There is a certain negativity surrounding the proverb ‘Jack of all trades, and master of none.’ However, is being a ‘Jack-of-all-trades’ really so bad?
Evolution has made humans capable of nurturing various skills and abilities. By nature, humans are multi-talented and multi-faceted. However, the culture that prevails currently, pressurized us to focus on a single field of study and specialization. All through school, college, and university, a child is encouraged to choose a specialty and trudge down a single career path.
The Polymath (2019), by Waqas Ahmed, takes a different route, explaining how hyper-specialization can stifle one’s creativity, development, and even self-fulfillment. It encourages people to trust in their polymathic qualities and their innate human potentials to work, learn, and think in varied ways and in multiple fields.
Polymathy Leads To Realization Of One’s Full Human Potential
Ahmed argues that humans are all inherently polymaths. If we zoom into the past, humans in the early societies needed to have practical generalist qualities. The need for survival in, and adaptation to a hostile environment meant that man had acquired a wide range of skills in order to keep safe from diseases, or not perish from starvation or even stay safe from predators and wild animals.
The need for survival helped in developing skills and instincts that helped man heal, hunt, build safe structures of shelter, etc. These instinctive capabilities made humans polymathic, a trait that we can see naturally in children too.
Children are able to play, sing, draw, read, etc. as a natural response to their curiosity to explore their surroundings and the world around them, and to understand it from multiple angles. Their abilities to be a naturally polymathic point to the inherent human polymathic capacities and the innate needs of humans to be able to express themselves in multiple spheres.
The former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft Nathan Myhrvold is a perfect example of a polymath. Media organizations at TED Conference have nicknamed him the ‘professional Jack of all trades’. In a 2007 TED Talk, he described how it was essential for him to pursue his polymathic capabilities, and how it helped him reach his full potential.
Myhrvold is a techie, a wildlife photographer, a professional chef, and an inventor with multiple patents to his name!
More Meaningful Contributions To Society
If we scan through history, we will find that the people who have made some of the biggest contributions to society, were polymaths. Around 15 to 20 of the world’s most important scientists were polymaths.
Shen Kuo, a remarkable scientist of the Chinese Song Dynasty had made major contributions in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, astrology, geology, and optics. He was the one who discovered that the compass actually points to the magnetic north pole and not the actual north. Kuo was, additionally, a keen statesman, an accomplished poet, a musician, and a painter too.
UK’s erstwhile Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was another polymathic prodigy. He is famously known for the crucial role he played in defeating Hitler during the Second World War. However, he also was an accomplished writer and had received a Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1953. In fact, his many talents were integral to his success as a political genius.
If we fast-forward to recent times, Apple’s Steve Jobs is a great example of a polymath. He was well known for his excellent grasp of all the aspects – right from IT, visual design, engineering, finance, to marketing, etc. And it was his polymathic ability to combine and process his knowledge in all these fields to revolutionize technology and people’s interaction with it.
If a person plans to do something for saving the planet, the person will require an understanding of the advances in science and technology, know political policies and be able to grasp smart economics. Essentially, the person will need to have interconnected thinking.
Why is specialization the focus then?
The Cult Of Specialization
The monotony of occupation hits everyone at some point in life. Specialized jobs make one crave variety, and today’s sedentary ‘desk job’ culture can lead to inhibition of one’s physical wellbeing. A sedentary lifestyle has led to over 30 million lost workdays in 2018 in the UK due to neck, back, and muscle problems.
The physical manifestations of a sedentary lifestyle, stem from the fact that our bodies are made for movement and not for staying immobile in a chair for forty hours a week.
A sedentary lifestyle can affect mental health too. There is evidence of people being unhappy in their jobs. In fact, a 2010 UK study revealed that a mere 20% of employees found contentment in their existing jobs, leaving a huge 80% discontented. A similar 2008 UK study showed that 50% of employees working felt disengaged or under-stimulated to work.
Another survey that spanned 18 countries from Europe to South America, found workers feeling that their jobs were not challenging enough, breeding frustration.
