Should we really be polymaths? Polymaths, the multi-skilled worker, and small businesses

Should we really be polymaths? Polymaths, the multi-skilled worker, and small businesses

Rosie Hayes

Rosie Hayes
7th May 2018

This article is partially written as a response to the article by medium, that claimed a polymath was the same as an ‘expert generalist’.

Polymath is an interesting term, meaning ‘person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas’. Individuals associated with this term tend to be prominent historical figures such as Aristotle and the acclaimed Leonardo da Vinci to name a few. Neither of these accomplished men, to me, could be considered an ‘expert generalist’.

There is no doubt that we should all strive to widen our knowledge and learning proactively so that we can become worldly and cultured citizens. However, the term polymath taken in a modern context does seem to echo the popular notion of a multi-skilled worker, a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none, someone that is seen as ‘valuable’ usually due to increased financial pressure on businesses rather than the quality of work they can produce.

Now that the colloquial term ‘slashies’ has subsided, polymath seems to be becoming another applied term for the same phenomenon that is unfortunately inaccurate and undermines the whole essence of the earlier expression. The term has somehow come to equate to doing lots of things well in the active sense, and usually in the same modern job, dispersing effort into too many places and thus making all work confusing and mediocre in the process. When that happens, it is hard to be great at anything.

The modern ‘polymath’ is then not a beacon of knowledge and expertise spanning departments or sectors, but a low-functioning tool that enables businesses to tick-along, stay afloat, but ultimately not achieve any outstanding results. That is why candidates with rudimentary ability covering a range of skills are considered good options in the hiring process for start-ups, because they are low-cost hires for small businesses, and they can produce work that scrapes along leaving the business at a hardly optimal ‘good enough’ status: or perhaps the better term is stasis.

In this sense, the multi-skilled worker is stretched across various disciplines for which he/she is responsible, fragmenting their focus and effort by pulling them in multiple directions at any one time. This is certainly not in alignment with the prestige and esteem one hopes for with the title of ‘polymath’, a station and distinction that comes with deep focus and dedication to each pursuit, often over lengthy periods of time. As well as businesses harming their own interests over the long-term for short-term results, the individual pseudo-polymath in question probably ends up harming themselves and their career trajectory by trying to do everything and be everything. While it is great to try a range of disciplines, this extreme shattered focus simply cannot exist over the long-term.

There is no such thing as an expert generalist, the terms themselves are conflicting, and no one would want to admit to being an expert at being ‘general’.

Should we really be polymaths? Polymaths, the multi-skilled worker, and small businesses

The singular focus required to achieve any kind of expertise is something that is becoming increasingly disregarded in our age, due to a preference of speed/rushing everything and tightening pecuniary concerns. These are interrelated and affect all of us to some degree, but by being aware of this outward sham preference for a lack of commitment to our work and passions we can deepen our understanding of where this stems from, and begin to anchor ourselves and gain traction in the areas that matter most to us, and by effect to wider society.

In conclusion, we should all be polymaths in the original sense of the word, and even in our own time, pursuing excellence through our own passion whether that is through our work or outside of it. It is therefore important to distinguish the blurring line between the original term and the way that modern readers might interpret it.

Most important of all, the term polymath denotes knowledge and learning, rather than stretching oneself to actively engage in numerous pursuits ineffectively, whilst learning nothing. Let’s remember the original heart of the term so that our work and businesses can become more focused, and more effective.

As an SME, what should I consider when hiring?

Look for candidates who have shown

  • a solid commitment to what they have been involved in
  • a clear sense of where they consider themselves going

Make sure to

  • Train these staff more broadly, but maintain a predominant focus on their current main responsibility so that they can excel in one or two main areas

If you are an employee or potential candidate

As an individual, how can I avoid the trap of a job with ineffective multitasking?

If you are in a current position that feels like you are spread too thin

  • Discuss with those in senior positions about your concerns, and suggest that you want to hone in on your skills in a selected few areas that you are best at
  • Make sure that your time is primarily being dedicated to the areas that you are most aligned with in terms of current and future positions
  • If your current position does not allow you to give a greater focus on the direction in which you want to move in, focus on these more in your own time so that you can build the right skills to specialise and move into a more suited role

As a candidate, jobs with wide-ranging or varied responsibility can allow you to find out which things you dislike and which you are best at so that you can start to apply a discerning focus. The power to move forward in the direction you choose in ultimately in your hands.