Post by Jo Dowson Head of Finance at Déda and Interim Executive Director at Hubbub Theatre Company
Do you know who the polymaths are in your organisation? Who are the ones that can lend their hand to anything, have broad based skills and expertise, can see things from different perspectives, are your best problem solvers and idea generators, and always wanting to learn more? These are your polymaths, but you may think of them as generalists. I wouldn't be surprised if you struggled to think of many, though chances are if you are reading this from curiosity, you may be a polymath yourself. In my experience polymaths are quite rare creatures and really shouldn't be.
As someone who has dedicated their career to working for charities and not for profit organisations, I have never chased the money. For me success is based on how much I have been valued by the organisations and the legacy left behind. On a personal level my job needs to afford me the opportunity to grow, to accumulate new skills, master others and amass new experiences. Having the time to explore old and new pursuits outside the workplace is also important.
Two things all of my workplaces have had in common are their size and their limited resources. It is not surprising therefore that smaller organisations often need job roles to be multi-functional, flexible and for the job holder to possess a broad skillset. In exchange, though the pay might not always be as generous, the benefits and ability to have a rich work life blend are often the best you can find.
This Job is perfect for a polymath or any polymath in training wanting a great work life blend. Check it out!
Even if I didn't seek out roles within Charities and SMEs, there is good reason for this; jobs in larger companies and corporates rarely have opportunities that, with the exception of the CEO or other leadership positions, are suitable for a polymath or the talented generalist.
"Jack of all trades, master of none", rings in my ears as a slur to mock the generalist, but what is often missed off is the second line which continues, "and often better than master of one".
Outside of leadership positions, the polymath is rarely given the same credit as a specialist, which is madness. "Jack of all trades, master of none", rings in my ears as a slur to mock the generalist, but what is always missed off is the second line which continues, "And often better than master of one". Many of the greatest artists, scientists and engineers have been polymaths such as three of my personal heroes: Leonardo Da Vinci, Charles Darwin and Steve Jobs. The diversity of these three visionaries will probably give you insight into the breadth of my own interests and experiences. I am not and never will be destined for the history books but I do share certain traits such as a probing mind, multiple interest and skills and desire put them to work.
Living in the information age of speedy technological advancement, I scratch my head as to why there are not more generalists or polymaths in the jobs market. A polymath isn't a talent, it is something you just are or have a desire to be and can be learned. All the resources are out there waiting to be found.
Back in the 2000s, when I was learning my martial art, I remember wanting to advance at a much faster pace than Sifu could teach me. I took the syllabus and learned my next set of movements from images with very little description and completed it before our next training session, much to Sifu's surprise. Imagine how hard that was. Today we have YouTube with a plethora of people wanting to teach you how to be great at something no matter what your interests.There are no longer any barriers to gaining access to expertise, information and people willing to pass on their knowledge and skills. You just need the desire and commitment to learn.
"Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses - especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else." - Leonardo Da Vinci
Perhaps what discourages future polymaths is the lack of opportunity or maybe it is the misconception that you need to be hyper intelligent or want to make history. There are as many polymaths enjoying a polymath life outside the workplace as there are working up a corporate ladder. For me it is the lack of opportunity for the middle people, those where getting a place in the history books doesn't matter, but they want their multifaceted skills sets to be used, valued and not eroded.
We need more jobs in the general marketplace that value the polymath and for organisations to create space for them. Employers should encourage polymathy helping their people to collate new skills from different disciplines, to go out and experience different work cultures and place value on staff interests outside of the workplace.
Hopefully you still thinking about the question I posed at the start of this article as to who the polymaths are in your organisation, and how you can introduce roles that place value on breadth of experience and skills. If not then think on this, during the pandemic, the chances are that it was the polymaths in your organisation that embraced the change in the workplace and your 'new normal' and have stood out as the ones most capable and ready set to adapt.
And if you are a someone not sure if it is worth the effort to become a polymath and learn different skills or disciplines, then think on this... if you do take the plunge, you may well be future proofing your career. Who could have imagined that TikTok influencer was a thing a few years ago. We cannot predict what the jobs of the future might be, but one thing is guaranteed, it will be the polymath that will be first there, using their skills and expertise and combining them in new ways to quickly master these future fields.
If you are a budding polymath and want to work in the arts/charity sector we are recruiting now. Come and work at Déda.
Further reading suggestion Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950