All these surveys point to the fact that unfulfilled desires for variety are the cause for disillusionment and unhappiness, and that people are seeking change and challenges in work.
A study by The School of Life, an educational organization, established by author Alain de Botton, shows that these feelings of escaping monotony are very common. The study indicated that about 60% would choose to follow a different path if they were able to start their careers again. The same study found that about 20% found that they never had roles that really suited them.
Sedentary lives, desk jobs, and specialization are limiting, mentally and physically draining, and lack challenge. These statistics are proof of the fact that today’s working culture isn’t really working!
Limitations Of Specialization
In sociobiologist, Desmond Morris’ book The Naked Ape, a comparative study of animals with a limited variety of habitation and diet, versus those who do not, found that the koalas of Eastern Australia, who have a limited diet of eucalyptus leaves available only in that region, are endangered.
On the other hand, raccoons, which have a diet ranging from eggs to berries and can survive in weathers, mild and extreme, from regions ranging from Central to North America, have better chances of surviving.
Evolutionary biology shows that the ‘generalist’ raccoon has better chances of survival than the ‘specialist’ koalas. Raccoon numbers are far more robust than the dwindling number of koalas.
This is also true of humans. Polymaths or people with a wider skill range and varied talents are far better able to adapt and survive the volatile environment of today’s working world. Moreover, considering that jobs today are more insecure than they used to be earlier, the ‘job for life’ model that was shaped by the traditional culture is slowly but surely disappearing. Secure and sure jobs such as university teachers, today have less security than they did earlier.
Yuval Noah Harari, the historian and bestselling author of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century also argues that adaptability is an essential trait for the employees of the future as the bonds of job security weaken due to the uncertainty of economic times.
Additionally, the rise of artificial intelligence will add to the losses of jobs available. In the US itself, it is estimated that about 47% of jobs will be automated in the coming decades. Specialized tasks such as machine operation, data processing, and collection will face the most risks. Considering the inevitability of automation, those with jobs that require interconnected thinking will persevere, and those with polymathic skills whose occupations will be hard to define will survive the AI age.
Developing A Polymathic Mind
One can develop their minds to inculcate polymathic traits by developing traits such as individuality, curiosity and intelligence.
To begin with, one has to develop the unique individuality that lies within. The ancient Greek philosopher Hippias of Elis advocated the concept of Auterkeia –the ability to be self-sufficient and independent. It affirms the value of individuality as a polymathic virtue.
American transcendentalist, poet, and polymath Ralph Waldo Emerson, nearly 2000 years later, emphasized the importance of individuality in his essay ‘Self Reliance’. He said that only by shunning conformity could a person uncover their true selves and embrace their individuality.
The next trait that is essential is curiosity. Humans are evolutionarily predisposed to curiosity and search for knowledge. It is a trait that makes humans, humans, and uniquely capable of polymathy.
Some of the world’s greatest polymaths are known for their endless capacity for curiosity. Leonardo da Vinci’s penchant for curiosity was the basis of his genius, as was Einstein’s. Both these geniuses were well-known polymaths.
The third trait needed to develop a polymathic mind is intelligence. How does one develop intelligence, though?
Intelligence can be improved when one diversifies their interests and takes part in many activities. In other words, polymathy itself helps in acquiring intelligence.
Versatility, Creativity and Unity
Life is full of changes and transformations. Everything, right from our bodies, to the environment and relationships, changes. When one embraces change, one develops the ability to be versatile, which is vital for developing a polymathic mind.
The human brain is wired for change too. According to the neuroscientist David Eagleman, the neurons and their connections are dynamic, constantly evolving, or dying. They are constantly re-generating, responding to new experiences and new information received. Furthermore, exposure to new things keeps the brain young and refreshed.
Exposure to new things, experiences and pursuits, and indulging the brain’s inherent capacity for change lead to more original ideas. Thus creativity, a vital trait for polymathy develops.
