Brain power

3 reasons why being a polymath is key in the future of work

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

Ever since Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, the industrial world has been enthralled with specialization. Workers have been trained from an early age to focus on a fairly narrow range of skills that they will then apply for the remainder of their careers, like compliant cogs in the industrial machine.

This forms a basic T-shaped knowledge base, with deep expertise in one discipline, which was gained early on in one’s career, which was them supplemented and built upon with whatever on-the-job training you were offered.

For many years, this approach has been just fine, but it’s no longer fit for purpose, and today, knowledge should resemble more of an M-shaped profile whereby you have in-depth knowledge and expertise in multiple areas, with lifelong learning then helping to keep those skills relevant.

Overcoming stigma

The problem is, this kind of knowledge profile has a high level of stigma attached to it. In the western world it’s characterized as the Jack of all trades, master of none. In Eastern Europe, a common saying is “seven trades, the eighth one – poverty” (and variants of this throughout the Eastern Bloc). In South Korea, they say that “a man of twelve talents has nothing to eat for dinner”.

This mindset is one that needs overcoming. Whereas the T-shaped approach to knowledge was acceptable in an age where change was slower and less widespread, in the 4th industrial revolution, change is pretty much a constant, so it’s no longer something to be mocked. If you still need convincing, here are a few reasons why having multiple strings to your bow is so important.

  1. Polymaths are more innovative – Innovation today is increasingly recombinative in nature. This means that innovators are not necessarily inventing completely new things, but rather applying existing technologies in new ways. This requires people to have a broad set of skills and experience so that they can apply ‘left field’ thinking on common problems.One of the main reasons entrepreneurship is so high among the migrant community is that migrants have norms and values built up in their homeland that they have to reassess when they move overseas. This process of re-evaluation acts as the Eureka moment in finding new ways of doing things in their new homeland.

The value of cognitive diversity has been well explained by academics like Scott Page, and amply illustrated via crowdsourcing and open innovation, where challenges are often best solved by people outside of their core domain of expertise. So if you want to be creative and innovative, spread your knowledge net far and wide.

  1. Adapting to changes in a 100-year life – Children born today are likely to live until they’re 100 years old, and will therefore have multiple careers during their long life. If one is to make the most of such a long life, or to enjoy what Lynda Gratton refers to as the ‘longevity premium’, then it’s vital that you’re able to adapt sufficiently to ride the waves of change and remain gainfully employed throughout.Having multiple talents will not only give you greater value in the workplace, but in a world where many of the jobs today’s school children will do not yet existing, it’s vital that you have a number of skills that you can apply to whatever the labor market looks like in the future.
  1. Tapping into your passion – When we’re children we have this inherent curiosity for life that tends to get beaten out of us as we progress through the schooling system, such that we often end up in jobs we hate.This is a criminal waste, and noted thinkers such as Ken Robinson have long bemoaned the turgid state of modern education and how it drives any excitement for learning out of us. As an adult, all is not lost however, and I’ve written before about how you can both reignite your curiosity and how you can design the life you want to lead.

If you do these things, you will inevitably venture off down multiple paths as you go where your curiosity takes you. This will almost certainly reignite your passion and purpose at work, which research1 has shown not only results in us being more productive and happier at work, but earning more throughout our career and even living longer lives as a result.

Versatility and resilience are prized characteristics in this era of extreme change, and cultivating multiple talents is a great way of achieving that. The above are some of the reasons why this is valuable, and in a subsequent article I will explore some of the ways you can do so.

Article source: 3 Reasons Why Being A Polymath Is Key In The Future Of Work.

Header image source: Gerd Altmann on Pixabay, Public Domain.


  1. Hill, P. L., Turiano, N. A., Mroczek, D. K., & Burrow, A. L. (2016). The value of a purposeful life: Sense of purpose predicts greater income and net worth. Journal of research in personality, 65, 38-42.
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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