Sunday, April 7, 2013

Revisiting the Modern Polymath

Over two years ago, I wrote one of my most popular posts of all time on the modern polymath.  In the intervening years, I've had cause to rethink my definition and personal path toward that goal.  My long term readers will recall my habit of selecting and changing goals on about a monthly basis, which is another reason for me to write this article.

At the time, I defined the polymath as 'someone with a great deal of knowledge and understanding in many fields.'  Then I said about the modern polymath, '...I would expect a modern polymath to be knowledgeable in music theory, first aid, design, three or more languages (at least one not Roman or German based), and have a wide vocabulary.'  This is an extreme oversimplification of what I discussed, but it's a start for what I'm going to write about now. 

I still define a modern polymath as someone who knows about and can do a wide variety of things.  That kinda goes with the term.  Now I'm starting to think about the practicality of being a polymath in this day and age.  Should a person have some level of skill in a variety of areas?  Yes, I think that's important.  Should a person focus on being a polymath to the exclusion of having a single specialty or specializing in a single field?  This is where I'm rethinking my position.

Previously, I was all about drawing, languages, sports or other activities, and such.  Given that I work at least 40 hours a week, I'm seeing the downside of such an endeavour.  I don't have time to become better than 90% of humanity in art, math, science, multiple languages, philosophy, writing, and any other number of areas.  Yes, I wish I could, but it's not possible for someone who wants a good night's sleep.

Stepping back, how much generalism should a person work toward if they still want to accomplish something?  Versatilism gives a bit of a clue.  The veratilist has a general specialty, in that they work in a single field, but are capable of a wide variety of roles within that specialty.  They are also always working to learn more, making themselves more versatile.  Or at least the more capable ones are.  This retains the pros of the specialist (a lot of knowledge in a single area, giving them deep respect in that area) and a generalist (the ability to achieve something in multiple areas) while removing many of the cons.

What specificially do I think people should know?  Typing, thinking algorithmically, math through at least college algebra, a fairly wide vocabulary, and a field of interest from which all else will follow.  Yes, I think should have some kind of specialty.  But from that specialty, they should have the history of that field (and strongly related areas), the vocabulary of that field, a knowledge of the people best know (and less well known) in that field, and so on.  People should generalize within that field to more easily be able to achieve any role and lend anyone else a hand.  By having a focus, but being versatile within that focus, a person can go far.

So what does this have to do with me?  I have chosen my area (one from before), and I am removing nearly everything from my home environment that might tempt me to change my focus again.  That specialty is space exploration.  I'm about to start an online degree in space studies as well as learn related things that will help me.  I'm still learning Japanese, but with a different long term goal in mind.  I'm going to try Rosetta Stone just to see if I do better with that.  I'll also be changing around my other site, Cross Trained Mind, to match my new goals.  I'll keep you up to date.


  1. Which school did you decide to go with for your online degree in space studies?

  2. American Public University
    It's accredited by the same group that accredits CMU, Michigan State, and UM.,/form_submitted,TRUE/institution,/showquery,/state,MI/submit,Search/

    I searched for other programs, but the cost was MUCH higher and it wasn't nearly as convenient. Here, classes start every month, are completely online, last 8 or 16 weeks, and books at the undergrad level are free electronically.