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Polymathism jack vero


The Optimal Way to Learn

Written by Jack Vero
on September 9, 2012

Polymathism, by my definition, is an approach to learning that aspires towards a broad, generalized education, rather than specializing in a single field. Society, on the other hand, has traditionally conditioned us towards specialization, but in light of twenty-first century developments, this is becoming a dated, and inefficient approach.

There are many ways that one can think about knowledge, but the model I will use for this argument is that of a color wheel. Around the perimeter of the wheel the colors are saturated and of various hues, but towards the center, where they all overlap, they become desaturated and of indistinguishable hue, that is, white. This is in line with optics, the physics of light, which states that when lights of all the primary (red, green, blue) or secondary (yellow, cyan, magenta) colors are mixed, the result is white. Thus white is not the absence of hue but the culmination of all of them. The center of the circle can be thought of as the origin of all the hues, from which they are all born, or the end, where they all unite, it's irrelevant for the purposes of this argument. The point is, that the center is composed of all of them.

The vast sum of all the knowledge that humans have attained over the years is often categorized into different fields: medicine, music, anthropology, etc. or even broader categories like art, science, and humanities. Whatever the categories are, they are represented on the color wheel by hue. Thus art could be considered the red area, science could be green, and humanities blue. Areas like architecture, widely regarded as a mix of art and science, would then be in the yellow area. If architecture is purely a mix of equal parts art and science, with no aspect of the humanities present at all, then it would be represented by pure yellow (half blue, half green) and would be located on the upper right edge of the wheel, as far away from blue as possible. If however, architecture is also somewhat composed of at least a little humanities, it would be located a little closer to the center of the wheel, but still in the yellowish-white area. If architecture is an equal mix of art, science, and the humanities, then it would be located directly in the center.

If knowledge is the pursuit of truth, then it too, has a center, for truths can be categorized into specifics, and universals. A universal truth, one that applies to all fields of study, would be located in the center of the wheel, while specific truths would be located towards the perimeter. An example of a specific truth, one that has little consequence outside it's field of study, would be that the note D# is three semitones above C in music (and this would be located towards the edge of the red sector of the circle). An example of a universal truth, or principle, might be the importance of balance, which has implications in all fields of study, whether it be finance, film, or medicine. One of the reasons I advocate polymathism is because it tends to reveal many universal truths, which I prefer to specifics, because in learning a fundamental principle of one field of study, you learn about all of them.

jack vero learning graph

Another advantage of polymathism is the rate of learning. When one first undertakes a new field of study, the rate of learning is exceptionally high, but as you move from novice to intermediate to expert, the learning rate slows, a phenomenon known as diminishing returns. This is because the primary material is always covered first, but once that is exhausted you move onto the secondary stuff, the tertiary, and eventually have to start inventing your own. Thus, the most efficient way to get the most important information with the least amount of time and effort is to take an introductory course on everything. This affords the greatest return on data per moment of study used. Introductory material also tends to be of a more universal nature, with intermediate and expert level learning becoming increasingly specific.

One of the great opponents of polymathism is the old adage, "Jack of all trades, master of none," however I find this line to be misleading on a number of levels. The first one I'll point out is that before a person needs to be concerned with mastery, they should be concerned with just basic application. Complete failure (or deciding it's not important) is an all too common outcome of most aspirations, and the culprit is seldom a mastery level mistake, but rather, a basic one that lies slightly outside the immediate field of study.

For example, consider the story of a struggling new Thai restaurant called Bamboo Hut. The restaurant had delicious food, good service, and affordable prices, however it was not attracting many customers. So the main chef, decided to take another cooking course to further refine his already excellent skills. After much effort and expense, he returned an even better chef, a great one, so he revamped his entire menu, making it even tastier and cheaper than before. Now the food was outstanding, and the profit margins razor thin, the service good as ever, but alas, still no customers. Then one day an intern at an advertising company walks in looking for a bamboo dining set for his oriental-themed kitchen, only to find that this store called "Bamboo Hut" apparently doesn't sell any bamboo furniture. However, realizing it's actually a restaurant he decides to stay for lunch and remarks during his great meal that they should consider changing the name so that people realize it's actually a Thai restaurant rather than a furniture store. The manager takes his advice, buying a new sign that says "Thai Bamboo: Thai Restaurant" and voila, new customers start pouring in. The point is that if the chef had taken even a basic, introductory marketing course sometime in his life he probably wouldn't have made such a rudimentary marketing mistake.

