Why We All Need To Be Polymaths

Leonardo da Vinci

Polymath (n.) ˈpɒlɪmaθ | A person of great and varied learning

Throughout school and university, I worked a variety of summer jobs, from NHS admin work, to teaching, to legal work experience, and even the territorial army. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I was willing to try lots of different things. Now I am three years into my first real *career* in the financial services sector, it is clear that the way upwards in the company requires some degree of specialisation. “Become an expert in this product, this client base, this region”, I am told in my appraisals, “Make your niche”.


But what is my niche?

What do they mean by the term *niche*? And, for that matter, do I really want one? With Brexit on the horizon and the future of the UK economy dependant on some political egos hurriedly hashing out a plan in Brussels, do I really want to put all my eggs in one basket? Add to that the fast changing jobs landscape, with the next generation of artificial intelligence just around the corner… and it seems to me that, if anything, my work opportunities need to be as broad as possible, not “niche”.

I realise that the example of my own career in financial services does not reflect the numerous more flexible (and stable) career options out there. But thinking about educational development more broadly, the UK system does seem to emphasise and perpetuate specialisation from a very early age. Students aged 15-16 are asked to choose just 4 subjects to study at A-Level, then to narrow that to one discipline at university. The highest academic accolade, the PhD, is most commonly awarded to research of a highly specific focus.

Beyond academics, career-switching might be more normal nowadays, but still tends to remain broadly within sectors. Changing your specialty entirely often requires further study, which can be prohibitively expensive, and the bravery to take a big risk that isn’t yet considered ‘normal’ by surrounding society.


“The polymath is an endangered species”

It is hardly surprising then that it is so unusual to stumble across individuals who excel at vastly diverse different specialities nowadays. The polymath is an endangered species, laments The Economist. And they are right. There are scant few members of the population today who are afforded the opportunity to develop their interests to the very top of multiple pathways. Unless you’re rich or brave enough to rack up huge debts, our need for security in a fast-changing world keeps us within jobs confined by the educational choices we made when we were 16 years old.

Why am I going on about all of this, you wonder? So what, Leonardo da Vinci is dead and the rest of us end up with more specialised jobs that can be a bit more inflexible. Isn’t that just what work is? Don’t we all just need to suck it up and get on with it?

Well, I think there are a few reasons to think about. Firstly, it is clear that such a rigid system entrenches a lack of social mobility at a time when the UK labour market, as in other developed nations, is caught in the flux of significant technological change. It has been estimated that as many as 47% of US jobs are at high risk of automation in the next few years. Those silo’ed into lower income specialised jobs may not have the resources or support to retrain as needed into a different speciality. This can only increase the polarisation of existing social inequalities. We’ve seen this happen in the USA already, where the long term unemployed former rust-belt workers cannot fill the skills-gap desperately faced by 83% of employers, especially for technicians and skilled tradesmen.

My second point is one of mindset. Segregating education into strict disciplinary boundaries has created a culture of the specialist that has undoubtedly been successful from a ‘fact-finding’ perspective. We now know a lot in detail about many different things. Yet, as author Carter Phipps writes,

“We have so much knowledge, but somehow lack a larger frame in which to understand it.”

The problems facing the world today have failed to find a solution in the mindset of the specialist. This is reflected by George Freeman, chair of the UK Prime Minister’s policy board, as he comments on the rigid structure of government:

“The challenges holding back the people and places we need to help do not fall neatly into Whitehall silos”.


Globalisation, climate change, social inequality, ageing populations, cyber security, the UK productivity puzzle…

…The realities underlying these issues are, at best complex, at worst downright chaotic. The artificial boundaries created by our current educational, governing and labour market system cannot hope to problem-solve such momentous challenges. Clearly, as Phipps goes on to say in his article, we need a renewed inter-disciplinary approach that focuses on creating connections and meaning from existing facts, integrating networks of knowledge into the next step of human consciousness.

I personally am inspired to draw a further conclusion from this. A push towards a more ‘connective’ way of thinking opens up new pathways for our individual personal development. In the world of jobs automation that awaits us, perhaps the path to remaining relevant is to focus on attaining breadth rather than depth of experiences. Perhaps the future is no longer in specialisation, but in multi-potentiality. Perhaps its time to bring back the polymath.

Whilst most definitions of ‘polymath’ assume it to be an attribute of only certain, ‘genetically-gifted’ people, it is clearly time to move past this notion. Homo sapiens is a generalist species and has been able by dint of this to adapt to survive in nearly every habitat on the planet. Today, less imminently faced with concerns of survival, this multiplicity manifests itself in the sheer variety of interests, goals and hopes we all undoubtedly harbour.


The Polymath Workforce

In a human versus robot test of supposedly high-skilled cognitive jobs such as accountancy, software development or equity trading, technology currently being developed can probably beat the most productive human hands down. But would a robot be able to take 15 years working experience across care homes, hospitals, pension funds, academic research, charities and government to connect a true solution to the imminent impact of ageing populations, for example?

It is here, I think, that we should all aspire to. Widening our experiences in order to understand the broader context Carter Phipps noticed is lacking, using what is there to connect the dots of our complex, non-linear society to solve the pressing problems of the world today. To do this, it is time to stop thinking of career progression as climbing a ladder, and instead consider it as a forest of opportunity in which there are many trees waiting to be climbed!

And yes, as I already grumbled above, it is true that the social structures to support such flexibility are depressingly absent. Whilst not everyone will have the means or security to radically change careers immediately, I do think that we can begin to truly challenge the mindset of ‘specialisation’ by cultivating our talents on a micro, individual level. We are all highly flexible in our potential – we just need to remember that, and nurture it.

So here’s to reading more and reading widely; slowing down to notice and reflect; consuming less to create more; writing, discussing and communicating as much as possible. Remember that we are not defined just by our job titles: let’s remain eager to learn and easily fascinated, let’s face the world’s problems face on and use our collective experiences to join those dots.

We all have an inner polymath, it’s time to let it out.