People Who Have “Too Many Interests” Are More Likely To Be Successful According To Research
Author’s Note: This article was written over 60 hours with love and care using the blockbuster mental model.
The most comprehensive case that has ever been made for why nearly everyone should become a polymath in a modern knowledge economy.
Jack of all trades, master of none.
The warning against being a generalist has persisted for hundreds of years in dozens of languages. “Equipped with knives all over, yet none is sharp,” warn people in China. In Estonia, it goes, “Nine trades, the tenth one—hunger.”
Yet, many of the most impactful individuals, both contemporary and historical, have been generalists: Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Richard Feynman, Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Marie Curie to name just a few.
What’s going on here?
If being a generalist was the path to mediocrity, why did the most comprehensive study of the most significant scientists in all of history uncover that 15 of the 20 were polymaths? Newton. Galileo. Aristotle. Kepler. Descartes. Huygens. Laplace. Faraday. Pasteur. Ptolemy. Hooke. Leibniz. Euler. Darwin. Maxwell—all polymaths.
If being a generalist was so ineffective, why are the founders of the five largest companies in the world—Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Larry Page, and Jeff Bezos—all polymaths (who also follow the 5-hour rule)? Are these legends just genius anomalies? Or are they people we could and should imitate in order to be successful in a modern knowledge economy?
If being a generalist is an ineffective career path, why do 10+ academic studies find a correlation between the number of interests/competencies someone develops and their creative impact?
The Era Of The Modern Polymath
The future belongs to the integrators.
—Educator Ernest Boyer
I define a modern polymath as someone who becomes competent in at least three diverse domains and integrates them into a top 1-percent skill set.
In other words, they bring the best of what humanity has discovered from across fields to help them be more effective in their core field. Hence the T-shape below. Specialists, on the other hand, just focus on knowledge from their own field
Since Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, popularized the concept, many now believe that to become world-class in a skill, they must complete 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in order to beat the competition, going as deep as possible into one field. Modern polymaths go against the grain of this popular advice, building atypical combinations of skills and knowledge across fields and then integrating them to create breakthrough ideas and even brand new fields and industries where there is little competition.
For example, people have studied biology and sociology for hundreds of years. But no one had ever studied them together and synthesized them into a new discipline until researcher EO Wilson pioneered the field of sociobiology in the 1970s. We also have modern tech heroes like Steve Jobs (who I write about here) who famously combined design with hardware and software.
Elon Musk (who I write about here) has combined an understanding of physics, engineering, programming, design, manufacturing, and business to create several multibillion-dollar companies in completely different fields. He not only makes atypical combinations of skills, but he also makes atypical combinations of personality traits.
Charles Darwin, creator of one of the most important theories in history—the theory of evolution—was a polymath too. Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From (one of my top five favorite books of all time), brilliantly describes Darwin’s first scientific breakthrough:
The idea itself drew on a coffeehouse of different disciplines: to solve the mystery, he had to think like a naturalist, a marine biologist, and a geologist all at once. He had to understand the life cycle of coral colonies, and observe the tiny evidence of organic sculpture on the rocks of the Keeling Islands; he had to think on the immense time scales of volcanic mountains rising and falling into the sea… To understand the idea in its full complexity required a kind of probing intelligence, willing to think across those different disciplines and scales.
A more everyday example is my longtime friend Elizabeth Saunders. Elizabeth combined her passions for writing, Christianity, and time management into a thriving coaching business based on principles of Christianity that she promotes through books and articles. There is a whole cottage industry around time management, but there are almost no resources on divine time management.
In order to become an effective online writer, I’ve deliberately combined academic research, digital journalism, and growth hacking into one skillset. I didn’t go to college for any of these skills but practiced them over time and received coaching on them. My observation is that academics often look down on journalists; journalists look down on marketers; and marketers look down on journalists and academics. What many fail to see is that each brings something valuable to the table and that all of these skills combined lead to great ideas seen by large audiences.