leonardo da vinci jack vero
Leonardo da Vinci, a noted polymath and one of my idols. Despite being primarily thought of as an artist he was also a scientist and physician, having conducted his own autopsies and inventing the bicycle and helicopter.

Another example, in my second year of university I took a screenwriting course and an intro to acting, however I ended up learning more about screenwriting in the acting course because it offered me a new perspective I'd never gotten from all the writing books and courses I'd taken before. Likewise, I can't count how many actors I've met that end up doing terrible projects that make them look like amateurs all because they can't see how bad the screenplay is while they are reading it. That screenwriting course also touched upon the importance of choosing a good title so maybe if that Thai chef had taken a writing course while he was in culinary school he would've chosen a better name for his restaurant.

The point is that everything's connected, so by learning about one field you learn about all the others, and though the subject matter might not be completely relevant at the given moment it'll probably come in handy a little further down the line. Which is why the rate of learning rather than the direct application at the present moment is so important.

Another advantage of polymathism is that due to its scarcity it has become more valuable (it's the rule of supply and demand, another universal principle). Polymaths have a unique skill set and perspective that their competition is usually lacking, and even if they may be slightly better at some specific skills of their trade, the polymath will be significantly better at many skills just outside the trade but still relevant. Furthermore, despite the fact that it takes about as much effort to go from expert to master as from beginner to expert, the difference in quality is rarely perceivable by anyone besides other masters. For all intents and purposes, an intermediate ability usually does the trick, and frankly, I'd rather be pretty good at everything than excellent at only one. For example, I'm still a fairly novice pianist but I can play Pachelbel's Canon in D on piano, but not in D# (which would sound the same but a little higher pitch). However few people could tell the difference between the two, and far less would care, despite the significant jump in difficulty. Nor can I tell the difference between $30 wine and $3,000; and even if I could, even if the wine is 10% better, is it worth paying 100 times the price?

Now it might be conceived by some that I am advocating mediocrity, that my point here is "Why strive for perfection when satisfaction is good enough?" But it's just the opposite. The only difference here is that I'm spreading my ambition across many aspirations, instead of just one, with an arguably greater net return when they're all added up. Which leads me to my next point:

Polymathism may seem like rigorously academic, abstract, difficult work, but the pay off is actually quite tangible. When you learn about a field of study, whether it be music, food, whatever, your appreciation of that field increases as well. You start to notice things you had missed before. What this results in is a greater capacity to enjoy life's pleasures, an added bonus in your pursuit of knowledge.

As for the prospect that it is difficult to learn many subjects, I find it to be quite contrary. When possible, I only learn about things that interest me at the time. When I get bored of one subject I move to the next, even if I'm in the middle of a project. I can always come back to it later, if it still seems important. This results in a state of perpetual inspiration, a genuine interest which further increases the learning rate because forcing oneself to learn something of little interest is usually just difficult, fruitless labor. Furthermore, this perpetual-inspiration approach overcomes one of the major perceived pitfalls of learning and working, that is, the lack of fun. Most people tend to think of work as something you have to do so that you can have fun later, but this approach is to find forms of work that are fun, which unites the two and ends up leading to a very productive life.

Lastly, returning to the adage: "Jack of all trades, master of none," I would further like to refute this claim with the argument that polymathism is not contradictory to mastery but essential. If novelty is about learning the basics, intermediacy is about mastering the basics and learning the advanced, and expertism is about mastering the advanced, then mastery must be something above mastering the advanced. Mastery, to my understanding, is about transcending the limitations of the field, about innovation and revolution, taking it to new levels beyond it's current scope. And to do that you need to leave the field as it is currently defined, which some would say, is polymathism by definition.