For the Love of Generalists



1. a person of wide-ranging nowledge or learning. a Renaissance polymath

Many people know a polymath or two, and it is likely that you know one, or if you are an innovator, you may be one. A polymath is often referred to as a Renaissance person and is known for being an individual with a wide range of knowledge and expertise in various fields of study. What differentiates a polymath is that they excel in multiple disciplines, which can include science, art, humanities, business and more. Polymaths can generally be identified by their intellectual curiosity, creativity, and ability to synthesize knowledge from different domains to make significant contributions to innovation. Unfortunately, they can also be difficult to work with.

To better understand polymaths, let’s take a moment to look at some of the famous polymaths throughout history:

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519): Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps the most famous and iconic polymath in history. He was a painter, sculptor, architect, anatomist, engineer, and inventor. He famously painted the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. A trip to the Leonardo da Vinci Museum in Florence is a trip any aspiring innovator must experience. He is credited with inventing the parachute and an early attempt at a helicopter (air screw). He was interested in war machines and architecture as well as bridges. Something most of will notice however is that many of his inventions were either never completed or were in process at the time of his death. Failure to complete projects is one of the unfortunate byproducts of the polymath since they are interested in so many things that they sometimes move on to one or more project, only coming back to their original project months or years later, if at all.

One of the most important contributors to western thought and science was Aristotle (384-322 BCE). Most people identify Aristotle as a famous philosopher, be he also dabbled in ethics, biology, physics and metaphysics. Many might respond by pointing out that there wasn’t much to know about biology in those days anyways, so why is that impressive? Consider that while the entire Great Library at Alexandria might have contained 20 Gbs of data, and that prior learning (standing on the shoulders of giants as academics put it), meant that he had little or no prior information from which to draw. His knowledge of biology was generally original and Aristotle’s’ zoology and the classification of species was his greatest contribution to the history of biology. Aristotle’s biological work was the first known attempt to classify animals into groups according to their behavior and, most importantly, by the similarities and differences between their physiologies. Aristotle’s ideas were generally rejected when he first introduced them, but as well know, they were eventually accepted and embraced by the world.

In the western hemisphere, a famous early polymath was Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). Depending on how you view the world, he was the “guy that discovered electricity”, a politician, or a writer. He created the lighting rod, bifocals and was one of the most influential contributors to the US constitutional convention. What most people do not know is that Franklin also had his own media empire, and he was a postmaster, politician, firefighter, musician, and expert swimmer, among many things. Also, the British, after Franklin endorsed revolution against the crown, considered him a dangerous traitor with a price on his head. Given he was a polymath he also had problems including neglect of his wife, Deborah, and his estrangement from his illegitimate son, William. His writings, too, have been derided for what critics consider their strait-laced Puritanism and materialism. Each of these downsides might be attributed to being a polymath. We seldom hear stories of strong intimate relationships in polymaths. In fact, many polymaths can be short with people who “cannot keep up with them” intellectually.

Obviously, there are many more polymaths we could discuss, but in the name of brevity, we will save them for a book.

As mentioned earlier in this article, polymaths are individuals with expertise in multiple diverse fields. As such, and in a vacuum they tend to be the “prototype innovator”. The key word being “in a vacuum”. Consider that a polymath on your innovation team means that you likely have someone who can understand many perspectives, departments, and viewpoints. As most innovation managers understand, one of the most challenging aspects of innovation is pulling together a diverse team that can represent multiple disciplines while considering upstream suppliers and downstream customers. Accordingly, the rest of this article will discuss the challenges of employing these prototype innovators.

Polymaths have divergent interests, meaning that they have many. A challenge for this type is that they might frequently shift their attention from one filed to another. In certain contexts, this can be bad, but in others, it is part of the innovation process. When one of these people starts to pursue an idea, it’s best to check in with them (with an open mind) to understand what they are pursuing and why. If it seems to even make a bit of sense, let them run with it since it is likely they are pursuing a hunch.

