Some people want to learn everything there is to know about one subject or enough that they have mastered it to get a job. However, you love learning so much that you can’t see yourself settling on mastering one subject—you see yourself as a Renaissance person ready to teach yourself many things.
Becoming an autodidact polymath starts with becoming comfortable with the idea that not everyone has to be a specialist, and that teaching yourself is a valid way to learn. A polymath needs to set goals, locate resources, and develop habits that will lead to successful learning.
A polymath, a Renaissance person, a jack of all trades, and a multipotentialite are synonyms for a person who does not want to be limited by what society expects them to learn. In this guide, we will provide you a roadmap for how and why you should excel in multiple and diverse fields.
What Is a Polymath?
The simple definition is that a polymath is someone who is interested in many different things. Vocabulary.com says a polymath is a “person who knows a lot about a lot of subjects.” Based on that definition, anyone who has a college degree is a polymath. After all, a person can’t get a degree without taking a range of courses outside of their major.
Also, a polymath is not someone who is necessarily good at different kinds of math. Math comes from the Greek word mathein or “to learn.” Poly comes from the Greek “many or much.” Other poly words include:
- Polyglot—a person who understands many languages
- Polygon—a two-dimensional shape with many sides
- Polytheism—worshipping many “gods”
A direct definition of a polymath is someone who “has learned much.” That definition is also incomplete. A complete definition might be one given by author Michael Simmons: a polymath is “someone who becomes competent in at least three diverse domains.”
A Polymath Is a Generalist
We live in a time of specialists. Many of us are trained to become experts in one area and then make a career out of that specialty. For example, an architect’s career path would be starting at a small firm, moving up to a larger one, and then starting up their own firm.
However, a polymath is more of a generalist. Instead of focusing on becoming an expert on one topic, they choose to master several. Instead of developing tunnel vision, being able to think deeply on one topic, they develop the ability to see what different domains have in common.
Consider Elon Musk, who has built a successful technology business (PayPal), aerospace (SpaceX), and automotive (Tesla). Or Steve Jobs, who was a designer, marketer, and engineer. Bill Gates qualifies as another modern-day polymath.
People used to be expected to settle into a career and pursue it for the rest of their professional lives. With the rapid pace of change, careers that were important just twenty years ago are now almost obsolete.
A study at Oxford University predicts that as many as 45% of jobs will disappear in the next ten years. Many manufacturing jobs are disappearing due to automation, travel agencies are becoming obsolete, and military pilots are being replaced by drones. By being generalists, competent in numerous areas, polymaths will be better able to adapt to changes in the marketplace.
What Is an Autodidact?
The Greek roots of this word are auto (“self”) and “didaktikos (“teaching”). An autodidact is a person who teaches themselves. Someone who is self-taught was autodidactic in whatever they taught themselves. A person who prefers to teach themselves is an autodidact.
In a more traditional sense, an autodidact chooses what and how they will study without the help of teachers or formal schooling. However, modern autodidacts think of themselves as deciding what and how they will learn. Although an autodidact typically won’t get a degree in a subject, they can take courses online or in person to help them.
An autodidact must have several traits. Curiosity is one—unless a person is genuinely interested in learning, it is difficult to remain motivated. This leads to a second trait autodidacts needed—self-discipline. Finally, an autodidact needs to be able to self-reflect. Have I truly mastered the topic? What direction should I take next?
Is Becoming a Polymath Worth the Time and Effort?
Perhaps the fact that you are thinking about being a polymath means that you are already one. If you feel confident that you can teach yourself to become an expert in several fields, you might be ready to ask, “How can I get started?”
However, taking time to think through the benefits of developing multiple learning paths is essential when you feel like you want to quit.
There’s Never Been a Better Time to Be an Autodidact
If you’re a polymath, there’s no such thing as information overload. Thirty years ago, teaching yourself a skill, such as playing the piano, was more challenging. Before the internet and YouTube, teaching yourself practically required that you take lessons. Books to teach yourself to play were available, but they were limited (and you had to pay for each one).
Now, entire channels on YouTube are devoted to lessons. For example, Moore Piano recommends six free channels, but there are even more. The videos can be played repeatedly (and slowed down) to help you master the fingering. You name it, and there’s a YouTube channel dedicated to it.
