Death of the polymath

A few months ago, I got a grant from Tyler Cowen at Emergent Ventures to go to San Francisco and find a mentor (side note: please consider applying!). I finally got the chance to go in early February and had a fantastic time, but that’s not the point of this post.

I talked to a couple of different people about something that has been at the back of my mind for a while: is it harder to become a polymath today than it was 100+ years ago?

After discussing this with a few people, I came to the conclusion that even though the population of the earth has increased almost five-fold since the beginning of the 20th century, the world is still not producing enough polymaths. There are already brilliant people working on great projects and goals, but they generally stop to work in one area and stick with it for the rest of their lives when they could be applying the same level of ambition and intellect in different areas. So, why aren’t more people doing big things in multiple fields?

I think the first reason is obvious: these people are hard to find. You can’t make any average individual a polymath. Polymaths have really deep interests in subjects that some people might find very complex. Luck has a huge role in determining what characteristics people have or obtain, and it’s rare to have a combination of inherent curiosity mixed with a drive for problem solving across different areas.

Complexity is an issue that I think a lot of people overlook. Science and math has become much more niche than it was a few hundred years ago. There’s just too much information one needs to know about any given area, which slowly increases every year with small, incremental discoveries. There have been breakthroughs in history that completely alter the established belief, and it can be complex even trying to adopt new discoveries. Stubborn attachments to established beliefs can make learning and progressing too difficult because a student might be studying something completely wrong, which impacts at least one generation.

One can argue that it’s easier than ever to find the information because of the internet, but it’s really hard to filter through that information. Search has turned into a battleground for SEO, where the best “growth hackers” win. Information isn’t prioritized, so it can take just as long to find good sources of information on a topic as it is to study the material. Maybe this is a feature and not a bug, helping teach an individual to create a bullshit detector and understand what qualifies as good information and what qualifies as bad information (have you seen the amount of terrible/fake statistics out there?)

As bad as it sounds, the biggest reason is probably because the opportunity cost is too high. At the end of the day, we’re talking about people (some of whom have families) that have to pay the bills and buy food every month. If potential polymaths can’t switch professions and pursue what they love or find funding for the research they actually want to do, they’ll pursue small side projects that may or may not pay off. Money is an anchor just as much as it is an incentive.

I’m not exactly sure why I started thinking about this topic in particular. Perhaps it was because I read this article on the diminishing returns of science. It could have also been because I was watching a cartoon series on Islamic scholars, many of whom were polymaths.

It’s hard to define what a polymath actually is. Is it someone who produces X amount of research in several fields? Do they really have to do something big in multiple fields to be considered a polymath? Can it be a generalist who just knows a lot of things and specializes in one field, yet appears to be a polymath by others? Do polymaths even have to be well-known in the first place to be considered polymaths?

7 thoughts on “Death of the polymath

  1. I am a biomedical researcher, but my blog is almost entirely about the histories of places I visit. Even so, I would blush to call myself a “polymath.” Quite a few of the greatest scientists I know have a side-interest, though. A friend of mine who helped develop the “paired-end sequencing” technology in common use also happens to be a high-level Go game player. Does that count?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that’s super interesting! I’m not really sure what qualifies as a polymath. It can be someone who does things in different fields, but it can also be someone like your friend (who I’m very interested in talking to, as well as yourself). How can I get in contact with you?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My time is going to be very limited for the next month or so (I’m organizing a scientific workshop), but you can write me at my WordPress handle over on Gmail. I’ll try to reply!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Entrepreneurship is very dense with respect to generalists (polymaths)! I suspect that the reasoning for this is that founding a successful company inherently requires either (1) being “ruthlessly competent” at everything or (2) world-class at 1-2 things and passable on everything else**, and therefore selects for a large proportion of people who fall under (1). I also think that an optimal method for an aspiring generalist to become a badass polymath is to found a successful company early on in their career and then use any subsequently newfound capital and time to do other polymath-ey things. Nice article!

    **credit to @whrobbins for these two categories


    1. Thanks! Yes, I have observed the optimal method you described as one to be true (though very hard to accomplish early in their career). It also seems that polymaths have a good general set of skills that they can apply to multiple fields, allowing them to become polymaths (credit to a coworker for this point).


  3. I’ve been called a polymath (though I have certainly not done any great things). I have a journeyman-depth grasp of a very large number of fields, and how they integrate, which is probably why I get called a polymath.

    I went into investing.

    I think that’s pretty common, with entrepeneurship being even more common (I had illnesses that kept me away from entrepeneurship).

    Our economic system seems to select against polymaths for most jobs: the specialist will always have the “better resume”. The exception is fields where you don’t report to an “employer”, like entrepeneurship or investing on your own behalf or community organizing or starting a charity. But in all of these cases you also have to have a lot of drive, energy, and independence; the polymath who lacks that doesn’t have a career path.

    Unfortunately our political system, which really could use polymaths, also seems to select against polymaths, though Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is definitely a polymath.


    1. Yes, I’ve noticed that a lot of investors/previous entrepreneurs are commonly able to juggle and dive into many different interests, and that’s a direct result of how much financial freedom they have, as well their constant need to research/do due diligence on the companies they have interest in investing in. David Epstein covers a little bit of this in his upcoming book, Range, that expands more about the generalist/polymaths theme

      I’m not familiar enough with AOC to determine whether she really is one. What makes you think so?


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