The first mental trait of polymaths is extreme adaptability and openness.
Whatever the obstacle, it can be navigated or circumvented.
It can be solved.
To achieve this, you must embody flexible and resourceful thinking, and not be bound by convention or personal habit.
You must be open to new perspectives and the unfamiliar and novel.
For instance, who was the first person to look at a cow’s udders and think that they should drink what comes out.
Second, polymaths live experimentally.
This isn’t to say that they are always conducting traditional scientific experiments; rather, they’re applying the scientific method by analyzing and investigating whatever they come across.
They feel safe doing this and simply want to gain new information and sate their curiosity.
It’s almost like they cannot stop themselves from doing it.
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The Polymathic Mind
Given what we know now about polymaths, the natural question is to ask what we can learn from their approach, and how best we can set ourselves up to succeed in a quickly changing world.
This requires of us a little more creative thinking than merely asking, “What skills are valuable in the marketplace right now? What’s the next big thing?” The truth is that successful polymaths are primarily driven by insatiable curiosity, a love for their fields, a yearning for mastery, creativity and expression—or a blend of all of these.
They may not share anything in common as far as their fields of expertise go, but they certainly share the same zest for life and set of traits that keep them pushing for more.
Thus it is not enough to simply mimic the end results of polymaths’ process.
We need to ask how they’ve thought and worked, rather than getting bogged down in the details of what they’ve done.
It’s about what has spurred them to develop a pi or comb shape instead of remaining as a simple T- shape.
Many people falsely believe that, to remain competitive, they need to upskill in all the fashionable and trending ways.
People ask how they can learn to write computer code or trade cryptocurrencies, for example, not because this is where their passion genuinely takes them, but because they’re swayed by the stories of tech entrepreneurs who have already gone this (now well- travelled) path.
Unfortunately, this is a losing strategy for two reasons: one because by the time a trend is identifiable as such, it’s already on its way to being over, and two because mimicking others leaves you failing to 38 capitalize on your own unique talents and perspective.
Adaptable and Open
The spirit of polymathy is what’s important, and it’s largely independent of any particular fields, subjects, or topics, no matter how relevant they seem on the surface.
It’s about versatility, flexibility, and openness.
As an example, consider a person who believes that the future of clothing design and manufacture is changing, and that to survive they have to offer products that are ethically produced and appeal to more environmentally conscious buyers.
Sounds good so far.
Such a person may find themselves working in fashion or textile buying, and try their best to build and market a new brand using all the old business principles that work for more traditional clothing manufacturers.
But in their rigidity and dogged clinging to these methods, they may find themselves unwilling to change or learn something new, ignoring more subtle changes in the 39 industry, failing to heed warnings that the “old ways” of doing things just won’t work anymore.
Another person, a devoted polymath, may work in an entirely different field but simultaneously nurture a passion for buying and selling secondhand or vintage clothing.
Though this person has zero business education and no experience, they have their finger on the true pulse of the fashion industry—renting and secondhand is the future.
They act quickly and on inspiration, and within a year have established a thriving online clothing exchange platform that completely disrupts the market.
While the previous person is stalling in their career, the polymath achieves success with seemingly lightning speed and without following any of the rules.
This is because their approach is not bound and limited by preconceptions, old models, possibly outdated beliefs and “business as usual” thinking.
Rather than this example being an anomaly, it’s increasingly the norm: minimally 40 trained and modestly experienced entrepreneurs frequently swoop in and succeed by virtue of their flexibility, creativity, and sometimes, sheer audacity.
Here, mindset and attitude mean everything.
This means being willing to adapt when necessary, to become comfortable and even expert at navigating quickly changing parameters and shifting challenges.
A polymath typically doesn’t react to adversity by asking what he can do to survive—he is usually already doing it when the opportunity rolls his way.
Rather than reactive, survival-mode thinking, the polymath engages with ideas and topics long before everyone else, often simply because he enjoys doing so.
This is why it’s so important not to merely ape what polymaths do, but to closely examine the mindset and perspective that leads them to act that way when others are choosing differently.
Let’s examine this attitude more closely.
Firstly, a lesson any polymath can teach us is a healthy disregard for rules.
Creative, inventive people see rules as provisional, and boundaries as mere working models until something better can be created or discovered.
They know that right and wrong are often matters of (possibly flawed) opinion and don’t let ordinary convention limit what they’re willing to think about and imagine.
