We can’t all be Renaissance Men (or Renaissance Women). A Renaissance Man is a person with expertise and knowledge in many different subject areas. You may have also heard it referred to as a polymath (Greek for “one who has learned much”).

Universal geniuses like Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus, and Benjamin Franklin sure knew a lot about a lot. But for the vast majority of us, our brains just aren’t capable of such broad genius.

We can handle scaling it back a little, though. Us non-geniuses can do pretty well focusing our attention and studies on one single subject. We’re good at being haplapolymaths (Ben-Greek for “one who has learned much about a single thing”).

On the other hand, we can also scratch the surface across a broad array of subjects, as kind of a micropolymath (Ben-Greek for “one who has learned a small bit about much”).

So, what’s better… Being a little knowledgeable about a lot of things? Or is it better to really hone in your skills and focus on one thing?

It’s common to focus our efforts on one real subject. We’re pretty well-guided to do that our whole lives. Think about it: “What’s your favorite subject,” career aptitude tests, “what do you want to be when you grow up,” picking a major in school, etc. As kids we role-play games where we assume stock characters like doctors, cowboys, princesses, adventurers. It seems like we’ve got innate and external tendencies to focus on one set of skills. In combination, this works in society as we all specialize and get things done as a community. But it is known to sometimes result in individual ignorance or awkwardness.

It’s just as common to find knowledge-seekers out there. These are the people who read endlessly, seek out answers of all sorts, have spent a decade in higher education but aren’t physicians. They’re more fun at cocktail party conversation, that’s for sure… But is the depth of knowledge profound enough to be applicable in real life? I mean, great that you know the fact that there are 722 miles of subway track in NYC, but that is useful how…? Now if you have the entire subway system mapped and memorized that might be another thing all together.

What do you think… Is it better to laser-focus one set of skills, or ever broaden your knowledge-base? Are you a micropolymath or a haplopolymath?

Polymaths, please apply here ;)

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