I’ve been thinking about Steve Jobs and what is special about him lately. There are a lot of people with his work ethic and devotion, but he has achieved a clarity of thinking that has provided direction. Some people call it genius, but I don’t like the analogy. He is undoubtedly very bright, but I know more than a few people where the description genius fits who are very different. There may be a level of success that is impossible to reach without strong polymath skills.
Some of the meetings I’ve had with him show someone who is enormously reflective, curious and broad. I think those are the keys. The term polymath seems to fit and perhaps renaissance man, but less so. I’ve been fortunate enough to have met and worked with people like this and it raises some interesting questions - “can you develop these skills and how much is nature versus nurture?”
There is a tendency in the US to put too much faith in pop psychology. The concept of left and right brained people doesn’t hold water when studied rigorously. People can learn areas outside of their specialty - radically different areas. The key, I think, is to jump in and learn them as deeply as you can. No one is going to be expert in a lot of areas, but there is no reason why you can’t have the equivalent of an undergrad degree’s worth of expertise in a half dozen or more fields in your lifetime.
When you have a bit of understanding of divergent areas there is a fascinating crosstalk - you begin to see the world differently in an intellectual synesthesia. As Jobs might say you “think different”. Dots begin to connect and new questions arise that might not come to anyone without your mix of backgrounds. Pushing further may give answers and puts you in a position to intelligently communicate with real experts in other fields perhaps trading some of your own expertise as part of the bargain.
Connecting dots in a novel way is a form of discovery and invention. It can be a generator of serendipity and let you see farther than those with a narrower vision. It is an enormously efficient mechanism for understanding and using information.
You can train yourself and students to acquire this type of life long education. But remember to dive in deeply and really learn. Too much of what we call learning is very superficial. You need time to focus, work hard and reflect on what you’ve learned. You need to talk with people who do the same.
I wouldn’t claim to be that broad, but a few of the readers of this blog are and I delight in work and conversation with them. It is worth much more than a paying job.
Imagine what companies might be like if people in the C office were reflective polymaths with a passion for the core business of the company. Not all would be as successful as Steve Jobs, but there might be a good deal more successful business disruption - the stuff where a clear and unique vision is required. And it goes much deeper than just the leaders. Organizations with this creative diversity, if managed well, are likely to have serious advantages over the competition. Not only does it help create vision, but it can bring you to a meaningful conviction of that vision.
The good news at places like Apple and Pixar is this sort of person is advanced and this is a serious and disruptive threat to their competition.
Find some time and a reflective mood and make a list of your deep interests - the interests where you could walk into any good university or its equivalent (perhaps it is a sport or a craft) at the junior or senior level and thrive. Map out how divergent and similar they are. How divergent are they? If you have three or four, do you regularly connect the dots?
Recognize and nurture your passions and extend your education until you die.
There is no reason why we all can’t have a bit of renaissance person - our inner Steve Jobs - in us.