3 Common Misconceptions About Polymaths

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Most of us are in career fields filled with specialists. We were also raised by people whose careers probably required specializing. We were mentored by specialists, and we have befriended specialists. We are, in all parts of our lives, surrounded by specialists.

It’s no surprise that specialists are everywhere. The business world understands specialists. Companies are built with specialists in mind. Did any of you dual major in college? Were you warned — like I was — that it was a waste of time? Your advisors were not wrong. Intradisciplinary knowledge is not highly valued in a typical job field.

Some people are okay with the specialist-centric world. I’m not one of those people. I’m a chemist, a data scientist, a writer, and an entrepreneur with interests that extend into dozens of fields beyond that.

I’m a polymath, and I’m here to tell you that we as a society have developed several misconceptions about polymaths and generalists. These misconceptions drove me to try to be a specialist for many years of my career — an attempt that was both unsuccessful and disheartening.

In this article, I will address some of the more prominent of those misconceptions that I regularly hear.

Misconception #1: Polymaths Can Be Replaced by Specialists

If you need someone to code your website, you should probably hire a web designer. If you need someone to field phone calls from disgruntled customers, you should probably hire a customer service specialist. This is the way that businesses tend to work — new needs require new specialists.

But what do you do if the problem or the solution is ill-defined?

What do you do when it’s not obvious what specialist to bring in? That’s when you need a polymath. Polymaths think differently. We aren’t experts with one tool. Rather, we are experts at finding the right tool. We thrive on the uncertainty because we learn from new experiences — and learning is a core desire of the polymath.

Beyond the domain of problem-solving, polymaths also find a unique advantage in the blurred region between fields or in the dawn of a new field.

Data science drew me in because it was a new frontier, rife with possibility. The tools were still being defined. The knowledge necessary to succeed had to come from a potpourri of fields.

There were core competencies, but that core was surrounded by layer upon layer of interdisciplinary potential. The field had its specialists by the time I got in, but there was and still is plenty of need for polymaths to work alongside the data science specialists.

Misconception #2: Polymaths Are Geniuses

I’m not just trying to be humble here. This is a harmful stereotype. Let me explain how with an example.

Alex is a young polymath. Alex’s peers don’t recognize this in Alex because they have certain preconceived notions about what a polymath is. Instead of nurturing Alex’s polymath nature, they stifle it — suggesting that Alex would be better off specializing. Whether explicitly stated or otherwise, the implication is that Alex is not smart enough to be a generalist. This is as disgusting as it is common.

There are two main reasons that people have this misconception.

  1. Geniuses tend more often to be polymaths. The most famous historical figures that we recognize as polymaths were all geniuses, so we naturally think of geniuses when we think of polymaths. We also think of birds when we think of flying animals, but that doesn’t mean that bats can’t fly.
  2. It’s difficult to be a successful polymath. In a world of specialists, only the best polymaths manage to stay afloat. Genius polymaths are (a) more likely to succeed as polymaths and (b) less likely to resign themselves to a specialization.

Plenty of non-genius polymaths exist. Many of them take up a specialization because they feel they have no other choice. The genius myth has led people to believe that one is either born an expert polymath or one isn’t. Imagine if we thought this same way about programming or writing!

The skills of a polymath have to be nurtured. They have to be honed in the same way as any other set of skills. It is a disservice to polymaths and to all of humanity not to give young polymaths that chance simply because we don’t believe they are smart enough.

Misconception #3: Polymaths Dislike Specialists

This was never about us vs. them. I don’t think I’m better than specialists. What I am is different. I love talking with specialists in all different fields because the level of mastery they possess in their art makes them a fountain of knowledge that I can try to soak up. When I have a problem that requires an expert in a specific skill set, you can bet that I’ll call a specialist.

Some polymaths come off as conceited and condescending. Can that truly be surprising though? This world belongs to specialists. We often have to sell ourselves twice as hard just to land the same level of opportunity.

Specialists don’t have to do this.

Specialists are vying for positions that already exist. Polymaths, on the other hand, have to show that we are good enough to either take a specialist’s position or have a unique position built just for us.

Polymaths know that the deck is stacked against us. We don’t dislike those that have chosen the path of specialization. We know that some of you are more content as specialists and others of you feel forced into that role. We are happy for the former group and angry at the system that created the latter.

That’s the real point. We don’t dislike specialists. We dislike the system that forces those that aren’t naturally specialists to take on that role anyway. We hope that you don’t take that personally.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, I’ve cleared up three of the largest misconceptions about polymaths here.

  • We cannot be replaced by specialists. The value we provide is unique. We should not be seen as the multi-tools of humanity.
  • We are not all geniuses, nor do we need to be geniuses to provide value as polymaths.
  • We don’t dislike specialists. We just dislike the system that tries to force us into that role.

Whether you want to call us generalists or polymaths, know that we are here to stay. Polymaths provide unique insights and — working hand-in-hand with specialists — can provide real value to the world. We are not your replacement, and neither are you ours.

To the polymaths: I hope this has provided you with some inspiration and a sense of community and camaraderie. You are not alone.

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