozens of languages. “Equipped with knives all over, yet none is sharp,” warn people in China. In Estonia, it goes, “Nine trades, the tenth one — hunger.” Yet, many of the most impactful individuals, both contemporary and historical, have been generalists: Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Richard Feynman, Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Marie Curie to name just a few.
If being a generalist was the path to mediocrity, why did the most comprehensive study of the most significant scientists in all of history uncover that 15 of the 20 were polymaths? Newton. Galileo. Aristotle. Kepler. Descartes. Huygens. Laplace. Faraday. Pasteur. Ptolemy. Hooke. Leibniz. Euler. Darwin. Maxwell — all polymaths. If being a generalist was so ineffective, why are the founders of the five largest companies in the world — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Larry Page, and Jeff Bezos — all polymaths? Are these legends just genius anomalies? Or are they people we could and should imitate in order to be successful in a modern knowledge economy?
…Elon Musk has combined an understanding of physics, engineering, programming, design, manufacturing, and business to create several multibillion-dollar companies in completely different fields.”
He quotes Steven Johnson who wrote about Charles Darwin…”The idea itself drew on a coffeehouse of different disciplines: to solve the mystery, he had to think like a naturalist, a marine biologist, and a geologist all at once. He had to understand the life cycle of coral colonies, and observe the tiny evidence of organic sculpture on the rocks of the Keeling Islands; he had to think on the immense time scales of volcanic mountains rising and falling into the sea… To understand the idea in its full complexity required a kind of probing intelligence, willing to think across those different disciplines and scales.”
He lays down several advantages for the polymath. One of them is to be able to combine two or more atypical skills where you are merely competent but the combination is a world class skill set. He cites the example of “Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, one of the most popular comic strips of all time, wasn’t the funniest person in the world. He wasn’t the best cartoonist in the world, and he wasn’t the most experienced employee (he was only in his 20s when he started Dilbert). But by combining his humor and illustration skills while focusing on business culture, he became the best in the world in his niche.”
The modern era is also conducive to pick up diverse skills given the ease of access to knowledge and learning. “It’s easier and faster than ever to become competent in a new skill…. there is an abundance of free or affordable content from the world’s top experts in every medium you can think of. Need a community and expert coaching? There are now hundreds of thousands of online courses and billions of online videos. This is the golden era for people who value learning, are willing to invest in themselves, and who are disciplined enough to take action on their own.”
More importantly, it helps make yourself future-proof:
“Make Yourself Anti-Fragile…Being a polymath will be the new normal, and polymaths who synthesize diverse skills to create breakthrough innovations and solve complex problems will have a huge impact. Generalists who fail to synthesize their knowledge into value for others stand to flounder in their career, perhaps having an impressive encyclopedic knowledge, but no real impact.
Meanwhile, specialists risk getting trapped by their success. They build up a narrow skill set and reputation and become highly paid for it. But their careers are fragile. As their professions disappear or evolve, it becomes almost impossible to switch without having to start over.
Polymaths, on the other hand, are what Nassim Taleb calls “anti-fragile.” Changes to the environment make them stronger. As new paradigms of business emerge or their passions grow, they can quickly combine their existing skill sets in a myriad of ways.”
Simmons concludes by highlighting the use of mental models by which one can connect diverse sets of discipline together, a common trait among polymaths.
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