You, the Polymath

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects." ― Robert A. Heinlein

Leonardo da Vinci was arguably the most prominent figure of the 16th century; his multitudinous achievements spanned across multiple fields from arts to sciences to mathematics. A renowned artist, da Vinci’s works included the famed Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. He was also a proficient scientist and engineer, designing one of humanity’s first blueprints of flying machines and various other war machinery such as tanks. He produced drawings of the human anatomy far ahead of his time, being one of the first scientists to have ever drawn a foetus at such a high level of detail. His contributions did not stop there, he studied literature, geology, astronomy, botany and many other fields.

How was it humanly possible for one man to achieve so many things in the mere 67 years of his life? Some attributed da Vinci’s accomplishments to his ability to sleep for around 2 hours a day whilst others say that he had an abnormally high IQ which made him distinctly superior to us ‘normal’ people. However, what I realized was that da Vinci wasn’t alone. Throughout history there have been many other people who were exceptionally great in multiple fields of study.

Alfred Lee Loomis was an exceptional lawyer, investment banker, scientist and war hero. Professionally trained in law, Loomis was an astute investment banker, amassing his fortune by anticipating the 1929 Wall Street Crash. He invested his fortune into building a laboratory, where he led research in spectrometry and chronometry, working with famous men such as Einstein and Bohr. During World War II, Loomis invented the first long-range navigation system (LRN) which was crucial in the Allied victory.

Thomas Young was an expert in multiple areas of physics, most notably establishing that light was a wave. He contributed greatly to the medical field, devising a method to determine a child’s drug dosage. He was also a master linguist, once performing a comparison of 400 languages and was responsible for deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Young involved himself with music as well, creating the Young temperament, a method of tuning musical instruments.

These three men had much in common; they were undoubtedly experts in fields of study in science and the arts. They were termed polymath, Greek for “having learned much”, or more colloquially, “Renaissance Man”. The term “Renaissance Man” stemmed from a statement by Leon Battista Alberti, a polymath himself, in the 15th century who said that “a man can do all things if he will”. The “Renaissance Man” became a term that referred to great thinkers who developed themselves intellectually, artistically, socially and physically. This notion that the human mind was limitless and people should develop their minds as broadly as possible spread quickly, giving rise to many famous polymaths in the following centuries to come – Newton, Galileo, Franklin and Jefferson.


HOLD UP. What does any of this have to do with ME?

You may be feeling that there’s no way you could be like any of these men. Hell, being good at one thing is already a tall order, how can the ordinary man even begin to think about being good at multiple things? In this post, I’ll be exploring how and why you (yes, you) can and should be a polymath.

You, the polymath.

There is ancient wisdom to the old adage “Jack of all trades, master of none”. By spreading ourselves too thin, we often leave ourselves too little time to become good at any specific skill, lending credibility to the latter part of the phrase. With the mass popularization of Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule” which says that it generally takes 10,000 hours of practice to become world-class at any skill, majority of us are led to believe that it takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to acquire expertise. However, not all of us aspire to become ‘world-class’ (i.e Olympic level athlete, concert musician, Nobel laureate). If that is the case, how many hours do we need to practice or how much effort do we need to put in to become reasonably good at what we do?

Using the 80-20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, we see that most things in life are not distributed evenly. It states that in many areas, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Economist Vilfredo Pareto observed that approximately 80% of the land in Italy was owned by only 20% of the population. He further observed that, uncannily, 80% of the peas in his garden were contained in about 20% of the peapods. This rule is observed in many areas, for example:

  • 80% of crimes are often caused by around 20% of the criminals
  • 80% of road accidents are caused by around 20% of drivers
  • 80% of a company’s revenue comes from around 20% of customers
  • 80% of complaints of a service comes from around 20% of users

The 80-20 rule also applies to learning, which makes it a quintessential rule to becoming a polymath. In languages, mastering 20% of a language’s vocabulary would allow someone to understand 80% of the language. In sports, mastering 20% of the basic moves would make someone have an 80% mastery of the sport. Learning, as of many things, follows this idea that a small number of causes have a disproportionately large effect on the outcome. Polymaths understand this principle and do not invest time in practising or learning a skill when the returns starts to become rapidly diminishing. What polymaths do exceptionally well is identify the 20% which would yield the 80% returns they seek. In sports, this could mean practising the most essential basic moves over and over again, before looking into things such as tactics or more advanced moves which are used much less frequently. In languages, it could mean learning the 20% most commonly used words which make up 80% of the language itself. In programming, it could mean mastering the fundamental 20% commands which are used in a certain programming language. In essence, you can leverage on this idea by identifying the most important 20% of a discipline.

