What is a Polymath and Why is it Awesome to be One?

A red head lounging on a sofa in a library reading books about ploymath synonyms

Polymath is a synonym for Jack-of-all-trades, a moniker long characterized as a “master of none,” and therefore a bad thing.

The technical definition of polymath, however, is:

A person of wide knowledge or learning . . .

which is hardly something to sneeze at.

Nor is the fact that polymathic people draw on vast and complex bodies of knowledge to solve problems. Problems for which a specialist, within the narrow lens of their specialty, might not be able to dream up a solution.

Polymath Characteristics

A polymath in the wild looks like a person with a nonlinear career path spanning unrelated industries and lacking the tenure that accompanies the typical success trajectory. A polymath’s resume will show shorter stints than most employers want to see—and even gaps if they choose to leave off any jobs that don’t relate to that specific industry.

For example, my chef resume was different from my resumes for copywriting or bartending. That meant there were lots of gaps from periods when I worked in a different industry. Those gaps usually got filled with, ahem, creative license.

It’s not just how we pay the bills, though. A true polymath is ruled by curiosity and voraciously driven to learn new things. We’re whores for experience, a dog endlessly getting distracted by squirrels. There are not enough hours in the day for us to squeeze every drop out of life, so most of us have an adversarial relationship with time.

When I’ve reached the energetic end of my rope for the day, I’m often bummed about it. I believe in reincarnation mostly because I simply have to have another go around in order to get through this list!

Polymaths are great at generating ideas but rotten at following them through. What looks to the rest of the world like quitting when the going gets tough is really quitting because the challenge has worn off. We’ve learned enough; we’ve gained competency. We’ve gotten what we came for.

Now, please excuse us while we go chase this shiny new object.

Why Are There So Many Polymath Synonyms?

This may be your first encounter with the word polymath since it’s a bit old-fashioned. But no doubt you are familiar with one of the many polymath synonyms out there—like generalist, multipotentialite or Renaissance person.

The reason there are so many synonyms for shiny object lover—aka polymath—is that in the era of personal branding, people like to make up words! Catchphrases that others associate with you that you can repeat again and again are soft-core subliminal advertising.

Marie Forleo capitalized on this by cheerily repeating “Everything is Figureoutable!” in her book of the same name. And unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably attribute holding a personal item and asking yourself, “Does this spark joy?” to Marie Kondo.

So you can thank capitalism for this laundry list of polymath synonyms. Now, let’s dive into a brief history of the polymath and uncover when and why the rest of the world decided it was a bad idea to be one.

Renaissance Person

Let’s be real, the term was Renaissance man, and it was used for the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei. A basic tenet of the Renaissance humanism worldview was that humans are limitless in their capacity for development, which led to the idea that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible.

Clearly, at this time in history, following rabbits down holes was a perfectly respectable pursuit.

Generalist

This term first appears in 1610 and, as you might expect, describes “one who engages in general studies.” This definition sounds far less impressive than those associated with Renaissance men. It is always accompanied by the phrase “as opposed to a specialist.”

Incidentally, when medical specialization first became a thing in the 1800s, it was greatly scorned by General Practitioners. Point being, this has been a polarizing topic from day one.

Polymath

The first recorded use of the term polymath appeared in the 17th century to describe a person who ranges “freely through all the fields of the disciplines, as far as the human mind, with unwearied industry, is able to pursue them.”

According to Peter Burke, an emeritus professor at Cambridge, we had our first “crisis of knowledge” at the end of this same century. A tipping point was reached partly because new inventions like the telescope and microscope, in addition to the expansion of Europe, gave us access to new worlds of knowledge.

Suddenly, there was too much information. People’s brains couldn’t take it. The proliferation of books and discoveries encouraged the fragmentation of knowledge, and it made everybody anxious.

“Too many squirrels!” they cried.

So, the educational system responded to the deluge by deciding that it was in everybody’s best interest to specialize in one thing until the day they died.

Womp womp.

Scanner

Cut to the 1970s, when a lifestyle coach and author named Barbara Sher started leading support groups and writing guidebooks giving people with shiny object syndrome permission to just be who they are. She referred to them as scanners, before scanner had a different meaning altogether.

