Polymaths have belief in themselves. Whether it is well-placed or delusional, they believe that they will reach their goal. Many people are their own worst enemies when it comes to learning. But this speaks to something even more fundamental: the belief in agency, or the ability to act and achieve. This means that output equals input, within reasonable expectations. One cannot reach a goal if they don’t believe they are capable of it first.
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Belief may seem simplistic, but it is not something that everyone possesses.
Polymaths, whether through sheer belief or ignorance of the obstacles in their way, believe that with time, effort, and energy, they will eventually reach their solution or goal.
Often this journey will involve gaining depth of knowledge and becoming the proverbial pi-shape.
And with learning, improving, or achieving any goal, whether you believe you can or cannot, you will end up being correct.
To illustrate, we turn to British runner Sir Roger Bannister.
The name Roger Bannister may not be familiar to you unless you’re a track and field fan or a historian of athletics.
In 1954, Roger Bannister was the first man to break the four-minute barrier for the mile, a longstanding threshold that athletes had flirted with constantly but had never crossed.
One complete mile is four laps around a standard track.
This means to break the four-minute threshold, a runner would need a pace of, at most, sixty seconds per lap—something that was thought to be impossible.
The whole idea that a human being could run a mile in under four minutes was considered a fantasy, and even track experts predicted that humans would never achieve it.
You have to remember that this was decades ago, when modern competitive athletics were still in their nascent stage—nothing close to the training, nutrition, or attention we give them today.
These athletes were competing using methods that are absolutely prehistoric in comparison to modern techniques.
The world record for the mile was stalled around 4:02 and 4:01 for over a decade, so there seemed to be some truth to the belief that humans had finally reached their physical potential.
It had been lowered steadily up to that point, starting from the first modern Olympics in 1896, when the gold medalist of the 1,500 meters won in a time of 4:33, which is the rough equivalent of a 4:46 mile.
We had come so far, there had to be a limit, and we seemed to have hit it.
Of course, similar notions of limits of human capabilities have existed in more modern times, such as the ten-second barrier for the 100-meter dash.
For comparison’s sake, the world record for the mile as of 2020 is 3:43.13, held by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco.
At the 1952 Helsinki Summer Olympics, Bannister finished in fourth place in the 1,500-meter run (the metric mile), just short of receiving a medal.
Motivated by his disappointment and shame, he set his sights on running a sub-four-minute mile, which he felt would exonerate him.
Bannister, unlike all other runners and experts at the time, believed that it was possible, so he trained with that in mind.
It was a matter of when, not if, for him.
Just making the assumption that something is a certainty, and even planning for what happens when you surpass it, can force you to behave in a drastically different manner than you otherwise would.
All the while a doctor-in-training, Bannister began in earnest to attempt breaking the threshold in 1954.
He accomplished the feat on May 6 by 0.6 seconds in a time of 3:59.4.
People were in disbelief, and he was revered as superhuman.
For his efforts, he was knighted in 1975 and enjoyed a long life representing British athletic interests both domestically and internationally.
Again, he accomplished this all while he was a practicing doctor and neurologist.
Here’s where belief truly comes into the story of Sir Roger Bannister and the four- minute mile.
Within two months of his breaking the four-minute mark, an Australian runner named John Landy broke both the four-minute mark and Bannister’s world record.
The following year, three other runners also broke the four-minute mark.
The next decade saw over a dozen people cross the four-minute mark that had stymied runners for years.
Such is the power of belief.
People have preconceptions about what is possible and what is out of their reach.
But most of the time, these ideas simply limit them.
They allow themselves to be disenfranchised by what they perceive to be possible or not, what they perceive they are capable of or not, and what they believe they can and can’t be.
Without belief, you are putting an arbitrary limit on yourself.
You sabotage yourself and may never even get started.
In the months following Bannister’s achievement, nothing about those other four runners changed physically.
They didn’t magically grow winged feet or use performance-enhancing drugs as today’s athletes might.
They didn’t alter their training habits or regimens.
All that conceivably could have changed was their mindset of belief: they were certain the four-minute threshold could be beaten, and they were going to do it! That was the only element that shifted.
Roger Bannister redefined what was possible and instilled others with belief.
If Bannister had lacked belief that his goal was achievable, he would have been happy with a time of 4:01 and then lived with regret for the rest of his life when someone else like John Landy came along and was first to break the tape in under four minutes.
Polymaths believe they can become experts, they believe they can excel, and they believe that what they wish to achieve is within reach—in fact, it is just out of reach, which keeps them powerfully motivated and striving for more.
They believe that obstacles can be overcome, and that they can persevere no matter how tough those barriers are.
They believe that failure and struggle are pitstops along the way.
This brings us to our last element of the polymathic mind: perseverance.
Relentless Ultimately, in order to become true polymaths, we will have to push beyond what we like, enjoy, and feel comfortable with.
That’s the nature of achieving larger goals.
At the core, we still need to engage in something we find at least slightly annoying or uncomfortable.
In other words, there are no shortcuts, no easy life hacks, no quick tricks.
Success in the bigger picture belongs to those who have mastered the ability to tolerate a degree of distress and uncertainty and who can thrive in situations of sacrifice in service of something bigger than their immediate pleasure in the moment.
The road to polymathy = being uncomfortable.