The Oxford English Dictionary defines polymath as a person of wide knowledge or learning. Creative Polymathy thrives in people who over time, develop, and successfully apply a breadth of knowledge from a variety of domains to produce renowned creative work.
They don't appear to follow familiar routes, paths made by others. Rather, they follow their interests.
Solving problems and producing creative ideas to the extent they do are that which the rest of us mere mortals can only admire. They focus on one thing at a time, of course, but their interests and curiosities are broad so they become drawn into many fields.
Benoit Mandelbrot, the Polish mathematician and discoverer of fractal geometry was a polymath. He was seen by his academic contemporaries as a maverick, way out there, perhaps even scattered.
The dean at the university where he researched stoped him in a corridor one day and said to him;
You are doing very well, yet you are taking the lonely and hard path. You keep running from field to field, leading an unpredictable life, never settling down to enjoy what you have accomplished. A rolling stone gathers no moss–and behind your back–people call you completely crazy. But I don't call you crazy at all and you must continue what you are doing.
Mandelbrot wondered if it was a compliment or advice that ran counter to his current direction.
In his memoir, Mandelbrot agreed with the dean's description of him as a rolling stone, but not an unresponsive one. Mandelbrot described himself as perhaps overactive and self-motivated, but he loved to roll along and stop where he pleased.
He says his life's work reminded him of the hero in the fairytale who pulls on a piece of string, not knowing where it leads, only to discover wonders beyond belief. All of them unexpected and unpredictable.
Those things that sparked his interest on the surface seem quite separate, and in his early career he devoted time and pursued each one. Later, Mandelbrot says, he took a much broader approach. He wondered if his life-long efforts were scattered and excessive, even self-destructive. But recognised in all his work, he was focused and deliberate.
As I read his personal account of a fruitful life, it helps calm the almost incessant inner demand for safety and predictability. The one to which most of us adhere.
As someone who continually questions his motivations, the legitimacy of his interests, and time spent in their pursuit, Mandelbrot makes it all ok regardless of who see it and where it may ultimately arrive.
R. Buckminster Fuller, Bertrand Russell, Helen Keller, Thomas Young, Hildegard of Bingen, Benjamin Franklin and Francis Bacon. They are all considered polymaths. They each excelled in many fields during their lives and are revered by us today.
However, following our innate curiosities and developing our interests in many fields is not considered a good idea, nor is it promoted in education. We must choose one thing and pursue that if we want to succeed in life. This is the dominant cultural narrative. I even promote it myself, to my children.
Am I right to do this?
Is it not better that my kids be exposed to many things, things of their own choosing?
James C. Kaufman, professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut and primary contributor to The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity suggests that although we may believe that polymathy is rare, it is not impossible.
He says in his 2011 paper titled Creativity polymathy: What Benjamin Franklin can teach your kindergartener 1, that it is possible to both identify and nurture multi-creative abilities of gifted students. (I don't like how he uses thew word gifted here. It implies that only certain children have multi-creative abilities. “Gifted” is a subjective term and is based on arbitrary measurement).
So, Kaufman says, the question is not is multi-creative ability possible, but rather how might educators nurture the multi-creative talent in students?
The Four-C Model of Creativity
Kaufman and his research colleagues ask, is creativity is a general construct? i.e. that which consists of skills that lead to high creative performance across all domains. Or, is creativity domain specific? i.e something that consists of skills that help us be creative in one domain and would be of little use in another.
He says that prior to understanding how multi-creative ability might be identified and nurtured, we must have an understanding of what it means to be creative. Kaufman offers his Four-C Model of Creativity 2
Big C Creativity
Big-C creative people typically devoted ten or more years of intense study to a single field before producing their best work. They make a big impact and are remembered years after their death. Charles Dickens, Albert Einstein, Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen are some.
Little C Creativity
Researchers also focus on more everyday creativity or “little-c creativity. This represents the creative expression in daily activities that most of us enjoy. Examples of little-c creativity include making a rhyme on the fly for no reason, figuring out new ways to motivate your kids to clean their room, using leftovers to make a new dinner, or inventing a bedtime story with your daughter.
Although, Kaufman says, it may seem that these two common categories of creativity can account for just about any creative expression, it can be seen on closer examination that these two categories do not sufficiently account for subtle, yet meaningful distinctions in levels of creativity. Researcher propose mini-c and pro-c to account for these subtle differences.
Creativity is an inherent aspect of learning. Any time we attempt a new task creativity is involved. At Kaufman's mini-c level of creativity, what we create might not result in world-wide recognition but it is no. less new and meaningful to us. For example, your son gets an A grade in maths for the first time or wins an art competition in school.
The Pro-c level of creativity
Pro-c creativity, Kaufman says, is creative work at a professional-level that has not yet achieved critical acclaim. A creative person who paints as a hobby and sells their work at the local fair falls into the little-c category. Whereas the visual artist that paints professionally and sells their work at an international level is an example of a Big-C creator. The Pro-c game artist, in contrast, is someone who has worked part-time as an artist and may have secured several private commissions but has not yet achieved international level recognition.
The devil, it seems, is in the detail. How deep and how long a creative person goes, whether they want to make their creative work a means of income or indeed turn it into a business, how obsessed they become with the material, can determine the intensity of creative expression and ultimate success.
We can split hairs forever over which level of creative work has greater merit, but that is actually a separate question, and indeed, a matter of taste. So considering the academic view of creativity, and more pointedly, that of Big-C, it is the creative who floats the right boat, who impresses the critics, that wins the acclaim. For the rest of us, there is obscurity.
Is that a problem? Everyone can't be famous. Is fame all it's cracked up to be? Why should it matter if we are doing work that is meaningful to us?
Kaufman says that at the little-c and mini-c level, it is probably more likely to find the creative polymath than not. Many of us, he says, have multiple everyday creative interests (art, gardening, writing, playing the guitar and so on) and think nothing of pursuing these interests. At the mini-c level, polymathy can occur anytime we combine learnings from multiple domains that are personally meaningful.
So it seems that creative polymathy exists and thrives in everyday normality. It is in me and in you and we give it expression with every breath we take. This is my view, and although there is creative merit in exploring the phenomenon of creative ability from an academic standpoint, it matters little in the lives of ordinary geniuses like you and me.
Like Reading This Article?
Every week I create new content, on life, work and the pursuit of happiness. If you liked this article, subscribe to Sunday Letters for free.
- Kaufman, J. C., Beghetto, R. A., Baer, J., & Ivcevic, Z. (2010). Creativity polymathy: What Benjamin Franklin can teach your kindergartener. Learning and Individual Differences, 20(4), 380-387.
- Kaufman, J. C., & Beghetto, R. A. (2009). Beyond big and little: The four c model of creativity. Review of general psychology, 13(1), 1-12.