I, Polymath

Everyone is told to specialize, to “pick one thing” and become an expert in that one thing. But for many creative people, specializing in a single field can feel like an impossible ask. There are too many exciting things out there, it seems, and you want to try them all! It turns out that there can be good reason to not specialize.

This is a topic, I have fought with more than once, going back more than a decade. I am now in my early forties, and I still unapologetically experiment and dabble. Not because I get easily distracted by the next shiny thing; I do tend to finish at least one project in whatever discipline I am exploring. It’s because I love learning, and finding patterns and overlaps between various skills and art forms.

This passion for passions is what led me to write novels, take pictures, code video games, and make music. It turns out that my kind has a name – several in fact: creative generalist, jack-of-all-trades, renaissance man, or polymath.

Mr. da Vinci, pictured above, is another famous polymath. Not bad company, right?

The times when I fought against it, were usually efforts to try and fit into the perceived expectations of a job market, a freelance client, or product launch. No single title seemed to stick. The closest I’ve come to a title that might cover it all is “storyteller”, given that conveying a story is part of all of the things I seem to take an interest in. It’s more of a theme than an actual job title, though.

You might say, that my specialty is the accumulated knowledge and high level overview that comes with studying many disciplines. Despite our specialist-centric society, there is real value in such experience. For example, it can, as the Dude might put it, really tie the room together, when you are working with several specialists. I am pretty good at herding and translating between groups of specialists, and I credit that to having varied experience.

The downside to being a polymath, is that I am not the worlds greatest writer, photographer, game designer, or composer. But I can communicate with all of the above with a fair amount of confidence and authority. This comes in handy when managing projects and events, hiring, scoping, and prioritizing when the specialists are too focused on their own issues to see the bigger picture.

After all these years, my advice to someone with many passions would be to not specialize in one at the cost of the others, but to seek the middle, where there is overlap between them. What are the themes and approaches that can be applied across your passions, and where do they intersect? For me, they connect thematically through storytelling, and pragmatically through cross-disciplinary communication and project management skills.

How I Became a Storyteller

Sometimes people ask me why I do so many different things. Secretly, I’m sure some of them wonder how I can possibly be good at any of them, and in my darkest moments I have asked that same question. On most days however, I take pictures, write, code, compose, sketch and make videos without mentally separating them from each other.

I call myself a storyteller. I’m not trying to sound pretentious, it’s just the best description I have found. Because it’s always about the story.

What is a story then? They are essentially about our basic values, right and wrong, life and death, love and hate. The story makes its point by taking the audience for a ride, it evokes emotion and sparks imagination, all fitted into some kind of structure or frame.

Often the point is a message; a song that says she loves you, an ad that says buy this product, or a speech that says make good art. Other times the point is to ask a question, and leave the audience to ponder it (religious texts are full of stories like these), or even dare them to prove it wrong. Conflict and resolution gets us interested and keeps us vested, but that is just a vehicle, not the destination.

I used to be extremely frustrated by having “too many interests”, and in a way I did have too many — because there was no focus. One day I sat down, listed every one of my interests out, and started looking for commonalities. And there it was – The Story – staring right back at me. Once I centered on story, my creative efforts started aligning like planets around a star. The Story is the star, and the rest are just tools to help tell it. I don’t have too many interests after all; just one.

I love stories. I love finding them, crafting them and telling them. It’s what I do.