And I compliment you on wanting to become one yourself.
Polymathy is the epitome of intellectual versatility.
Not for showing off.
But for the sheer pleasure of enjoying mental dexterity across multiple disciplines.
Who am I to tell you about becoming a polymath?
I run this website, for one thing, which involves multiple skill sets.
I’ve got a PhD and two MAs to top off my BA. Multiple certificates in different skills. Languages under my belt.
And from my perspective, there are some serious misconceptions about how to define polymathy.
When your definition is wrong, it’s impossible to reach the goal.
So let’s define what a polymath is, look at some examples and make sure you can quickly craft the perfect path to being an autodidact polymath yourself.
Are There Any Modern-Day Polymaths?
Many people focus on the Renaissance when looking for examples of well-rounded learners. Typically you hear about figures like Da Vinci and Michelangelo as having set the stage for polymathy in our age.
Even in the memory improvement world, we tend to focus on Renaissance figures like Giordano Bruno and Matteo Ricci.
However, ancient India, ancient China and other parts of the world show us many people who used ancient memory techniques to master multiple topics, expand their linguistic intelligence and rapidly learn new skills.
So whether it’s Ramon Llull with his memory wheels in the 13th century or an “ultra learner” like Scott Young, the signs of genius you’re looking for aren’t about a historical moment. They’re about how people behave.
And there are many people making themselves polymaths by following simple steps. Not willy-nilly, but consistently.
These are the key behaviours to look for and model yourself:
Some people say that curiosity has to be naturally present. I disagree.
This ability is very important because no skill or interest area is exciting from top to bottom. For example, in language learning, you have to content with all kinds of unexciting words to be able to speak. You need the days of the week, colors, numbers and many pronouns that just aren’t that exciting.
Learning as a Lifestyle
Although there’s always a place for playing brain games for relaxation and fun, polymaths tend to limit the amount of time they spend on such pastimes.
Make learning integral to your daily life and you’ll enjoy greater topic mastery.
A subset of the learning lifestyle is time management. I do this myself primarily through journaling. I also design reading semesters for myself, modeling how the school year works.
In other words, I spend three-six months taking “deep dives” into particular topics. Sometimes I’ll go longer, but the point is that it helps structure how much needs to be read in a day to reach certain learning goals.
Cultivate Critical Thinking Skills
There are several types of thinking you need to practice in order to be a polymath.
When you structure your learning time in the ways I’ve just suggested, you can get through the best critical thinking books I recommend quite quickly.
Once you’re familiar with what critical thinking is, from there you just have to practice this form of thinking and occasionally complete a few critical thinking exercises to keep sharp.
Why It’s Easier Than Ever to Become a Polymath
Thanks to memory techniques, it’s possible to learn quickly and retain more.
But there are other reasons that becoming a modern polymath has never been easier.
When I was a university student, people were terrified to study topics like the law because the law library at York University was filled with damaged books. People would tear pages out of legal textbooks to prevent their “competition” from beating them at exams.
These days, so many of those books can be found for free online. That, and many books are available digitally – a format that makes it difficult to damage the information.
But always remember that “free” doesn’t mean you can get away with skimming and scanning. You still have to engage with the information substantively no matter how much it costs or what format it comes in.
Back when I was an undergrad and in grad school, we went out of our way to organize study groups. We always had to show up at a particular time and place. If we couldn’t be there, the best we had was the memory or notes of other students, many of who did not have very effective note-taking strategies.
These days you can interact with other people on a variety of topics through forums. You can join live tutorials via Zoom. And if you can’t be there live, you can watch the replays.
Even better, many people hosting the live sessions will take questions in advance and cover them during the sessions. That, or they will answer your questions after the fact.
Some Multitasking Does Work
Remember how I said above that a learning lifestyle puts the games aside and focuses on learning?
There’s one exception to this rule, something I do for a few hours a week:
And let’s face it: Even though I rarely fall asleep while reading, it’s sometimes nice to let my ears do the reading for a change.
You Can Invent Your Own University
Sure, there’s a small amount of technical learning and work involved – but this is precisely the kind of knowledge a true polymath will want to include in their skillset.
From there, you invite on as many guests as you want to learn from and enjoy the flow of information wealth that comes into your life, one interview at a time. It’s basically exchanging coaching and mentorship in exchange for a bit of publicity you give to your guests.
How to Become a Polymath in the Digital Age
Now that you understand how easy it is to become a polymath, let’s look at some specific strategies that will help you remember the information you’re mining.
Always remember: cruising forums and interviewing experts is one thing. But remembering what they say and turning it into crystalized intelligence is another.