Not only has the content grown over the past twenty years, but the quality has also increased. Poorly made videos with incorrect information tend to get drowned out.
Wikipedia has seen similar growth in reliability. When it first started, students were warned never to trust Wikipedia. Although the site is not considered reliable as other sources, its reliability has increased as more people monitor it.
Becoming Good at Two Things Can Lead to Expertise in One
Becoming the absolute best at one thing is nearly impossible. Becoming better than average at two things is doable. Many famous people have used that recipe to excel at one thing.
Take, for example, football coaches. Why is it that most coaches were never the best players? They leveraged two skills—being able to play well enough to make the team at one point, and being an above-average teacher/coach. An article in the Bleacher Report reviews 26 former NFL players who wound up coaching, and most of them did not have stellar careers as players.
Combining skills from different domains can often lead to breakthroughs. Professor Brian Uzzi of the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management analyzed 26 million studies and found that those studies that utilized information from seemingly unrelated areas had more impact.
It Prepares You for Careers That Don’t Exist Yet
Who knows what skills will be critical in 20 years? Twenty years ago, there were no app developers, cloud computing specialists, or social media managers. Where did the people who are involved in those careers come from?
What skills does a media manager need? Or a web designer? Someone who has mastered painting and computer skills can create web pages that are well-designed and use the SEO strategies that bring readers to the site.
By mastering subjects that are not related, you are better prepared for the future because you have learned to see relationships between fields that don’t seem related.
The bottom line is that by letting go of this idea that you can’t be an expert in more than one thing, you wind up with a whole series of benefits. These include:
- Increased self-confidence
- The ability to talk and relate to more people
- Being a more interesting person
- Improving your ability to be creative and think analytically
- Increased fulfillment and happiness
Remind yourself of these benefits whenever you’re feeling like giving up because something is more challenging than you thought.
How Do You Know If You Have the Right Personality to be a Polymath?
Another form of self-doubt is wondering if one is genuinely a polymath or just a dilettante. The former is seriously interested in becoming competent in different areas of study. A dilettante likes to check something out, then move on to another topic. There is nothing wrong with being a dilettante, but a polymath isn’t content to know just enough about a topic to make small talk.
These are some traits of polymaths. See how many you can check off:
- Love to learn. Polymaths are wired to learn. It’s almost as though they cannot stop themselves. If you have a stack of books to read, bookmarked way too many blogs, or love looking through course catalogs, you hunger for knowledge.
- Autodidacts. Our society has conditioned us to become specialists, and often we are conditioned to limit what we learn to what’s essential to our field. So what’s a polymath to do? Teach themselves, that’s what. This behavior often begins in school. While waiting for the rest of the class to get caught up, an autodidact picks up a book and reads. You were probably that person.
- Know what they don’t know. Polymaths aren’t content with what they know. If they have a question, they don’t forget about it and move on. These days they pull out their phones and google. In school, they were the ones who kept asking questions after everyone else was ready to move on.
- Not big on small talk. This doesn’t mean a polymath is anti-social. However, given a choice between socializing and making small talk or getting into philosophical discussions, a polymath will head to the discussion group. Standing around, making small talk is not a good use of time.
Often, a polymath has the feeling that no one gets them. Friends wonder why you would rather stay home and read. People get annoyed when you go on about random things you have recently learned. You’re not weird—you’re just focused on learning.
Can You Become a Polymath Without Being an Autodidact?
In the last section, we said that polymaths tend to be autodidacts. Is it possible to be a polymath but want to be taught by others? The answer is yes. When you recognize that you cannot learn something on your own, you should seek out help.
Being an autodidact does not mean that you never take courses. Instead, an autodidact takes charge of their learning. Should you decide you want to figure something out on your own, no matter how long it will take, that’s okay. If you choose to take an online course, that’s okay also.
Autodidacts sometimes get frustrated by how long it takes to get a formal education. Getting degrees in three different subjects might take eight to ten years—a lot of time and money. But becoming competent in three subjects can take a lot less if you plan out how you will teach yourself.
Now that you have an idea of what it means to be a polymath and how to become competent in several realms or domains, it’s time to get started. Even though each journey is unique, in our research, we have discovered repeated advice, and so will share that with you. As we go over these steps, we will provide you with some resources, but you—being the autodidact that you are—will find more.
