Alex shared with me his visit to Thomas Jefferson’s estate – another polymath. Frankly, I was flattered – and still don’t think I’m a polymath. But if you read my blog, you know the topics are wide and varied. That’s a sign of polymathy.
In a prior career, Alex and I worked to create and deliver building industry information technology to serve designers, architects, engineers and their value chain. With a second cup of coffee, we began to cover topics from GIS, the origins of Big Data, the demand on analytics, IT infrastructure growth, the shift to mobility appliances and the cloud and more. So many topics, a sign of polymathy?
Then, last night, I was chatting with my friend Bob. We pondered where the interest and aptitude came from to take things apart, and put them back together, or to create something completely new.
A polymath is “a person of great learning in several fields of study.” (Dictionary.com)
Historically, I had felt this affliction to be a burden – to have so many fields of interest that I couldn’t pursue them all. I didn’t get power and strength from it, looking back I felt drained. Even today, I research topics that no one else would – and just because I want to know. As I write this at 3:30 AM, the conversation with Alex has me rethinking the power and strength context.
FWIW, I think Alex is a polymath too – and he will write his own story someday.
The interesting thing about polymathy is the diversity of thought that it brings. It naturally forms different perspectives and diverse ways of thinking and understanding both problems themselves, and more importantly, solutions to them.
Because of these many perspectives, polymath leaders are perhaps more likely to understand how their decisions affect others, and prepare for the perception that they create by their actions. Polymath leaders may well be more effective at design thinking.
One can see how a polymath incubates their own internal cross-topic knowledge base in their head from which to crowd-source ideas and innovation. That’s kind of neat.
In High school, I played the violin and the eventually the cello. And, while I loved playing, I was more fascinated by the physics and mechanics of the instrument.
I found an old violin and took it apart. I’m talking completely apart. I pulled the top and back off, removed the finger board, disassembling it down to the very last glue seam. Sounds radical – but not that complex with the library books I had checked out in front of me. Then, I put it back together. Days of careful glue work. I fabricated clamps from old wooden sewing thread spools. I borrowed a special tool to reset the sound post. And like the story of Henry Ford reassembling that clock, my violin played.
For me, it didn’t stop there. I learned how to weld metal when I was 14. My Dad arranged for me to take a college level industrial arts class at WIU where he was a professor. It was my first college course – and is still on my transcript. I built a wooden canoe, in the dead cold of winter bending wood and forming the shape and unique keel design. It tracked true and was fast. Christmas for me was a time to unwrap tools under the tree. My parents bought an old truck, a 1947 Studebaker, for me to tinker on before I could drive. This list of diversity is much longer.
Path to Polymathy
On one hand, I must have been a disappointment to my parents. They were both educators and scholars. I was into tactile experience, using my hands, thinking through geometry and physics problems that I could touch. I read diagrams and schematics, not so much the scholarly texts that lined the shelves of my childhood home.
On the other hand my interests were so diverse that I had trouble suppressing them. Whether it was fishing, camping, boating, for weekend fun, or fabricating a better way to attach my newspaper bag to my bicycle, I was thinking up and making new things.
I studied a vocation in high school, to be a machinist. The other guys thought I was nuts as I ran to the other side of the school not to miss orchestra practice right after rushing to get the grease and grime off my hands from the day’s foundry project.
College presented a new challenge. Should I go at all? What would I study? I finally chose Geology and Geophysics. Two fields as big and dynamic as the earth itself. When I graduated, I couldn’t help but get involved with computers and software. That eventually lead to learning about economics, business, leadership, strategy and decision making.
Today I am neck deep in a dozen projects from prescriptive analytics to sensors and extracting value from real-time position and movement data. I advise entrepreneurs, start-up founders, innovators and difference makers and work through creative solutions to tough problems and help find ways to make the solution both effective, and meaningful.
SteinVox is turning out to be a vent for my polymathy.
A colleague of mine a few months ago suggested that I needed to focus. I can see his point. But one of the greatest things I believe is the ability to assimilate data, a situation, an environment, people involved and affected by the topic at hand. And, then, to participate creatively in the discussion. I think that if you are a polymath, you can do that more, easier and faster – and you like it.
One of my favorite CEOs to work for was a polymath, I think. John Gibson raised and rescued draft horses, competed in draft horse wagon driving skill trials, was a world-class sporting clay shooter, played the guitar, was a geophysicist, was a servant leader in the military, his church and the community. He was an entrepreneur and technologist that would build a website for his church on his vacation – just to see if he could do it! He also bought a cello, in his late 40s. Coincidence? Perhaps just signs of a polymath!
I think we need more polymaths. My father and mother were both polymaths. And, I believe my kids are both on track to continue the tradition.