Polymaths: Modern Day Renaissance People
Aristotle. Galileo. Leonardo DaVinci. Ben Franklin. What do they all have in common?
You've probably heard the term Renaissance man (woman). When thinking of a Renaissance person, we think of someone who has a certain degree of mastery across many different subjects. Today, these types of people are termed polymaths. Merriam-Webster defines a polymath as “a person of encyclopedic learning”. Polymaths see the world a little differently. While some of our modern day polymaths, Steve Jobs or Oprah for example, are primarily known for their contributions to a certain field, it is their unique way of thinking and learning that gave them that success. In the past, it was normal and even expected to specialize. However, with a rapidly changing career landscape and economy, polymaths are more important than ever.
The Benefits of Polymaths: We’ve all heard the expression, “you can’t see the forest for the trees”. It’s often used when you’re in the middle of a problem and it’s hard to see the bigger picture. Polymaths CAN see the forest for the trees. They are constant learners, and once they’ve gained sufficient mastery in one subject, they are ready to move on to another. Because they are constant learners, they are able to learn quickly and are agile and able to change course when different problems or challenges arise. Technology is replacing much of the narrow and specialized work that often needs to be done so employees who can pull ideas from different disciplines in order to solve problems and advance company goals will be in high demand.
Identifying the Polymaths in Your Office: You probably already have some polymaths in your office. Who are they? For one, they are not only good problem solvers…they are good problem framers. They can often offer a unique perspective on a challenge that inspires further discussion and solutions. They are also usually very empathetic and collaborative. They have an experimental nature and are not afraid to offer up several solutions to determine what the best course of action is.
Keeping them Engaged: It’s generally accepted that retaining employees is cheaper than hiring new employees. But people don’t expect that they will work at one career or one company for 30 plus years and are often not afraid to move on. For polymaths, this is especially true. High employee engagement leads to higher rates of retention. A Harvard Business Review study found a key factor for employee engagement was a person’s alignment to the organizations identity and goals. Help the polymath see they are part of a bigger picture than just their job description. And on that note, job descriptions should be fluid and adaptable. This will tap into their desire to learn new things. Offering opportunities for continued learning and collaboration keeps polymaths engaged while fulfilling their need to take on new challenges.
Identifying and/or hiring, engaging, and retaining polymaths is an important goal as you build your workforce. It’s time to look at varying career experiences as an asset. Think about the cross-functional experience a polymath can bring to your organization to help it succeed and grow.