Are you impossibly talented?

November 23, 2019


Some people are. I don't belong to them. For sure.

Polymaths excel in multiple fields. But what makes a polymath – and can their cross-discipline expertise help tackle some of society’s most pressing challenges?

I came across an article by David Robson,  author of The Intelligence Trap, which examines the common thinking errors of smart people, and the ways we can avoid them. 

"In the late 1930s and early 40s, Hedy Lamarr was already the toast of Hollywood, famed for her portrayals of femme fatales. Few of her contemporaries knew that her other great passion was inventing. (She had previously designed more streamlined aeroplanes for a lover, the aviation tycoon Howard Hughes.)

Lamarr met a kindred spirit in George Antheil, however – an avant-garde pianist, composer and novelist who also had an interest in engineering. And when the pair realized that enemy forces were jamming the Allied radio signals, they set about looking for a solution. The result was a method of signal transmission called ‘frequency-hopping spread spectrum’ (patented under Lamarr’s married name, Markey) that is still used in much of today’s wireless technology.

It may seem a surprising origin for ground-breaking technology, but the story of Lamarr and Antheil fits perfectly with a growing understanding of the polymathic mind.

The research suggests we could all gain from spending a bit more time outside our chosen specialism
Besides helping to outline the specific traits that allow some people to juggle different fields of expertise so successfully, new research shows that there are many benefits of pursuing multiple interests, including increased life satisfaction, work productivity and creativity.

Most of us may never reach the kind of success of people like Lamarr or Antheil, of course – but the research suggests we could all gain from spending a bit more time outside our chosen specialism."

In addition to starring on the silver screen, Hedy Lamarr, a famous polymath, also co-developed a transmission method that has carried into today’s technologies.

Let's try to answer the question: What’s a polymath?

Even the definition of “polymath” is the subject of debate. The term has its roots in Ancient Greek and was first used in the early 17th Century to mean a person with “many learnings”, but there is no easy way to decide how advanced those learnings must be and in how many disciplines. Most researchers argue that to be a true polymath you need some kind of formal acclaim in at least two apparently unrelated domains.

One of the most detailed examinations of the subject comes from Waqas Ahmed in his book The Polymath, published earlier this year.

The inspiration was partly personal: Ahmed has spanned multiple fields in his career to date. With an undergraduate degree in economics and post-graduate degrees in international relations and neuroscience, Ahmed has worked as a diplomatic journalist and personal trainer (which he learnt through the British Armed Forces). Today, he is pursuing his love of visual art as the artistic director of one of the world’s largest private art collections, while also working as a professional artist himself.

Despite these achievements, Ahmed does not identify as a polymath. “It is too esteemed an accolade for me to refer to myself as one,” he says. When examining the lives of historical polymaths, he only considered those who had made significant contributions to at least three fields, such as Leonardo da Vinci (the artist, inventor and anatomist), as German language professor my idol Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (the great writer who also studied botany, physics and mineralogy) and Florence Nightingale (who, besides founding modern nursing, was also an accomplished statistician and theologian).

Maybe, right now, you think you’re a polymath? Not so fast. Waqas Ahmed argues that polymaths can only be those who made major contributions to at least three different fields.

From these biographies, and a review of the psychological literature, Ahmed was then able to identify the qualities that allow polymaths to achieve their greatness.

As you might expect, higher-than-average intelligence certainly helps. “To a large degree that facilitates or catalyses learning,” says Ahmed. But open-mindedness and curiosity were also essential. “So you're interested in a phenomenon but you don't care where your investigation leads you,” Ahmed explains, even if that pushes you to delve into unfamiliar territory. The polymaths were also often self-reliant – happy to teach themselves – and individualist; they were driven by a great desire for personal fullfillment.

Many children are fascinated by many different areas – but our schools, universities and then employment tend to push us towards ever greater specialization. Like any personality traits, these qualities will all have a certain genetic basis, but they will also be shaped by our environment. Ahmed points out that many children are fascinated by many different areas – but our schools, universities and then employment tend to push us towards ever greater specialization. So many more people may have the capacity to be polymaths, if only they are encouraged in the right way.

Allow me to go back to my idol Goethe. While polymaths like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe indeed have higher-than-average intelligence, curiosity is essential for anybody looking to broaden their specialisations.

Nobel Prize-winning scientists are about 25 times more likely to sing, dance or act than the average scientist.
As David Epstein has also reported in his recent book Range, influential scientists are much more likely to have diverse interests outside their primary area of research than the average scientist, for instance. Studies have found that Nobel Prize-winning scientists are about 25 times more likely to sing, dance or act than the average scientist. They are also 17 times more likely to create visual art, 12 times more likely to write poetry and four times more likely to be a musician.

It is telling, for instance, that Antheil had previously worked on scores involving synchronized self-playing pianolas, and together he and Lamarr drew on the mechanism of those instruments to come up with their anti-jamming device.

Allow me and  David Robson to ask you if you feel tempted to live a more polymathic life. Ahmed suggests that you can use your time more efficiently to make space for multiple interests.

There is now a growing recognition that, when concentrating on any complex endeavour, the brain often reaches a kind of saturation point, after which your attention may fade and any extra effort may fail to pay off. But if you turn to another, unrelated activity, you may find that you are better able to apply yourself. Shifting between different kinds of tasks can therefore boost your overall productivity.

Switching between different tasks, such as Albert Einstein using music for scientific inspiration, can boost overall productivity and creativity.

Wannabe polymaths can use this to their advantage by alternating between their interests – ensuring that they are using their brains at maximum efficiency in each domain, while avoiding wasted effort after they have reached that cognitive saturation point.

Albert Einstein, who was an accomplished violinist and pianist as well as a physicist, apparently used this approach. According to his son and daughter, he would play music whenever he faced an intractable problem, and would often finish the performance by saying, “There now, I’ve got it”. It was a much better use of his time than continuing to fruitlessly agonize over the maths or physics.

Yes, think it over, we have many advantages compared to the polymaths of the past. The internet, after all, is now full of free online courses in many different disciplines, and it is easier than ever to hook up with an expert teacher through apps like Skype even if they are based hundreds of miles away - as David Robson correctly said.


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