Three Components of Knowledge: Breadth, Depth, and Integration

A true polymath is someone who possesses three components of knowledge: breadth, depth, and integration. This is also known as cross-pollination. Such a person has acquired expertise in at least a few different domains, and can successfully integrate those domains together instead of treating them as unrelated and distinct subjects or skills. So a scientist who is also artistically inclined can use the latter to aid his research in ways that will make him more successful than the average member of his field.

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Despite all its flaws, Gardner’s theory does do some things right. It rightly undermines the authority of IQ tests, making it clear that you do not necessarily need a high IQ to be intelligent or a polymath. It also expresses the notion that one isn’t intelligent in permanent ways, and that mental abilities can fluctuate with the right approach and tools. This conclusion will be instrumental in our discussion of how to become a polymath, because it suggests that anyone can master a diverse set of skills.

However, these ideas cannot compensate for the fact that ultimately there is very little, if any, scientific research supporting Gardner’s theory. Even if there was, being a polymath isn’t just about acquiring a ton of knowledge in different domains. You need to be able to use this knowledge in collaborative ways, and there is nothing in Gardner’s theory to suggest that someone with, say, intrapersonal, interpersonal, and linguistic intelligence can necessarily use all three together as opposed to individually.

This brings us to the biological view, and why exactly it fails to explain polymathic abilities. Many of the criticisms of this approach are similar in structure to the critique of Gardner’s theory, namely because both seek to isolate functions and types of intelligence in ways that are not scientifically useful in understanding intelligence.

The claim that certain parts of our brain exclusively handle certain functions is simply misleading, and one can see this even by knowing the very basics of what roles various parts of our brain play. There is great overlap between, say, the way different lobes contribute to the interpretation of sense data.

A great example of this is when we listen to music. Based on the descriptions of what each lobe in our brain does, you might think that music is primarily interpreted through our temporal or parietal lobe since these sections process auditory information. However, not only does listening to music require different regions in both of these lobes that are responsible for separate functions, but it also involves the frontal lobe and even the cerebellum. As such, listening to music, like so many other activities, requires almost all of our brain.

Another reason the biological view fails is that we exert very little control over how different parts of our brain develop. Ninety percent of our brains develop before the age of five. (Brown, Jernigan 2012) If someone wanted to be a polymath based on this view, they would be placing an undue burden on factors like upbringing, culture, etc., in shaping our abilities.

From a biological perspective, there would be no way for one to “acquire” polymathic abilities since that would be entirely contingent on external considerations. This lends credence to the fallacy wherein intelligent people are smart just because they won the genetic lottery, and there is no scope for improvement for those who didn’t luck out. Thankfully, we know these claims to be false, and one can indeed “become” a polymath.

All of these points, when considered together, make a damning case against the biological view of polymathy. Consequently, the theory of left and right brains becomes highly suspect as well. This theory is another way of saying that particular parts of our brain are responsible for specific functions. What makes these theories so appealing is that they appear to give us greater insight into who we are, or why we aren’t who we want to be. If you’re good at math, it’s because you’re left brained, and if you’re good at composing music, then it’s your right brain dominance expressing itself.

While these explanations are attractive for their simplicity, things are never quite this straightforward. There is a complex web of biological factors that make someone more attuned to logical thinking versus artistic expression. Like in the case of listening to music, both of them involve different parts of the brain all working together.

This brings us to the fundamental truth about being and becoming a polymath: you don’t need to be intelligent in specific ways or have a certain level of brain development to achieve polymathic abilities. Anyone can become a polymath through the tools and ideas expressed in this book, no matter who you are or what your general intelligence level.

Cross-Pollination as the Key

If you want to become a polymath, there are two things you need in abundance: a willingness to learn new and different things, along with the time and effort that goes into learning them. There is nothing inherently special about polymaths; they have simply taken the time to learn the things they wanted to be good at.

In some ways, learning is a skill in itself. Acquiring new skills requires discipline and unwavering focus, especially when the thing you’re trying to learn is challenging or alien to your knowledge base. The fact that we’re constantly being told to specialize instead of generalizing our skill set makes it easier and more tempting to abandon our efforts at diversifying our areas of expertise. Warnings against being a generalist have been made for several hundreds of years, with Shakespeare receiving one of the first.

Several cultures have their own sayings that illustrate this warning too. In Eastern Europe, for example, one reads, “Seven trades, the eighth one—poverty.” While these beliefs may have been relevant at a certain period of time, our modern era is one where change is constant and rapid. We need to arm ourselves with multiple useful skills to stay relevant and retain value in an increasingly competitive economic world, no matter what it is that we do.

This brings us to a concept that is becoming increasingly relevant in the business world: cross-pollination. Ordinarily, cross-pollination refers to pollen from one type of crop mixing with crops of another type, resulting in the creation of hybrids. This is often done intentionally to create all sorts of unique combinations.

The same concept is applied to business, wherein acquiring expertise in disciplines or skills that are unrelated to each other results in uniquely qualified candidates who think in creative and productive ways. This perception has also been backed by several studies in recent times.

One report by Lee Fleming in Harvard Business Review examined 17,000 patents and found that innovators with qualifications in disparate fields were less likely to produce financially viable ideas than their counterparts. However, it also found that when these innovators do experience a creative breakthrough, the result is of “unusually high value—superior to the best innovations achieved by conventional approaches.”

Another study by Brian Uzzi, a professor at Northwestern University, analyzed more than 26 million scientific research papers dating hundreds of years apart. He found that the papers which ended up being most influential were composed by teams made up of people with diverse backgrounds.

A third enquiry by David Epstein in his book Range has revealed that influential scientists are much more likely to have diverse interests outside of their primary area of research than the average scientist.

Lastly, the investigations of Robert Root-Bernstein and Michele Marie Root Bernstein have established that the more artistic interests scientists hold, the more likely they are to gain eminence in their field. These scientists noticeably integrated skills they had acquired through their artistic interests, be it visual arts or music, into their professional scientific work. This made them more likely to be cited and receive prestigious awards like the Nobel Prize.

These studies are just the tip of the iceberg given the amount of research that has been done on the correlation between polymathy and success. All of these make a very strong case for diversifying your skill set given the advantages it’s been shown to have instead of specializing in one trade alone. However, there is one more study that will be crucial to our understanding of what exactly a polymath is and how you can become one.