We’re living in a time period where it’s never been easier to become a polymath. But in practicality, there are many cultural and social hurdles to this achievement. The idea of becoming an expert at many things seems daunting to many people, so they never begin. As time elapses, it’s easy to fall prey to many fallacies that prevent us from ever exploring our own ambitions. This is foolish because the earliest time we have to begin anything is in the present moment. Personally, I believe that there is always a hidden path waiting for us to begin, no matter what age or life circumstance we’re at. This hidden path always stands ready and waiting, and it’s our own failure of imagination that prevents us from starting on our own unique path of perfection.
So why is it so difficult to become a polymath or monopoly of one today? First, if we aren’t careful about our relationships and assert our intentions or large ambitions publicly, we’ll likely meet warnings to “slow down” or “just focus on one thing first.” This can sometimes be prudent advice. But oftentimes the people who voice their concerns about ambition have bought into the lie that we must dream small so we’re never disappointed. Those who wish to be mission-driven must never be afraid to keep dreaming big after every setback they face. In many cases, it’s actually better to ratchet up your ambitions after you survive a challenging ordeal, since now, you have more experience and information!
The secret that all polymaths know is that it becomes easier to learn when we increase our workload. When we have many things going at once, we can cycle through projects appropriately. In order to tap into the full power of our brains, it helps to have the right amount of projects (sometimes dozens) going at once. We can start slowly, but by moving in and out of overwhelm, we’ll be able to increase our mental capacities to handle it all.
There have never been more low-cost learning resources available to speed up our learning. Just consider the humble podcast, for instance. This is something many take for granted, yet the technology behind it is extraordinary. On any given day, online or directly on our phones, we can listen to the best teachers in the world from any given industry or field of study. This morning, I listened to an interview with a technology entrepreneur that I follow. She has created immense value in the world and radiates contentment and joy. I was able to pick up much of her wisdom and many of her insights at almost no cost. She wasn’t just answering questions; she was distilling wisdom that’s potentially life-changing if it’s applied. We might not be able to personally hire someone like that for coaching, but we can listen for next to nothing thanks to a podcast. Podcasts are an incredibly undervalued way to receive digital mentorship from the best in the world. For those who have the faith, willpower, and patience to teach themselves, the time to learn how to learn is now.
The standout men and women of history have all been self-taught, skill layering, life-long learners. Consider Leonardo DaVinci, Lucius Seneca, Ben Franklin, Mother Teresa, Elizabeth Holmes, and Elon Musk. Many of these people started far behind where we are in terms of resources, familial love, and technology that we now have access to.
Each of these monopolies of one suffered through adversities and were able to prosper without all the advantages we have in front of us today. They managed to become self-taught masters of many skills. No matter what circumstances we find ourselves in right now, others have triumphed over worse.
But how did these guys and gals do it? The simple answer, which we covered earlier and that most ignore (even after hundreds of years of it being repeated!), is that they learned how to learn through doing and taking massive action. They read, they wrote, they experimented, and they sought to be around others who were doing the same. They came up with ideas and then figured out how to begin pursuing them with the limited resources they (initially) possessed. They started small projects, they tinkered on and allowed their creativity to guide them from one project to the next. They didn’t look for their passions; they looked where it was easiest for them to invest huge amounts of effort and willpower.
To get started on this path, it can be helpful to begin rotating through many small projects in a strategic fashion. We can see for ourselves where we work the hardest and where we are the happiest. When it makes sense, we’ll know when to double down and go all in on a singular pursuit. Along the way, we shouldn’t judge ourselves for leaving projects unfinished. Learning to quit and leave some things undone is a healthy skill. We’re free to allow this learning and skill layering to ebb and flow based on our interests.
One of my favorite cartoon strips of all time is Calvin and Hobbes. The creator of the cartoon strip, Bill Watterson, rarely gave interviews. During one of those rare interviews, he was asked about creativity, productivity, and recharging. Watterson said,
“Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery — it recharges by running.”
