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Why The Era of Polymaths is Here

Weekly Article Series on Being a Polymath

A polymath is a person who excels in a multitude of capabilities, naturally by instinct. Instinct, however, cannot be blamed when a person limits their curiosity to adapt to new abilities because of the archaic belief of “sticking to one thing in life”. 

While sticking to one thing has its charm, why then more and more people are choosing to diversify their capabilities today and be a polymath themselves?

The Origin of Polymaths – Renaissance Humanism

The Rennaissance period that spread across Europe during the 14th, 15th, and 16th century is considered the birthplace of polymaths. Often considered as the transition from the Middle Ages to Modernity in European history, the Rennaissance period based its movement on the intellectual principles of humanism. 

Humanism is a word derived from the concept of Roman Humanitas– a Latin term meaning human nature, civilization, and kindness, often has its roots in enlightenment. The concept of Roman Humanitas was created to define the code of conduct of being a Roman, which highly corresponded to the Greek theories of philanthrôpía– meaning loving what makes us human and paideia–   meaning education.

Controversial statements for those times such as “Man is the measure of all things” by Greek philosopher Protagoras along with the thought of creating a world where the citizens were a combined excellence of their “mind, body and soul” was the basis of Renaissance Humanism. 

Not confined to the elite, but rather a cultural movement aimed to evoke the best in human beings, the Renaissance Humanism focused on building citizens as people who were eloquent with a diversity of skills, like writing, speech, art, poetry, and philosophy, thus making them capable citizens to engage within communities and persuading others to follow the path of total excellence. Therefore, creating a societal legacy of culture, morals, and philosophy. 

A man or woman who encompassed this diversity of skills and abilities was then known as the Renaissance person. Leonard Da Vinci is often considered as a Renaissance man as he was not only an accomplished painter producing historic oil paintings like the Monalisa or The Last Supper, but he also was a mathematician, a musician, an engineer, a writer, an anatomist, an architect, a sculptor, and an inventor, where his concepts included early traces of a helicopter, a tank, a calculator, a parachute, a robot, a telephone, evolution, and solar power. Such a person is known as a Renaissance man or woman encompassing multiple skills is known as a polymath. 

The End of Renaissance Period

Towards the beginning of the 16th century, many wars across Spain, Germany, and Italy combined with the censorship of artists and writers by the Catholic church led to the downfall of the Renaissance Humanism movement. Considered as too bold and too creative for social wellbeing, the Renaissance thinkers were often punished for being too intelligent.

With changing trade routes, and prolonged wars, there was a noticeable decline in the amount of money spent on things that were not basic human needs of food, shelter, and clothing. Wealthy contributors and supporters who propelled the Renaissance Humanism movement no more spent on arts, poetry, architecture, music, or inventions. This was the end of the Humanitas movement. 

A More Recent Human History

Moving forward to the recent human history of the 19th century, facing plagues, depressions, and world wars, arts and skills were the last thing on the minds of collective societies. Learning and growth were all confined to the physical environment and physical reach which was mainly defined by their economic capabilities. However today, with the ease of access to any information, knowledge, and even wisdom at a click of a button, the Renaissance Humanism is slowly making its way back into modern-day society. Entrepreneur Elon Musk and his multiple ventures across diverse fields along with the fandom propelled in being so by the press have evoked the sheer will across many young people across the world to be a polymath themselves. 

The Human Nature

It is an intrinsic human quality to grow. Wanting to be more than what one is. No matter how enlightened one is, or non-capitalistic even, every human being´s innate essence is to do what they do best, to be more than who they are. The entire life is a battlefield process between the mind and oneself, passing each lesson of growth and learning, one step at a time. And at times, many steps are repeated because of lessons not already learned. While some human beings have the luxury of an emotionally, financially, mentally, and physically secure environment around them to process this learning and pass their life lessons with more ease, many face innumerable hindrances that interfere with their learning or clearing of their life lessons. Hindrances of family expectations, their own social beliefs, economic means, and even an inferiority complex inflicted by society because of their constant comparison of their lives with the ideal ones touted by media and celebrities. When one´s most basic growth or realization of self conflicts, how can one then diversify into multitudes of abilities and even think of being a polymath.

The Foundation of A Polymath

Here is when I contradict the above statement and would like to emphasize that a polymath´s capabilities and journey are not suppressed by their environment and economic stature in life, but rather augmented and extracted to their best, because of their environment and surroundings. 

Let me give you my own example.

