Want to Be a Polymath Like da Vinci? Follow These Four Steps

Updated: April 3, 2012

Christopher Hutton

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This is a guest post by Christopher Hutton of Liter8 Ideas.

Polymath (noun) - A person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning.
Polymaths aren't born, they're made.

They are created by way of human patterns and practices that were copied from the years of Da Vinci and Michelangelo. And so, we have an opportunity to perform behaviors that will build us into potential Polymaths.

This post will give you the four crucial steps you should follow when you're trying to become a polymath.

1. Lay Out Your Goals

A polymath is a person that knows many things. Thus, one must take time to learn many things.

Determine what you want to be an expert in. One can try to be an expert in everything, but becoming that kind of expert is a vague long-term goal that one can't just record. It's likely that you already have certain talents and skills that don't need a lot of refinement or build-up.

It's helpful if you set exact and specific goals for you to perform. In doing so, you are able to record your goals, and celebrate every small victory that you have, no matter what it is.

A way of building a plan for personal growth is writing something like a bucket list. Choose 5 or 6 things you want to learn and master before you die.

For example, I want to write a thorough journalistic treatise on the topic of psychology and economics. It's a goal that will take time. My other goals are things like "learn how to drive anywhere in the Twin Cities without a GPS" and "master the art of swing-dancing". These are small goals that I can consistently practice, but they build me up on a whole, and help me become a better man.

It's also worth picking goals that span a number of realms. These include things like Social Skills, Physical Skills, and Mental Skills. If you aim at just one area, you will benefit in many ways; but you will also lose out in the other realms that you neglect. Thus, you should consider balancing it all out.

Have someone else offer suggestions. I know that when I came up with a list of things I wanted to master, it was certainly finite. But after talking to and reading others, I continued to add to my list. I found fields where I was experienced, and fields where I could practice certain skills more. These included things like resume writing, American Grilling, and much more.

Experience and opportunity is always abound, if you only find it and grasp it.

Gather your resources, and be ready to go!

2. Gather Your Resources

When a person wants to learn something, the best first step he or she can take is to gather his resources. In the same way, it's worth finding your resources before moving forward. Thankfully, the internet is an amazing tool for growing and doing things.

But one should know what they are studying, and how trustworthy it is. Articles from websites like Ehow and How Stuff Works are good for overviews, but you'll need to take time to find in-depth and insightful resources for your goal.

Another fine source of information are people who are already experienced in your field. Often, first-hand experience is the #1 way to master something. While a resource is essential for starting, a human being can help you check and re-check. It may feel a little obnoxious, but you will value it in the end.

3. Practice, Practice, Practice

Most coaches and mentors would tell you that all it takes to get good at something is practice and feedback. Malcolm Gladwell famously reported that one of the keys to success was having 10,000 hours of practice.

However, this practice cannot be simplistic repetition. Like we talked about last week, practice needs to be focused and direct.

Economist Sanjoy Mahajan offered up support for this economic growth method, and has caused many to re-think their method of practice.

So, don't be afraid of failure. It's helping you build up hours of understanding and practice. However, make sure that you have the necessary resources for practice. Many skills don't offer chances for failure. Practice won't be possible at all. This shouldn't limit you, though.

If you don't have that on hand, you don't have to give up. You can look into ways and methods of practice that cut back on costs. This might involve working with another who is practiced and can guide you. It might involve learning and mastering it by way of videos, or using alternative tools. But no matter what it takes, make sure that you build up hours, and master your art.

4. Reaching Mastery

The nature of a polymath isn't just in his variety of interests; it's in his mastery of those interests.

But what does mastery mean?

Mastery isn't when you fully know every inch; it's when you know enough to effectively perform the task, and teach others to do the same.

This may seem like a relative system of rating, but it's more than enough for judging a situation. As you reach mastery of one item after another, you'll notice how everything improves, and how your skills will build and build, until you reach the point of success.

To the Polymathic Level

Now, everything taught earlier is basic skill mastery. The key to becoming a polymath is mastering all of these fields, quickly. There's a man I was told about named Pete Lackey. From the age of 12, Pete taught himself the core of Western Civilization's literature. He learned it quickly, and went on to get a number of degrees and certificates in a few years.

What impressed me about Lackey wasn't just his ability to learn quickly; it was his ability to learn so much, then retain and practice what he learned. His mastery was widespread. He is my model of a modern-day Renaissance Man.

And we can take similar steps. While most of us can't master the complete library of Great Books, or know every word in the JAVA code, we can take steps to focus, master and practice these things, so that we can be the next great Polymath.

Your Turn

You've now taken the proper steps towards becoming a Polymath. That means that you are currently a philomath, one who desires to learn and master, but is in the process. If you take these steps, and master them accordingly, I know that the build up of these gifts will offer you opportunities to grow and learn.

Note from Caleb: What 5 to 10 things would you want to be an Expert in that would establish you as a polymath?

Let us know in the comments of this post.

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