“You can get into the zone and be very producti ve up until a certain point, then you need to change your activity in order to come back to it in an optimal state, ”says Ahmed. “So I know, for example, that if I was exclusively an artist or a painter, then I wouldn’t be as productive because I would experience diminishing returns – I’d require external stimuli in order to allow me to get over a block . ”
Albert Einstein, who was an accomplished violinist and pianist as well as a physicist, apparently used this approach. According to his son and daughter, he would play music whenever he faced an intractable problem, and would often finish the performance by saying, “There now, I’ve got it”. It was a much better use of his time than continuing to fruitlessly agonise over the maths or physics.
Nurture your inner polymath
All of which suggests that polymathic abilities may be within the reach of more people than we had once assumed. And even if we don’t reach the heights of someone like Leonardo da Vinci, we will still find some benefits from widening our interests, rather than relentlessly pursuing a narrow specialism.
And we have many advantages compared to the polymaths of the past. The internet, after all, is now full of free online courses in many different disciplines, and it is easier than ever to hook up with an expert teacher through apps like Skype even if they are based hundreds of miles away. “We have a unique opportunity to produce polymaths – especially in places where polymathy would have never been possible,” says Michael Araki, who researches polymathy at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro.
Ahmed agrees that it’s time for more of us to embrace those possibilities. He emphasises that many of society’s most pressing challenges – such as climate change – require highly creative problem-solving that crosses multiple domains, and polymaths may be the best people to find those solutions.
Many people, he says, associate polymathy with the historical Renaissance men. “But it is more relevant today than it’s ever been.”
David Robson is the author ofThe Intelligence Trap, which examines the common thinking errors of smart people, and the ways we can avoid them. He is@ d_a_robsonon Twitter.