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.
Keep the words flowing by buying me a coffee.
So, polymaths are open-minded, curious, and a little fearless. They can’t be defined easily, and they like it that way.
Another element of the polymath worldview that bears looking at is what can only be called an “experimental mindset.” There’s a reason so many famous polymaths throughout history have been involved in some way or another with the “hard sciences.” There’s something about the scientific method that captures and formalizes a polymath’s natural curiosity. Scientific experiments asks questions such as:
“How does the world actually work? Why did this thing behave this way and not some other way? How can I look more closely at it? What happens if I do this and what does this show me about this weird thing I’m trying to learn about?”
Though scientific thinking may come more naturally to some people than others, there are always ways to encourage and cultivate this ability. It only requires a subtle but important shift in thinking: don’t just assume something, test it out for real. Everyone always says such-and-so is the case, but do you have evidence? You don’t know how a new plan or idea will pan out—so why not test it?
Experimentation is something that’s a little easier to understand in terms of actual physics or chemistry, but in reality, there are countless real-world benefits to conducting experiments in every area of life. One benefit is that, by thinking about practical implementation, you take any hypothetical “one day” ideas and force them into the present, without perfectionism preventing them from ever amounting to anything.
Waiting for the perfect time or perfect opportunity often means you never act or learn anything new—but if you just try something, test it out or give it a spin even though it’s not perfect yet, you’ll advance more than if you’d dawdled and procrastinated.
By conducting experiments, you give yourself access to what all scientists want: quality data. You can talk hypothetically for years and never have anything tangible to show for it. That’s because trying things out for real gives you information you can actually use.
Experimentation offers you the opportunity to try something different, and see how it goes. When you frame your personal development, challenges or goals as experiments, you take the pressure off while simultaneously getting you acting sooner. Many of us live with so many unchallenged assumptions that we could be free of if only we gave ourselves the chance to test something better.
Experimentation is a window for change. When you try something different, you are saying to the world: “I’m open-minded and curious as to the outcome. This may lead to something new and better, who knows!” Have you met older people who talk wistfully about all the things they could have done in their youth but didn’t? When you experiment, you don’t wonder how things could have turned out—you do them, so you know. Consequently, you open up a whole new vista of choice and potential change for yourself.
The word “experiment” implies something formal, rigorous, and lab-based. But you can carry out informal experiments all the time, on your own terms. If you find yourself procrastinating, try on the curious polymath scientist’s attitude for size: become curious, and commit only to testing something out. What would happen if you tried X or Y? It’s not the end of the world—only a form of asking questions, when it comes down to it. Take up a new hobby or habit for thirty days. Eat something new even if you have a suspicion you won’t like it. Say “yes” even though you’re a bit apprehensive.
Kicking yourself out of mundane day-to-day life and ordinary ruts and habits with experiments means opening a little window wide enough to ask, What if I did something different? You might find yourself convinced after the experiment of a certain course of action’s value, or prove to yourself what a bad idea it would have been without going all-in.
Seeing tangible results to a mini experiment gives you a sense of agency over your world. You can ask questions, get answers and feedback, and ask better questions next time round. In other words, you can grow and learn.
Finally, if you want to make the spirit of experimental thinking a reality in your life, you need to lay the groundwork to make that possible. How? By encouraging an open sense of safety around experimentation. You need to feel able to fail without disastrous consequences or pressures.
Like creativity, curiosity cannot thrive in a hostile or risky atmosphere. If you perceive threat, your mind is likely to dwell on an attitude of conservative survival rather than expansive exploring and generous creativity. If you want to follow the polymath example, make room in your life to play, to explore, to ask questions—without judgment from an inner critic or fears that you have to be perfect or else.
Start by changing your very definition of failure. It doesn’t make sense to be squeamish about failure—in fact, expect that it will and does happen, and is merely par for the course.
Instead of thinking that failure is humiliating, or proof that you’re doing something wrong or even worse, that you’re wrong, frame it as a necessary part of learning and growing. Learn to respect failure as part of the process, rather than a distraction from it. The experimental mindset, above all else, is the commitment to forever being in experiment: you try something, you see the results, you adjust, you try again. Repeat until the day you die.
What’s more, when you can center passion, curiosity and resilience against change and “failure,” something else starts to happen. Your mind slowly switches from the end point to the process itself. You begin to enjoy the path toward finding knowledge, not merely the prize of achievement at the end. What many polymaths do without being taught is focus on “process, not outcomes.” They create for the joy of creating. Solve problems because they relish the experience of working through them.
With time, the diligent effort to think experimentally can be internalized and become a joyous flow in the moment—with you continually updating and reevaluating as you go. In other words, learning and evolving becomes second nature. You do it for fun! Focus on the process, and you almost aren’t bothered by the outcome—even if it is considered a “failure.” When you maintain an experimental, open-minded attitude, you always win, no matter what your outcomes.
Questions or comments regarding the podcast?
Email the show at HollinsPodcast@NewtonMG.com or let us know what you think at http://bit.ly/hollinscomment
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Show notes and/or episode transcripts are available at https://bit.ly/self-growth-home
Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human ps ychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
Visit https://bit.ly/peterhollins to pick up your FREE human nature cheat sheet: 7 surprising psychology studies that will change the way you think.
For narration information visit Russell Newton at https://bit.ly/VoW-home
For production information visit Newton Media Group LLC at https://bit.ly/newtonmg
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