Lay Out Your Goals
Most of us have heard the Chinese proverb–“a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The journey begins before the first step, however. How many times have you taken a step just to take a step? There is always a destination in mind before you start. Even Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” acknowledges a destination exists.
Emerson’s quote sounds like something that a polymath would say. Ask yourself: Do you want to learn something new to be competent? Or do you want to learn something new because you love learning, and becoming competent is a secondary reward? Or, are you, like Emerson, ready to be self-reliant?
You know that people realize the importance of goal setting because there are so many books about it. Enough that Book Authority has a post entitled “100 Best Goal Setting Books of All Time.” So what is unique about setting goals as an autodidactic polymath?
- Lack of external motivation. When you devise a plan of study, you create the deadlines.
- On Your Own. Even if you join study groups and online forums, much of the time, you will be learning by yourself.
- Self-doubt. If you tell family and friends you will be getting a degree, people will be more supportive than if you announce you are going to teach yourself something not related to your job. This lack of support can lead to self-doubt.
Bucket List Goals
What are the things you want to learn before you die? Start with your “big picture” goals, those things that are the non-negotiables. Start with everything you might ever want to learn, and then narrow that down. Most likely, you have a long list of things you want to know more about. Write everything that occurs to you.
When you finish, analyze the list. Did patterns show up? For example, say you’ve always thought it would be cool to learn Chinese. But what if you listed several musical instruments you want to learn to play? Do you want to learn how to speak Chinese and play the guitar? Or do you want to be a multi-instrumentalist?
Making a bucket list helps you decide on the essentials, but it also helps with goal setting, keeping yourself focused, and staying positive when encountering setbacks.
If someone wants to travel to every continent at least once, they aren’t going to do so in one year. Instead, they will plan one trip for this year and another for the next year. You should do the same. Not doing so can set you up for failure, because you tried to accomplish too much and then fell short.
Attainable annual goals also keep you from getting to the end of the year and wondering where the time went. What is an attainable goal? According to Michael Hyatt, the author of Your Best Year Ever, an attainable goal is in your discomfort zone without being in the delusional zone. If you plan to write a novel, making the goal to write a Pulitzer-Prize winning novel is most likely in the delusional zone, especially if it is your first one.
You can find many resources about goal setting. We are going to highlight some important ones to get you started:
- Smart Goals. SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.
- Use Technology. Google “Goal setting apps,” and you will have to set a goal to look at them all. Goal Buddy is one that you might like because it uses the SMART goal model, and you can use “buddies” for accountability.
- Journals. The Success Journal by Matthias Hechler is formatted around setting goals, creating a routine, and daily prompts for journaling.
Once you have set your goals, it’s time to move to the next part of your journey, finding what you need to learn a new skill.
Find the Resources You Need
The internet is full of resources to help you, and providing lists of them is not the focus of this article. Although we might give you a few suggestions to get started, we want to suggest you approach finding resources through the following lens—knowledge, practice, and application.
These are what people think about first. Where am I going to learn what I need? Along with the obvious, such as online courses, continuing ed, books, YouTube channels, consider resources that you might overlook. Audiobooks, for example, are excellent resources—you can learn while commuting, cooking, or similar tasks.
Check out this little known resource from LearningPath that includes audio resources, podcasts, videos, and links to online courses and degrees from major universities.
Finding information is easier than locating ways to practice what you are learning. Let’s say you create a playlist of YouTube videos to teach yourself the fundamentals of physics. What next? Although the videos will provide the information, they won’t provide the practice.
This is where apps can help. Many of us are familiar with Duolingo, which provides interactive practice to help users learn a language. As you search for apps, look for those that have interactive components. The same thing is true as you research online courses through sites such as Udemy.
Now that you have mastered the skill you set out to, how will you apply it? Maybe you could teach it to others. Consider creating a blog, starting a YouTube channel, or using a local resource, such as Meet-Up, where you can apply what you learned.
Practice the Right Way
Practicing the right way does not mean there is only one way to practice. There are some principles; however, that will help you to practice effectively. After all, all of us are limited by the same thing—time. Regardless of how much money or talent you have, you only get 24 hours, like the rest of us.
How Are You Spending Your Time?
