The Specialist vs the Polymath: which side are you?

Sherlock Holmes would have nothing to do with information not related to his profession. His companion Dr. Watson is shocked one day when he learns that Sherlock Homes did not know the earth went round the sun.

This fictional character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is an extreme example of specialisation. It means the greatest fictional detective would fail miserably in case he appeared for the selection test of a Lower Division Clerk in modern India. By the way, huge popularity coupled with logical portrayal of Sherlock Holmes has made many believe that such a person actually walked on earth.

Some people take up one field and polish it to the point of achieving excellence in that one field. The proponents of specialisation frown upon people who take up multiple fields and it is such die hard specialists who must have coined the phrase – jack of all trades master of none.

Self Portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci – the Polymath

On the other extreme we have examples of real life people like Leonardo Da Vinci. He was a master of many fields. Leonard Da Vinci’s depth and range of interests were amazing. He is not only known for his famous painting Mona Lisa but also for his scientific insights into the human body. He designed bridges and the prototype of a flying machine. He was a sculptor. He wrote scientific theories as well as theories on art and painting. Such persons of varied interests and excellence are known as polymaths or renaissance persons.

The proponents of specialisation dismiss people like Da Vinci as exceptions. They may even tell the following story:

A goose who was plucking grass upon a common thought herself affronted by a horse who fed near her; and, in hissing accents, thus addressed him: “I am certainly a more noble and perfect animal than you, for the whole range and extent of your faculties is confined to one element. I can walk upon the ground as well as you; I have, besides, wings, with which I can raise myself in the air; and when I please, I can sport on ponds and lakes, and refresh myself in the cool waters. I enjoy the different powers of a bird, a fish, and a quadruped.”
The horse, snorting somewhat disdainfully, replied: “It is true you inhabit three elements, but you make no very distinguished figure in any one of them. You fly, indeed; but your flight is so heavy and clumsy, that you have no right to put yourself on a level with the lark or the swallow. You can swim on the surface of the waters, but you cannot live in them as fishes do; you cannot find your food in that element, nor glide smoothly along the bottom of the waves. And when you walk, or rather waddle, upon the ground, with your broad feet and your long neck stretched out, hissing at everyone who passes by, you bring upon yourself the derision of all beholders. I confess that I am only formed to move upon the ground; but how graceful is my make! How well turned my limbs! How highly finished my whole body! How great my strength! How astonishing my speed! I had much rather be confined to one element, and be admired in that, than be a goose in all!”
(Fables from Boccaccio and Chaucer)

Recent proponents of ‘sticking to one thing’ do not rely on anecdotes. They prove their point by using statistics. When you do one task repeatedly it puts your mind on a roll and you can do subsequent tasks with much less mental effort. This will enable you to travel far in one path. When you switch paths your mind will require cope up and recall time and the earlier momentum gained will be lost. The more tasks you switch, the more time you lose in cope up and recall time. Thus one is more likely to achieve success and go far by sticking to one field than by dabbling in multiple fields.

Now let us hear it from the fans of the polymaths. A polymath cannot stick to one thing for the rest of her life even after discovering a field she is passionate about. According to her, creativity is a product of knowledge of cross subjects. The specialist has less chance of finding creative solutions to new challenges, even though she maybe very efficient in carrying out her predetermined job.

Take the case of university professors of literature. Every one of them has done a Ph D which means she is a specialist in some particular aspect of literature. She is very competent in doing her assigned job in teaching. Yet if you take out the list of authors who won nobel prizes in literature hardly any of them was a professor of literature before becoming established as a creative writer.

When I took up economics honours in graduation, after being a front bencher student in Intermediate Science, I realised that one of the functions of a specialist is to first make a simple thing look very complicated and then use complex statistical models to show how it can be solved. Of course being a Mathematics buff in high school I did not find any difficulty in terms of explaining the simple law of supply and demand by complex statistical diagrams. But I was not convinced that we needed such complex statistical treatment to explain an abstract concept of human behaviour that is graspable by our common sense. But if you wanted to score marks you have to elaborate pages after pages with statistics and diagrams as to why an increase in supply would bring down the prices in an pen market.

Another form of the debate is the general practitioner vs. the specialist which is spoken of in the context of the medical profession. The following TED talk video illustrates why it is equally important to be a generalist.

The specialists frown upon the generalists for jumping from one pursuit to another and not sticking to one thing. The generalists in turn find it boring to do the same thing over and over again. But, ultimately I think it depends upon the mental make up of a person. Some people may have the DNA of a specialist while some have that of a generalist. No one is better than the other. Both are just different. Both are needed in the society. Maybe, that is how nature balances out. One should understand one’s DNA in this regard and act accordingly to be more helpful to oneself and to the society.

I used to be jealous of the specialists and quite often I wished I could stick to one thing till rest of my life. Of course when I took up one thing for some time, till I achieved some level of maturity I did it wholeheartedly. But, I could not make myself stick to one thing however hard I tried. Now I don’t regret when I shift from one interest to another knowing that sticking to one thing for the rest of my life is not part of my DNA and it is perfectly alright not to be a specialist.

(In response to Indispire#276)

16 thoughts on “The Specialist vs the Polymath: which side are you?

  1. Well you said it! – “But, ultimately I think it depends upon the mental make up of a person. Some people may have the DNA of a specialist while some have that of a generalist. No one is better than the other.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very well written. I liked the extracted portion that you quoted in the middle. Generalists and Specialists are equally needed in this world. I myself find it difficult to choose between the two.
    Not sure if it relates, but I like to learn new things which interests me. I learnt about photography because I found the art to be interesting and I also like to draw as well. In addition I’m also doing a full time Engineering job. But I’m not a specialist in any of these. Sometimes it makes me wonder if I’m going on the right path or should I stop and focus only on one particular thing.

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  3. Philosophy means love of knowledge. In ancient times all knowledge was studied under philosophy. Later on philosophy narrowed down to obscure principles about nature of life and universe. As the area of knowledge increased, specialization was needed. In a way every one is specialist. Some specialist only in one thing, some others in multiple things. Now a days a single person cannot master all available knowledge as was the case in ancient times.

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  4. Sometimes we may need a specialist and sometime a generalist. A generalist becomes a manager and because of his ability to see the bigger picture may have several specialists, who don’t see beyond their nose. At the same time for a complex brain or heart surgery, I would rather go to a specialist.

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