The most common definitions of polymaths poorly represent the group. As an example, let’s check out the dictionary.com definition: “A person of great learning in several fields of study”. Similar definitions compare polymaths to specialists by saying that specialists have a depth of knowledge where polymaths have a breadth of knowledge.
The problem with these definitions is that they actually apply more to the jack-of-all-trades than to the polymath. The jack-of-all-trades has some knowledge in a broad range of topics, each built largely independently of one another.
The jack-of-all-trades sets out to partially learn several specializations, with the hopes that this diversity of knowledge will land him somewhere where they are at least competent. But these pillars of knowledge build to nothing more than the sum of their parts. A jack-of-all-trades can, in most cases, readily be replaced by one or more specialists.
Polymaths are different in that their knowledge pillars are not built separately from one another. They are not copying the first few steps of an assortment of specializations. They are building something wholly unique — something greater than the sum of its parts.
Here’s my suggested definition for polymaths: A polymath is a specialist in the field of learning and connecting knowledge.
The specialist starts their journey by building the knowledge pillars they need in their specialization. The jack-of-all-trades starts similarly but soon shifts to start another pillar, and so on.
The polymath instead studies the building processing itself. Can the pillars be built faster? This is their specialization in learning. Can the template from one pillar be used to speed the building of other pillars in different domains? Or perhaps a foundation can be shared by two pillars? This is their specialization in connecting knowledge.
That is why the polymath can contribute in a way that the jack-of-all-trades can’t. The pillars built by the jack-of-all-trades are really just stunted versions of the specialists’ pillars. The polymath, meanwhile, builds pillars that are wholly unique, often creating aspects that are built differently in — or entirely missing from — the pillars of the specialists.
These unique aspects complement those in the specialists’ pillars, offering the specialist a chance to learn from the polymath’s unique insights. This is certainly not one-sided either since the polymath would never have known how to build the standard aspects of the pillar without watching the specialist.
Specialists, polymaths, and jacks-of-all-trades are unique in their approaches to the world. The old definition of polymath showed their distinction from specialists but not from jacks-of-all-trades.
By recognizing polymaths as what they are: specialists in learning and connecting knowledge, we can start to see where they fit into the world of work.
This couldn’t have come at a better time either, because automation is killing off specializations one-by-one. When you can’t expect any single knowledge pillar to be important forever, it’s best to spend at least some of your time learning how to build new ones.