This Is Why Being A Specialist Is A Prerequisite To Being A Polymath

This Is Why Being A Specialist Is A Prerequisite To Being A Polymath

There’s this long-standing debate on whether it’s better to be a specialist or a generalist.

Is it more valuable to focus on one area? 

Or should we gain a wide range of competencies in different domains?

British physicist David Deutsch – who has pioneered the field of quantum computation – has something interesting to say about this.

“It’s in the nature of foundations, that the foundations in one field are also the foundations of other fields…the way that we reach many truths is by understanding things more deeply and therefore more broadly. That’s the nature of the concept of a foundation… just as in architecture, all buildings all literally stand on the same foundation; namely the earth. All buildings stand on the same theoretical base.”

Imagine you decided to specialize in being a fitness expert.

After diving deep into that domain, let’s say you notice that there’s a small percentage of activities that lead to the majority of health issues.  20% of these causes lead to 80% of fitness challenges.

This is a powerful realization. 

Instead of dabbling in activities that create a small impact on your health, you can focus your effort on activities that create exponential results.

This would be a great insight for you, helping you better prioritize fitness habits and routines. 

But in reality, this 80/20 relationship goes beyond just your domain of focus.  It applies to the world at large.

A few examples are:

20% of your relationships give you 80% of your satisfaction.

20% of your clients give you 80% of your headache.

20% of your daily habits are responsible for 80% of your productivity.

And you can extrapolate this idea into many other areas of your life.  

You may be familiar with this mental model – Pareto’s 80/20 Rule.

By specializing in one domain, you can discover the underlying principles for how it works.

And as Deutsch mentions, the nature of foundations is that all domains can be connected to universal ideas, as all buildings stand on the same theoretical base (the earth).

The cliche of “jack of all trades” and its negative connotations are a result of people trying to become generalists first

When you haven’t taken the time to understand at least one domain at its core, then being a generalist is pointless.

By focusing on the tip of the iceberg, you miss out on the depth and the essence of how something works.

If you want to become a polymath and successful generalist, it’s important to first specialize.  

This will create the foundation for mastering different skills.

Tacit Knowledge: The Enemy Of The Modern Day Polymath

If you aren’t conscious of how you develop a skillset, then you’ll have a challenging time mapping it over to any new endeavor (holding you back from learning another skill effectively).

Tacit knowledge is when an expert has skills and is unable to explain them to others.

This idea is key to effectively specializing and diving deep (laying the foundation for being a polymath).

The term Tacit Knowledge is attributed to Michael Polanyi.  In his book The Tacit Dimension, he describes it as the ability to do something without necessarily being able to articulate it or even be aware of all its dimensions.  

It’s intuitive knowledge, like being able to ride a bike or drive a car.

Here are two more definitions of tacit knowledge: 

“Tacit knowledge or implicit knowledge is the kind of knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it.” – Wikipedia

“Knowledge that is informally acquired rather than explicitly taught and allows a person to succeed in certain environments and pursuits. It is stored without awareness and therefore is not easily articulated.” – APA Dictionary of Psychology

This is inconsequential for mundane tasks but detrimental for valuable skills and expertise.

It’s frustrating trying to learn from an expert who is unaware of how they achieved excellence.

It’s sort of like asking a musician for their best tips on learning guitar, and their response being, “Practice every day, persevere, and believe in yourself.” 

Though this is true, it’s not particularly helpful.

And it can be even more frustrating realizing that you’re an expert with tacit knowledge!  

However, if you have a process for becoming more conscious of the underlying foundation of your domain, then you’ll have a map at your disposal that can be used for future undertakings.  

One of the most researched ways of applying this is what’s called “deliberate learning” or “deliberate practice.”

This is when you reflect on your knowledge and experiences. Examples of this include journaling, teaching, and content creation.

The process of articulating and codifying your experiences help you become more conscious of how you’ve learned a particular skill-set.

And with consistency, you’ll dive deep enough to discover the foundation of your given domain.

Deep understanding gives you the ability to map your knowledge and experience to new skills more effectively since the underlying models are the same (like the 80/20 rule).

As is the nature of foundations.

If you want to become a polymath and successful generalist, consider specializing in one area first.


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