Polymaths are the Renaissance individuals of the workforce– thinkers, creators, and problem-solvers who wear many hats with ease.

In a world where specialization is often the norm, these multi-talented individuals bring a diverse set of skills and a unique approach to innovation.

We’re going to talk all about these uncommon individuals- who they are and why they’re special.

We’ll also clear up some common myths and give you some smart tips on finding and hiring polymaths effectively.

Are you on board? Let’s get in.

What are polymaths? 3 famous ones you might know 🤩

Michael Simmons, a popular author, describes polymath as “someone who becomes competent in at least three diverse domains and integrates them into a top one-percent skill set.”

Simply put, they’re people who have a wide range of hobbies and interests. 

Think of them as the ultimate “T-shaped” professionals in business. 

For anyone who doesn’t know, these are professionals who have deep knowledge or skills in one area (the vertical part of the ‘T’) and also have the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas (the horizontal part of the ‘T’). 

This means they are really good at one thing but can also understand and work with lots of other different topics.

Consider a software developer – typically, you’d expect them to be proficient in coding and software architecture. 

But imagine if this developer is also an adept project manager, has a strong grasp of digital marketing, and regularly contributes to a tech blog. 

This blend of technical, managerial, and creative skills is a classic hallmark of a polymath.

Some famous polymaths are:

  • Elon Musk- Musk has made significant strides in multiple industries, including electric vehicles (Tesla), space exploration (SpaceX), and renewable energy. His work exemplifies how interdisciplinary thinking can drive technological and environmental advancements.
  • Thomas Edison: Renowned for inventing the light bulb, Edison’s innovations extend to the phonograph and motion picture camera. Laying the foundation for modern electric power generation and mass communication, he highlighted the impact of persistent experimentation and invention.
  • Benjamin Franklin: Franklin was a polymath in the truest sense, with contributions ranging from inventing the lightning rod to playing pivotal roles in politics and diplomacy. His diverse talents and curiosity had a profound influence on both scientific and political thought.

Now, are they the same as specialists?

Absolutely not, and here are three reasons why:

1. Depth of knowledge

Polymaths possess a broad range of knowledge across various fields, while specialists have deep expertise in a specific area.

They are like generalists, comfortable in many domains, whereas the latter are experts in their chosen fields.

2. Problem-solving approach

Integrating ideas from different disciplines, polymaths tend to approach problems with a holistic perspective. 

Specialists, on the other hand, apply their focused knowledge to solve problems within their area of expertise.

3. Role-flexibility

In a team, generalists can fill multiple roles and are often jacks of all trades. 

Specialists fill specific, often crucial roles where their deep expertise is indispensable.

Don’t miss out: Who are purple squirrels? A comprehensive guide for recruiters

Should you hire polymaths? 6 factors to look out for

6 factors to look into while hiring polymaths

When contemplating whether to hire polymaths, several key factors need to be weighed. 

While their diverse skill sets can be highly beneficial, it’s essential to consider how well they align with your client’s specific needs and environment. 

Here are some crucial factors to consider: 

1. Budget and compensation expectations

Consider your client’s budget. Polymaths might have higher salary expectations due to their skill sets, which could be a crucial factor in your client’s decision-making process.

2. Nature of role

Assess the industry and specific roles your client is hiring for. 

These individuals are ideal for sectors and positions that value broad skill sets and adaptability, whereas highly specialized roles might benefit more from candidates with deep expertise.

For example, positions in advertising or digital media, where a combination of creative thinking, technical skills, and marketing knowledge is valuable for polymaths.

Whereas, positions like corporate lawyers or tax attorneys where specialized legal knowledge is essential for specialists. 

3. Cultural fit and diversity goals

Evaluate the cultural fit and diversity goals of your client’s organization. 

They often contribute to the cultural and intellectual diversity of a team, aligning with inclusive and dynamic workplace environments.

4. Client’s long-term goals

Align your recommendations with your client’s long-term business objectives.

These multi-taskers, with their broad vision, can be effective in roles that require strategic thinking and future planning.

5. Employee well-being and support

They often engage in a wide range of activities and continuous learning, which can be both mentally stimulating and taxing.

It’s important to place them in environments that prioritize mental health and work-life balance.

This ensures they can manage their wide interests and professional commitments without risking burnout.

How to identify polymaths? 9 steps to follow

9 steps to follow to recruit polymath candidates

Here are some steps to follow while identifying and hiring them: 

1. Review varied educational backgrounds

Examine candidates’ educational qualifications for diversity. Look for those with degrees or certifications in different fields, indicating a breadth of interests and knowledge.

2. Analyze work experience

Check their professional history for roles in various industries or functions. A polymath often has experience in different sectors or job roles that are not linearly connected.

3. Look for evidence of continuous learning

Identify candidates who engage in ongoing learning, such as attending workshops, pursuing online courses, or obtaining certifications in diverse areas.

4. Assess problem-solving and communication skills in different contexts

During interviews, present hypothetical problems that require cross-disciplinary thinking. See how candidates apply knowledge from various domains to solve these problems.

Observe how applicants explain complex concepts. A polymath can often articulate ideas clearly across different subjects, making difficult information accessible to all.

5. Check for diverse interests and hobbies

Inquire about hobbies and interests outside of work. Polymaths usually have a wide array of hobbies that span different areas, showing their broad range of interests.