When I was seven years old, my class was assigned a science project at school with the topic- “Endangered Species and What We Can do To Protect Them from Extinction.” My family had put all their resources in getting me a good education, therefore the school I went to was expensive ( the traditional equivalent to good education) and my school friends came in BMWs and Rovers and had a lot of expensive project help. Almost everyone from my class went to the same fancy bookstore to buy the same readymade charts of “Endangered Species” driven by their chauffeurs. 

When the submission day arrived, ninety percent of the projects looked identical with the same pictures from the same “high-profile & glossy” Endangered Species chart, with almost no personal thought or understanding of the main topic of extinction and protection. Let´s say most of the projects presented were a traditional form of cut, copy, and paste. However, it was my project that stood out and won the prize. 

What did I do differently? 

As we could not afford a $20 throwaway on a sheet of paper because of our financial conditions, my mother took me to an old newspaper & scrap shop where all newspapers, magazines, books were given away from the neighborhood offices, libraries, and homes for recycling. Newspapers for more than 10 years. Magazines of science, astronomy, nature, philosophy and history from over a decade. A fortnight before the project, every evening my mother would go for her evening walk and yoga class, and drop me at the old paper and scrap shop. Every evening after school, I not only poured myself into knowledge that was way beyond just understanding endangered species but also developed my ability to think originally, empathically, and present a measurable solution as well combining my thoughts of all.

My project was on display for the entire school as it didn’t have a readymade chart with images, but an applied thought, understanding, and because of the exposure to the ocean of information at the old newspaper & scrap shop, it empowered me with the gift of creativity. Creativity that came from browsing and reading a decade-old material on not just endangered species, but nature, astronomy, earth, and its formation, decades of extinctions and their reasoning. My project didn’t have goody-two-shoe photos of cute dinosaurs that have been extinct with a sticker of their name pasted below their glossy picture cut-out. It had history and reasons for their extinctions with a compilation of real solutions from over a decade, a proof of real movements by activists, and the naked real truth about what we need to see.

What I learned with this early experience was not how to make a creative project from an old newspaper & scrap shop, but how to process multiple combinations of different pieces of information and creatively connect them to one cohesive whole. That was my foundation to being a polymath, where early on I made the best from what I had available to me, to present the best of my cohesive whole. In this case, I made the best from waste, literally. Since then there´s been no stopping. I have almost worked in every industry, strive to excel at multiple passions, and thoroughly enjoy it as well. 

While this story can prove that to be a polymath, one´s lack of economic means may not be a hindrance but a tool to being one. According to a recent study of 2018, it is proven that family and financial resources influence the emergency of polymathy. 

What makes a polymath?

A George Washington University doctoral dissertation conducted by Angela J. Cotellessa- “In Pursuit of Polymaths: Understanding Renaissance Persons of the 21st Century” is an extraordinary study focusing on the life experiences of modern-day polymaths. Her research focused on accomplished polymaths with careers spanning across the arts, business, and sciences. The participants provided insights regarding their development and lives as polymaths (Cotellessa, 2018). Seven conclusions were drawn from this research that make a polymath

 (1) To be a polymath, one must accept not fitting in the typical box and perhaps even embodying apparent contradictions; polymathy is being intrapersonally diverse, in other words, they have diversity within their personhood

(2) Polymaths have a broad pool of experience, and think creatively and strategically, and juggle their many interests and obligations through effective time management

(3) being a polymath can make life richer, but it can also be quite difficult

(4) polymaths are excellent at being analytically creative and often find creative solutions to complex problems

(5) polymathy develops due to a combination of nature and nurture, and polymathy is maintained in adulthood by a willingness to continue to work to improve oneself through self-directed learning

(6) polymath identity is discovered from not fitting in; polymath identity can be difficult to fully own and to explain to others which may result in often being misunderstood by others who are not polymaths 

(7) family and financial resources influence the emergency of polymathy. 

With the use of the internet and access to a diversity of skills, knowledge, learning and creativity, and the intrinsic human nature of wanting and being more, the era of polymaths has now arrived.

Are you a polymath yourself or know of one?

Write to us at [email protected] to be featured.

Editor´s Note: Polymath is a special segment by Fuerteventura Times where we bring you weekly articles and inspiration every Monday to become a polymath yourself. As Fuerteventura has given birth to hundreds of modern-day polymaths, this segment is an ode to the brightest minds and thinkers wanting to bring the best of themselves, during this lifetime. Subscribe to our community to receive the latest articles here.



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