The Competitive Advantage of being a Polymath
From Career to Calling part 4
“The future belongs to the integrators.” — Educator Ernest Boyer
This is part 4 of the Career to Calling series of posts. I often use the following framework to redefine my calling. I meditate on these four dimensions of life that I believe form us in our vocation:
Natural, Experiential, Professional, Spiritual
What do I mean by the professional dimension? These are hard skills you have received through formal or informal training and experience in a field. In a debate spanning literally millennia, the conventional wisdom has mostly been that becoming a specialist is more advantageous than being a generalist, also known as a polymath. I’m a firm believer in the opposite view.
A simple, high-level framework to illustrate.
It’s more advantageous to be in the top 25% across three professions than in the top 1% of one profession. Both approaches require tremendous discipline, time, and hard work. I seem to gravitate towards the generalist approach simply by instinct, not strategic thinking. Here’s how it all played out for me:
My first career was music. Without false humility, I can say, that I was in the top 1% in that field for my market.
The skills I had to master to achieve that:
Had I just stayed a specialist in music, here are potential downsides:
Most artists with no business training lose money in the long run
When markets, economies, and tastes change. I wouldn’t be able to maneuver well professionally.
People change. Exciting at first, life on the road can lose its luster. A specialist doesn’t have much choice if they lose the taste for the lifestyle essential to the profession.
Here’s where the polymath factor comes in handy. Other areas I’ve invested in over the years through formal, informal, and practical training:
Masters' degree in economics
Series 65 certification in finance
Dance, choreography - adjacent to, but not the same as music
Charity and non-profit work
A-Z Video Production - directing, scripting, shooting, editing
Marketing - copywriting, social media marketing, website design, etc.
Public speaking, storytelling, writing as a discipline
Ministry, pastoring, counseling, coaching
I learned four languages ( ok, that one was more of a gift since I was a child and didn’t work for it.)
With my wife Deb - I’ve been fortunate to be the co-founder of 3 companies and 2 non-profits
I have multiple avenues available to me geographically and professionally
I was able to make choices in lifestyle, financial abilities, travel and when called to it - make sacrifices for the benefit of greater impact and meaning
Having expertise in multiple disciplines enriches my impact in specific disciplines as well
My advice: you may be wired to be a specialist and do amazing work for a lifetime. However, if being a specialist is not “in your bones,” invest across multiple disciplines and you will have more choices, serve more people, and have more fun in your professional life.
Here’s a good visual illustration of my polymath journey. This is short a video shown as part of an introduction before a speech I gave at the Toolbox Men’s Launch in Austin, TX last week.
I found the advantage of being a polymath to be true through natural curiosity and restlessness, not strategic thinking. Michael Simmons, on the other hand, has studied this phenomenon in-depth. Here’s an insightful article he wrote entitled, People Who Have “Too Many Interests” Are More Likely To Be Successful.
“If being a generalist was the path to mediocrity, why did the most comprehensive study of the most significant scientists in all of history uncover that 15 of the 20 were polymaths? Newton. Galileo. Aristotle. Kepler. Descartes. Huygens. Laplace. Faraday. Pasteur. Ptolemy. Hooke. Leibniz. Euler. Darwin. Maxwell — all polymaths.
If being a generalist was so ineffective, why are the founders of the five largest companies in the world — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Larry Page, and Jeff Bezos — all polymaths (who also follow the 5-hour rule)? Are these legends just genius anomalies? Or are they people we could and should imitate in order to be successful in a modern knowledge economy?
Thank you for following me on Headspace. If you find this valuable - be a good friend and forward it to someone who can benefit from it.
A quick update from Ukraine
The needs are gigantic, the suffering hard to fathom and the war is far from over. In fact, things are going to get worse before they get better. I am very fortunate to be able to mobilize, connect, integrate and help war refugees through the Ukraine Relief Network. With this grim backdrop of violence and human suffering, we see the bright light of human generosity, kindness, and service to others. Here are some highlights from this week.
The Ukraine Relief Network was in the news again. NTD TV News interviewed me about our work.
Our refugee center in Lviv is now active and serving refugees in partnership with the Lviv Church of Christ. A special thanks to pastor Yuri Kravetz - a champion and engine behind our work in Lviv.
If the plea of Ukrainian war refugees stirs your heart, please consider donating, spreading the word, and partnering with us.
Here’s a good link to learn more. www.ukrainianreliefnetwork.org