Sher’s belief was that things took a turn for the worst when Russia won the space race, launched Sputnik, and sent every other country into a tailspin. Immediately, the US put all its resources into catching up to and surpassing Russian technology, and everything that wasn’t science and tech became secondary. For better or worse, the US becomes a model for the rest of the world, so departments of literature, design and humanities worldwide all became irrelevant luxuries.

And with that came the official decline in the stature of polymaths. 

Multipotentialite

Multipotentialite stems from the psychology term multipotentiality. The best definition I found says it is a state “of having many exceptional talents, any one of which could make for a great career.” The same article describes the challenge that multipotentialite children face when, because they have many realistic options for future careers, they struggle mightily deciding which to choose. This monumental decision, the article states, can be a source of debilitating stress.

So it seems we haven’t recovered from our last crisis of knowledge in any significant way. And given the advent of the Internet, and now AI, the problem of too much information isn’t going away any time soon.

If that is, indeed, what led to the “specialization is the best and only way” mentality, our only recourse is to choose differently.

On the bright side, the term multipotentialite gained popularity as a result of Emilie Wapnick’s viral TED Talk. Emilie started an important conversation about permission to be who you are, and with over 8 million views, it seems there are a lot of us who are ready to embrace it.

Multipassionate

As far as I can tell, Marie Forleo invented this word to describe herself. When it comes to subliminal marketing, Marie is queen.

She says she coined the term after several failed attempts at corporate jobs and suffering a great deal of angst over trying to choose one thing to be. She finally came to realize having many interests and skills was not a liability, but an asset. It gave her the motivation to create her empire, and I think we can all agree she’s done herself proud.

Everything Enthusiast

I invented this word when I started my podcast—at the time, I felt it needed no explanation. I wanted to have a catchphrase like the cool kids. Then, when I learned SEO for my copywriting persona, I discovered clever terms that no one has ever heard of equal marketing death.

I have since rebranded—which is very on-brand, I know—to MultiPassionate Like a Boss. If this article resonates with you, be sure to check it out.

Portfolioist

This term was introduced to me in one of my most fascinating podcast interviews with Kym Dakin. Portfolioists are a lot like freelancers who focus less on having consecutive, full-time jobs and more on having a steady stream of income from jobs requiring various talents, skills and passions they have. To some, it looks like a hodgepodge of passions mixed with talent, but it’s actually a strategic move to make the portfolioist more marketable.

While the goal is to make oneself the perfect job candidate, employers first need to be open to the notion that breadth of knowledge can be as important—if not more so—than mastery. They also have to believe that flexible work arrangements attract more high-quality candidates and generate higher rates of satisfaction among existing employees. As we have seen post-COVID, the jury is still out for many employers.

Multi-hyphenate

I was today years old when I discovered that a woman named Emma Gannon is trying to make this a catchphrase. I’d been seeing different iterations of it around, but I didn’t know to whom the credit went.

Emma Gannon, apparently.

She even wrote a book with Multi-hyphenate in the title. I only hope it has had Marie Forleo-style success and not My Obscurely Named Podcast-style success.

Can You Become a Polymath?

Bizarrely, I’ve read a lot of articles that say you can.

But I disagree.

In fact, given the black-or-white nature of the polymathic tendencies described in those articles, I doubt they were even written by a true polymath.

Of course, if you want to become more well-rounded, you can take up hobbies. But if those hobbies never veer precariously into the territory of obsession, I’d argue you’re just another specialist with a hobby.

If you want to be more indispensable to an employer, you can foster a mindset of continuous learning. But learning means being bad at things, at first. It means making tough choices like opting to read The Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs over watching reruns of Sex and the City.

Most people dislike being bad at things—polymaths just get comfortable with it because they have to. And if you don’t adore a subject like you adore a new lover, I doubt you’re going to choose reading about it over watching your shows.

Not to mention, this life is by no means the easy option. It is the road less traveled. Prepare to be judged by everyone who did what they were told and picked one thing to do until they died. Prepare to judge yourself for not having the achievements your specialist friends do and wondering what the hell to brag about at your high school reunion.

Polymaths are shiny object lovers in spite of all these things because we can’t not be. If we don’t chase our curiosities, we wither on the vine.

So the question is, why would you want to be like this—if you weren’t already predisposed to it, that is? I think a far better path is to recognize that the world needs both kinds of people and then lean in hard to whichever one you are.

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