Rockstar innovators: What polymaths can do for you and how to bring them on board

“Polymathism is an idea that I’m pretty committed to (after all, I’ve started two businesses — iFixit and Dozuki — based on the premise of teaching pretty much everything to as many people as possible, whether it’s via work instructions or product manuals). And I look for that same desire to learn new things in the people who I hire. I don’t want coders who are just good at coding, designers who are just good at designing, or technical writers who can only write.”

– Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit and founder of Dozuki
(Source: Harvard Business Review)

What do people like Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs and Jacques-Yves Cousteau have in common? You probably guessed it – they are all polymaths. Polymaths (sometimes referred to as Scanners, Rennaissance People or Multipotentialites) are people with deep knowledge in many fields and an ability to make interdisciplinary connections that others miss. This makes them uniquely positioned to:

  • Bridge seemingly unrelated disciplines
  • Come up with breakthrough innovations
  • Make complex subjects easy to understand
  • Design outstanding and original content and art
  • Create engaging customer experiences

Polymaths can add incredible value to your organisation. An R&D team made up of polymaths can be significantly smaller and more flexible than a team made up of exclusively subject-matter experts. In a start-up or micro-enterprise, polymaths can wear multiple hats with ease, creating significant leverage from existing resources.

Sounds great, right?

Before we continue, let me make it clear that polymaths are not a magic bullet or quick fix. Most organisations will benefit greatly from hiring polymaths, but for some workplace cultures, they will not be the best fit. If an organisation suffers from systemic problems, it will need to address those problems before it can benefit from hiring polymaths.

Ok, now that we have the reality check out of the way, let’s get down to business!

Bringing Polymaths on board

“As an investor, if I were going to pick the perfect team, it would be a group of rock-star polymaths with a single subject matter expert as a resource.”

– Jake Chapman, Venture Capitalist at Gelt Venture Capital
(Source: Tech Crunch)

When we need a new team member, we often turn to a recruitment agency with a job description and a list of requirements. This approach is great for finding specialists to do highly specific tasks, but if you are looking for a rockstar polymath, you will need a more suitable approach.

Here are 4 tips to help you find, integrate and retain polymaths in your team:

  1. Set yourself up for success by immunizing yourself against Polymath Culture Shock (PCS)
  2. Build Mixed Teams
  3. Find the right Polymaths for You
  4. Get Polymaths to love your Workplace by Making it Great for Everyone

1. Set yourself up for success by immunizing yourself against Polymath Culture Shock (PCS)

Since the industrial revolution, western culture has become geared toward specialisation, rather than generalisation and polymathy. As children, we are taught to pursue a single profession or purpose. In school, we are taught to narrow our focus. As adults, we are expected to know what our purpose is and explain what we do in as few words as possible (“I’m a dentist”, “I’m a graphic designer”, etc.). In this sort of environment, a polymath would stand out as an indecisive oddball (“I’m a punkrocker, paediatrician and a poet”).

However, this is not the case everywhere. In Asian countries such as Japan and China, it is considered important to not only learn a trade, but to also learn cultural skills. This is why Chinese children are often able to play an instrument in addition to being good at academic subjects and language. To them, polymaths don’t seem as out-of-place.

If we have not been exposed to the possibility of polymathy (or other possible cultures, values and personality types, for that matter), we tend to be unprepared for people who are wired differently from us. This inconsistency in expectations can cause a form of culture shock, just like when we are exposed to someone from a foreign country where the culture, behaviour and values are very different from our own.

Culture shock can express itself in different ways, but the most common symptoms involve feeling confused or uncertain and misunderstood (“why can’t this person just give me a straight answer?”, “why does he have to ask questions, can’t he just be like everybody else?” “can’t she be consistent in anything?”). Sometimes, we may even feel offended or threatened. That’s ok. I promise, it will pass.

So how do we move past that culture shock stage?

