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 Patrick and Michael‘s 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?

This blog post was based on conversations I had with a few people. It’s by no means backed by any data or evidence. Perhaps one day I’ll write a part two with data that proves or disproves this blog post, but for now I’ll mark it as complete. 

How the Model T drove hats out of fashion

Last week, I came across this tweet from an account I follow on Twitter.

Take a closer look at the picture.

Every single person in this picture, man or woman, was wearing a hat. There isn’t a single person in that picture that isn’t wearing a hat. People even wore broad-rimmed and Panama hats to the beach (unless they were swimming).

Of course, createstreets was pointing out the large sidewalks and tiny roads in the picture, reminding the audience that this was at a time when everybody was walking or riding a horse, and very few people drove cars.

I’m not really sure how my train of thought ended up where it did, but I quickly asked this question: did hats fall out of fashion because of cars?

I ended up getting into a conversation with Andrew, who previously worked in the fashion world, about this particular subject, and after a little bit of research, here’s what I found:

Everyone wore hats, and I mean everyone. Men, women, kids. Hats were generally worn in the streets, but not indoors. They protected people from the sun and rain, and were much easier to carry compared to umbrellas or parasols, which had existed for almost two thousand years by the beginning of the 20th century. While umbrellas had evolved to become very lightweight, they were still too large to carry around, which was a hassle when the most common form of transportation was walking. Pocket umbrellas weren’t even invented until the late 1920s, and many stores had already offered umbrellas for rent when customers were caught in a downpour.

Hats had already been worn for thousands of years by the time the Model T was introduced, but the styles and fashion changed over the years. Different hats signaled different statuses and wealth, and everyone wore them from the Chinese to the Arabs, the French to the Nigerians, and many more. So, how did the Model T suddenly wipe them out of everyday fashion?

Henry Ford first introduced the Model T in 1908, and began selling the cars in 1909. The original Model T contained a foldable vinyl roof that was designed based on horse-driven carriages. In its first year, the Ford Motor Company (FMC) only sold about 10,000 Model Ts*, and compared to the population of the United States at the beginning of the 20th century (~72 million), it was a very small and insignificant number. Ford needed to prove that producing cars for the masses was possible and, more importantly, profitable. How were he and the FMC ever going to produce enough cars for millions of people?

That answer came in the form of the assembly line. Ford was approached by one of the company’s production managers, William Klann, with an idea that could potentially speed up vehicle production and drive down costs. Taking inspiration from a disassembly line in a Chicago butcher’s shop, where animals were put on a conveyer belt and butchers were each assigned to cut a specific part, Klann proposed a similar approach in reverse to assemble vehicles. By assigning each worker a specific part to assemble on every car that came through the line, jobs became more specialized and increased efficiency, speeding up the development process and reducing the costs it took to train employees.

The assembly line worked. By 1916, the Model T cost $360, down from its original price of $825, and the company was producing over half a million cars annually. The FMC proved to the rest of the world that it was possible to mass-produce cars. The biggest impact on production was that the assembly line reduced cost per unit (CPU), and this not only guaranteed the company profits as the price of the vehicle went down, but the average FMC worker could afford to buy a car with a modest salary of $5 per day. This proved to be a very effective marketing strategy for Ford, and the automobile itch spread like wildfire. Not only were consumers lining up to buy the cars, but other car companies were copying the assembly line. The FMC had already owned half the American market, but by the 1920s, over 27 million Ford cars had been sold, one for every three Americans. Now, the question remains—how did this affect hats?

Ford Model T Centennial - 1926 Model T Assembly ...

Prior to the mass production of cars, walking was the main source of short-distance transportation. Carriages were commonly used for medium distances within a city, and trains were for long-distance travel. Commercial aviation didn’t exist for long-distance travel until just before the start of the Great Depression, and didn’t really take off until after the end of World War II. Because people didn’t need to travel far and often, they stayed within their city and traveled by foot every day, and because they were traveling by foot, they were under the sun all day long and needed something to cover their heads. Hats were a no-brainer.

Hats in fashion hit their peak around the 1920s, and set on a downhill path from there. At the same time, the FMC was able to flood the market with their Model Ts and almost completely dominate the American car market. Cars were widespread and used for everyday travel, taking people off of their feet and into cars with vinyl roofs (the steel roof was later applied in the mid-1930s). People suddenly realized that they really didn’t need hats inside their cars. They could go from house to car and from car to work. The car’s roof protected drivers and passengers from all kinds of weather. Why did they need to wear hats anymore?

Of course, the Great Depression and WWII immediately followed the 1920s, and I would argue this might have slowed the death of hats in fashion, at least for men. Women had already begun to phase hats out of everyday fashion in the 1930s, and hats were out of the norm by the 1940s. Men had interestingly delayed phasing out hats by almost a decade, and this might have been due to the large population of males who went to serve in the war. Hats and caps were standard in uniforms, and the older generation was already used to it. Young boys at home grew up around women (and a few men) that, although working towards the war effort, didn’t wear hats as part of everyday fashion. Paired with the Greaser subculture that hit American youth in the 40s and 50s, hats were quickly accelerated out of male fashion.

Hats aren’t all the way dead. We see snapbacks all the time, but that revival didn’t really happen until the 1980s and 90s with the rise of hip-hop and rap. While hip-hop helped bring hats back into fashion, it wasn’t to the same degree as hats pre-Model T. People are now dependent on cars more than ever before. They serve as short-, medium-, and long-distance transportation. Los Angeles was built on the assumption that everyone had cars. Why would anyone ever go back to a life where cars didn’t exist?

* Refers to Ford’s fiscal year (October 1, 1908 to September 30, 1909).