Death of the polymath

A few months ago, I got a grant from Tyler Cowen at Emergent Ventures to go to San Francisco and find a mentor (side note: please consider applying!). I finally got the chance to go in early February and had a fantastic time, but that's not the point of this post.

I talked to a couple of different people about something that has been at the back of my mind for a while (phrased poorly as a question about Sherlock Holmes): is it harder to become a polymath today than it was 100+ years ago?

After discussing this with a few people, I came to the conclusion that even though the population of the earth has increased almost five-fold since the beginning of the 20th century, the world is still not producing enough polymaths. There are already brilliant people working on great projects and goals, but they generally stop to work in one area and stick with it for the rest of their lives when they could be applying the same level of ambition and intellect in different areas. So, why aren't more people doing big things in multiple fields?

I think the first reason is obvious: these people are hard to find. You can't make any average individual a polymath. Polymaths have really deep interests in subjects that some people might find very complex. Luck has a huge role in determining what characteristics people have or obtain, and it's rare to have a combination of inherent curiosity mixed with a drive for problem solving across different areas.

Complexity is an issue that I think a lot of people overlook. Science and math has become much more niche than it was a few hundred years ago. There's just too much information one needs to know about any given area, which slowly increases every year with small, incremental discoveries. There have been breakthroughs in history that completely alter the established belief, and it can be complex even trying to adopt new discoveries. Stubborn attachments to established beliefs can make learning and progressing too difficult because a student might be studying something completely wrong, which impacts at least one generation.

One can argue that it's easier than ever to find the information because of the internet, but it's really hard to filter through that information. Search has turned into a battleground for SEO, where the best "growth hackers" win. Information isn't prioritized, so it can take just as long to find good sources of information on a topic as it is to study the material. Maybe this is a feature and not a bug, helping teach an individual to create a bullshit detector and understand what qualifies as good information and what qualifies as bad information (have you seen the amount of terrible/fake statistics out there?)

As bad as it sounds, the biggest reason is probably because the opportunity cost is too high. At the end of the day, we're talking about people (some of whom have families) that have to pay the bills and buy food every month. If potential polymaths can't switch professions and pursue what they love or find funding for the research they actually want to do, they'll pursue small side projects that may or may not pay off. Money is an anchor just as much as it is an incentive.

I'm not exactly sure why I started thinking about this topic in particular. Perhaps it was because I read Patrick and Michael's article on the diminishing returns of science. It could have also been because I was watching a cartoon series on Islamic scholars, many of whom were polymaths.

It's hard to define what a polymath actually is. Is it someone who produces X amount of research in several fields? Do they really have to do something big in multiple fields to be considered a polymath? Can it be a generalist who just knows a lot of things and specializes in one field, yet appears to be a polymath by others? Do polymaths even have to be well-known in the first place to be considered polymaths?


This blog post was based on conversations I had with Tyler, Patrick, Emma and Riva. It's by no means backed by any data or evidence. Perhaps one day I'll write a part two with data that proves or disproves this blog post, but for now I'll mark it as complete.