Here are a few steps – don’t worry, they don’t take too much polymath wrangling:

  • First of all, understand that there is nothing wrong with you and you do not need to change who you are. Culture shock is normal and I can assure you – it will pass.
  • Align your expectations by educating yourself and maintaining an open dialogue. You will find that you share the same goals and values, even if you take different paths to get to the same place.
  • Take advantage of the polymath’s unique quirks. Polymaths draw energy from variety, so you could transition them into more than one job position over time. They have a natural curiosity and desire to learn – so get them to do research for you. Their creativity makes them great problem solvers. Their non-conformist nature makes them great at “devil’s advocate” roles in any team and helps them develop unique and innovative solutions.

2. Build a Mixed Team
Regardless of what you seek to achieve, you will need a solid, balanced team. That means bringing in both polymaths and specialists, so you get both breadth and depth in your team. Also consider the people already in your team. If you are lucky, you may already have a polymath in your team.

Aside from your existing team, you can identify polymaths through recruitment processes. Google does this by asking candidates to solve interdisciplinary problems. You can also ask candidates about any projects they have done in other fields. Do ask if they are part of a polymath community. These communities ensure they will have the support, network and resources to do well in your team.

One of the easiest places to find polymaths is in a polymath community, such as the Putty Tribe or through polymath blogs. We provide both communities and blogs in the resources section at the bottom of the page.

3. Find the right Polymaths for You
No matter what your project, you will always need a team member that is a good fit for you. Remember that this applies to as much to your polymaths as it does to your other team members.

4. Get Polymaths to love your Workplace by Making it Great for Everyone

“A great place to work is one in which you trust the people you work for, have pride in what you do, and enjoy the people you work with.”

— Robert Levering, Co-Founder, Great Place to Work®

What does it take to attract and retain polymaths? Ultimately, it’s nothing revolutionary – the measures you take to attract and keep polymaths are the same measures for attracting good employees in general.

Start by fostering a workplace culture that offers:

  • A sense of purpose
  • Flexibility
  • Recognition and constructive feedback
  • Development opportunities and creative outlets
  • Trust

I could write an entire blog just on how to go about implementing  a good workplace culture. Fortunately, someone else already has – and they’ve done a better job than I ever could.

Check out this excellent infographic of 7 tips for creating a great place to work by Employment agency Adecco.

There is even an institute dedicated to the development of great workplaces! Check out the website of Great Place to Work Institute for all sorts of helpful information, whitepapers and more. You can even get your own organisation recognised as a great place to work!


Your turn

Polymaths can bring a lot of value to any organisation. If you are intent on remaining competitive, adaptable and agile, you should consider making polymaths a part of your team.

Here are 3 action steps to get you started:

  1. Educate yourself (start with the resources provided in this article)
  2. Seek out polymaths in your own community and get to know them – you may already have them in your workplace! You can also reach out to polymath bloggers or communities (see the resources at the bottom of the page).
  3. Join the conversation by replying to this post! What was your biggest insight, surprise or takeaway from this post?


Polymath Resources

Regardless of whether you want to hire polymaths, are one yourself or simply wish to find out more, the first step is to educate yourself. Below are some great resources to get you started.

Books, Articles, Research and More

Originals: How non-conformists move the world by Adam Grant

Specialization, Polymaths and the Pareto Principle in a Convergence Economy by Jake Chapman (Tech Crunch article)

In Defense of Polymaths by Kyle Wiens (Harvard Business Review Article)

How to be a Polymath by Steven Mazie (Post from The Big Think)

Let’s Bring the Polymath – and the Dabblers – Back by Samuel Arbesman (WIRED article)

Pikaland: Connecting the dots between creativity, illustration & entrepreneurship sinde 2008 – A creative blog by polymath Amy Ng

Puttylike – A blog by multipotentialite Emilie Wapnick, author of the book Rennaissance Business.

Lessons from Polymath Interviews by Jade Jay

Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher

Gifted Grownups by Marylou Streznewski


Communities for Polymaths

The Puttytribe

SENG (US-based non-profit)





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