You Can Excel at More Than One Thing: 4 Ways to Become a Polymath

We hear it all the time.


‘You can have anything you want, you just can’t have everything you want.’

The world’s second richest man, Warren Buffett, reminds us that “the difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

Or how about this from Mr Jeet Kune Do himself, Bruce Lee“the successful warrior is the average man-with laser like focus”.

But just because a motivational quote sounds logical, rhymes, or comes from an authoritative person, it doesn’t make it 100% true.

We should always look at the counter-factual if we are to navigate the world with a truer map.

Enter the Polymath

There are countless examples of people who excel at more than one thing.

Let’s call them polymaths — people who have made significant contributions to at least two fields. Some, like Waqas Ahmed, author of The Polymath, prefers to reserve the term for people who have made significant contributions to three or more fields.

Leonardo Da Vinci is arguably one of the most widely recognised polymaths of all time. He was influential as not just an artist and sculptor, but also as a scientist, engineer and inventor.

Modern Day Polymaths

Taken from my most recent Twitter feed:

  • Joe Rogan: internationally acclaimed comedian, UFC commentator, BJJ black belt, interviewer and host of one of the world’s biggest podcasts, and entrepreneur
  • Ryan Holiday: author, marketer and entrepreneur
  • Bruce Dickinson: lead singer of Iron Maiden, commercial airline pilot, novelist and high-level fencer
  • Elon Musk: founder of Tesla, SpaceX, PayPal, SolarCity; his talents extend to computer science, physics, chemistry, engineering, rocket science, and automotive design

Iron Maiden vocalist, Bruce Dickinson, about to fly his band to their next gig

Variety, the Spice of Life?

If everything was the same all the time, it would be boring (at least for most of us).

Excelling at more than one thing, or at least, being pretty good at more than one thing, might just be what keeps you investing in a variety of things over the long-term, without getting bored, frustrated and ultimately giving up as a result.

I once wrote that one of 10 ways to maintain your enthusiasm for anything is to incorporate variety into your life. I am the founder of two companies, have just written my second published book for Wiley, wrote my first kids picture book this year, contribute to Harvard Business Review, host a 300-episode strong podcast, and when I’m not ‘working’, I’m surfing or skateboarding. It keeps things fresh, and keeps life interesting.

4 Ways to Become a Polymath

1. Focus on High-Value Tasks

The reason why most people think they can’t be good at more than one thing is because of the way they go about ‘getting good’ at that thing in the first place. The Pareto Principle almost ensures that 20% of the inputs are attributable to 80% of the outputs across almost anything, and that 4% of the inputs are attributable to 64% of the outputs.

By developing a laser-like focus on the high-value inputs, we can get much further, much faster, than if we spent our time on insecurity work (like email, research and admin) instead of on the difficult but worthwhile tasks.

2. Leverage Alignment Across Tasks

I previously mentioned Joe Rogan. If you observe what he does, there is alignment across all of his tasks. Everything he does requires a clear command of the spoken word (comedy, commentating, podcast host) and of the martial arts and fitness world (Brasilian Jiu Jitsu, commentating).

He speaks with all sorts of people on his show, which not only gives him a greater world view, but also provides material to feed into his comedy.

3. Don’t Waste Your Time on Stupid Shit

The average person spends about 4 hours a day staring at their smartphone, yet has no time to start that business, hit the gym or read a book.

By knowing how you’re currently spending your time and diverting your attention to #1, you will find yourself developing across all sorts of areas.

4. Automate and Outsource Like a Boss

Nowadays, you can get all sorts of rudimentary, repetitive tasks automated and/or outsourced for not much moolah. Doing so will free you up even further to focus only on #1. Check out Zapier, IFTTT, Get Magic and Upwork for all kinds of automation and outsourcing options.

If you value your time at more than $10 an hour, then doing this should be a no brainer.

Polymath Benefits

A major byproduct of having interests and excelling across multiple disciplines is that it make you a better problem solver. It means connecting the dots in a way that allows you to see what others can’t.

Hypothetically speaking, if I have interests across technology, sports and fashion, I might identify an opportunity for a wearable technology that track and field athletes can use to determine when their body is at peak state, and use the learnings from the data to get them into this state in time for competition days.

If I only had interest across technology, then I mightn’t see such applications.

The next time somebody tells you to ‘focus on just one thing’, ask them to hit a tennis ball against a wall for the next 2 hours and see how long they last.