I am finishing up my last year of law school. I also write freelance columns for The Boston Globe. To most fellow lawyers, it is a cute hobby to have. To fellow columnists and author-friends, law school is. But as someone who has struggled to balance physics, legal, policy, writing, and music interests for much of my life, I genuinely value all the different parts of me.
And I’m not the only one. I spoke to three other polymaths (people accomplished in or talented in multiple fields) to get a better idea on how to be a good one. Matthew Weatherley-White has raced internationally in biking, skiing, and running, has sports and technology patents, is an adventurer, trained chef, musician, and published poet, and runs an investing company.
Emilie Wapnick is the founder and creative director at puttylike.com, has written a book called “How To Be Everything” on being a “multipotentialite,” and is an author and a career coach. Lisa Maulhardt is an executive vice president at a consulting firm, a writer and an editor, and proficient at Italian, 20th century American literature, and genealogy.
Polymaths are not jacks of all trades. They are just masters of more than one —
Why should you be a polymath? If you want to just be a specialist, good for you too! But being a polymath can have its advantages well beyond being interesting at cocktail parties. Maulhardt said that polymaths give clients more value out of a “multi-capable” human. If more government lawyers understood technology, the FBI vs. Apple fiasco wouldn’t have happened. If more politicians understood philosophy, they would have a better understanding of the conflicts in the Middle East. If scientists were better writers, more people would appreciate their work. And, really, we should all speak more languages.
Can you make yourself a polymath? Depends on the individual, but to start, try learning a language, how to oil paint, code, dance, or cook. Understand AI. Play a new instrument. Start somewhere and you never know what will whet your appetite next. I learned to write and paint with my left hand (I’m right-handed), and this became one of the most useful skills for note-taking (using both hands to keep two notebooks open at once) and quick essay-writing (when one hand gets tired, I use the other). Weatherley-White learned to write upside down, so that he can write in a way that someone across from him can read.
How the heck to balance everything? The most important skill of a polymath is effective and conscious time-management. Wapnick described a woman who started a business during her lunch hour at work. Sometimes, you just have to use every free moment. Have a list of priority projects. Block out 40 minutes of time a day to just tinker and come up with new ideas. Make sure you prioritize things other people may consider hobbies. Set yourself deadlines. In Wapnick’s book, she highlights the four ways you can be a polymath long term:
■ The Group Hug Approach. Find a job, like Weatherley-White’s impact investing or Maulhardt’s business consulting, that allows you to and requires you to work in multiple genres and draw on a wide range of interests.
■ The Slash Approach. Have multiple part-time or full-time jobs and multiple revenue streams.
■ The Einstein Approach. Have a day job and explore passions on the side. Einstein became Einstein while working at the patent office. Make sure you aren’t sacrificing your relationships or the inspiration that comes from unstructured time, if you’re always busy, though.
■ The Phoenix Approach. Dive into a field for a number of years, while making sure to keep other connections open on the side. Then try a new field in a few more years.
Obviously, most polymaths use a combination of these techniques. Just remember that even if you can’t find the perfect career, be your own boss and plan how you are going to fit everything important to you into your life.
Should you leave everything on your resume? The answer was a resounding “yes.” Of course, tailor your resume to focus on the skills needed for each job, but show how you gained those skills across multiple careers. Wapnick shared stories of people who got jobs in business and the law by talking about their social justice work or geology classes. I spent a law firm interview talking solely about my figure-skating skills. It made me more memorable. Maulhardt says that SYPartners, her company, barely looks at resumes anymore, but wants to see the polymath thinking and communicating in action.
One trick is to figure out how to tie your stories together and prove your skills are transferable. Weatherley-White talked about how impact investing requires a knack for innovation and adaptability that he honed by having multiple “past-lives.” I often argue I’m a better cybersecurity lawyer, because of my ability to program and experience in physics.
Basically, to people who want to be more than one thing, it is possible. Just have bravery, strength, passion, and wicked time-management.
Now to get back to my legal memo…