June 10, 2019
Polymaths, as masters of multiple fields, are simply fascinating individuals with astonishing levels of accomplishment. It’s commonly said that success leaves clues behind; if that’s the case, then the history of these special academics is surely marked with ocean-wide strokes. Surely, these figures overlap in a few common characteristics worth further inspecting.
Over the last four months, I’ve detailed the “formative” years, aka 20s-30s, of five separate polymaths. As larger-than-life intellectual titans, the idea behind this undertaking was to zoom in during this period in an attempt to extrapolate applicable commonalities. The five figures examined are:
Why focus on the decade spanning their 20s to 30s? Simple, because I believe that this is the time period when it’s most likely that they picked up life-changing habits & values that compounded over age: it’s an attempt to uncover the most impactful parts of their personality.
Without further ado, we’ll jump right into the two common characteristics identified from these polymaths in their 20s:
Both of these values are rather obvious as they fit perfectly within the persona & stereotype of a polymath; still, what stood out to me about these findings is not the values themselves, but rather the relationship between those two values. As we’ll see ahead, it’s a balancing act.
The first takeaway from our group of overachievers is the sheer importance they all attribute to their self-education. Out of five masters of many, all five lived out a life marked by consistent self-education. Perhaps almost counter-intuitively, out of the five, only two, Young & Russell, underwent multiple years of formal education (undergrad & post-grad). Observe the limited formal schooling of the other three protagonists:
Da Vinci — No records exist of him attending a formal educational institution
Somerville — Attended a single year of preparatory boarding school
Franklin — Attended two years at the Boston Latin School
Granted, it’s a tiny sample size, but the diminutive magnitude of how little, as a whole, they perceived formal education as the main learning mechanism in their lives is quite evident. Each individual exemplified intellectual curiosity & accentuated it with an ambitious sense of resourcefulness by ceaselessly seeking alternatives learning opportunities. They each perfectly portrait the lifelong autodidact.
A personal interjection here: I’d strongly argue that this value of self-education is significantly more pertinent today. Through MOOCs, YouTube videos, & open-courses, the barrier to access education has virtually eroded: the internet democratized learning opportunities. While our five heroes were immediately limited to the hard-copy books within their reach, we now have the opportunity to answer any question with a Google search, browse an infinite catalogue of academic PDFs, & watch lectures from the very best institutions.
The second value that leaped out from the summaries above is that of an unrelenting sense of authenticity — consistent courage in the face of social pressure. They each cared not to adapt to the world but rather forced the world to adapt to them. Examine below, every single polymath faced at least one instance where they tangled with societal pressures:
Da Vinci — Arrested for homosexual relationships; shamed by a charge that connected him with an infamous, male prostitute
Somerville — Lifelong battle with misogyny; actively encouraged by immediate family members to quit her self-education
Russell — Ardent pacifist, socialist, & anti-nuclear activist jailed multiple times; also fired & excommunicated from his alma mater, Trinity College
Young — Diverse scientist ridiculed & chastised by his medical peers for experimenting with supplementary branches of science
In each instance, the protagonist refused to yield to social norms— they appeared to double in the face of criticism. At closer glance, it’s revealed that this value, authenticity, may be the crux of it all: the fuel that powered the courage to pursue all of their endeavors.
The list above is an example of outward authenticity, open rebellions towards a name. But authenticity also exists in quite actions, like the unspoken & unwavering commitment to carve out one’s own path. It’s likely that authenticity, the commitment to one’s self, armored them to perverse through all cultural objections & dedicate themselves to a life of self-education.
They each made a living with their minds, yet lived with their hearts. Is it a luck of the draw that these five were innately attracted to a pursuit of self-education? Yes. Realistically, not everybody’s innately drawn to a lifetime of learning; but everybody has a childlike awe towards something. It’s this alignment of purpose & action that sets the stage for something extraordinary.
An affinity for self-education without the courage to follow-through leads to a journey of regret; yet living authentically, without the innate drive to self-educate, leads to a hedonistic, impulsive & likely unproductive path. The sweet spot, at least for the five protagonists mentioned above, stems from a striking balance between the two: the curiosity to pursue self-education, & the courage to live authentically. It’s a balancing act.
Personal Recollections of Mary Somerville
The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Thomas Young
Leonardo Da Vinci — Walter Isaacson