How to Become a Polymath

Vitruvian Man

Whether you call them Renaissance men, polymaths or universal people, one thing remains true: they are people who know a lot about a wide variety of subjects. And even though specialization is unthinkable to them, they’re not really jack of all trades. I think of them as people who develop their mental prowess as much as possible.

And you can be one too. All it takes is a little drive and curiosity. By becoming a polymath, you’ll be following in the footsteps of other notable people such as Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin and Aristotle.

The Last Person to Know Everything

Believe it or not, but there once was a time when someone could learn everything that’s ever been discovered. In fact, there is some debate on who the last person to know everything is. Most people give that honor to either Thomas Young or Francis Bacon. Thomas Young knew so much about a wide variety of subjects that he made notable contributions to fields such as energy, musical harmony and Egyptology.

He was the first to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics by using the Rosetta Stone and disproved one of Newton’s theories of light. And he did all of this while he practiced medicine. I can only imagine he must never have slept.

However, as time has passed and people have become more specialized in their areas of study, learning everything that’s ever been discovered has proved impossible. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still become a polymath. It just means that you’ll never be able to master every subject out there.

I’m not sure if I consider myself a polymath. After all, there’s no committee deciding who is and isn’t one. But I’ve been able to identify three areas which have given me the greatest opportunity to learn as much as possible about everything. With enough time and effort in these areas, you’ll be able to take away enough to talk about corruption in Nigeria one minute to epigenetics the next minute without missing a beat.

1. Read Great Materials

Reading is the best way to learn something new. And when it comes to reading, I like to read a wide variety and read often. The key is to make sure that you’re always reading something new on as many topics as possible. Get into the habit of exploring subjects you don’t know much about. If you’re a history buff, read something about outer space. Since unfamiliar subjects are new to you, you’ll learn a lot more than ones you’ve already looked into.

2. Watch Documentaries

These are a great alternative to mindless sitcoms. And with such a wide variety to choose from, you’ll likely never run out of things to watch. One of the greatest benefits of watching documentaries is that often they will give you an introduction to their subject and explain things in ways that are easy to understand.

They’re also less demanding of your brain than reading. After a few hours of reading, the mind can’t really take much more of it. You won’t be able to take in any additional information. This isn’t the case with documentaries. I find that when I reach the point I can no longer read, I can still watch and enjoy a good documentary.

3. Talk to Smart People

Your social circle can affect you in ways you may not realize. People weigh their friends’ opinions more favorably than strangers. If you’re going to consider people’s opinions, you should make sure they are the most well-informed ones possible.

Also consider that many personality traits such as energy and attitude are contagious. The same goes for intelligence. As people get together in larger and larger groups, they adapt themselves to fit in with the group. In most cases, you don’t change the group – the group changes you.

I’m not advocating you ditch any friends who may not be all that smart. What I am saying is talking to smart people can really open your mind to new ways of seeing the world and new subjects to explore.
photo credit:Daquella manera

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Comments

  1. I guess this means my mom was lying when she called me a know it all…… :) I had never heard of Thomas Young (which means I’m officially not a Polymath), but this concept is really interesting.

    I love when I come across a topic and spend the next week googling and finding out more info. I find I do this with ‘based on a true story’ movies, because I want to know what was exaggerated and real. Recently I got obsessed with learning about Christy Brown after watching My Left Foot and the true story behind Micky Ward from The Fighter.

    • Hey Miranda, I do the same thing when I come across new things I don’t know much about. Oftentimes, I’ll have a desire to learn as much as possible about it and google all the information I can find.

  2. This is a big point of contention between my husband and myself. I had a liberal arts education and his was solely science and he considers science to be the better use of time. I contend that a liberal arts education is better because I am more well rounded and better versed in a variety of subjects. It comes in handy for trivia night, at least!

    • Saying which one of those is a better use of time seems subjective to me. I’m interested in both science and liberal arts so I wouldn’t want to pick sides. But you are right that liberal arts comes in handy for trivia.