How much of that time do you spend on things that are unimportant to you? The best way to find out is to track your time for a week. Have a notebook with you, and record how you spend your time. For example:
- 6:45 – Woke up
- 6:45-7:05 – Got dressed and ready
- 7:05-7:30 – Breakfast
- 7:30-7:50 – Commute
When you get to work, don’t merely write when you arrived and when you went home. Record chunks of time. For example, let’s say you checked emails for half an hour. Is there a way you can do that more effectively?
After a week, you will see chunks of time that could be used more effectively. In the example above, what if you woke up at 6:30 and spent fifteen minutes eating breakfast. That would give you an extra 25 minutes a day, or 2 hours a week—and that’s only the morning!
Are You Using Your Mind Effectively?
Often self-help articles gloss over the difficulties of accomplishing a discomfort goal. As you struggle with learning a new skill, you are reprogramming your brain. Think of your mind as an operating system—a computer can only do what it is programmed to do. As you struggle and get discouraged, how are your past experiences and beliefs in what you think is possibly affecting your response?
In the book Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life, John B. Arden uses research into how the brain works to explain how we can help ourselves build better habits and stay focused. Rewiring your brain means creating new habits using the principle “cells that fire together, wire together.”
He created a set of steps people can use to rewire their brains to work more effectively: FEED.
- Focus. By focusing on changing your behavior (like getting up earlier to get an extra hour of study time), you start to rewire your thoughts about that behavior.
- Effort. The effort of doing the new activity causes more activity in the part of your brain that controls the synapses and how they fire.
- Effortless. To use energy efficiently, our brains use the Law of Conservation of Energy. The more automatic an activity, the less energy your mind has to expend on the activity.
- Determined. By staying determined, we keep the connections healthy.
As we said earlier, finding resources is not going to be a problem for you. Realize that it’s not uncommon to feel like giving up and that resources exist that can help keep you motivated.
Know When You Have Mastered the Skill
What is the difference between mastering a skill and just giving up? As an autodidact, a degree is not going to satisfy you, nor is the kind of surface knowledge that a dilettante has. So how do you know when you have achieved mastery? When are you an expert?
Some people say that mastering a skill is relative. You can say that you have achieved mastery, but someone else says you haven’t. Unfortunately, there is no clear cut, simple answer. Different answers exist, and here are a few of them:
- When you can teach someone else. This is an oft-cited answer, but it sounds somewhat simplistic. For example, some people are not good teachers—they lack the patience or have difficulty explaining concepts clearly.
- Automatically. People who use the term “Mastery Teaching” call this automaticity, meaning you can do it without thinking about it. This also sounds good at first glance. What if I have decided to master painting? Do I stop thinking about how to communicate my ideas through art? Does a computer engineer need to think to solve problems?
- Done all I can. This is the answer that lets a person weasel out of a situation when the going gets difficult.
- Solve Problems. Can you take what you have learned and solve a problem you haven’t encountered before? If you can take what you have learned about painting and create original work, you have taken your knowledge and applied it to create something new. If you use what you learned in studying computers and creating sophisticated apps, you’ve also solved problems.
The takeaway here is that you need to determine how you will measure mastery and do so before you begin. Doing so will help you be accountable to yourself.
A complete guide to becoming a polymath has to be more than a list of websites and other resources. If you like teaching yourself, you are the kind of person who says learning is fun.
However, leaving your comfort zone to learn something new is not always easy. Start by telling yourself why it is important to be a polymath. Then set goals, find resources, and have strategies to keep yourself focused.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
- Accelerated Intelligence: 5-Hour Rule: If You’re Not Spending Five Hours Per Week Learning
- Observer: People With ‘Too Many Interests’ More Likely to be Successful
- Research Gate: Multiple Giftedness in Adults: The Case of Polymaths
- Dr. Doug Green: 16 Jobs that Will Disappear in the Next 20 Years
- Wikipedia: Reliability of Wikipedia
- Bleacher Report: Top 26 Former Players Turned Coaches
- Northwestern University: Atypical Combinations and Scientific Impact
- Emerson Central: Self-Reliance
- Book Authority: 100 Best Goal Setting Books of All Time
- Duolingo: Home Page
- Udemy: Home Page
- Brain Master: Rewire Your Brain
- Khan Academy: What is the Principle of Conservation of Energy?
- Medium Mind Café: 4 Science-Based Books to Help You Achieve Your Goals This Year
- Math for Keeps: How Do You Know When You’ve Mastered a Skill?