Polymath: An Introduction

You may be wondering what this strange word is, polymath.  Before I jump into the customary encyclopedic definition or maybe name a few famous polymaths throughout history, I will begin with a fictitious or made-up story about an everyday polymath character.

Leo is the youngest child in a middle-class family.  Since he was young, he was characterized by an insatiable curiosity and yearning for knowledge.  Before pre-school, he would be amazed by all the wonders under God’s creation.  He would spend hours by himself observing insects, plants, birds, rocks, people and, occasionally, his toys.  Instead of playing with his toys like any normal preschooler would, he would stay by himself carefully observing how a toy truck moved.  If that particular toy truck had batteries or motors, he would take it apart to see how the different parts worked.  Putting it back together, however, was not always a successful endeavor.  His parents were not pleased with such destructive behavior, a waste of good money to have a perfectly fine toy end up in parts.

His father, a computer scientist, is too busy to notice the long hours spent by this child in solitude just observing his environment instead of engaging in normal play like his peers.  His father spends most of his days and free time at work.  Solving problems at work and spending time with computers was his passion.  Leo’s mother is a creative housewife who enjoys gardening, decorating and engaging in small social gatherings with friends. 

For Leo, life could not be any better.  He enjoyed the endless hours of observing and ruminating about the things he observed in nature.  His keen sight and active imagination caught the slightest movement of plants and animals.   A small forest area with a river stream near the house provided a sanctuary where his imagination and experimentation would have free rein.

Then came pre-school and kindergarten.  Thinking that some good old-fashioned tough education would snap her aloof son back to reality and to socialize more, Leo’s mother enrolled him in a very small pre-school run by a very strict and uptight former schoolteacher.  The curriculum had a lot to do with rote learning and nothing to do with play.  Math and reading had to be nearly perfect in order to avoid a swift slap on the knuckles with a ruler or a pull on the earlobes.  Leo often had to be dragged, kicking and screaming to the pre-school.  In his older years, Leo could still describe with vivid detail a scene where he was punished by staying after regular class time at this pre-school while watching his brothers and sisters piling on the family station wagon enjoying a family trip to the market.  Those memories and associations are etched deeply in his mind.

First day in kindergarten set the tone for the rest of his educational career.  During a welcome ceremony, standing in a straight line with body erect and eyes always gazing toward the authority figure was a far cry from the carefree and unobstructed observational and curious behavior that characterized him.  The director spoke for thirty minutes on the courtyard under a full sun with no shades nearby.  He recalls a few words mentioned about students being like a sponge ready to absorb knowledge and the teachers’ duty was to impart that sacred knowledge.  Yes! Knowledge acquisition, finally!  He thought to himself that day, eager to endure this plight so that, in the end, he would finally be able to do what he loved most, unbridled learning and experimentation.

Leo learned in time that, instead of drawing the knowledge in like a sponge, what they meant was that the information the school thinks is important is forced in discrete chunks without a preamble or logical story that would make sense of what they are learning.  No creativity or exploration necessary!  You young ones will sit there and listen to what I say and read what I want you to read, and then show me the exact same information when I tell you to.  If you don’t, I will slap a red number on your work that says you are not good enough.  Leo could feel his energy and enthusiasm for learning being zapped with every passing day, with every passing year.  His grades were only average, if barely passing.

College promised to be the answer he was waiting for.  Being free for the first time to choose what he really wanted to study, Leo felt energized again to try another stage of academia.  Since he still loves science and taking things apart to see how they worked (this time, he graduated from toys to taking apart appliances and power tools), he found that engineering was the perfect career.  Sadly, his grades showed him that he was still not good enough.  What is wrong with me? He thought.  The same old feeling came back to when he was left behind in that pre-school with barred doors and in the company of a stern-faced retired schoolteacher who got paid to pound good old-fashioned discipline into someone who was deemed a rebel or lazy student.  The college counsellor he was seeing suggested that he should see a learning specialist.  After a battery of tests, he was told he had a very high IQ score and was diagnosed with ADHD.  The first was no surprise to him since he always had a quick grasp of the most difficult subjects, but the ADHD diagnosis certainly was a surprise.  Whenever he is observing or learning about a subject that interests him, his focus is constant and steady, there is no distraction or hyperactivity except when he is in a classroom setting.  Even with the diagnosis and the medicines to treat it, he was still not able to finish his Engineering degree.

Leo was able to finally to graduate in Economics.  It was a compromise to satisfy his family and to have something to lean on to find a steady job.  But the concept of a steady job still eluded him.  He found that all jobs brought the same dreaded feeling once again.  He felt like a caged lion that was taken from his home in the jungle and then forced to live in a cage to be observed by a parade of faces that will never know what his true nature is and what his purpose in life should have been.

Now middle aged and living from paycheck to paycheck, Leo still manages to draw enough energy to dream about a new invention or idea that will solve one of society’s many issues.  He has already made three career changes and held countless different jobs.  He stays in a job long enough to learn the basics, then he bolts out of sheer boredom and stress.  He dreams of having enough money one day so that he can finally get a patent and build a prototype of his many inventions designed in his creative mind.  He cries, usually years later, when he sees an ad or an article about another one of his invention ideas being realized and profited by someone else.  By now, his wife and kids are used to the usual rant about his ideas being “stolen”.  He complains; “If only I had invested enough money and time in that idea, I would be the one being interviewed on tv” or “If I didn’t have to remain at my miserable 9 to 5 jobs instead of working on my inventions, my life would be different”. 

Being an eternal optimist, he dreams of the day when society finally comes around and starts to recognize the value of a budding polymath.  He also prays that his children will not have to live through the shame he had to endure in his lifetime.  He prays that his martyrdom will procure the freedom for his children and others like him in the future.

Although the story about Leo does not have a happy ending, not all polymaths meet their doom in a traditional school system.  Very few are able to somehow endure those years relatively unscathed.  Many articles written about polymaths, emphasize their incredible success and praise their achievements, but they rarely speak of the many polymaths that never see the light of day, intellectually speaking.  They remain fervent generalists in a society that values experts.  Wikipedia defines a polymath as: “an individual whose knowledge spans a substantial number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.” Leonardo da Vinci, Nikola Tesla and Benjamin Franklin are three famous historical figures that certainly fit this definition.  Today, Bill Gates and Elon Musk are two examples of individuals who achieved unparalleled greatness by embracing their polymath ways.  This blog focuses on first identifying those that can be considered polymaths (hint:  they are usually dismissed and labeled as something else).   Then, this blog will seek to find ways to empower them and to expose them to the rest of society as the unseen heroes they really are.

Thank you for joining me in this journey of discovery.

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