Polymaths can be difficult to work with in a collaborative effort. When trying to find these people, it’s best to evaluate how humble the person might be. Polymaths can be frustrating to specialists because they tend to have strong opinions in multiple areas that may clash with the domain experts. While this may be annoying to some domain experts, the whole idea of innovation is to challenge assumptions and standard operating procedures. Remind your experts that this individual is tasked with challenging convention and the ends might just justify the means.

Organizations that have discovered the power of the polymath sometimes have unreasonable expectations. It is important to remember that just because an individual can do physics, math, and political science, they may not have the ability to play an instrument. The polymath excels in many disciplines, but that does not mean they excel in all disciplines. Accordingly, as the supervisor of a polymath, it is important to understand where they are strong and weak and plug the holes in their knowledge. The polymath will love this since they are always wanting to learn new things.

The typical polymath is a perfectionist. From an innovation perspective, this can be deadly. Innovators know that one of the key drivers to innovation is getting to market before others. Too much attention to detail sometimes means that others beat you to market. We see in software these days that getting the product out and then fixing the known and unknown issues later is a viable strategy since it has become the norm. Supervising your polymath therefore means that you will need to challenge yourself to stay one step ahead and learn to “herd cats”.

Overwhelming curiosity can be a bit off putting for some because of a tendency to lose focus on projects or goals when the next shiny object presents itself. The constant need to explore new ideas or interests can make it challenging to complete tasks for this individual. The effective manager will find a way to manage this individual differently than the normal employee. It’s best to develop a trusting relationship that honors both the needs of the polymath as well as the project. Frequent communications and a sincere respect for the polymath will help develop a collaborative relationship versus a command-and-control relationship.

Specialization is a challenge for the polymath. In a world with so many things to see, do and learn, the polymath tends to be someone who has a hard time picking just one thing to do. Some might call this a generalist, which has become a bit of a dirty word in the current business world. In fact, this is the hardest part of life for the true polymath; being a generalist in a specialist world. The irony is that many of us are looking for generalists who can see the business wholistically, but when we hire an accountant or engineer, we want them to be the best accountant or engineer available. In fact, many universities in the last 20 years have decidedly moved to training more specialists, making the generalist a relic of the past. However, an innovator, in most cases, needs to be a generalist to represent the many constituents in design, manufacturing and sales.

Polymaths tend to converse in multiple specialized languages in a single conversation, jumping from hard science, to social science, to marketing, and back to physics. For this reason, people either can’t follow them in a conversation or they label them as “know-it-alls” and are turned off by them. Most polymaths can relate to people labeling them as liars because they can’t possibly be fluent in so many disparate disciplines. This can lead to the polymath suppressing their knowledge for fear that they will not be believed when they speak of things they know.

Polymaths can be lonely as only a small portion of the population are like minded. Individuals with which to have meaningful discussions are hard to find for these people and they have been known to become frustrated when others don’t seem to grasp what they perceive is knowledge that everyone should have.

Polymaths are susceptible to burnout since having so much to learn and do can lead to spreading themselves too thin. A well-managed polymath can be the most important tool in your innovation toolbelt, but they tend to overwork themselves. As a manager of a polymath, the best thing you can do to them is ignore the fact that they will work extra hours and chase most ideas down the deepest rabbit hole and push them to take time off and pursue activities that are not specific to work.

In conclusion, polymaths can bring unique strengths to the innovation table, including an extraordinary ability to think critically and creatively. They see connections between different fields and innovate in unexpected ways. Their diverse expertise can be a tremendous asset in interdisciplinary projects, problem solving, and fostering a holistic perspective on complex issues. To manage or work effectively with a polymath, it’s important to recognize their strengths and find ways to harness their talents while helping them find ways to harness their talents while helping them manage their various interests and commitments.


October 31, 2023

Dr. Brett Trusko
Director, Board of GIMI-IAOIP
International Journal of Innovation Science