• Val Agnew

The Case for The Polymath

A Square Peg in a World of Round Holes

I first realized I was different when I had to select a major in undergrad. I was in the business school, so that (mercifully) narrowed it down some, however there were still plenty of options. Too many options. It vexed me. All of a sudden, I had to pick ONE THING to be. Why?

I have always been incredibly fortunate to go to great schools and have many options when it came to academics and extracurriculars. Along with the the standard high school curriculum, I took classes in business, architecture and film. If I'd been so inclined I could have taken dance, child development, computer sciences, and more. I was told my diverse portfolio of activities including soccer, choir, and volunteerism would serve me well in college applications. They wanted someone 'well-rounded.' Even socially, I have always spent time with many different people and social groups, believing there is room in my heart for as many people as I could possibly want to include.

So when I was asked to pick one box to put myself into I was absolutely bewildered. I was teased for it, too. Many of my friends could not understand how I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. They so comfortably had slotted themselves into paths toward a defined future. I was zig-zagging all over the place. They worried for me that I would never get anywhere.

Ever since that time, I have constantly run up against a world that wants to define me--and everyone--singularly. And I have spent that time envious of those who love to specialize and who excel as a result. I watch my friends and colleagues get rewarded with promotions, raises, and amazing opportunities because of their expertise. I don't resent their ability to remain laser-focused and interested on one thing. Much of the time, I wish I could be more like them. But alas, I am not a specialist. Yet I live in a world that loves them.

A Defining Moment (Pun Intended)

It wasn't until recently that I realized I wasn't alone. I learned of two terms that helped me re-frame my self-understanding: Polymath & Multipotentialite -- put simply, a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning. The Renaissance Person, who pursues many interests, often-times simultaneously.

The strength of the polymath is their ability to make connections. The multipotentialite uses their varied experiences to construct a detailed, wide-ranging map of existence and in so doing, they see things that someone with more specific focus cannot. While the specialist drills down deep. The polymath takes a sky-high view.

Polymaths are often inventors, creators, and entrepreneurs because they can put ideas together in combinations that many would not think of. They can take a wide-angle view of a problem and identify creative solutions. Put simply, they see the world differently. People like Benjamin Franklin, Nikola Tesla, Leonardo Da Vinci, W.E.B. Du Bois, Maya Angelou, and Helen Keller are all described as polymaths.

I do not for one second deign to think I am even in the same zip code as such incredible minds as those. However, I do identify as a creative problem solver; an adaptable worker; a curious mind. And I see those as my greatest strengths and what I can offer the world.

Can Instead of Can't

I will never cure cancer. I will never be President of the United States. I will never compose a masterpiece. But what I have realized as I have come to terms with my identity as a multipotentialite, is that I can use my abilities to serve specialists. The cancer researcher needs to fundraise. The political candidate needs to tell their story effectively. The artist needs to share their work widely. That's where I come in.

I used to think of myself as being disadvantaged by my inability to specialize. I thought to myself while specialists can push one rock up the hill, I'm trying to push 10 and because of that, I cannot get very far on any one rock. I would be forever falling farther and farther behind. What I since realized is I'm not pushing any rocks. I'm the bird who can fly up and help the specialist find the best path. I can't define myself as a failed specialist. I need to see myself for what I am, a striving generalist.

The Central Question

So I am going to test this theory right now: Can a polymath succeed in a world that values specialists?

Even the idea of this blog will be a test. SEO success is built on specialization of content. Can I attract people to this website without writing blog entries every day on the same topic? We shall see.

My hypothesis is that yes, a polymath can be successful as a polymath. I believe this because there are so many people out there who just want to do the thing they are good at and not be bothered with the rest. Well, I'm good at 'the rest' and happy to handle it.

So I guess all that remains is a question:

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