The Panorama of a Polymath’s Experience

This post is by Ben Harack, the polymath who founded Vision of Earth.

I feel like I am interested in more things than everyone else. Each passion I pursue leads me to more things that enjoy. Every thought seems to spawn two more, and every new experience deepens my wish to try new things.

You may share these experiences, or find them totally alien. In this piece I will talk about some of my history in the area of avidly pursuing my passions as a polymath. Not everything is rosy, but I would not choose to live any other way.

Between focus and frenzy

Too much focus on one issue, and you can become a myopic personality. Too much topic-switching can lead to scattered, fragmented knowledge or a life of chasing every shiny thing that moves.

Instead of letting every little interest run rampant, learn to focus on them one at a time. Multi-tasking is great, but if taken too far it fragments our consciousness to the extent that accomplishing anything becomes very difficult.

In order to be really useful, knowledge has to have some depth. We can imagine a specialist as a well full of water, and a polymath as a pond. If you spread yourself too thin, you become nothing more than a collection of puddles. I don’t think anyone wants to be accused of being as deep as a puddle.

A polymath has to have areas of some degree of specialization. They might have ten of them, but they are interested in each of these areas, and have gained significant knowledge in them. No one is a jack of all trades, but some of us choose to be a jack of many.

There is no sharp distinction between specialists and renaissance (wo)men. During my education for instance I heard the following question posed: Was Isaac Newton a physicist or a mathematician? Those familiar with his life and work will realize that this is a not an either-or. He excelled at both, and each facet supported his accomplishments in the other.

The quote that we all know (and which has been in use for hundreds of years) has an optional second half that few people know about: “Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one.”

Learning

My experience is that as I learn more varied fields of knowledge, new knowledge is easier to access. I find that new areas of knowledge begin to integrate more easily into knowledge that I already know. Each new field of specialty tends to fit itself neatly into the structure of everything I know about the world.

Natural memory is best achieved through integration of new knowledge with things that you already know and attachment to things that you care about. As your experience broadens, you will find it easier to grasp new concepts and remember them.

Context is everything. Most scientific studies include investigations of how the new knowledge that they uncover will fit into what insights science has already gained. A key facet of contributing scientific knowledge is the effort to describe its broader implications. People of all backgrounds and perspectives are capable of doing this, and doing it well. I claim that the difference is that rather than merely researching the broad context of their work, polymaths live their context every day. Instead of turning our attention to the big picture every once in a while, we experience it constantly as our default way of viewing the world.

Health

Pursue a variety of physical activities. A complete list of my favored physical activities would be laboriously long, thanks in part to my father being a physical education teacher. Some of my current favorites are jogging, yoga, tai chi and frisbee. Having a variety of physical activities that you are comfortable with can be very useful when you move to a new home, or transfer to  a new workplace where your options for activities may be limited.

I also encourage people to embrace physical activities of different sorts. Cardiovascular health is incredibly important for longevity and quality of life, but so is mental health. Choosing activities that train the mind and teach emotional control can be as important as being able to run for an hour.

For instance, I have competed in the sport of badminton since I was quite young. I loved to play so much that eventually I finished seventh at the Canada Games in 2007. On the other end of the spectrum, I love golf. I claim that badminton is one of the most dynamic and physically demanding sports in the world, while golf can be a mental and emotional roller coaster. Each activity has distinct characteristics that make it challenging and healthy.

Relationships

A broad base of experience and knowledge means that you can identify with more people on a personal level. You will be able to see the world through more perspectives and carry on conversations on more topics that people care about. People identify strongly with their jobs so if you have similar experience it can provide a great basis for a growing relationship.

People are my true passion, and my interest in the universe is for connecting with other consciousnesses. If my pursuit of deep knowledge was pulling me away from people, I would abandon it. My experience is that as I have learned more, I care more for people. As I learn and care more, I am able to help more. My own well-being is fundamentally connected to others, leading to my efforts to connect with and help as much of humanity as I can.

Work and finance

Finding a job that will allow you to use all of your abilities may be impossible unless you create it yourself. Especially in the internet age, people have had great success using their different skills and interests to create multiple streams of income for themselves. ProBlogger, one of Darren’s other blogs, is the go-to resource for people looking to make a living online.

On the other end of things, it is possible to combine interests that are generally very disparate into a single effort. For instance, one of my most definite long-term goals is to combine my educational backgrounds in physics and psychology to pursue knowledge about consciousness and the universe. Perhaps in a decade or two you will be able to read a book of mine on the subject!

What to work at? Follow your passions while creating value for people. Even if a job only reflects part of who you are, it can still be very valuable for you, your employer, and your customers.

Your work should not be your life, unless you want it to be. My work with Vision of Earth grows directly out of who I am and what I want to do with my life. My work is not an intrusion into my life, it is part of the expression of my life.

Solving social problems

Social issues tend to be complicated and controversial. Deep knowledge of a variety of fields is extremely valuable when trying to address any of the big problems that our society is facing today.

Some problems are best approached with a new over-arching mindset or a re-invention of the fundamentals. These are things that can only be achieved by polymaths or specialists working very closely together in teams. I believe that omnology may be one of the waves of the future. I certainly intend to see how far I can take it!

Several of my professors in university, in varying fields, told me that they expect scientific leaps of the near future to be based heavily on interdisciplinary study. I feel that they are right. We have compartmentalized our knowledge to such an extent that its growth is often hidden from us. I think it is time to set knowledge and passions free.

If your life and knowledge is a building that’s always under construction, it makes sense that a broad and solid foundation will give you a great platform for reaching for the stars.

This post is by Ben Harack, the polymath who founded Vision of Earth. He has four degrees, is working on a fifth, and has lived his life passionately pursuing the knowledge and activities that he loves. He hopes to better his society by making deep knowledge understandable and accessible by the general public.

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Comments

  1. Good to hear the perspective of a fellow polymath! Having about 10 online projects running at a time including another half a dozen offline seems to make me crazy sometimes, especially following the next new “shiny object” as you so eloquently put it.

    When you get a new idea, do you research it right away, or how do you go about storing new shiny objects along the way?

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