Embracing My Inner Polymath

Our societies and industries tend to direct us toward specialization. Over time, we focus more and more on specific skill-sets and industries, and are rewarded for doing so. By contrast, someone who tries to dip their toes in many different fields will find it difficult to “fit in” with a typical career template. There’s a quote on this which often makes the rounds:

“A jack of all trades is a master of none.”

But that isn’t the whole story. Here’s the original full quote:

“A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”

The difference in meaning is night and day.

Once I discovered this, I suddenly felt validated. Perhaps my tendency to constantly pursue different arenas was actually a fruitful endeavor after all? While the terminologies have changed over time (e.g. “renaissance men”, polymaths, generalists etc.), the fundamentals all prescribe the following:

  • Embrace your diverse passions, interests, and skills.
  • Combine them to form a unique combination that differentiates you from everyone else.
  • Leverage your niche to identify and pursue new opportunities for yourself.

On the surface, it’s a simple idea. Yet, following it goes against much of the typical career advice we get. It also goes directly against the “10,000 hours rule” made famous by Malcolm Gladwell (thankfully, that theory has been soundly debunked). There are certainly challenges and downsides to this approach — you are not going to have a clear path to follow, and you will have more difficulties relating to others / fitting into communities since you are not easily categorized into a simple archetype.

But should humans really be categorized so easily? Isn’t it our diversity and uniqueness that truly makes us human?

As I continue to comb through the historical and modern resources on this topic, I’ve begun to collect notes for a full post on the polymath approach. That said, I think the most powerful learnings will be gained as I apply the approach to my own life. I’m curious and excited to see where it takes me!

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