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Aspiring to Solve Wicked Problems
A funny thing happened to me on the way to a 30-year career in engineering.
When I was a young kid, growing up in the southern US, the normal thing to do was to go to college if you had the patience and means (and it was a lot easier back then), and then to start working somewhere. Now, here’s the interesting part: you were supposed to stay there for your whole career.
That’s right: the norm when I grew up was to aspire to “get a great job one day”, where you could quietly cycle endlessly through the same hamster wheel of work.
I gradually realized that having ideas from a lot of different places had huge benefits. My exposure to punk meant I could write subversive literature in English class, and while this was just a toe in the water for cross-disciplinary thinking, it was an important step for me to take.
It also led me away from that engineering major; switching to art all but guaranteed a fraught future of entrepreneurship.
I was drawn to the idea that you could grab a concept from one area and use it somewhere else, particularly in areas where nobody had thought to use the idea before.
The last three decades (essentially all of my adulthood) have been full of entrepreneurial efforts and struggle. Through it all, the same lesson kept reinforcing itself throughout all of my projects and work.
This lesson wasn’t just that it is generally better to know a little about a lot of things than a lot about one thing, an inch deep and a mile wide. No, this lesson went way beyond such a facile conclusion. It included the understanding that I could become much more effective at accomplishing my goals if I focused not on one discipline, but on cross-disciplinarianism, the idea of the intersection between two areas of study.
Thinking like a jiu-jitsu practitioner while running a business has served me very well. I’ll have to touch on more specific jiu-jitsu analogies for business in the future, but the main idea is that you can take some concept in one area, make it more abstract, and apply the same thing somewhere else, in an unrelated field.
Another way to describe what I was beginning to understand is the word polymathic. Having the ability to take knowledge from one field and then apply it to another field is crucial to cross-disciplinary success.
Today, I have brought in one of my favorite co-authors,, to help me create a very brief list of a few polymaths throughout history we’ve each admired. We’ve also taken the time to write a little bit about each one, sort of a mini-biography. Be sure to check out Michael’s writing over at when you’re done here.
What is a Polymath?
Before we get too deep, what Andrew introduced as a mile wide and an inch deep is sometimes also referred to as a Jack of all trades and master of none. Yet far from being a condescending or career-limiting move, we can append a continuation to that phrase:
Jack of all trades and master of none, but more often better than a master of one!
This is where we get into the hard balance between specific and specialized expertise, those we laud as experts, and those that actually transform the way we live, communicate, and even think!
Simply put, I, Michael, view a polymath as more of an aspiration than an end-state and embraces three concepts:
The humility to accept we don’t know as much about anything as we’d like to believe (more on that topic here)
Intentional reframing of technology, ideas, philosophies, and problems to see if a shift in perspective changes what we see. (for fun examples from my time in the Army look here)
With this in mind, we’ll introduce a selection of historic polymaths where you’ll quickly start to see that these people weren’t uniquely special or geniuses. They just had a different way of looking at the world that allowed them to weave incredible insights from across domains and disciplines (which in its own right I suppose is special and genius but in a different way).
You’ve probably heard of Al-Khwarizmi, even if you don’t think you have. His name is the basis for the word “algorithm” that’s so hot right now in the 21st century.
Al-Khwarizmi was a Persian mathematician, astronomer, and geographer, among other things. He’s often called “the father of algebra." His most significant contribution was to introduce an algorithm for algebra. Up until then, very specific problems were solved, but now there was a recipe for how to solve ALL similar problems. Along with fellow polymath Al Kindi, he also played a major role in popularizing the Hindu-Arabic numeral system within the Islamic world.
In geography, he wrote Kitab surat al-ard, where he gathered knowledge about the world's places from various cultures, like the Greeks, Romans, and Indians. This book was a big deal because it organized a lot of what was known about the world back then.
This knowledge of various cultures and a wide range of understanding across various fields allowed Al-Khwarizmi to synthesize knowledge and make new discoveries, epitomizing the Islamic Golden Age's cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary approach.
Oresme may have been one of the very best at combining the existing areas of knowledge into one central idea repository. In math, he introduced the idea of the graph. In astronomy, he suggested (more than a century before Copernicus) that the earth went around the sun, although he was cautious to hedge this as a “thought experiment”, probably because he didn’t want to be tortured and killed.
