The Era of the Specialist Is Over
Quick: What do Leonardo Da Vinci, Julie Taymor, and Donald Glover have in common? It’s not just talent or intelligence. No: These famous names are all considered polymaths. That means their expertise and accomplishments span multiple disciplines.
Taymor, for example, is a director, actor, set and costume designer, and puppeteer best known for adapting The Lion King into a wildly successful Broadway musical. Glover is an Emmy-winning actor, director, writer, rapper, DJ, and comedian. Da Vinci, of course, is the original Renaissance man, who excelled as a painter, inventor, astronomer, biologist, engineer, and more.
All three have brilliantly disrupted the status quo. And despite our current obsession with specialization, the world’s most intriguing people have always been polymaths or what can be termed deep generalists.
In fact, I believe the future depends on polymaths -- on creative, innovative generalists who will shape the next wave of business, science and arts.
Defining a polymath.
It’s a simple concept, but the word polymath is surprisingly difficult to pin down. The Oxford Dictionary defines a polymath as “a person of wide knowledge or learning.”
The word is derived from polumathēs, an early 17th-century Greek term that means “having learned much.” Used loosely, it could apply to anyone with a wide array of hobbies, interests, or education. However, there’s a secondary definition with a deeper, more nuanced meaning.
Stanford University chemist and author Carl Djerassi says there’s a clear divide between a polymath and a hobbyist. “It means that your polymath activities have passed a certain quality control that is exerted within each field by the competition,” Djerassi told The Economist. “If they accept you at their level, then I think you have reached that state rather than just dabbling.”
Author Michael Simmons expands upon Djerassi’s thoughts, explaining that a modern polymath is “someone who becomes competent in at least three diverse domains and integrates them into a top one-percent skill set.”
The world needs polymaths, but they’re ultimately quite rare. From the time we enter school, we’re constantly encouraged to specialize, to choose a clear path and stick with it. Conventional wisdom says it’s easier to find a stable job when you do.
Niche expertise is also profitable. Lawyers, doctors, engineers, and investment bankers earn top dollar for their knowledge. After all, no one wants someone who dabbles in medicine to remove their gallbladder. But there’s growing evidence that single-track specialization is a dying model.
The rise of artificial intelligence.
Experts predict that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will eventually render most jobs obsolete. The only roles left to human hands, and minds, will require innovation, creative problem-solving, and emotional acuity. The future of AI can sometimes sound like science fiction, but we’ve experienced such a wholesale shift previously.
During the Industrial Revolution, machines replaced a variety of manual tasks. As the need for physical labor dropped, new jobs emerged that required strategic thinking and technical expertise.
That pattern is repeating, but now, so-called “white collar” jobs -- which involve professional, managerial, or administrative work – are being eliminated by roles that merge specialized knowledge with technological skills.
“In 50 to 100 years time, machines will be superhuman,” writes Toby Walsh, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales. “So, it’s hard to imagine any job where humans will remain better than the machines. This means the only jobs left will be those where we prefer humans to do them.”
Soon, every field will merge with technology to replace familiar careers. That’s where the polymaths come in. And for decades, humanity’s greatest breakthroughs have come from multifaceted thinkers, not deep specialists.
Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick said his physics background helped him to unlock the structure of DNA and the genetic code, even though biologists had claimed the problem was unsolvable. Richard Feynman developed his theories of quantum electrodynamics while watching a student spin a plate on his fingers. His lightbulb moment in a college cafeteria happened, ironically, after he had decided not to focus on physics anymore.
Hundreds of stories just like these show how narrow specialization can suppress creative problem-solving. Yet, that’s exactly what the modern world needs, people who can solve complex issues that blend everything from transportation to design to environmental science.
Specialization also has another downside, known as cognitive bias. When we take mental shortcuts or rely on familiar thought patterns, we overlook possible solutions. For example, the “bandwagon effect” is a type of cognitive bias that occurs when people (somewhat blindly) follow what others are doing or thinking. We see this phenomenon among political parties, sports fans, religious groups, and even scientific communities.
Founder and entrepreneur Kyle Wiens also believes that strict specialization is too limiting. “So, we push our coders to learn how to write well,” Wiens wrote in Harvard Business Review. “We encourage our technicians to learn programming. We even bought a laser cutter to help our designers tinker. We push them out of their particular specializations to keep them learning.”
At my company, JotForm, our employees work in small, cross-functional teams. Each group operates like an independent company. They make their own decisions and set their own deadlines.
The teams are also comprised of different roles, including a lead designer, who works alongside UI and CSS developers, full-stack developers and UX specialists, data scientists and any other necessary personnel. The process amplifies individual talents and makes each project more fun.
“As an investor, if I were going to pick the perfect team,” Jake Chapman, founder of Gelt Venture Capital, wrote in TechCrunch, “it would be a group of rock-star polymaths with a single-subject-matter expert as a resource.”
A true polymath cultivates deep knowledge in at least two different fields. Given the future of AI, I suspect one of those fields will always be technology. So, how can we develop expertise across multiple areas? Chapman believes that Pareto’s principle holds the key.
How to become a polymath.
The Pareto Principle, developed by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, posits that 80 percent of consequences stem from 20 percent of the causes. The principle applies across multiple areas, but it really shines when we’re trying to master something new. For example, polyglot Benny Lewis, advises language students to focus on the 300 most common words in their new language. These words represent about 65 percent of the words they’ll use in any future conversation.
Back to Chapman, he suggests that diversified learning happens in five stages, from layman up to master. If we assume that mastery requires 20 years, and we apply the Pareto principle, we can achieve 80 percent mastery (the journeyman level, one step below master) in 20 percent of the time required to reach that top tier. At the bottom, we could spend 0.16 percent of those same 20 years (12 days) to achieve cocktail-party level understanding of the topic.
Here's the upshot of this exercise: it’s never too late to achieve even basic subject mastery. If we want to become polymaths, we can create a fascinating career by diversifying our education. For example, if someone has spent four years specializing in graphic design to achieve “journeyman” status, they could also study music composition and blend the two disciplines into a truly unique skill set.
It won’t be easy, but it will be easier than any other time in history. Resources like iTunesU, Khan Academy, Skillshare, and edX make it possible to learn anything from hand-lettering to trigonometry, all from the comfort of your couch.
The options are growing, but one thing is clear: in an era of rapid-fire technological change, we all need to embrace our inner polymath. People who can combine unique skills in creative ways will be tomorrow’s leaders, problem-solvers, and innovators.