Think ‘Renaissance Man’ and the figure that immediately springs to mind is Leonardo Da Vinci. Perhaps the most celebrated polymath of all time, Da Vinci not only painted, but was also famously an anatomist, engineer, botanist, architect and sculptor, amongst other things.
It’s a lot for the aspiring modern day polymath to live up to. In Da Vinci’s day, the world was relatively unknown and one could more easily make a meaningful contribution to any given field. Our knowledge of anatomy, for example, has advanced so far that it’s unlikely any but the most dedicated specialists will make new discoveries. A recent article in Intelligent Life entitled ‘The Last days of Polymath’ discusses this very topic. But should the modern day polymath be put off by the seeming impossibility of becoming ‘expert’ in more than one field? Or should he be contended with embracing his multiple interests simply because he enjoys it?
British writer and explorer Robert Twigger (www.roberttwigger.com) promotes the idea that ‘Polymathy has many levels – you don’t have to be a genius’. Creatives with multiple forms of expression often tell me how their different outlets feed one another, and seem relatively unconcerned that they may not reach the ‘top’ of everything that they choose to pursue. If one wants to make a film, or study biology, or set up an online shop, then why not regardless of the outcome? Polymathy can be motivated by a desire to nurture our multiple talents and become more rounded, rather than financial rewards and recognition.
In a world so often obsessed with specialisation, we are constantly encouraged to ‘be the best’ and aspire to reach the top of our chosen career, when perhaps we should be placing more importance on creative fulfilment and personal development. Twigger asserts that we should all broaden our thinking outside our own limited field of knowledge, and sometimes the ‘cross-fertilisation’ of ideas across disciplines leads to the most exciting discoveries. There’s little doubt that it’s harder now than in Da Vinci’s day to make big new contributions across multiple disciplines, but I think we’ve all got something to gain from casting our net a little wider.