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How it Feels to Be A Multitalented Person in A Not-So-Talented-Society

Weekly Series

Editor´s Note:

Fuerteventura Times Artistry is a mecca of creative expressions and artistic inspiration. Just as the island of Fuerteventura has inspired many artists, creators, and travelers, this segment of Polymath is our ode to the multi-disciplinary excellence of being a modern-day creative.

In our previous article on Polymaths, we shared its concept, history, and origin, and the traits one needs to be one themselves. A polymath is an individual who possesses multidisciplinary skills across a wide range of subjects. Polymaths are known for using this ability of diverse knowledge as a tool to solve complex problems across various stages and fields of life. A polymath could be one person who is an architect, a sound composer, a poetry writer, a marathon runner, and a Michelin star chef altogether.

Today, we unravel the secret emotions and feelings from the experiences of real polymaths based on insightful research by Angella Cotelessa for the University of George Washington- “In Pursuit of Polymaths: Understanding Renaissance Persons of the 21st Century” where she interviewed real-life public personas with multiple skillsets from different parts of the world, at an average age of 37 years. Many of the polymaths she interviewed as part of this research were indeed remarkably accomplished people, many having won prestigious awards in their fields. Several of them are published authors with either books or with articles published for scholarly and non-scholarly magazines and websites. Numerous were podcast hosts. Some have also been honorable guests on popular television shows. One polymath interviewed as part of this research is a former White House staffer (political appointee). Several have been voracious public speakers and many have given TED talks. Their identities must remain anonymous for purposes of this research, of course—but indeed, they are all impressive people in their ways. Here are the common truths shared by these interviewees on their experiences as a polymath.

1. The Importance of Being Considered As An Expert Across Diverse Disciplines

One of the first questions asked to these multi-talented public personas and real-life polymaths were how they would define what being a polymath is.

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Given their unique experience living in the world as polymaths, their answers showcased a few emergent themes, including that, being a polymath is being more than a dabbler—it involves more than simply being interested in various things, but actually following through on interests and developing expertise and excellence at them. Along these lines, one of the research participants- Wendy’s definition of polymathy is: “You have developed a level of expertise in multiple fields and have continued to pursue it in some degree of excellence….I think there’s a difference between people who are going to work in different industries and kind of cobble together a multi-disciplinary zig-zag path and polymaths…I would say polymaths would be specifically, people who have built very discrete skill sets in multiple fields at a very high level and continue to pursue them…separate from people who have been able to build a career across different industries.

There was a consensus among interviewees that to be considered a polymath, one needs to have a certain level of expertise; dabbling or trying something a few times without accomplishing the level of profound knowledge in that field does not mean someone is a polymath.

2. They Do Not Fit in Any Box

Many polymaths interviewed for this research preferred not to be labeled as something. In fact, the idea of calling one a polymath itself felt like a narrow label, which many interviewees did not want. While on one side, they do find common ground with anyone to connect or talk about, they also feel like they do not fit in. This is a paradox of polymathy: they can connect socially with anybody, but never feel like they fit in completely in a social group.

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Wendy added that she thinks people who are naturally polymathic and try to force narrow specialization on themselves may have to face unfortunate repercussions later on in life: “I think there are a lot of people going through mid-life crises because they cut off parts of themselves very early in school or in their career and you know I think that kind of dissatisfaction with life and career that a lot of people have in their thirties and forties…when they say is this all there’s going to be? I think a lot of that is a symptom of forcing yourself into a narrow identity early instead of embracing all of the things that you might have been or still could be.”

The idea of “not fitting in a box” came up numerous times throughout the interviews. Another participant in the study- Felicity said, “I guess the way I would categorize who I am is somebody that doesn’t fall into one of those buckets of being a particular person with a particular career picked out. So, I think it’s somebody that excels in many different areas that normally we would categorize in different subjects.”

3. Having Multiple Disciplines Often Impact Their Social Experiences and Personal Relations

In spite of wanting to be understood, most polymaths interviewed shared that they are often misinterpreted by society, their family, and social circle. Being a polymath can make social interactions richer but also more difficult at times. They commonly agreed that sharing about their polymath skills or talking to people about their capabilities often needed to be done carefully so as not to “put off” people.

