Articles: Polymathy

Universal-X - Of Polymaths and other fantastic creatures

There are words you can't use to describe yourself without sounding like an utter ass. Imagine asking someone at a party who they are and they respond with "Nice to meet you, I'm a brilliant photographer/physicist/writer" - instant, life-long friends you'll be, no?

In German, a brilliant (sorry) way to instantly alienate someone in the same way would be to use the word "Universalgenie" to refer to yourself. So you're a universal genius now, are you? How interesting…let's catch up later though my hamster has a playdate I gotta get to.

This came up when talking about the word "polymath" on Twitter after I read a really great essay on polymaths by Salman Ansari. Where English has one word, German has multiple words describing different levels of polymathy:

  • Universalgenie: universal genius, someone doing ground-breaking work in multiple fields (think Newton, Leibniz, da Vinci)
  • Universalgelehrt: someone with deep knowledge in multiple fields who can contribute meaningful in them or combine their knowledge into entirely new things (Nathan Myrvolt or Elon Musk would be examples)
  • Universalgebildet: someone who knows enough about multiple fields that they can "translate" between specialists and find connections that specialists would not see

These are rough distinctions, of course, and I think the average German would be sceptical of anyone who choose one of them to describe themselves. That's because there's a second meaning that is connected to the word "universal": Newton, Leibniz and da Vinci were "universalgelehrt" in the sense that they knew (and had the chance to know) literally everything there was to know in multiple fields at their time. In that sense being universal-anything today is impossible and anyone claiming it for themselves reeks of arrogance.

Nevertheless, I think distinctions like this are useful when probing the concept of polymathy. For me, there's a difference between specialists, shallow polymaths and deep polymaths that doesn't exactly map to the German terms above but approaches them.

Shallow polymaths are people who have read a lot about many different topics. Reading HackerNews for ten years gives you context around many, many different things even if you don't study them deeply, and allows you to ask questions interesting enough so that an expert in the field isn't bored talking to you. Which is nice. But it has limited upside, and can even be dangerous.

Being a shallow polymath has limited upside because it often stays at the level of "intellectual interest" and translating between fields sometimes. It can be dangerous, because it can foster a sense of superiority that isn't actually warranted. The stereotypical HackerNews reader who's never worked in a field but declares this would be a "weekend project" for them is Exhibit A for this.

A deep polymath is someone who has not just read but produced in different fields or their intersection. Being a deep polymath has actually unlimited upside - it's where most of what Cal Newport calls "Career Capital" is generated and where many big breakthroughs originate. Of course, being a deep polymath is harder than being a shallow polymath. It requires more directed effort, and the pain of producing things.

Interestingly enough, shallow polymaths have - I would argue - an easier time becoming deep polymaths than specialists. Why is that? Specialists are already very knowledgeable in one field, all they have to do is train up in another field and boom! Well, the problem there is that specialists are taking a larger "step back" when they train up in another field. As a specialist, your opportunity cost in not spending further time on your speciality is higher, as is the emotional pain of comparing your efforts in the new field to what you're capable of in your specialty. None of which is to say that specialists aren't useful, by the way. The world needs them, and if your natural inclination is to be a specialist, then be that specialist.

While both the German words and the distinction between shallow and deep polymath get at the level of knowledge of a polymath in a way, there are other distinctions that touch the term. The metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog tackles the issue from a personality type angle - one with very useful extending mental models including the fantastical creation of a foxhog.

The most interesting thing in all of this for me is the vast potential being unlocked by technology. There has never been a better time to be interested in many things at the same time than today. Access to new fields and information is the easiest it's ever been, and the tools and business models required to earn a living as a polymath have never been as practical as today. Youtubers are the prime example of an environment in which polymaths can strive: anyone doing a craft like woodworking, blacksmithing or whatever also needs to do video and sound, lighting, story-telling, editing and millions of other things. And people are doing it in the millions, which is awesome to watch and makes me excited to see what's yet to come.