This Pareto Principle or “80-20 rule” is illustrated by the graph below:


Once we reach a certain point, our learning takes a sharp drop in terms of results to effort ratio. Our improvement becomes less and less time efficient as we invest more and more effort into practising that skill. If someone has amassed 5,000 hours in practising a 3-pointer shot, an additional 100 hours of practice will likely only a bring a miniscule improvement to his skill. Compared to someone who is starting out at basketball, the first 100 hours of practice would likely change his friends’ impression of his skills from “absolute garbage” to “pretty good”. This example shows us that spending extensive periods of time practising a single skill is not time-efficient. Instead, you can and should move on to the next skill. Identify the most important 20%, master it, and move on to the next thing which piques your curiosity. Soon enough, you’d find yourself with a plethora of different skills under your belt be it in languages, sports, arts, or virtually anything under the Sun.

Often times, this can work to your advantage instead of against you. The most valued programmers are the ones who are ‘full-stack developers’, meaning that they are comfortable in both back-end and front-end technologies. The most successful CEOs are the ones who have diverse expertise, ranging from a mix of science and technology to a strong foundation in business (Elon Musk, Larry Page, Peter Thiel, etc). A diversity of strong skills often intertwines and creates a new perspective for these people, something which specialists would often miss simply because they are so specialized in their field of study.

Being a polymath is, in its simplest terms, really fun.

By constantly identifying the most important 20% of a discipline, great polymaths are able to constantly learn at extremely high rates of return to their time spent in each discipline. They will consistently be making exponentially large improvements in various different fields, which is oftentimes much, much more exciting. A master violinist may spend 500 hours practising his bowing through various drills and studies, whereas a generalist would have spent that 500 hours in learning another instrument. Because a polymath spends his time constantly learning and trying out new things, he would likely have more compelling experiences, making him a more interesting person in general. A person who is a competent surfer, piano player, coder and can speak few languages would be a extremely fascinating person to meet.

Another problem which many specialists face is the frustration of making miniscule or no improvements over a prolonged period of time despite putting in large amounts of effort, a.k.a ‘hitting a plateau’. This is largely absent for polymaths who constantly make substantial improvements in whatever they do. What this means for you is that it is likely going to be much, much more satisfying to see yourself drastically improve in so many different domains as compared to stagnating in one.

“But what if I’m really talented? Would it be wise to stop practising because my improvements are slowing down?”

One common counter-argument to the 80-20 approach to learning is that giving up practising a certain skill for the sake of amassing a more varied skill-set may not be what some people look for. Some people want to become the absolute best in whatever they do. For these people, I say: Go ahead. Follow your dreams, do what you really want to do. Just keep in mind that there is an alternative to specializing.

For the more curious among us, this approach will likely open our eyes and minds to the limitless human potential which lies ahead of us. Throughout history, humans have learnt how to cure incurable diseases, travel to the dark abyss beyond our Earth, produce the sweetest, most melodic sounds from wooden instruments, speak a range of highly complex languages and paint beautiful sceneries of verdant valleys and blossoming trees. Limiting ourselves to one or two skills would be doing ourselves injustice. The human brain is the by far the most profoundly intricate and sophisticated piece of technology to ever exist, and we would be foolish to never explore the boundaries of its potential. We’re not meant to be categorized by titles such as “doctors” or “lawyers” or “musicians”. We’re much more complex than that.

In this era of technological progress compounded by the 21st century information explosion, information can be obtained faster than ever before. Where people in the past had to plow through hundreds of books to get a specific piece of information, we can now do with a simple Google search. We are indeed in a very special time of human history, and learning has never been easier than it is today. The vast horizon of human knowledge is right in front of you; will you reach out and grab it? Will you become the modern-day polymath?