Praise For The Polymath

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.

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Blovember #16 – Friday Bits’n’Pieces

So it’s Friday. So don’t expect even a flailing stab at literary competence. A round-up of the week is what’s needed with some fun and illuminative trivia thrown in.

  • I am possibly the most easily distracted and idle person I know. A friend saw a cartoon yesterday and fell about laughing. “That’s you” they choked out between gales of laughter. “That’s so you.” I gave a careful and considered response of, “piss off”, and then started laughing as well.
  • Funny Somewhat Topical Ecard: If I had a dollar for everytime I got distracted, I wish I had some ice cream.
  • You can’t tell but I was just distracted my Mrs S. Sadly she wasn’t offering ice-cream though.
  • Now my whole thread of the wretched post is gone from my head.
  • Check email again.
  • Oh yes, Idle. When I work I really work and in between I am a master time-waster. There ought to be a Guild of Master Time Wasters. I wish I knew how to make myself into a tightly  focused and driven individual.
  • Just connected two people via LinkedIn. Think it is v. cool that technology has made so easy something that was previously nearly impossible.
  • Speak to one of said people. Talk for 20 minutes.
  • I prefer to think of it as multi-tasking with a slight random element.
  • My new helicopter arrives today or tomorrow. Am sure that won’t divert me from planning.
  • Planning – oh yeah, I am starting a business. That’ll have it’s own site and blog so ’nuff said here.
  • Looking forward to collecting my free Calamari from Lou’s between Christmas and New Year. Thank you Facebook.
  • Food, mmmmm.
  • Very modern dilemma – am speaking to my domain name provider to merge all my various domains under one roof and register a few new ones.
  • Dilemma – just been to Wikipedia to ascertain that I have indeed been spelling it incorrectly for many years. Two “m’s”, go figure.
  • Bought some bike rollers this week as I hate turbo-trainers. They turned up yesterday. Slippery buggers. Will take some mastering. In the meantime my friends have not been helpful. See Blovember 13. Bastards.
  • It was my dad’s birthday a few weeks ago – 75, time to get a Honda Jazz as I may have mentioned – and he is rubbish at asking for pressies. Finally we get an answer…floor mats for the Jazz please.
  • I feel a bit dirty writing the search term “Jazz Mats” into Google.

Gotta run. I hear an ice-cream van.

Blovember #2

Day 2 and I feel like a kid being made to write the “what I did on my holidays” post half-term standard fodder.

Today I applied to Sophos for a v interesting looking role as the Sales Enablement Program Manager – Learning & Development. Looks v interesting, plays v well to my strengths and is relatively local. I don’t mind business travel but at this stage in life am not looking to relocate as that is for peeps without kids at a non-boarding  school.

The interesting thing to see is whether I am even spoken to, as my CV is coming to the UK HR Dept via a friend of a friend in Vancouver. I have never ever ever received a reply to an application via Linkedin as my CV isn’t a nice boilerplate example of I did this and then this and then this where the respective “thises” have been a steady progression along an A-B-C-D sort of obvious line. I like to think I have had an interesting and informative life but  we’ll see what Sophos think.