There are words you can't use to describe yourself without sounding like an utter ass. Imagine asking someone at a party who they are and they respond with "Nice to meet you, I'm a brilliant photographer/physicist/writer" - instant, life-long friends you'll be, no?

In German, a brilliant (sorry) way to instantly alienate someone in the same way would be to use the word "Universalgenie" to refer to yourself. So you're a universal genius now, are you? How interesting…let's catch up later though my hamster has a playdate I gotta get to.

This came up when talking about the word "polymath" on Twitter after I read a really great essay on polymaths by Salman Ansari. Where English has one word, German has multiple words describing different levels of polymathy:

  • Universalgenie: universal genius, someone doing ground-breaking work in multiple fields (think Newton, Leibniz, da Vinci)
  • Universalgelehrt: someone with deep knowledge in multiple fields who can contribute meaningful in them or combine their knowledge into entirely new things (Nathan Myrvolt or Elon Musk would be examples)
  • Universalgebildet: someone who knows enough about multiple fields that they can "translate" between specialists and find connections that specialists would not see

These are rough distinctions, of course, and I think the average German would be sceptical of anyone who choose one of them to describe themselves. That's because there's a second meaning that is connected to the word "universal": Newton, Leibniz and da Vinci were "universalgelehrt" in the sense that they knew (and had the chance to know) literally everything there was to know in multiple fields at their time. In that sense being universal-anything today is impossible and anyone claiming it for themselves reeks of arrogance.

Nevertheless, I think distinctions like this are useful when probing the concept of polymathy. For me, there's a difference between specialists, shallow polymaths and deep polymaths that doesn't exactly map to the German terms above but approaches them.

Shallow polymaths are people who have read a lot about many different topics. Reading HackerNews for ten years gives you context around many, many different things even if you don't study them deeply, and allows you to ask questions interesting enough so that an expert in the field isn't bored talking to you. Which is nice. But it has limited upside, and can even be dangerous.

Being a shallow polymath has limited upside because it often stays at the level of "intellectual interest" and translating between fields sometimes. It can be dangerous, because it can foster a sense of superiority that isn't actually warranted. The stereotypical HackerNews reader who's never worked in a field but declares this would be a "weekend project" for them is Exhibit A for this.

A deep polymath is someone who has not just read but produced in different fields or their intersection. Being a deep polymath has actually unlimited upside - it's where most of what Cal Newport calls "Career Capital" is generated and where many big breakthroughs originate. Of course, being a deep polymath is harder than being a shallow polymath. It requires more directed effort, and the pain of producing things.

Interestingly enough, shallow polymaths have - I would argue - an easier time becoming deep polymaths than specialists. Why is that? Specialists are already very knowledgeable in one field, all they have to do is train up in another field and boom! Well, the problem there is that specialists are taking a larger "step back" when they train up in another field. As a specialist, your opportunity cost in not spending further time on your speciality is higher, as is the emotional pain of comparing your efforts in the new field to what you're capable of in your specialty. None of which is to say that specialists aren't useful, by the way. The world needs them, and if your natural inclination is to be a specialist, then be that specialist.

While both the German words and the distinction between shallow and deep polymath get at the level of knowledge of a polymath in a way, there are other distinctions that touch the term. The metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog tackles the issue from a personality type angle - one with very useful extending mental models including the fantastical creation of a foxhog.

The most interesting thing in all of this for me is the vast potential being unlocked by technology. There has never been a better time to be interested in many things at the same time than today. Access to new fields and information is the easiest it's ever been, and the tools and business models required to earn a living as a polymath have never been as practical as today. Youtubers are the prime example of an environment in which polymaths can strive: anyone doing a craft like woodworking, blacksmithing or whatever also needs to do video and sound, lighting, story-telling, editing and millions of other things. And people are doing it in the millions, which is awesome to watch and makes me excited to see what's yet to come.

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