While we grew up with the perception that "A Jack of all trades is a master of none", it simply does not stand in today's world. While it was assumed that having a wide array of generalized interests could only pave a path towards failure, history has refuted this again and again. With many competent minds working on problems outside their field, they have ventured outside of the assigned box society had imposed on them and revolutionized the world through pursuing their multiple interests. Because only when you break the barriers, the invention becomes inevitable. These creative and competent people are rightfully called polymaths.
A polymath is rightfully termed as an individual who has a wide range of knowledge on an array of different subjects. These individuals have contributed to the creation of knowledge in diverse fields ranging from science to the arts. As per history, the earliest use of this term can be traced back to the early 17th century. Although, the term was coined much earlier based on Alexander Polyhistor, a Greek philosopher, and more importantly known for his prowess in several subjects ⸺ a polymath. These are individuals, scholars, and thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age, and Renaissance who excelled in several fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the arts. Sadly, all of us do not usually possess the skill set and mental capacity to learn, excel and contribute in several different fields in a lifetime.
Delving into the history of humankind, we glance at geniuses like Avicenna or Ibn Sina, Benjamin Franklin, whose face still graces the US Dollar bills, or the most renowned polymath of all time Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest artists, scientists, engineers, and sculptors of all time. More specifically, if we shift the pages of history for our South East Asian region, we have had a fair share of polymaths, including Rabindranath Tagore, Satyendra Nath Bose, Jagdish Chandra Bose, whose contributions spanned across several fields.
As time passed by, scientific and industrial advances in the 19th century and the turn of the 20th drove men to become specialized. In the early twentieth century, business researchers like Henry Fayol focused on the importance of job specialization in a labor-intensive economy. Thus, we have always been taught to excel in one single rather than explore multiple fields and interests.
However, a different school of thought promotes the idea that although specialization made sense a century ago as the information era emerged, it does not hold a promising future in the knowledge era. The knowledge era, which significantly differs from the information era proposes that information itself has no intrinsic value if we hold on to it. It only makes an impact and implements change when we analyze and utilize the information and make decisions based on the knowledge generated from it.
One must ask what potential does it hold for today's learners and tomorrow's leaders. There is a significant impact on learning and acquiring knowledge and skills in an era when specialization is not a unique strength for an individual. We often associate specialization as strength and generalization as mediocracy. However, the world is changing, and today's leaders like Elon Musk are not specialists but are generalists with their expertise across science, technology, and business!
As the world changes, so do the ingredients of skills in the recipe for success. A modern polymath is defined as someone who has the expertise and is a top performer in at least three different areas. A simple search in recent academic research indicates that many interests and curiosity are more successful than those with interest in one field and a limited curiosity to learn more. The implications for graduates today are immense. In the knowledge having a diverse set of interests and an aspiration to become a polymath is a blessing, a strength in itself.
Being a polymath helps an individual to accumulate knowledge from different sectors and achieve synergy through their decision-making process. Because learning new things is easier than ever owing to the contents available across the internet, it is easier today to learn new things from different fields without even going to an institute and spending a fortune. Thus, individuals have a higher scope to learn and increase their expertise across different fields. If you look at world leaders, industry leaders, researchers, we see a common trend of their expertise across different fields, which aids them in making better-informed decisions.
Learners today can place their interest across multiple disciplines, across the different domains, pursue their passion besides pursuing financial interests, and yet expect to receive advantage from their multidisciplinary knowledge. Any learning is good learning. While this might not apply across all fields in the same manner but in the knowledge economy, this serves as a fact that generalists or polymaths will have certain advantages. A specialization approach to learning will only widen their view in one single domain and limit them from seeing the bigger picture, contrary to a generalist approach where individuals and learners learn and develop their understanding from different angles and form a better understanding and perspective.
Polymaths also make better problem solvers. With an array of multidisciplinary knowledge, they are more likely to present a more well-rounded and feasible solution with an array of multidisciplinary knowledge. And with their ability to identify both the problems and their solutions, they have a new entrepreneurial opportunity at hand. Their skillset makes it far easier for them to break into an existing field with a new niche or create one of their own. What makes the polymath stand out is their desire to create. This hunger pushes them to explore many different fields, and what sets them apart is their ability to interconnect the very atypical ideas. This creates a symbiosis providing a unique and personal spin on their insight.
Though being a polymath is no easy feat, the harsh reality is that being one will become essential for us to grow in the future. Only when the stigma on being a generalist is lifted, can polymaths blossom in today's society. With their diverse ideas, there are endless possibilities for what is to come. Indeed, a Jack of all trades has evolved into a master of many.
Quazi Tafsirul Islam, Lecturer, School of Business, North South University.
Kazi Lamia Haque, Research Assistant, School of Business & Economics, North South University.