Random thoughts — On polymaths, dabblers and everything in between

In Edward Carr’s The last days of the polymath (Intelligent Life Magazine, 2009), Carl Djerassi says that “Nowadays people that are called polymaths are dabblers in many different areas. I aspire to be an intellectual polygamist,” he says. “And I deliberately use that metaphor to provoke with its sexual allusion and to point out the real difference to me between polygamy and promiscuity.”

Carr continuous by saying that Djerassi is right to be suspicious of flitting. And as an (extreme) example of a gifted person unable to stick at anything, he quotes from Stefan Zweig’s book Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture:

“[Casanova] excelled in mathematics no less than in philosophy. He was a competent theologian, preaching his first sermon in a Venetian church when he was not yet 16 years old. As a violinist, he earned his daily bread for a whole year in the San Samuele theatre. When he was 18 he became doctor of laws at the University of Padua — though down to the present day the Casanovists are still disputing whether the degree was genuine or spurious … He was well informed in chemistry, medicine, history, philosophy, literature, and, above all, in the more lucrative (because perplexing) sciences of astrology and alchemy … As universal dilettante, indeed, he was perfect, knowing an incredible amount of all the arts and all the sciences; but he lacked one thing, and this lack made it impossible for him to become truly productive. He lacked will, resolution, patience.”

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Anyway, this made me think about the difference between polymaths, such as Eratosthenes of Cyrene, Leonardo DaVinci and Benjamin Franklin, and what Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin call neo-generalists.

In a recent conversation with Kenneth Mikkelsen, I explained why I find it difficult to call myself a polymath. To place myself in a long line of people like DaVinci feels, and actually is, quite ridiculous. I am not an artist or specialist in any field. Or at least, so it feels. But I do have an unflinching curiosity and the ability to see unexpected connections between the many different things I am interested in. And beyond. So, what is the difference then between a ‘real’ polymath and me?

To me, the traditional polymath is a multispecialite — someone with a deep knowledge and expertise in different areas. A novelist, chemist and playwrite all in one, like Djerassi. Whereas I, I am just, what Emilie Wapnick calls a multipotentialite — someone with a profound, but not always long-lived interest in many different things. No doubt Djerassi would call me a dabbler (hopefully a serious one). But what distinguishes a multipotentialite from a dabbler is the former’s urge to make meaningful new connections. And to be able to make those connections, multipotentialites need to know more. I need to know more. More as in (more) diverse, but not necessarily deeper.

Does it matter, you might ask. Yes, it does because multipotentialites still have a hard time ‘fitting in’, especially within business environments. Acknowledging the fact that not all of us want to be specialists, whether in one or in many different fields, is the first step towards seeing and hopefully using their full potential. If only because the most exciting inventions occur at the boundaries of disciplines, among those who can bring different ideas from different fields together. In my book, Steve Jobs was ‘a hell of a’ serious dabbler…

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