History has proven that those with wide-ranging skills and diverse expertise will pave the way of the future
pol·y·math [noun]: a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.
The Birth of the Neo-Polymath
Once upon a time, in 15th century Florence, during the Age of Discovery, toiling away for hours in a studio was Leonardo da Vinci. His unquenchable curiosity and inventive imagination throughout his life had him bouncing between painting the “Mona Lisa” and conceptualizing flying machines and armored fighting vehicles. This was the birth of the polymath. Flash-forward to 2017 and the world has changed dramatically. Just a few decades ago, the internet was born, and it plunged us into the accelerated Information Age, where we now have smartphones in our pocket, more powerful than NASA’s combined computing that propelled a human to the moon in 1969. The role of the polymath therefore has also changed, and has given birth to what is referred to as the “neo-polymath.”
Unlike the polymath of the 15th century, the neo-polymath is sitting bravely at the intersection of industries that are naturally colliding due to the influx of knowledge and communication without geographic limits.
The neo-polymath is someone who can harness a level of expertise in multiple disciplines and act as the translator between seemingly unrelated fields. Prolific investor Marc Andreessen famously declared that “software is eating the world” as more major businesses and industries are being disrupted by their overlap with technology—from movies to agriculture to national defense.
This phenomenon can be applied to technologists venturing into more traditional industries, but also to creatives who cover multiple disciplines such as music, film, and architecture. The common denominator is the multi-hyphenate nature of the individual and their ability to facilitate collaboration. They are able to drive the innovation at the eye of the storm, or the center of the Venn diagram.
Individuals with this neo-polymath mindset will constantly be “out of the box”—and will not be contained within or defined by any one industry vertical. Here are a couple specific neo-polymath examples:
Oxman is a professor at MIT Media Lab, where she has started to codify this neo-polymath mindset into new forms of education. She has pioneered a new field of study, called Material Ecology, to leverage computer science, design, and biology as it applies to technology, fabrics, and even buildings. Named one of the 10 Most Creative Women in Business by Fast Company, and with permanent works in the MoMA, Oxman’s unique approach has sparked a worldwide dialogue on how formerly disparate areas of study can be combined to create cross-disciplinary innovations. MoMA curator Paola Antonelli called her “a person ahead of her time, not of her time.”
Glover is a millennial neo-polymath, born into this new internet-driven age. Starting his career as a writer on 30 Rock, Glover has gone on to be a touring comedian, a respected hip-hop artist, and now a producer/writer/director of the two-time Golden Globe-winning TV series Atlanta. His ability to focus the kinetic energy of his creativity into multiple fields is a direct result of his frictionless communication of creative vision across mediums. Those of the next generation are natural hyphenates, and therefore will not define themselves by one title or role.
Benefits of the Neo-Polymath Mindset
Glover, a writer who seamlessly switches between stand-up comedy and music, and Oxman, a pioneer in design and biology inventing new fields of study, both serve to show the manifestations of the neo-polymath mindset.
The amount of combinations and permutations are endless, which make it such a powerful mindset to adopt.
Some of the key benefits of this neo-polymath mindset are the ability to:
- navigate an increasingly complex world, ripe with new business models, interest groups, and burgeoning trends
- recognize patterns that can be applied across industries ripe for disruption
- communicate with new unlikely business partners, and translate effectively across disciplines and business units
- empathize with opposing viewpoints and opinions
The Future of Work
As industries themselves continue to overlap and affect each other, new jobs will emerge that require multidisciplinary expertise. Future jobs will be based on the intersection of industries we could have never predicted.
A neo-polymath mindset will become the baseline for this future. We will live in a world where:
- creative design-thinking will be at the center of all business innovation
- organizational structures will facilitate seamless collaboration across divisions
- cross-disciplinary employees will become some of the most valuable assets
We all have the ability to look through the lens of the neo-polymath. The question then becomes, how will you adapt, learn to incorporate new disciplines into the work that you do, and prepare for this bright future? In the 15th century, while most people were farmers planting seeds to feed their family, da Vinci was nurturing a different seed; the seed of curiosity. The da Vincis of tomorrow will be the ones who nurture the seeds of the polymath mindset, learn to plant them in proactive collaborations across disciplines, and through the execution of new and innovative ideas… add water to the fertile soil of our society.
To hear more of my thoughts on how we can adapt a neo-polymath mindset, watch my TEDxRotterdam Talk below.