      • I have a liberal arts education in organizational communications and worked with many business/science (a bachelor of science at my school) students during my college years (graduating in a month). One difference in the different educations we were receiving was the liberal arts students seemed to have a more critical thinking process than the business/science students. If an idea was presented the business/science students jumped on it and wanted to roll with it right away while the liberal arts students wanted to debate it more and make sure it was the best decision to go with. There were a lot of frusterated business/science students when that happened. This was very unique and interesting at the same time since it happened time and time again. I cant say anything bad about the business/science students because they were great to work with but I feel they may rush things that require more thought and consideration.

  3. Can I add to keep an open mind even when it is a subject you are good at? Like you said, very often peoples remarks have a sub concious effect on us whether we realise it or not. To absorb the good part of this we have to absorb all the information and then dissect which is relevant to us. Closing your mind at the beginning is not the right way to do it.

  4. Well I must read more Steve, because I have never heard of the world ‘Polymath’, but now you’ve put it before me, I understand it’s meaning. I really can’t consider myself a ‘Polymath’ in it’s purest sense, but I do believe I can portray it’s meaning to one of ‘life experiences’. I believe I have experienced many things in life, to date. Over the years having moved with many different circles of people in different walks of life. I believe these experiences, as well as reading have given me many life skills in a variety of area’s. I still probably fall under the banner of ‘Jack of All Trades’ though.

  5. I think that the number one aspect in becoming a polymath is curiosity. Pretty much everything here you’ve listed (if not all), I dare say come naturally to all curious people. Curiosity is not something that a person can be taught; it needs to develop on it’s own. Sure, a persons curiosity can be natured, but even then there is no certainty that it will manifest. In short, my point of view is that one can not be taught how to be a polymath, but one can be taught how to manage their curiosity.

    I would love to hear your thoughts. I don’t here much talk about polymath on the internet so it was a delight to see a post related to something so close to me, even if I disagree in my own way.

    Look forward to hearing your response.

    • Hi David,

      I agree that curiosity is important to becoming a polymath. I think everyone naturally has curiosity in them. That’s why news shows are so popular. But some people do seem to develop it much more fully than others and can go in-depth on topics they become interested in simply for curiosity’s sake.

      I can probably steer people in the direction of deeper curiosity, but it is probably up to them to develop it fully.

  6. I know polymaths are pretty simple. They just take interest in everything around them. They ask a lot of questions and they are always searching for answering new questions. Intuitive post :)

  7. Now I finally know what I’d like to be when I grow up. I think my first task is going to be figuring out how to live forever, so I can get to work on learning everything. Seriously though, curiosity is key and I appreciated this post. Too many people hear of something they don’t know and just dismiss it. What stops them from taking the few seconds to ask for a little more information or hit up Google really quick?

    • I know what you mean about people dismissing something they don’t know. For me, if I come across something I don’t know, I have to immediately look it up. I suppose it is the curious side of me that compels me to do that.

  8. Hey, I was wondering if you can be considered a Polymath if you only have depth in either Science or Arts? I am studying for a Masters in Medical Science, which will give me great depth in Biology and Chemistry, but I also have a huge passion and interest in Mathematics and have been teaching myself Pure Math’s in my spare time for quite some time, in anticipation for a second degree in Mathematical and Systems Biology.

    I have studied Philosophy formally, but only for one semester and don’t really pursue it that much. By the time I leave university, will I be able to consider myself a Polymath?

    • That’s a hard question to answer since there really isn’t a specific point where you start becoming a polymath. For me, I think if you consider yourself well-rounded in many subjects and are really knowledgeable in a few of them than you probably could consider yourself a polymath. I think if you still have a passion for knowing more in a wide variety of subjects than you can consider yourself one too.

  9. Great post!
    That’s some motivation!
    People dream to be a doctor, an engineer etc etc… I dream to be a POLYMATH!!
    I am so obsessed with the idea of being a polymath that it is hard for me to devote 6 hours in night for sleeping!
    Being a polymath has no limit whereas being a doctor and other such vocations have a limit!
    My parents always asked me to select one major subject but i couldn’t !
    Now i know, being a polymath is an all-encompassing profession!

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