The polymath advantage: should we be specialists or generalists?

The debate between specialism and generalism, between depth and breadth, is quite fascinating.

Generally speaking I’m inclined to think the average Western person lacks depth, at least in terms of their lifestyle.  We flit from job to job, place to place, acquaintance to acquaintance, without ever truly becoming party of the fabric of something.  Without ever truly finding our place, and experiencing the higher state of consciousness that comes with deep belonging.

I heard a quote once which brought this realisation home in startling way – at least to my ears.  I can’t locate it now, but it was something like:

“People can spend their entire life simply getting to know one single hillside.  And once upon a time, they did”.

There are startling stories about the sensitivities that such deep rootedness can kindle in the human animal.  When the tsunami hit the coasts of Asia in 2004, authorities were worried about the fate of a small indigenous tribe who lived on a remote island that lay in its path.  Following the disaster they flew over the island in helicopters, checking for survivors.  To their shock they found that the tribe had not only survived, but hadn’t incurred a single fatality.  Just like the animals who had been observed heading for high ground long before the wave arrived, they were sufficiently in tune with their surroundings as to know it was coming, and avoid it all together – an ability which appears nothing short of supernatural to shallow people such as us.

More prosaically, extreme levels of depth are also what produce the most startling artistic, sporting, and career achievements.

Behind every superlative human accomplishment – whether it be the goal scoring of Cristiano Ronaldo, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or the pages of a timeless book – lies a level of obsession and focus which us normies would find frankly repulsive.  I heard once that Andre Agassi’s dad started him playing tennis aged 3, by taping a racket to his hand because he was too small to hold it.  As a result Agassi eventually admitted he hated tennis.  But nevertheless the results spoke for themselves.

Still, all this being said, there are undeniably fields where breadth and shallowness confer significant advantages – and strategy is one of them.

To understand why this is, it’s helpful to consider a concept I heard from the writer David Perell, who has a lot of insights on the topic of education.  He says that learning is like a colour wheel, whereby each new thing you learn adds a colour to your field of vision.  The person who doesn’t know much about anything sees the world in black and white – whilst the person who knows lots sees in full technicolour.

He explains it nicely in this little passage:

“Consider a visit to a restaurant. A chef would think about how the food’s been prepared, an economist would think about why things cost as much as they do, a sound designer would think about ways to make it easier to hear the person sitting next to them, a woodcarver would think about the construction of the table they’re sitting on, a chair designer would think about ways to make the seating more comfortable, an entrepreneur would think about the bottlenecks in the restaurant, and a supply chain expert would think about bottlenecks in the food supply.”

Now the point here I think is not that we should aspire to be like any of these specialists, who have depth of knowledge in their subjects.  The point instead is to imagine if we knew just a little bit about all these fields.  A bit about cooking.  A bit about design.  A bit about business.  In this instance we would be able to view the restaurant through many different dimensions simultaneously, not just one.

The personality type I’m describing is of course the polymath – a person of wide knowledge or learning.  They used to be quite common, back in the days when broad and eclectic curiosity was considered a desirable and high status end in and of itself – Benjamin Franklin perhaps being the most famous example, who of course became President.  Today however, in the age of “learn to code” and “trust the experts” they are more seen as eccentric oddballs with no real world usefulness – quirky characters in the mould of Stephen Fry.  Delightful dinner party companions no doubt, but not necessary “effective” people in the real world.

(An interesting aside demonstrating this drift away from polymaths and towards specialist experts can be seen in the nature of scholarship.  Books written in antiquity and the Middle Ages, rather than focusing on one discrete and narrow line of knowledge as they do today, instead attempted to cram in as much eclectic information as the author could muster – almost a showcase for all they had learned.  As a result they would bounce from philosophy to physics to chemistry to theology to horsemanship to cooking with dazzling speed, creating works which are quite unintelligible for modern readers)

Now of course in many fields it’s true, polymaths aren’t much use.  You don’t care about someone’s knowledge of Greek myths or horticulture if they’re fixing your car, or flying your plane.  But in strategic fields – which are by definition fields beyond the realms of expert mastery – they are of use.  Great use in fact.

You see the polymath, the person with a bit of knowledge about lots of things, is able to see angles.  They are able to view problems through many different lenses.  They are able to spot patterns, and potential.  They can see that X is, in some obscure way, a little bit like Y, and thus can draw lessons from that unlikely source.

Polymaths are good politicians.  They are good writers.  They are good educators.  And they are good founders and business leaders.

Perhaps the ideal founder team is a blend of the generalist with the specialist; a Steve Wozniak with a Steve Jobs.  One knows their shit, the other knows everything else.

Of course we can hardly make ourselves widely knowledgable, at least not overnight.  But we can at least begin to respect the utility of such an attribute.  Perhaps we could consider this as a desirable attribute when hiring for certain positions.  Do we really need intense depth here, or could we profit from a bit more breadth?  And as for us as individuals, we can at least give ourselves leeway to learn about things that interest us, not just those things we think should interest us, those things which we think have “utility”.

At the end of the day, when it comes to utility, everything has it.  Everything is useful to everything else.  Just as the ancients thought, the unity of knowledge is real.  And to deny it makes about as much sense as saying “I already know the colour red, I have no use for yellow or blue”.

Get weekly articles that will enable you to see things others don’t. 

Connect with Alex on Linkedin for daily ideas and discussion


Thank You

Check your inbox for your first mail.