Oresme wrote De Moneta in order to share his thoughts about economics. He talked about money as a medium of exchange and store of value, discussed devaluing of currency and other forms of government manipulation, and emphasized that stable currency was a necessary component of a stable society.
Most of all, Nicole Oreme believed that fields of knowledge should be studied and connected. He loved the idea of cross-disciplinarianism.
I know, I know—Ben Franklin is sort of the low-hanging fruit here, but his life was too interesting and extraordinary for me not to want to talk about him.
Franklin was widely respected worldwide (insofar as he was known) for his contributions to understanding electricity, especially the idea that lighting and electricity were the same phenomena. He talked about how hurricanes have a calm “eye” in the center and worked with his cousin to map the Gulf Stream.
He invented bifocals and the urinary catheter, and he helped to introduce and popularize the idea of vaccination.
Like Oresme and Al-Khwarizmi, Franklin's genius lay not just in his depth of knowledge in various fields but also in his ability to connect insights from one domain to inform and innovate in another. As an expert printer, he was able to help scientific ideas spread rapidly, including some of his own experiments. He had subsequent conversations with other thinkers because of this.
Most of all, Ben Franklin was able to figure out how to practically apply the ideas he pursued, crossing the bridge between theoretical musings and everyday use. His genius in this arena might be unparalleled in world history.
She was a philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician who lived in Alexandria, Egypt which was then part of the Eastern Roman Empire (350-415). She was a prominent thinker and teacher of philosophy and astronomy. Her commentary on Diophantus’s Arithmetica and Apollonius of Perga’s treatise on conic sections brought her into repute in her time. Her writing had significant impacts on both the view of women and the sciences of the time.
George Washington Carver
Carver went from slavery to agriculturalist, botanist, scientist, educator, artist, musician, and inventor. He trailblazed an innovative solution for soil depletion from cotton farming by implementing crop rotations using peanuts. He wrote extensively, educated endlessly, and worked with everyone to achieve his vision
He also bolstered the value of the nitrogen-fixing legume to the farmers by inventing hundreds of products from food to laundry detergent to beverages, medicines, cosmetics, paints, ink, and a type of gasoline. Doing so created demand for the crops and helped transform baren soils back to productive farmland.
Aspiring to the Polymathic Mindset
We’ll swing back here a bit to something that is critically important to the Polymath and what makes them so powerful; Knowledge Transfer. Michael wrote about this recently on how Knowledge [Transfer] is Power and it bears reinforcing. Did you notice something about each of these examples? They leveraged communication mediums and sharing to build ideas together.
Stepping back in history, you can directly connect the Renaissance to the invention, in 1440, of the printing press. For the first time, silos of expertise, guilds, and geographical boundaries were significantly reduced.
What we saw was an explosion of polymathic thinking that literally opened up the disciplines of science as we know them today. In fact, another term for a Polymath is Renaissance Man and it’s not an exaggeration to say that the Renaissance occurred because people with Polymathic mindsets leveraged the new communication medium to transform the world.
Today we are at the cusp of another Renaissance. We’ve become as siloed and ossified as the guilds and churches of the past and yet are facing increasingly wicked problems like AI, Globalization, Climate Change, and more. Just like shortly after 1440 and the printing press we have the internet and are poised with the opportunity to apply Polymathic thinking to solve these challenges… if we can break the paradigm that exclusively values explicit expertise.
Any one of us could be the next Polymath. The framework is there and the information is available. We just have to look across domains and disciplines and weave together a network of experts to tackle these wicked problems.
The simplest way to start thinking about this is the mantra Yes. And… So!
Yes. This is what you see right now.
And… Let’s step back and look around us and across domains and disciplines
So! We can now have a more informed understanding than when we started.
We are clearly standing on the precipice of a new Renaissance today.
The need for the type of thinking we’ve described here has never been greater, and it may not be a matter of thriving as much as a matter of surviving. The days of 30-year careers relying on specific knowledge are fading into our collective memory as you read this.
As we delve into the vast ocean of knowledge, let's remember that it's the confluence of streams from various disciplines that form this vast expanse. It's time for each of us to look beyond our silos, connect the dots, and pave the way for a future that's not just informed but also integrated.
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