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Kevin, the 56-year polymath expressed that if he shared too much about his skills and capabilities, “It sounds like you’re bragging.” He went on to add that he often downplayed his capabilities to be able to have pleasant conversations and relations with those he interacted with. Like Kevin, all interviews shared their feelings about the caution in communicating their talents without intimidating others or coming across as bragging was one challenge they had to constantly face.

Another participant added that “It can be a little bit lonely I guess because I don’t always think people can understand where I’m coming from…just like on like a very human level, I think that the way that I like to connect with people is very complex and I want to know them so well.”

Many polymaths in order to be understood by others have to simplify the complexity of their identity which often leads to them censoring themselves. They censor parts of what they share or in its entirety depending on the people and the situation and surroundings they are in. In fact, self-censorship was not unique to polymaths at all.

Levi, a 35-year-old participant of the study said, “When I introduce myself to [people], and they’re like, ‘Well, what do you do?’ And I go, ‘I’m complicated,’ is usually my answer. I know I have to guard [my polymathy], otherwise, I’m going to overwhelm people… There’s definitely something to be said for, again, hiding yourself a little bit, making it easy for people to digest. People over there only need to know I’m a physicist. That’s all they need to know…It makes it a little easier in some respects, but in most respects, they have no
idea what else I’m capable of.”

Not coming off as a brag was one of the main reasons polymaths censored themselves. They would weigh the amount of information they share in order to be understood more easily by people and so as not to threaten or “put them off” who may otherwise be intimidated by their accomplishments and capacity. What is noteworthy is that people in general usually share more about themselves in order to be understood; polymaths, to be understood, seem to share less.

This precise difference is a crucial finding of this study because it may give the answers to why polymath as a subject is not discussed often in society. Polymaths who openly share their capabilities or who address their identity as a multidisciplinary person or polymath, may not be well received by others or understood at all, which is the reason they person withhold information about their polymathy. This explains why polymathy largely remains in the dark as an important topic of discussion in the world at large.

4. Polymaths like to hang out with other polymaths

Most interviewees did say that they enjoy associating, whether professionally or personally, with other polymaths. Polymath to polymath social milieus were described, overall, as being deeper than relationships with non-polymaths. Some of them seek out other polymaths, while others said they do not. Regardless, being able to spend time around other polymaths is something that helped some interviewees feel more comfortable—like they could be more of their real selves around others who have similar polymathic tendencies.

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Being with other polymaths also provides an opportunity to learn from someone who might also be “fascinating” as well, given their unique experiences and perspectives. “Meeting people that are a very interesting combination and I’m immediately drawn to them¨added one of them.

Polymaths do also, of course, associate with non-polymaths. Relationships with non-polymaths often require some degree of self-censorship, though, which is a sort of burden that a polymath may have to navigate. On the other hand, some polymaths preferred to spend time with single-issue specialists because those are the people they said they could learn from the most. Karl said, “The polymath is sort of the parasite of the expert. I am drawn to people that are really, really good at one thing. …I would much rather learn a lot about somebody who’s at the top of their field than talk to somebody else who’s dabbled in a lot of different stuff.” It seems, naturally, there are both benefits and drawbacks for a polymath to engage with others who are also polymathic, versus people who are not.

5. Polymaths have difficult career choices

In a world where specialists are perceived as more successful or experts, being a multi-skilled person can be challenging. Especially when narrow specializations fill in job vacancies more suited to the traditional employer. Karl said his polymathy makes his career “harder, probably…I have to fight harder to get visibility in the first place and then credibility in the second place.” Many interviewees shared about the disconnect they experienced between their education in youth and their carefully honed career expectations in adulthood.

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Some of them mentioned how confusing it was to be raised as a child who was encouraged to explore and try different things—to explore broadly, and then get to a certain point in their schooling – or be out of school – and feel pressure to pick one career area and specialize. Many of them started out with STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and later delved further into artistic pursuits, while some combined the two in an exceptionally well-established synchronization of their capabilities and career pursuits.

Many of the interviewees also shared that their employers did not know how to leverage their diversity of skill sets. Levi, a 35-year-old participant said “Nobody even really knows what all his skill sets are (other than himself)I don’t think anybody knows what my full skill set is. My skillset goes in so many different directions, I couldn’t imagine having everything I can do be useful to a job, you know? I mean, leverage my full potential would mean somehow keeping me happy…I wish I knew how to take advantage of my own full potential. I’d probably have another job already if I could figure out how to make it all work together.”

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