Why The 21st-Century Economy Needs More Polymaths

Many of the intellectual and creative greats of the past mastered many projects. Maybe this is a challenge we all need to take on.

Why The 21st-Century Economy Needs More Polymaths
Spanish painter, sculptor, graphic artist, and designer Pablo Picasso (1881—1973), shortly before his 90th birthday, surrounded by recent works in his studio. [Photo: Central Press/Getty Images]

When Picasso got bored with painting things as they appeared, he began to experiment with colors and shapes—an endeavor he would pursue for the rest of his life.


My grandfather, the painter, loved Picasso. In his house were abstract oil paintings, attempts at mimicking the master. Because of these paintings, I always assumed Picasso just painted things a little weirdly. But that wasn’t the case at all.

By the age of 16, young Pablo had conquered realism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his museum in Barcelona. There, you can see the drawings and paintings a teenager did that look so real you can almost touch them. Leaving that museum, I had a newfound respect for the artist and man.

Picasso learned the rules before he broke them. And as he got older, he needed a more creative challenge. Maybe we all do.

The Rise Of The New Polymath

During the Renaissance, if you had more than one craft, more than one way of doing things, you didn’t have a “bad brand” or ADHD, as we might conclude today. You were a polymath.

Leonard da Vinci was a polymath. A painter, sculptor, architect, and inventor, he was not content to stick to just one craft. In his latter years, he even designed war machines and torture devices for the king of France.

That’s like the Department of Defense calling up Georgia O’Keefe during the Cold War, asking her to consult on developing thermonuclear weapons. It just wouldn’t happen.


Today, we don’t praise what Emilie Wapnick calls “multipotentialites.” That is, people who have multiple skills they love and may not be comfortable doing only one of them for the rest of their lives (she explains more of this in her excellent TedX talk).

The trick, I think, in doing this effectively is to not try to do everything, but to give yourself freedom to focus on more than just one thing. Look at the areas that interest you, and find common ground between them.

In other words, don’t be a jack of all trades. Become a master of some.

How The Past Prepares You For The Future

For seven years, I worked a job at a nonprofit that in many ways felt like a distraction from my true calling. I wanted to be a writer, but instead spent my days managing people.

I was learning new things like how to use social media and email marketing to tell compelling stories. And I learned how to work with people, motivating them to reach a common goal. I also had to manage a budget and learn how to look at a spreadsheet.

Now, as a full-time writer and business owner, not a day goes by that I don’t use a skill I learned during that seven-year apprenticeship. I wouldn’t have chosen this path, but I can see how everything I’ve done so far has prepared me for where I am today.


And as I’ve grown more comfortable with writing, I’ve started to dip my toe into other mediums, like event planning. It’s a little scary to do workshops and large-scale conferences, but I’m excited to learn a new form of artistic expression.

The lesson? Our past can prepare us for our future, if we learn to embrace our present and never stop growing.

The Work Is Never Done

After Walt Disney mastered the animated short, he tackled full-length feature films.

When he had sufficiently wowed his audiences with that medium, he began to shoot nature films. It wasn’t just the fantasy world that captivated him; it was the natural one. And then, he began the project that would consume him until he died.

When Disney got into the theme park business, he left behind movies almost entirely, letting others manage that side of the business. Occasionally, he would still peek in and see how things were going, but for the most part his focus was on Disneyland.

Now, Walt had what he’d always wanted: a project that would never be finished, something he could always tinker with. For a man who never got to be a boy, this was the ultimate dream—endless play.


The great artists, it seems, get bored with just one medium. They don’t want to be pigeonholed, no matter how successful they became. Just this weekend, I read about Jim Henson, the famous creator of the Muppets, and how he planned to build a series of theme park rides before his untimely death.

It seems we are never done creating, never done working, never done expressing what we have to share with the world.

The Problem We Face Today

Too many writers don’t take the time to understand technology. Too many musicians miss the boat on a basic business education. And too many educators don’t pay attention to what’s going on in the culture outside their institution. In our culture today, we are in desperate need of more polymaths.

We need more renaissance men and women. So where does that leave you? Probably a little confused. Here’s my advice:

  1. Don’t long for a better life—live the one you have. “Wherever you are,” missionary Jim Elliott once said, “be all there.” Making the most of your current reality is the best practice for what’s to come. I write more about this in The Art of Work.
  2. Don’t get stuck in a single pursuit—create a body of work. Like Picasso, keep looking for other skills and interests you can develop that will complement your core. You never know where a new fascination might lead.
  3. Don’t be afraid to change mediums—keep trying new things. Sometimes, the way we get to our best work is by quitting something else. As evidenced in the life of Walt Disney, there is power in the pivot.

May you embrace multiple mediums and become your own version of a renaissance man or woman. It just might be the most satisfying thing you do.

When was the last time you tried tackling a new medium? Share in the comments.


This article originally appeared on Goins, Writer and is reprinted with permission.