This phrase can feel overwhelming until we stumble over the power of it for ourselves. When we find work or a pursuit that is making the world a better place, serving others, or spreading meaning… ten-hour days of work can feel short! Or, if we don’t have that luxury right now, we can explore recharging by coming home from our job and immediately switching over to a creative pursuit. The body and mind will revolt at first, but if we keep going, we’ll soon find a blissful, mission-driven state of rejuvenation.
One of the last hurdles to beginning to learn is that some people think we have to become world class at something before it gets interesting. They severely overestimate how long it takes to become skilled enough before new skills will provide us with meaning.
This hurdle is unfortunate because there are many things we can become “expert enough” at within only a few months. Expert enough means that we learn enough that we can begin to create valuable work that makes us feel mission-driven.
The process of skill acquisition on the road to mastery has been discussed extensively by several authors and researchers. These notable authors include Malcolm Gladwell, Timothy Ferriss, and Robert Greene.
Gladwell says it takes around 10 years to become world class. Greene takes a more strategic, Machiavellian-meets-Aristotelian view and says 10–20 years. But Ferriss comes in with the exciting reality that if we use the right stakes and incentives, we can become expert enough in a few months.
Mastery: top .01% of a field — takes 20 years
Budding Master: top 1% of a field — takes 10 years (outliers)
World Class: top 3% in a field — takes 5 years
Expert: top 5% in a field — takes 1–3 years
Expert Enough: top 10% in a field — takes 3 months to 1 year
More authors and researchers are beginning to emerge showcasing that “expert enough” can be accessible after only a few months of highly concentrated effort, stakes, and incentives. In his excellent book SmartCuts, author Shane Snow advocates studying the outliers or “fat tail” top performers in order to uncover the most sustainable paths that are both short and smart. Our culture has likely left us with warning alarms going off in our heads at encountering advice like this. Shortcuts? Taking the easy route? If our intentions are in the right place, and we’re seeking our mission, why wouldn’t we take every smart cut possible? From the Presidents of the United States, to CEOs of world-changing companies, it’s often the youngest and least experienced person that doesn’t know the “way things are done” who figures out the way things SHOULD be done, and then does them.
We’re also prone to underestimating the small victories that we’ll unlock along the way towards “expert enough.” Those small victories will compound. Compounding is, as Ben Franklin said, the eighth wonder of the world. Humans have a hard time imagining the sheer joy and meaning of their skills compounding, so they never begin.
At the expert enough level, there are plenty of ways for us to be compensated for our newfound skill or service. Also, consider how we can make the math part of the mastery equation work in our favor. To become the top .01% in a given field, it may take 20 years. But we can become the top .01% in a brand new field we create that combines several skills together. This is why becoming a monopoly of one doesn’t take nearly as long as traditional mastery in old, tired fields. Our mission lies in boldly exploring new combinations of skills for greater service.
Think about the person who chooses a few skills which are in high demand. They become expert enough at them, reap the rewards, and then repeat the process again and again. They might be one to three years into their learning, but they are not competing on the same playing field as the person who has focused on one thing, sunk in eight years of agonizing investment, and is wondering why he’s gone nowhere.
The Premiere 21st Century Mindset, Goal, and Path
Some people hate the word “goal.” I agree that sometimes the definition can be murky. If we only focus and work towards one goal, we can find ourselves in a perpetual state of discontent. We tend to grow frustrated because we haven’t achieved it yet, then once we do, we become bewildered when the initial euphoria of victory passes. This is why a diversified set of goals, interests, and massive future projects are so important. With a basket of smaller goals, we can break each down until they are a series of little steps, with little victories, in order to consistently achieve the euphoria of “winning.” Once we begin spreading and breaking down our goals into manageable chunks, we can then pick out hyper-specific skills to begin learning. There are many small skills we can teach ourselves on the way to achieving broad and overarching goals. By starting with a massive goal, skill set, or pursuit, we can then get busy breaking it down into small, localized “goals” that we can begin learning. From there, we can learn the next skill, and then the next, until we gradually check off all the small goals necessary to achieve our big goals. On a path of learning like this, we’ll eventually find ourselves with an immensely valuable and unique set of skills. We’ll likely be at a place where competition is scarce. If we keep up the practice long enough, we’ll find ourselves as a monopoly of one.