Do you know what ‘polymath’ means?
Polymath, Renaissance man, multipotentialite these all have the same meaning. The above picture depicts the meaning perfectly.
It means a person having the expertise or skilled at multiple things.
Take Leonardo Da Vinci for example or Benjamin Franklin or Richard Feynmann. In fact, most people who left their impact in this world were all polymaths.
There is a famous quote which says-
“Jack of all trades, master of none”
You must have heard about this or at least definitely experienced it at some point in your life.
Remember the times when everyone including our family, friends, relatives tells us to specialize in one particular thing and abandon everything that has no link with that specialized goal.
But guess what, most successful people lived in the earth were polymaths. They had multiple interests and often one interest has nothing to do with the other one.
From a very early age, our mind has been programmed in such a way that we born to excel in only one specified area. We can’t be good at multiple things.
And then we read about people like Leonardo Da Vinci and others like him, and think ‘Oh come on! they were genius people, I can’t be like them’
Really! is that so? Henry Ford has a beautiful reply to that
“Whether you think you can or cannot
Either way you are correct”
‘What your mind can believe, it can conceive‘ as Napoleon Hill said in his ‘Think and Grow Rich’ book.
And then even if you believe that you can become a polymath, but then you would ask How would I learn so many things? How can I become good at multiple things in this short span of lifetime?
The most important question should be
How should I approach learning to learn better and faster?
This is one question which most of us never ask ourselves. Maybe we are not programmed to ask so. We think it’s an inherent natural ability that can’t be improved.
And one might think ‘why should I even bother about becoming multipotentialite’?
Fair enough. Not everyone is interested in learning multiple things. If someone wants to dig deeper only in one specified subject, that’s also great. We all have our own choices.
But skilled at many things doesn’t mean you have to monetize all those skills. A lot of times people learn something just to quench his curiosity or to have fun.
You look at the lives of great scientists, artists, writers, most of them had/have multiple hobbies which people don’t even know. But somehow these hobbies helped them to focus better on their main job. Today, scientific research also supporting such claims. I have written an article about this before.
Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Max Planck, you probably have heard about all of them. They were great scientists, everyone knows them. But do you know they were also skilled musicians? Einstein used to play the piano. He was really good at playing the piano. He said once-
” Life without playing music is inconceivable for me.”
Music helped Einstein in this thought process and helped convert the images to logic. Similarly, Heisenberg and Max Planck were also expert musicians. In fact, there is a beautiful article named ‘Symphony of Science’ on the Nobel prize website. You should read it sometime.
Anyway, coming back to the question ‘how should I approach learning?‘
I captured a beautiful (as well as meaningful) image from the book ‘The Intelligence Trap’
If you just understand this curve properly, learning something (you like) will become easier and more fun.
So what does this learning curve conveys?
Psychologists have described four distinct stages of learning and they are as follows
1. Unconscious Incompetence
This is the very first stage before even learning something new. At this stage, most of the ignorant, overconfident people lie. Here people don’t even know what they don’t know (wow!).
You must have encountered such people who behave like they have all the knowledge of the world and they need to learn anything new. Basically, their mind is full of ignorance and it has no place to fill with any sort of new knowledge which ultimately leads to overconfidence. Therefore, you are incompetent as well as unconscious about it.
2. Conscious Incompetence
At this stage, people realize that they lack at certain skills and they need to work towards it. This is the beginning stage of learning anything new.
Until you don’t realize you don’t know something how can you even start learning? You have to empty your mind first to fill it. Here still are incompetent but you are at least conscious of that.
3. Conscious Competence
Now you are ready to put effort for learning. You start to look for the most efficient ways to learn.
Here I would suggest you to use the Feynman technique to learn anything new. This one I really found a great approach for learning anything.
What is the ‘Feynman Technique’ to learn?
This technique was named after the famous scientist Richard Feynman. In addition to being a great scientist, he was a fascinating teacher. In fact, one of his nicknames was ‘The Great Explainer’ because he was able to boil down incredibly complex concepts and put them in simple language.
It’s a simple four-step process-
- Take a piece of paper and write the name of the skill/concept you want to learn.
- Explain the concept to yourself and write it down (whatever comes to your mind). Draw diagrams, charts or whatever you find convenient to learn easily. This is like making your own notes.
- Introspect about your understanding of the subject. Identify the areas, which you haven’t understood properly and review them.
- The important part of this technique is to challenge yourself to make understand your learning to someone who is not an expert on that. Think about how can you explain your understanding to a child. Initially, you might think how is that possible to explain complex concepts to a child but with practice you can.
Take Einstein for example. You would agree with me that understanding the concept ‘Theory of Relativity’ is not an easy one.
But Einstein gave an amazing analogy to explain it simply. He said-
“When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”
Now it’s easy to understand relativity right. So anything you learn, think about how can you explain it to others simply.
“A great explainer is a great learner”
I found a great video of Josh Kaufmann on learning anything new faster (in just 20 hours). You can see the video below-
4. Unconscious Competence
In the earlier stage (Conscious competence) you have to put effort, you have to think, make decisions to learn. In other words, you are aware of what you are doing. You are consciously doing everything.
But at this stage, after a lot of practice and training, you become skilled and now things happen effortlessly. You are unaware of the fact that you are even putting any effort.
You must have experienced this. Think about those times when you were reading an amazing book and you were so engrossed in the book that you were unaware of your surroundings. You felt like time just flew
. Or you were playing any musical instrument and you were so lost that fingers were coming automatically on the strings, you didn’t have to consciously put your fingers on the strings.
There are many instances like that you encounter frequently. This is known as ‘Flow State’, a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s a blissful state and to live a fulfilled life all of us should strive to experience more of such Flow state in all the areas of our life.
But there is a danger at this stage. Now that you know you are skilled at something, there is a great danger that you become overconfident and no longer want to consciously put any effort to improve. Your growth, learning might hit stagnancy. You will find many examples like that.
There is a famous quote by Bertrand Russell that says-
Becoming dead sure about everything is the danger at this stage. Do not fall in this ‘expert bias’ trap as described by David Robson in his book ‘The Intelligence Trap’.
5. Reflective Competence
If you can reach up to this stage of learning, you will achieve mastery over the subject you want to learn. Here, you are aware of your feelings, intuitions, and identify biases before they cause any harm. You reflect over your learnings and learn from your previous mistakes. You are aware of your shortcomings.
This reminds me of what Lao Tzu said-
This stage of learning is exactly the reflection of this quote.
See, I don’t believe that we are born to excel only in one particular thing. The biggest boon to born as a human is that our lives are not predetermined, unlike animals. We have the choice to explore our life as much as possible.
There are so many things to learn, to get excited about. Sometimes we just take it for granted that we are born on this beautiful planet as humans and we have the choice to learn so many things.
Explore your life as much as possible. That’s the best piece of advice from my side. As long as you are alive LIVE YOUR LIFE TO ITS FULLEST.
Every time I become hopeless, I remember the following quote and become excited again.
Have a learning week. Until next time.
- ‘The Intelligence Trap’ by David Robson
- Symphony of Science