Wondering if you have what it takes to become a successful polymath? Perhaps you’re uniquely constituted to excel in multiple disciplines.
There are five personality traits that the most effective polymaths have — wide-ranging interests, curiosity, skepticism of conventionality, self-learning abilities, and associative thinking.
If you don’t have all of these personality traits, that’s okay. We’re all works in progress. I certainly haven’t mastered them all. You can train yourself to become more curious, to become a better self-learner, etc.,
In addition to discussing the importance of each trait, throughout the article I’ll also give some tips on how to develop these polymath traits so that you can grow into a modern day renaissance-person.
1. Polymaths Have Wide Ranging Interests
One sign that you might succeed as a polymath is that you’re interested in a diverse range of subjects and skills.
A polymath might have a library that includes books on literature, philosophy, zen buddhism, transcendentalism politics, literary theory, the middle ages, US history, and many other topics.
This trait is a gift and a curse. Though it can motivate you to read widely, I know from experience that it can also be debilitating at times.
Sometimes I find that I’m interested in so many topics that I can’t choose which one to focus on for the next few months, let alone a year.
To prevent this tendency from turning you into a “jack of all trades, master of none” instead of a polymath, I recommend selecting 1-2 skills and 1-2 subjects that you want to master and focusing 80% of your attention on them, for a couple of years. You’ll be amazed how far you go.
You can spend the other 20% of your time learning about whatever interests you that day or week.
Later, once you get these core skills up to expert level, you can cycle in a new discipline and start learning that one as well. Don’t spread yourself too thin.
2. Polymaths are Obsessively Curious
Polymaths are curious and inquisitive. They have questions and they want answers. This motivates them to read, learn, and study with intensity.
A polymath with an interest in nature might look at a tree and think, “hey, what is that fungus growing on it? Why is it yellow? What is fungus anyway? Does it help or hurt the tree?”
Then they might go out and buy a book on forest ecology, a textbook on fungus, and an online course on the interrelations between trees and fungi.
You can train yourself to become more inquisitive about the world. All children are born naturally curious, eager to discover the truths of the world — why mommy yells at daddy, why the sun is so painful to look at, etc.,
According to Ian Leslie, Author of Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on it, curiosity is a mental muscle that atrophies as we grow up. And it’s a muscle that’s associated with career success and wellbeing.
Check out his book to learn how to strengthen the muscle and become a better explorer of the world’s secrets.
3. Polymaths are Skeptical of Conventionality
Conventional wisdom is to pick one skill and to stick with it, rarely if ever reading or learning anything outside of the narrow focus.
Polymaths are brave enough to say “screw that — I’m going to follow my interests wherever they may lead. Even if it’s into obscurity, I’ll have lived an intellectually satisfying life.”
Fortunately, pursuing and practicing multiple disciplines usually isn’t going to lead to economic ruin, quite the opposite.
According to the groundbreaking book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, many of the world’s top performers rose to the top of their respective disciplines in part because of their polymath tendencies and wide ranging knowledge.
One reason developing range helps you succeed in your chosen field is that many skills are transferable across disciplines. And most skills are more effectively learned in one field than another.
For example, a chemist might pick up public speaking skills by joining an acting group and studying theatre, a skill that they might not have developed if working away in the ivory tower.
And these public speaking skills directly help the chemist promote their findings and win grants for research.
Another reason that range is important is that it makes you stand out. A political non-fiction writer with expertise in political philosophy, experience as an ecologist, and working knowledge of sociology, anthropology, and neuroscience is going to draw from all of this to create incredibly one of a kind articles.
If you’re curious about other reasons for polymaths flourishing in our economy, I highly recommend reading David Epstein’s book Range. The case studies of successful generalists gave me some great ideas to apply to my own long term learning plan.
4. Polymaths are Effective Self-Learners
Typically, polymaths aren’t going to be able to attend formal programs for every disciple they’d like to learn. They’re going to have to engage in some self-education.
Polymaths will likely learn new skills and subjects by reading books, taking online courses, doing deliberate practice, and working on projects that put their knowledge to the test.
The most effective will probably institute some structure, creating DIY curriculums or following self-education roadmaps.
They’ll also likely have developed through practice powers of focus that allow them to study and practice with intensity. You can develop this yourself.
To learn how, I recommend reading Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport, one of my favorite authors.
This book completely changed my outlook on life and showed me the value, economic and emotional, of engaging in deep, cognitively demanding work. Reading it will seriously improve your ability to learn new skills, and also teach you why that’s so critical in today’s economy.
For more on how to become a productive self-learner who can quickly acquire new skills and subject matter expertise without schooling, feel free to check out my article 7 steps to become a successful autodidact.
5. Polymaths are Associative Thinkers
Associative thinking is the unconscious process of combining two or more different concepts to create something new. This trait allows polymaths to come up with creative solutions and novel ideas.
Because they have such wide ranging knowledge, they’ll often draw connections between two seemingly unrelated concepts from different fields, allowing them to think differently from others.
Typically, these flashes of insight occur spontaneously without your control. The more you read and think across disciplines the more you’ll find yourself reaping the benefits of associative thinking. The more you’ll be amazed at what just came out of your mouth.
Associative thinking is also connected to wit, or mental inventiveness. So if you’re ever wondering why you’re spending your time reading about the migratory patterns of emperor penguins, just know that one day during conversation your brain will use the material to produce a really clever remark that gets everyone laughing.
Bottom Line: Polymath Personality Traits
If you have a good number of the above traits, it’s likely that you’re capable of becoming a successful polymath. If not, you can always work on yourself to develop them. And remember, even if you have all five in some capacity, you can still work to improve them. No one’s perfect.
Now, to start acquiring some intellectual range, consider checking out my self-education roadmaps, where I walk you through how to self-study various subjects, from political science and philosophy to chemistry and psychology, using a systematic approach.