After all, engaging with material and ideas that are outside humanity’s comfort zone requires you to suspend your ordinary judgments and assumptions.
The inventor has an exuberance and curiosity that goes beyond what others may tell him is allowed or correct.
Going hand in hand with this attitude, necessarily, is an abiding comfort with uncertainty.
For intelligent, creative people, there is a degree of responsibility associated with asking big questions and expecting answers.
Many historical polymaths held this attitude—“I didn’t find the solution I wanted in the world, so I made it myself.” This deep individuality and freedom comes from a willingness to tolerate the unknown, to act without complete information, to take risks and to live in a world that isn’t already inhabited and charted by authorities who can tell you what you need to do.
Polymaths fail often, and sometimes extravagantly.
They don’t care—while others might think of unknowns and possible failures as intolerable, polymaths are not only able to march ahead, but to thrive in these conditions.
Without a sincere curiosity and love for developing authentic knowledge and mastery, people can seldom endure the process it takes to reach grand, long-term goals.
But these are precisely the goals that most polymaths hold dear.
They focus on what they want and don’t allow anything to limit them—including their own irrational fears or laziness.
Finally, polymaths think of themselves in the same way they think of the various subjects they readily engage with—without the restriction and burden of boxes and oversimplified labels.
When you think about it, so many of us are surprisingly ready to label ourselves one way or another, happy to take on the implied limitations.
Polymaths don’t bother; they seldom define themselves, and keep open to possibility and potential as long as possible.
Consider that today we have more labels for sexual identity and orientation than ever.
You can choose which political party, personality type, blood group, demographic or social class you belong to, and place immense significance in these labels.
There are labels for what religious beliefs you have or don’t have, the sports teams you support, the nation you’re part of, the race, even the media you consume and in what language.
You can even take a DNA test to more precisely identify which ethnic groups you belong to.
The trouble with all this rampant labeling is that it closes you off to genuine, authentic, spontaneous engagement with life as it is, rather than life as someone-who-is-like-you sees it.
For example, you tell yourself “I’m not an R&B person, I hate it to be honest” and completely forego listening to an artist you might have actually loved.
Your identity here acted as a limitation, clearly separatingwhat you felt was part of your world and what wasn’t.
Polymaths, by setting these limitations far less often, allow themselves greater access to new realms.
They don’t care if a certain idea, behavior or question isn’t for people like them, and they certainly aren’t afraid to change their minds or question whether a previous preference is still useful.
They are agnostic in their pursuit for an answer or a goal, and preconceptions, assumptions, and pride are put to the side.
This is a profound idea that bears repeating: our concept of ourselves informs the experiences and knowledge we are willing to expose ourselves to.
It can even become a self-fulfilling prophecy: tell yourself often enough that you are a particular type of person, and you’ll eventually take enough actions to support that claim that it will essentially be true.
To get into the polymath mindset, ask yourself about the choices that you make, the opinions you have and the questions you ask—are you simply acting off of a preconceived idea of your identity? You 45 vote, shop, speak and work like an ABC because you’re an ABC and that’s what ABCs do.
However, people change.
How will know if you never allow for the possibility that one day you might do or want or feel something that goes against your old identity? The key to rolling with change—and to being an adaptable, flexible polymath thinker—is to not cling too tightly to ideas of who we are and what our limits are.
Are you the same person now that you were ten or twenty years ago? If not, you probably shouldn’t behave as though the way you are now is the fixed, final form of your identity forevermore.
By being fluid and taking nothing for granted—not even the identity of the person who could take anything for granted—a polymath stays fresh and open to change, to new opportunities.
They grow faster and with less disturbance, since they don’t cling to old ideas that no longer work.
They’re not afraid to acknowledge when they’ve been wrong or abandon a project, even if they’ve invested considerably in it.
For an intelligent, curious polymath, there is never an end-state where identity is fixed, all questions are answered, and life simply stands still.
Of course, you want to uphold and honor your values.
Yes, you have your preferences and your loves and your habits.
But unlike others, you regularly subject those loves and preferences and habits to question, and constantly ask if something is working optimally, or if it can be better.
Polymaths don’t waste time identifying as anyone in particular—they see their identities as whatever they need to be to help them do whatever it is they want to do.
That’s often why you see truly accomplished people shrinking away from others labeling them a “genius.” This shows that their efforts are not about bolstering an ego or sense of identity—it’s not about who they are, but what they do, what they know, and what they can learn.