... is someone who becomes competent in at least 3 diverse domains and integrates them into a top 1-percent skill set.
In another words, they bring the best of what humanity has discovered from across fields to help them be more effective in their core field.
Specialists, on the other hand, just focus on knowledge from their own field.
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Even if you're merely competent in these skills, combining them can lead to a world-class skill set.
Example: Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, one of the most popular comic strips of all time, was not the funniest person, not the best cartoonist, and not the most experienced employee. But by combining his humor and illustration skills while focusing on business culture, he became the best in the world in his niche.
Most creative breakthroughs come via making atypical combinations of skills.
Researcher Brian Uzzi, a professor at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, analyzed more than 26 million scientific papers going back hundreds of years and found that the most impactful papers often have teams with atypical combinations of backgrounds.
It’s easier and faster than ever to become competent in a new skill. The quality of knowledge in every domain is improving and there is an abundance of free or affordable content from the world’s top experts in every medium you can think of.
Example: 13-year-old Michael Sayman taught himself how to code via Google. One of his mobile games became one of the top 100 apps in the world, beating out Starbucks and Yelp.
A polymath can take the skills that she or he has learned and combine them in new ways quickly to master new fields.
On the other hand, a specialist whose fields becomes obsolete would likely take much more time to adapt to the change and have to start back at the beginning.
Being a polymath sets you up to solve more complex problems. Many of the largest problems that face society and individuals benefit from solutions that integrate multiple disciplines.
The relevance of supply and demand to the job market, to goods and services, to the world of ideas, and to many other places means that you can have the most valuable skill set in the world, but if everyone also has that skill set, then you’re a commodity.
Self-made billionaire Peter Thiel, asks prospective candidates, “What’s the one thing you believe is true that no one else agrees with you on?” This simple question very quickly tells you whether or not you have rare and valuable ideas.
Specialists build up a narrow skill set and reputation and become highly paid for it, but they become fragile as their professions disappear or evolve.
Changes to the environment make polymaths stronger. As new paradigms of business emerge or their passions grow, they can quickly combine their existing skill sets in a myriad of ways.
Polymaths have existed forever (they are often the ones who’ve advanced Western civilization more than any others ) but they’ve been called different things throughout history:
Philosopher king: Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Archimedes.
Renaissance person: Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei.
Gentleman scholar: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams.
Polymath: Marie Curie, Isaac Newton, Theodore Roosevelt.
Modern polymath: Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg.
In this age, make yourself indispensable by being ‘pretty good’ in two or more skillsets, making yourself among the top 25 percent with some amount of effort. That’s easier than putting in 10,000 hours in one skill to attain mastery.
Taking the example of Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip and the author of many books. He is not the best cartoonist, and not the funniest person. However, he can draw better than many of us, and is funny enough. These two skill sets (1 and 1) create a talent stack and become 11, instead of 2.
Polymaths differ from specialists, as they are on to a highway that is getting wider, and specialists are parked in a spot that is getting deeper.
Polymaths have the advantage of learning new fields of study, and forming new connections, while specialists start having a narrow vision by going deep, learning less. The learning ability of the polymath is the required skill-set of the future.