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The Polymath Mindset Is What You Need to Become Smarter (And Live the Good Life)

by | Aug 21, 2023 | Life Hacks

The term polymath is messed up.

Many people assume it means genius. Not quite. I first came across the term on an episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. Tim mentioned it and I was like “what the F is that?” So I googled it then forgot about it.

A couple of years later my friend Danny called me a polymath. It was a nice compliment but I didn’t really know what it meant. If I was a polymath then it certainly wasn’t intentional.

So I went down the rabbit hole to discover what a polymath is and how to become one, or become a better one if you already are one.

Why polymaths are more successful

The first famous polymath was Leonardo Da Vinci.

Back then they called people like Leonardo a “Renaissance man.” It meant they were skilled in multiple areas rather than one.

Leonardo was exceptional at painting, engineering, science, sculpting, architecture, being a theorist, and he was even a draughtsman.

If you’ve ever faced a mid-life crisis or felt lost as a young person, you’ve likely come into the one-true-calling problem. It’s the idea that we choose one path in life and stick to it until death.

College helps market this idea.

Neuroscientist and lecturer at MIT Jin Wu opened my mind to another way of thinking:

I happen to be passionate about everything that I set my focus on. It’s hard to stick to just one thing, not because it gets boring, but because there are so many competing interests in my world that eventually something else becomes the center of my focus.

She says she doesn’t have one true calling — she has many. As soon as I read those words in 2018 I felt like that too. I love writing, business, social media, fitness, diet, finance, etc.

I’m a writer and these varied interests go against the typical career path. Gurus say I need a niche but I don’t have one. I love many things.

When you adopt the polymath mindset you realize you don’t have one true calling — and that’s okay.

When you are good at multiple things it spreads the risk and helps stop you from becoming bored with one thing. With multiple small bets in play the chance of success is higher.

My friend Thomas Oppong says polymaths follow their curiosity and interests “rather than conforming to or accepting conventional wisdom.”

They scream screw being normal.

They’re driven by the addiction to step out of their comfort zone. And in discomfort we tend to experience more personal growth that leads to success.

If you’re sold on becoming a polymath, here is how to adopt the mindset and implement it into your life, so you can live a better life.

1. The #1 skill you need to be a polymath

I’ve read a lot about polymaths and I rarely see this mentioned.

The skill you need is a love of learning.

I love to learn and is fun to me. When a platform changes or I get a new phone, I can’t wait to learn what I don’t know. Polymaths are life-long learners. Their education doesn’t stop at the end of high school or college.

They don’t get one year’s experience in a job and then repeat it for 40 years and call it a career. No. They keep learning. They love to change jobs.

They might start being a doctor and later become an astronaut. The only limitation on their career is their ability to learn new skills — and that’s infinite if we’re totally honest.

Make learning your obsession.

2. Realize everything connects to everything

A more modern definition of polymath is someone who’s a generalist.

They’re a jack of all trades. In the modern economy these people tend to do better. Specialized knowledge is overrated and often becomes irrelevant as technology disrupts different industries.

Polymaths have the unique advantage of connecting the dots between many different topics.

When I think of writing online I don’t believe in experts. Every topic is connected to every topic. The job of a writer isn’t to be an elitist expert, but to become a joiner of dots between many things. This is what a polymath can do and it’s a superpower.

I remember I once met a successful education company founder. He had people like Desmond Tutu and Bill Clinton on his board. I asked how he managed to get so big so fast.

“Well, we take business models from industries like banking and aviation and apply them to education.”

If someone said airline pilots would help develop the future of college education, back then, you’d have been laughed at.

No one is laughing now.

He proved that joining the dots can between strange things creates successful companies from nothing.

Add this skill to make connecting dots easier

Connecting dots rarely works by chance.

The way to do it is with networked note-taking. All that means is you use a note-taking app like Obsidian or Roam to collect every idea, quote, Youtube video, tweet, movie, etc, in a personal database.

You then link ideas with hashtags and basic HTML linking. Over time this system helps drive your connections between thoughts and make you smarter.

In my banking career, when I used this skill, people thought I had a superhuman memory because I could recite every customer quote.

I wasn’t Einstein though. I just took notes on everything and then recalled relevant ones in presentations to leaders.

Become a modern-day note-taker.

3. Cultivate a love of books

I’ve always been a bookworm.

I got bullied in school and books were my only solace. Now I’m teaching my 9 month old daughter to read and it’s a joy.

Books are where ideas come from. Books are where you learn about people’s lives you’ll never meet. If you want to become a different kind of polymath then read books no one else is reading.

The most famous example is Ryan Holiday. He read books on stoicism when no one else was, and then brought the ancient ideas back to life through his best-selling books like “Ego is the Enemy.”

Read part of one book every night before bed.

4. Love to be the dumbest person in the room

I am always asking dumb questions at large public events.

I used to be afraid to speak up, but as I’ve got older, I just don’t care anymore about what people think.

You don’t learn if you don’t ask questions.

The thing you don’t understand is probably the same for many other people in whatever room you’re in.

Good. Do people a favor and ask the question. There is no such thing as a dumb question, only a person too afraid to ask one because of some unwarranted fear.

5. Become curiosity-driven

Curiosity is stamped out of us as soon as we turn 21 and can buy a beer at a bar. Sad.

The modern polymaths follow their curiosity. They love the explore tab on their “X” app where they can find rabbit holes and get lost. They seek to find new ideas rather than validate what they already know.

Follow curiosity.

6. Learning and knowledge can be a curse

Wait, what?

I’ll explain. Many people are masters of consuming. They can read and watch movies all day in the guise of learning and becoming smart. But these wannabe polymaths never get anywhere. Why?

They don’t apply knowledge. They don’t do stuff. They don’t run interesting experiments. Learning is just a form of procrastination.

The best polymaths take action.

They find a great idea and then think “how can I use this?” They’re intentional. All the learning is tied to a goal or a life they want to live.

It’s not just mindless. It appears random but it’s not. They know what they want and they go get it.

  • Create action plans from your learning
  • Record results
  • Iterate

Final Thought

Becoming a polymath doesn’t require permission or a certificate on the wall.

Learning is an opportunity we all have access to and it’s a miracle. To develop a love of learning opens up a fourth dimension of opportunities. Being a polymath is how you accelerate your learning that helps you join the dots — also known as creativity.

And creative people are in high demand as artificial intelligence replaces mindless thought and overconsumption of content.

Dare to use the polymath mindset.

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