I recently read a very thought provoking post on LinkedIn by Alberto Brea (a v. senior bod at Ogilvy NY) that made a compelling argument for depth. It got me and many of the other readers reflecting, as I view myself, and pride myself, on being a polymath. Doing my degree as a mature student has been an illuminating glimpse into subject focus and the super-smart wonks you come across in good universities.
Knowing a lot about a lot of things means that it is very difficult to be perceived as a subject matter expert on any one particular thing. No single thing has been a life’s work. The most I seem to know is about the construction of identity and how that can/may be changed.
To be clear: a polymath does not mean that the person is a chronic bulls****er. The fact is that I like knowing stuff. Lots of stuff: how a jet engine works, a clutch, the reasons for weather, some of the law, drug metabolism, the eye, how to make a golfball, etc etc. Not to lord it over others (as tempting as it can be when you hear someone talking rubbish about something) but because I hate the feeling of weakness that accompanies the situation where a power imbalance can be created by a knowledge imbalance.
Sure, it lets you bluff at times and I happen to think that in some circumstances it is a very useful skill. To bluff to intentionally deceive to gain an unfair advantage for purely personal gain at the expense of the other is wrong. However, to be able to credibly bluff when you are at risk of being dominated and weakened by someone who is using their in-depth knowledge of a topic to run roughshod over you is something else entirely. It is is how to deploy ones intellect in a different way.
Recently, I compiled a list of all the jobs I have done and the significant experiences I have had, to read it as if another was listening to me warble on. If someone else bought the same to me my initial reaction would be extremely sceptical, it reads as fantastical invention in places. It makes me alternately proud and horrified. The fact is that all these experiences haven’t killed me and I have used them to learn from and strengthen myself.
At the risk of sounding like a personal puff piece I am using myself (for I can hardly be alone in the 11 schools, multiple industries and some cool pick-up roles along the way) as an example that those of us who have had interesting and varied careers/lives are not automatically flaky and dangerous to have in an organisation. On the contrary, if we are employed in the right role we can tolerate some sameness and routine. What makes the polymath thrive is being able to constantly learn and to be able to share their experience for the benefit of others.
When is comes to decision making, the person that is super-knowledgeable on a single topic can add valuable context through their knowledge. But, and it is a big but, the polymath can see the issue from angles that the depth person simply cannot conceive of doing. Yin and Yang I guess.
There is no doubt that a polymath can cause a subject-matter expert to feel very uncomfortable. They may seem shallow and flighty and for a person that defines themselves by their in-depth expertise this often causes significant cognitive dissonance. To assuage this one often sees employers and clients shying away from the polymaths instead of asking themselves why they feel uncomfortable and then trying to see if they can use the polymath as a useful addition to a team. Asking the oddball questions and saying the strange things. Not for the hell of it but to add to the effort and make the output a better thing.
In case you missed it, Alberto’s article, a nice short and snappy piece for LinkedIn, is here.