Here are the steps I recommend:
One: Master Your Memory
The key memory techniques are:
You can spend a weekend and get the bird’s eye view on all of these techniques. From there, it’s just practice to keep your skills with each mnemonic device sharp.
Two: Deliberate Practice
Do you want to know the biggest reason people fail to ever pass a polymath test or experience the answer to the question, what is a polymath?
It’s practice, specifically deliberate practice.
In other words, it can’t be random or just seem philosophical. It has to literally involve the hallmarks of what philosophy is and how the best philosophers practice it – deliberately.
Whatever skills and topic areas you include your in your polymath journey, you’ll want to make sure that you’re practicing things optimally, not just casually.
As they say in Japanese: Genchi Genbutsu. Go to the real place and do the real thing.
Three: Balance Depth & Breadth
A true polymath is not a jack-of-all-trades. You can’t be a surface-level “expert.”
In order to become and then remain a credible authority, I suggest you set goals that involve some kind of testing measure.
For example, my first MA is in English Literature. Completing the degree is a testing measure, as is my second MA in Media & Communications.
So when I share my views on the Internet, you can rest assured that they’re not just coming from my experiences as someone with a popular blog. They’re also informed by years of study into the nature of what information is and how it functions in different societies and different historical periods.
Likewise in language learning. I don’t just speculate on how the Memory Palace works for studying languages. I complete specific goals, such as when I earned a certificate in Mandarin Chinese. Although in that case I didn’t carry on to a higher level, I still take steps to maintain the level I achieved, which is what balancing depth and breadth is all about.
You’ll need to work out ways to do that too as you develop as a polymath.
Four: Engage With Experts
We use the term “autodidact,” and there’s truth to it. You can teach yourself many things as a solo student.
But it’s also a misnomer because when we learn, we use materials created by others. Learning is always interpersonal and intrapersonal at the same time.
The more you understand this, the more you’ll seek out conversations and collaborations with other experts in each of your fields.
And by constantly expanding your network, you’ll be able to tap into and leverage the resources of other people. Build a polymathic community around yourself and you will constantly enjoy the spark of new ideas and opportunities to exercise your knowledge by helping others. You’ll also be able to observe how people use reasoning in a variety of topic areas and improve your own reasoning skills by asking them question and modeling them.
Five: Nurture A Spirit Of Experimentation
One sticking point for would be polymaths is that they remain stuck on consumption-mode.
But you need to implement on ideas and embark on journeys into the unknown.
An experiment can start with something as simple as a “what if” question. From there, you formulate a theory of how you would answer the question and provide a hypothetical answer. The more you brainstorm on this basis, the better your experiments will be.
Just don’t ever accept the standard definition of “failure.” When you’re a true polymath, each mistake and every less-than-satisfactory outcome is in fact a gift. Downfalls provide opportunities for analytical thinking.
And this is a very special kind of analytical thinking because it’s produced out of your personally designed learning experiments.
For example, I wrote a “Memory Detective” novel as an experiment. As part of launching the book, I designed, tested and released a live-action memory game.
There were many mistakes along the way. But each and every time, I used the unexpected results as an opportunity to analyze and think rationally about what to do next. I learned a lot about games, even more about novels and exercised an area of my “marketing brain” I’d never even knew existed.
But no experiment? No new learning. And no new area of expertise to add to my polymath profile, so to speak.
Become A Modern Polymath (Almost) Overnight
I’m confident that you can be a polymath incredibly quickle.
It starts by setting some goals, organizing your time and making sure you build a community that helps encourage and guide your deliberate practice.
Although it can never be just about learning and memorizing facts from a variety of subject areas, memory is a massive lever.
So if you’d like to add memory skills, there’s a lot to explore and I invite you to get started with my FREE Memory Improvement Kit:
It will not only give you new skills, but it will also introduce you to an entire area filled with topics you’re going to love. You’ll explore history, critical thinking, the biography of a variety of mnemonists and more.
In sum, let me revisit one of the points above: by becoming a polymath, you can literally make your own university.
And this reminds me of a personal story.
Back when I was in grad school, my supervisor gave me “the talk” near the end of my degree. I was excited that I’d finished writing my dissertation and only had the final defense to go.
We were walking down Bay Street in Toronto and he told me all about how bad the job market had become over the years. He said that even if I published a dozen academic books, I’d still struggle to get a job on the tenure track at a university.
By that time, I’d already learned how to learn so many different topics, I turned to him with a clear and focused confidence in my voice.
I said, “if it comes down to it, I’ll build my own university to teach at.”
Long story short: That’s exactly what wound up happening. But it was only possible thanks to thinking and acting like a polymath.
I know you can do it too, so put the strategies we’ve discussed today into action and do whatever it takes to become the architect of your creams. Polymathy is the path.