Why Being A Modern Polymath Is The New Normal
Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses — especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.
—Leonardo Da Vinci
Polymaths have existed forever—indeed they are often the ones who’ve advanced Western civilization more than any others—but they’ve been called different things throughout history. This timeline shows the evolution over time.
But is this a recipe that most people should follow?
There are several significant changes trending in our knowledge economy right now, which are flipping the conventional wisdom on the value of specialization on its head. In today’s world, diverse interests are not a curse, they’re a blessing. Being a polymath instead of a specialist is an advantage, not a weakness.
People who love learning across fields can use that tendency to be more financially successful and impactful in their careers.
What follows is the most comprehensive case for becoming a polymath that has ever been created to my knowledge. Then, at the end of the article, I share a resource with you that will help you become a successful polymath.
Polymath Advantage 1: Creating an atypical combination of two or more skills that you’re merely competent in can lead to a world-class skill set.
Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, one of the most popular comic strips of all time, wasn’t the funniest person in the world. He wasn’t the best cartoonist in the world, and he wasn’t the most experienced employee (he was only in his 20s when he started Dilbert). But by combining his humor and illustration skills while focusing on business culture, he became the best in the world in his niche. In an insightful blog post, he nails how he did it and how you can too:
If you want something extraordinary [in life], you have two paths:
1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.
The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.
The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.
Polymath Advantage 2: Most creative breakthroughs come via making atypical combinations of skills.
We can see the power of atypical combinations when we look back at the most influential papers throughout the history of science. Researcher Brian Uzzi, a professor at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, analyzed more than 26 million scientific papers going back hundreds of years and found that the most impactful papers often have teams with atypical combinations of backgrounds. In another comprehensive study performed by Uzzi, he compared the results of academic papers by the number of citations they received and the other papers they cited. A fascinating pattern emerged. The top performing studies cited atypical combinations of other studies (90 percent conventional citations from their own field and 10 percent from other fields).
Polymath Advantage 3: It’s easier and faster than ever to become competent in a new skill.
Want to learn a new, valuable skill to add to your toolbox? It’s never been easier:
The quality of knowledge in every domain is improving. Researchers and practitioners are systematically improving and testing every field of knowledge to make it more robust. Cumulatively, old fallacious ideas are being discredited and new ideas are being added. The technology field is smarter than it was 20 years ago, for example. So are the fields of physics and biology.
Second, there is an abundance of free or affordable content from the world’s top experts in every medium you can think of. Need a community and expert coaching? There are now hundreds of thousands of online courses and billions of online videos. This is the golden era for people who value learning, are willing to invest in themselves, and are disciplined enough to take action on their own.
My favorite example of high-quality, easy-to-access knowledge is a 12-year-old girl named Adilyn Malcolm, who learned how to dubstep dance in a matter of months by constantly watching short clips of others online, practicing, and repeating until she mastered each segment and could perform an entire dance flawlessly.
Imagine Adilyn trying to learn how to dubstep before YouTube. There probably wouldn’t have been a local dance studio that specialized in dubstep. If one did, the teacher likely would not have been world-class. Next, Adilyn wouldn’t have been able to obsessively spend hours learning about it. If any dubstep videos did exist, she would’ve had to convince her parents to spend $20 a piece on them. YouTube, on the other hand, provided Adilyn with a chance to learn from many world-class teachers and performers at no cost and on her own schedule. Today, a search on YouTube for “learn dubstep” returns over 1 million results!
And if that’s not impressive enough, consider 13-year-old Michael Sayman. He taught himself how to code via Google. One of his mobile games became one of the top 100 apps in the world, beating out Starbucks and Yelp. Or watch 11-year-old Amira Willighagen masterfully sing opera after teaching herself with YouTube videos for four years. Something big is happening here, and these young prodigies are the harbingers of it.
As Isaac Newton famously proclaimed, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” In today’s era, we have more shoulders to stand on than ever.