Polymaths vs specialists in the 21st century

Photo by Alice Achterhof on Unsplash

Polymaths. Those rare men and women who have across their lifetimes made accomplishments in fields as varied as the ends of the light spectrum, attaining mastery in disciplines so different, that you and I, the ordinary man cannot help but wonder if they really were human beings. Yes, I am talking about the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin. And no, the famous multi-billionaire industry titans of today does not qualify into this definition of the term “polymath”, unless they have great skills in fields other than what they are known for.

The widely accepted definition is that for a person to be a polymath, he/she has to be well-accomplished in at least three unrelated fields. Playing chess on the side does not count (unless you’re good enough to be ranked, of course).

But there are reasons why there aren’t many well known polymaths. One of the main reasons is that with the advent of industrialization, the demand for specialized skills grew. It grew and grew until the need to be expert in a niche became part of culture and career. But that is changing.

And the change is because of Artificial Intelligence, the new revolution. With this, even the most expert in mundane tasks will be beat, hands down. I’m sorry if it hurts the feelings of those of you who spent years honing a skill, only to see that you are outmatched by a computer program. I really am.

But I’m one of those who write programs like that, and I can tell you that there is no way any human being can match a program that has been trained on the knowledge from thousands of experts, at least when it comes to mundane tasks. AI will take over these jobs, and business owners will push for it. But does this mean that a huge part of our race are going to be penniless? Not necessarily.

The truth is that AI will not replace human decision and creativity in a way that could really threaten any of us. Is it possible that AI can write stories? Yes. Is it possible that AI can design art? Yes.

But what a human being can do is create connections between seemingly disparate ideas, in a way that a computer program cannot conceive of. The truly original ideas will never be beaten. And how do we ordinary human beings come up with ideas like that?

This is where a shift in thinking is needed. We must accept and embrace the truth that the career requirements embedded in our thinking by the ways of the industrial revolution must change. We must put the craze on specialization aside, and look for what is beyond that. Many things are. And one of them is the idea of being a polymath. The 10000 hour rule is about being world class at something, and that is, in essence, specialization. The truth is that it will not take a computer program 10000 hours. So what we can do is touch upon very different fields, and be adequately skilled at those. An animation designer who does martial arts can create better fight scenes than one who has only seen fights in movies. A writer who sails can write a pirate novel better than one who hasn’t ever balanced on a canoe. A business adviser who’s researched cultural differences can plan a multinational business better than one who hasn’t. There is a pattern here. One that underlines the value of disparate experiences.

And that is at the core of being human, and something AI can never beat. While being a polymath might be a lofty (though worthy) goal, it is the pursuit of mastery over diverse skills that will let you climb to the top of your career potential, instead of specialization in a niche.

The idea here is simple. And it is one that gives much hope, actually. AI being here means that we human beings do not need to plug away year after year getting a little better at one thing. AI enables us, rather it compels us, to experience different things. To travel to that country that you always wanted to go to. To try out that dance class you’ve longed to try. Who knows, that might be where you come up with an idea for something new, something original.

Yes, AI is not here to take away our jobs. Rather, it is here so we can live our lives the way we were meant to be. As human beings. Let the machines do their jobs. We don’t need to be machines anymore.

Happy Christmas to you all!

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I write and I code. In love with our beautiful world.

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Zac Grace

Zac Grace

I write and I code. In love with our beautiful world.

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