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Is Focus Overrated?: The Path to Becoming a Polymath (Master of Many)

“Jack of all trades; master of none?”

We are constantly being told to “settle down and focus.”

Find one thing that you like to do and study that and only that.

But success (in terms of recognition, achievement, and monetary or status gains) comes most abundantly to polymaths, not specialists.

Polymaths are people who have exceled or mastered more than one field.

Top Achievers are often polymaths, who can excel at the intersection of many fields, and are experts in weaving connections and creating cross-discipline insights.

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Completely contrary to the myth of being a “master of none,” polymaths can uniquely position themselves to be potential superstars by becoming the top 1% in the intersection of many different fields.

  • Benjamin Franklin was a writer, politician, inventor and scientist.
  • Leonardo da Vinci was a scientist, artist, philosopher, writer and inventor.
  • Steve Jobs was prolific in both technology and design.

An example in action within my own:

  • In 2012, I was awarded a massive fellowship due to extraordinary research potential in the field of Psychology(which led to presentations, publications, and some of my earliest consulting work).
  • In 2013, my university awarded me sole and top distinction in the field of Women’s and Gender Studies.
  • In 2014, a prolific and historical organization called the AAUW, publicly named me one of ten “Women to Watch” and invited me to join their advisory council.
  • In 2015, I was awarded a prestigious (1% acceptance rate) Equity Fellowship by Teach for America; the same year, my students outperformed the other students in their grade level by double-digits. I also began studying at Johns Hopkins that year to earn my Master’s degree in Education, at the #1 ranked School of Education, followed by Harvard.
  • In 2016, I was named a top consultant at my top-tier Management Consulting firm and began studying for my Master’s degree at Harvard in the field of Management.
  • In 2017, I become the Service Offering Lead of the Risk & Compliance area (named the highest-potential and highest-visibility area in our firm) at another top-ranked Management Consulting firm. 

All of these achievements led to thousands of dollars in scholarships, fellowships and learning opportunities. I also tripled my salary between 2015 and 2017, as I began commanding higher rates.

But what’s interesting isn’t the linear flow of achievements; it’s the distinctions and awards across fields: Psychology, Women’s and Gender Studies, Education, Consulting / Business, and Risk and Compliance / Financial Services.

In fact, I don’t think these results would’ve been as pronounced if I had focused on one area:

my understanding of psychology framed the way I approached my work in the field of gender studies; I integrated positive psychology and organizational science into my work in education through interventions to maximize student results; I used educational theory and design to construct and enhance our organizational learning in business, and I constantly use my psychology skills to be a better consultant.

Now, mastery is key here: mediocrity in one area should not be extended to another. I clearly earned accolades and achievements (a show of mastery) in each of the above areas before integrating them with the next.

But there is a clear advantage to combining interests and skillsets to stand out in a new combination of the disciplines.

So, instead of forcing yourself to “buckle down and focus” - ask yourself what TWO (or more) things can you become amazing at, and how can you combine them to become an emerging superstar?

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