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The Polymath Advantage: People Who Have “Multiple Skills” Are More Likely to be Successful

Range over mastery — people who embrace diverse skills, experiences and perspectives will increasingly thrive

DC Studio / Shutterstock
DC Studio / Shutterstock

The COVID-19 pandemic will change lives and careers than any other event in recent history. We’re not even sure of the duration of the effects of this pandemic yet. We are sure of its scope around the world — hope you are safe and your family is safe and indoors too.

The most important question is, what skills do you need to survive in an uncertain future? Whilst we are all in isolation, you can take this rare opportunity to build new skills and bridge the gaps. In times of great crisis and uncertainly such as the present, we can approach our careers with a polymath mindset. In the environment of accelerating change, people with multiple skills can easily adapt and thrive.

Today, right now it pays to be a polymath — a person of wide knowledge or learning. Think people like Leonardo da Vinci (a painter, an architect, an engineer, a theatrical producer), Benjamin Franklin (founding father, writer, political philosopher, politician, scientist, inventor,) and even Steve Jobs (engineer, inventor, designer and marketing mastermind).

Cross-discipline expertise help can help you survive and thrive in almost any environment. “The future belongs to the integrators, ” says Educator Ernest Boyer. Modern work demands that we become versatile and live a more polymathic life.

You can use your time in isolation more efficiently to make space for multiple interests and improve your skills in any disciplines of interest to you. “Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses — especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else, ” says Leonardo Da Vinci.

Capitalism rewards people who are rare and indispensable. Make yourself rare by combining two or more “pretty good” skills until no one else has your mix. In an insightful post, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, a well-known comic strip, explains:

If you want something extraordinary [in life], you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.

The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.

In the digital age, learning has really never been easier — and not just for the “geniuses” that walk among us. Anyone with an open and curious mindset can learn most skills online. Polymath status is accessible to just about anyone with the desire to learn.

If you are a programmer, you could mix it a bit of UX design, which works better and makes you a better prospect. However skillful you are in a single domain, you can always make even better connections, fill missing gaps, and think dynamically. Take your skills to a place that’s not doing the same sort of thing. Take your skills and apply them to a new problem, or take your problem and try completely new skills.

“The world is most interesting when we can see the complex patterns that connect its different parts to one another. And we can’t truly do that unless we look beyond the boundaries and the compartments of singular disciplines and singular ways of thinking about reality, argues Zat Rana.

Thinking like a polymath is not unique to specific people, we all already do it intuitively. But that intuitive skill gets lost with the rigidity of educational systems that make it hard to explore multiple domains.

In the 21st century, careers are no longer narrowly defined by core skills, but through complementary skills and learning agility. Complementary skills include the ability to work effortlessly with others, the ability to apply knowledge across disciplines, the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, and those of the people around you, and an understanding of fields outside your area of expertise. Simply learning a new skill opens up so many options.

“Modern work demands knowledge transfer: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains. Our most fundamental thought processes have changed to accommodate increasing complexity and the need to derive new patterns rather than rely only on familiar ones. Our conceptual classification schemes provide scaffolding for connecting knowledge, making it accessible and flexible, ” argues David Epstein, author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.

Your skills, knowledge, and competency (past, present) are either helping you advance your career or hindering your progress in life. More than ever, we all need to improve ourselves to become indispensable in the new world after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Learning multiple complementary skills not only raises your market value, but it may also make you more successful in the long run. “When you gain new knowledge and enhance your skills, you’re provided with many more opportunities and see that more roads are open to you,” argues April Davis of Pick The Brain.

If you’re a designer, being able to see new patterns and generate ideas across fields where people don’t usually make connections is a superpower. This superpower rarely comes with deep expertise in one unique field at the expense of other areas of knowledge.

So, go ahead and learn something totally different from your expertise. Develop a wide range of skills that complement and support your main skill. Your future may depend on it.

So ask yourself, what do I want to achieve? What’s my goal, vision, or target after isolation? And then ask yourself what are the most important skills I need to have to achieve those? After you find out, start learning them.

Pay attention to the trajectory of your industry and stay on the forefront by learning new applicable skills. Transforming into a polymath professional could be just what you need to take your career to the next level.

Originally published on Medium.

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