Felipe Fernández-Armesto, the author of Ideas that Changed The World, writes that major creative breakthroughs happen when ideas and experiences from different fields are applied and synthesize into one idea. According to psychologist Robert Root-Bernstein’s study on polymaths showed that the ability for making creative breakthroughs was due to their broad fields of interest.
Martin Kemp, the expert on Leonardo da Vinci, said that da Vinci never saw divisions between different fields of interest. This view of different fields not having any divisions is how polymaths think.
For example, when Leonardo da Vinci was studying the anatomy of the heart, he was simultaneously thinking about how water flows, which led to him thinking about how hair curls. These different thoughts were actually linked by his interest in motion.
Thus to be able to see the full picture, one has to unify different concepts in order to see things holistically.
Education Should Encourage Children’s Innate Polymathic Capabilities
The education system needs to encourage a child’s innate polymathic capabilities. Today’s education system has much to improve.
Jared Diamond, the Anthropologist, studied children from indigenous cultures. In the traditional cultures of Papua New Guinea, he found that children do not attend classes. In fact, their education takes place as they interact and ‘play’ amongst each other and adults. Social life gives them knowledge and an unstructured manner of education gives them a holistic view of how to apply what they learn in real life.
This approach, according to Diamond helps in nurturing a child’s innate creative polymathic abilities.
Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the Nobel Prize winner in Medicine/Physiology in 1906, who was also a distinguished artist observed that a child’s talents are strengthened when its pursuits and interests are more varied. Therefore a non-structured, non-specialized, wide-ranged education, promotes polymathy and therefore helps consolidate a child’s innate abilities.
Similarly, the 18th-century German poet, physician, and philosopher Friedrich Schiller advocated for a broader and more diverse education system for children, arguing that only with a broad-based learning – and not specialized education – could children achieve their full intellectual and creative potential.
To understand the roots of the word ‘university, it is derived from the Latin ‘universitas’, meaning ‘universal’, or ‘whole. Thus holistic learning is the original purpose of higher education, where it brings together a wide range of disciplines and fields.
Sadly, universities all over the world are pushing students towards specialization, completely neglecting the original purpose of bringing together ideas from broad fields of study. This practice inhibits creativity and curiosity.
Pursuing Multiple Careers To Nurture Polymathy
We never stop growing and learning in life. Even in adult life, one continues to grow and evolve as interests and experiences change.
Embracing polymathy in adult life requires embracing varied interests. One can incorporate practicing polymathy in their professional life by making and actively seeking career changes. For example, Albert Schweitzer is a renowned philosopher and theologian, as well as a celebrated organist. Additionally, in his thirties, he decided to study medicine and became a physician in his later life.
Similarly, Japan’s Takeshi Kitanoestablished himself as a filmmaker in his forties, before which he was known as a comedian. Rabindranath Tagore, one of India’s famous poets, was well in his sixties when he started painting. While these are examples of pursuing polymathy sequentially, one can turn to a portfolio career, that is simultaneously pursuing different careers, juggling a number of projects at the same time.
Polymathic careers, according to author Barrie Hopson, who co-wrote 10 Steps to Creating a Portfolio Career, prove to be safety nets, especially where finances are concerned.
However, not many can juggle many projects at the same time. choosing a polymathic profession is then another option available. A career in journalism, for example, accommodates many fields from economy to entertainment to religion and politics, etc.
Politics itself is a polymathic career, where one has the option of working in different departments such as art, education, economy, welfare, etc.
Entrepreneurship also involves pursuing polymathy. For example, Apple’s Steve Jobs and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, both needed to have an understanding of different aspects like consumer psychology and markets, technology, finance, marketing, design, etc. of creating successful brands.
Specialization is highly limiting. Fulfillment and success are highly dependant on one’s ability to function as a polymath, where one can embrace and hone a wide range of qualities, activities, interests, and inspirations. The trick is to be open to learning something new, take a calculated risk, or even simply educate oneself about topics that are out of one’s field of work.
Being a Jack-of-all-trades can after all be lucrative!