Saturday, April 23, 2016

How to be a polymath

One thing that might stump someone trying to be a polymath is how.  It's not like there are classes in it or you get to major in Polymathism. Although that would be awesomely cool. 

But yeah I've been wondering. Especially today. After watching music videos and Purple Rain(the movie) I came to the conclusion that Prince was also a polymath.

That got me thinking about the defining characteristics of a polymath. Is it creativity? I don't think so, not totally. But polymaths are creatively inclined. They are able to think outside the box. They expand the limits of knowledge, both their own and the world's. For instance, Prince played over 20 instruments and was a prolific songwriter. D'Arcy Thompson read several languages, was a biologist, and a pioneer in the field of bio-mathematics.

Another trait of a polymath is that they are also wildly curious. They involve themselves into new ventures because they like to learn. They have an almost obsessive desire to KNOW about something. That desire leads them to master the skill. Whether it's learning a language, or creating a museum, or learning how to play a new musical instrument a polymath will work to become an expert.

That often leads to another trait that I believe is part of polymathism. Sharing that skill. Passing on the knowledge and the expertise in order for others to rise and become greater. But there might be a little bit of ego involved. Polymaths know a lot and maybe like to show off that knowledge. 

Thompson was a teacher. He created two natural history museums. He wrote and published his work for others to share and build upon.
Prince wrote songs for other musicians and they rose to stardom on the those songs. Nothing Compares 2 U is one of the most famous. He brought in new musicians for his bands and to work in his studio.

Finally these traits lead to an attitude of independence and individualism. A polymath will get labelled as eccentric or an iconoclast. Those aren't bad labels. The world needs more free thinkers. Those who aren't afraid to say and do away from the crowd.

What a polymath learns during the discovery process is that hiding their light under a basket isn't worth it. They use their gifts. They accept the outrageousness, the breadth of their interests, and say in essence Fuck it. This is who I am. I lean into the weird and it makes me memorable. It makes me, me.

My take is that a polymath learns, shares, learns some more, creates, and is a free thinker and an individualist. In a nutshell? We're geeks.

So in respect to a fellow polymath here's his iconic Super Bowl performance. Great showmanship, great music.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


My favorite St Andrews historical personage is Sir D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson. He was a professor of natural history, a mathematician, a zoologist, a museum developer, classicist, and parrot lover.

He had a reputation, even before taking up the chair at St Andrews, as being eccentric. He once said about his magnum opus On Growth and Form "it is 'all preface' from beginning to end." The book advocated natural laws that govern behavior rather than strictly focusing on evolution. Which at the time in 1917 was kinda radical. He also used math to point out differences and similarities between species.

This book inspired both Alan Turing and Jackson Pollock. Talk about differences in the species! He created both the natural history museums at the University of Dundee and the University of St Andrews(I enjoyed studying in the Bell-Pettigrew, which I talked about in an earlier post). One of his habits after moving to St Andrews would be to walk about town with his parrot on his shoulder.

My point here is that Professor Thompson was a polymath. Equally comfortable with language, science, math, and art. And parrots.He refused to be confined to disciplines. He would have made a good librarian.

I've decided to be more like D'Arcy W. Thompson. I'm not going to get a parrot and it's probably too late to be a renowned mathematician(even if I wanted). But he knew how to own his differences. He made them work for him. That's what I'm going to do. Learn more, walk about with a figurative parrot on my shoulder, use my knowledge and not apologize for it.

After all, I am a librarian. And as another (probably) polymath and librarian, Allen Smith, once said, "In order to be really good as a librarian, everything counts towards your work, every play you go see, every concert you hear, every trip you take, everything you read, everything you know. I don’t know of another occupation like that. The more you know, the better you’re going to be.”