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The Polymathic Principle


Everyone will tell you one thing; specialise, specialise, specialise…don’t.

Suppose you have a child who seems unusually talented at science, who appears to have a natural inclination towards math and physics. You might be tempted to send your offspring to special classes in extra math with the dream that they would achieve great things if only they specialised early enough. Walter Alvarez, a doctor, saw things differently. His son Luis was gifted in science but he chose to balance this by sending him to a school specialising in arts and crafts. Instead of fast tracking through advanced calculus, Luis worked at technical drawing and woodwork…which didn’t stop him from going on later to study science and ultimately win the 1968 Nobel Prize for Physics. Luis attributed his success to his ability to build any experimental apparatus he could imagine.

Developing fine motor skills was also essential to the success claimed by celebrated US astronaut Storey Musgrave. His early training as a boy growing up on a farm gave him the skills ‘to fix anything’ just as crucial in a space station, as later degrees in engineering and medicine.

There is informal recognition of the advantage of a polymathic background: 82% of scientists and engineers surveyed by Robert Root-Bernstein answered Yes to the question “Would you recommend an arts and crafts education as a useful or even essential background for a scientific innovator?”[1]

But scientists and engineers are not alone in needing inspiration from elsewhere. Artists and writers also gain from having a non-arts background. WH Auden, Somerset Maugham, Anton Chekhov and David Foster Wallace all had maths or science educations in addition to their literary pursuits. In terms of multi-modal skills, Foster Wallace was also a sports scholar as a young man. Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey were both football players; Albert Camus played in goal for the Algerian national soccer team and Samuel Beckett was a notable cricket player in his native Ireland.

An early taste for multiple expertise is rather more common than we might think. My own childhood background is far from unusual: I built treehouses, go karts, repaired bicycles and motorbikes, took photographs, went rock climbing, looked at things under a microscope and wrote poetry. I managed to maintain this wide spread of interests into adulthood- by ignoring the advice given to me by careers officers, teachers, employers but luckily not my parents.

They understood the need to maintain a wide base of knowledge. Intuitively they understood about the synergetics of knowledge.

Alexis Carrel, Nobel Prize winner in Medicine learned, when he was a child, how to stitch incredibly tiny and intricate patterns from his lace making mother. He later used this skill in making ground breaking advancements in the field of surgery.

Hans von Euler-Chelpin focussed on fine arts at college before an interest in colour lead him to the sciences, eventually leading to the 1929 Nobel prize in chemistry.

Leading astro-physicist Jacob Shaham claimed, “Acting taught me how to read equations like a script with characters I had to bring to life.”

All these high achievers are demonstrating the same thing: there is great synergy in having multiple areas of expertise.

The  engine of polymathics, why it works, is the synergy between different areas of knowledge. The more you know the better- but not just arithmetically, exponentially. Fields of knowledge cross-fertilise each other in many, often surprising, ways. The kernal of creativity is, after all, putting together things that have never been put together before. Learning skills, honed on one area become useful in another. You get different perspectives the more you know, and a different perspective can mean everything.

Synergy is the ‘extra energy’ liberated in system that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. It’s an idea that has been around since Aristotle.

If you have three or more areas of expertise there is a real rise in many allied areas of knowledge acquisition and deployment. You learn faster and act smarter.

Why three or more? It’s what I have noticed. And the wider apart they are the better. Best is a physical or modal skill such as dancing or bookbinding or fly tying or parachuting PLUS a factual/informational field be it scientific, historical or literary PLUS an area of creative endeavor- singing, acting, writing, painting.

[1] Lamore and Root-Bernstein 2011


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