6. Seek evidence of innovation and creativity

Look for instances where the candidate has demonstrated innovative thinking or creative problem-solving, especially in projects that intersect different fields.

7. Notice adaptability in past roles

Identify how candidates have adapted to new roles, environments, or technologies. Polymaths are typically quick learners and adapt well to change.

8. Explore their contributions to multiple fields

Check if the candidate has made contributions, like publications, presentations, or projects, in various areas. This indicates their ability to apply skills in multiple domains.

9. Conduct behavioral interviews 

Use behavioral interview techniques to understand how candidates have used their skills in past experiences. Enquire about times they’ve had to juggle different types of tasks.

Also read: 6 reasons why recruiters should embrace virtual interviews [+ Steps to master them]

6 key recruitment strategies to find and recruit polymaths

recruitment strategies to find and hire polymaths

1. Craft attractive job descriptions

To effectively attract polymaths, it’s crucial to rethink the way job descriptions are crafted.

Instead of focusing solely on specific qualifications and technical skills, broaden the scope to highlight a range of skills and interests

For instance, instead of listing a set of qualifications, include phrases like “candidates with a wide skill set are encouraged to apply” or “we value experience across multiple domains.”

This opens the door for applicants with varied backgrounds and signals to potential applicants that their wide-ranging expertise is appreciated and sought after.

By doing so, you’re more likely to attract individuals who are adaptable, creative, and capable of thinking outside the box—key traits of polymaths.

Also read: 6 common mistakes to avoid while writing a job description

2. Focus on soft skills and learning agility

In the recruitment process, especially when seeking polymaths, placing a greater emphasis on soft skills and learning agility can be highly effective. 

To implement this, you can design interview questions that specifically ask candidates to describe situations where they had to adapt to new environments or learn new skills rapidly. 

Say, for example, ask them to share an experience where they successfully navigated an unfamiliar challenge or how they approached learning something outside their comfort zone.

The technique will reveal their ability to adapt and their willingness to embrace and drive change.

Incorporating real-life problem-solving scenarios into the interview process can also provide insight into how candidates apply their knowledge to find solutions. 

3. Look for non-linear career paths

Another viral recruitment strategy is paying special attention to non-linear career paths.

Unlike traditional candidates who may follow a straightforward trajectory in a single field, these individuals often have career histories that zigzag through various industries and disciplines.

While evaluating resumes, look for applicants who have switched between different types of roles or industries.

For example, a professional who has experience in both tech and art sectors or someone who has moved from academia to industry could indicate a polymathic nature. 

These transitions often suggest that the individual is comfortable with change, enjoys learning new things, and can bring a wealth of diverse experiences to the table.

4. Encourage employee referral programs

Your current employees likely have networks that include individuals with a variety of skills and experiences. Encouraging them to recommend such professionals can tap into a rich source of potential polymaths.

Offer incentives for successful referrals to motivate your employees. This encourages them to actively participate, ensuring they recommend individuals who truly align with the job profile. 

Your team members understand your company culture well, so their referrals are often a good cultural fit.

It increases the likelihood of finding candidates who are not just skilled but also well-suited to the team and organizational environment. 

5. Leverage social recruiting

With 79% of job seekers using social media in their job search, imagine the number of polymaths included in this number!

Platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, and niche online forums are bustling hubs where individuals with skills and interests hang out. 

Imagine these platforms as a ready-to-use pipeline of potential candidates, each showcasing their unique blend of expertise and passions.

Make your mark on these social networks by sharing job posts that speak directly to them. Engage actively in discussions and groups where diverse professionals gather. 

Here, you can witness firsthand their multifarious talents and interests, giving you a richer understanding of their potential fit for your clients’ needs.

Also read: Social recruiting 101: A beginner’s guide for recruiters

6. Develop targeted outreach programs

Start by identifying platforms and communities where these individuals are likely to be active. 

These could include interdisciplinary conferences, online forums, and professional LinkedIn groups across various fields. 

Jump right in when it comes to hosting webinars or interactive workshops on topics that intersect different disciplines.

Emphasize the value your clients place on wide skill sets and innovative thinking in these programs. 

Understanding the pros and cons of hiring polymaths

Pros and cons of recruiting polymaths

In the recruitment space, polymaths offer unique advantages and face certain challenges. 

Their perspectives can significantly impact your recruiting, but it’s essential to understand both sides of hiring them. 

Here’s a comprehensive look at the pros and cons of adding them to your talent pipeline:

The PROS: 

  • Versatility in skills and roles

They can wear multiple hats, making them adaptable to various roles within an organization. 

This versatility is particularly valuable in smaller businesses or startups where role flexibility is crucial.

  • Effective cross-departmental communication

Polymaths, fluent in the language of multiple disciplines, can effectively bridge communication gaps between different departments, fostering better collaboration and understanding.

  • Leadership

Often, they possess the vision and leadership skills to guide diverse teams. Their ability to see the bigger picture helps in strategic planning and decision-making.

  • Innovative problem-solving

These individuals approach problems with innovative, holistic solutions. 

They can draw on different experiences to find creative answers to complex challenges.

  • Adaptability to change

Their broad skill set makes them highly adaptable to new challenges, technologies, and shifts in the business landscape, a valuable trait in rapidly evolving industries.

  • Continuous learning

Polymaths are lifelong learners, always seeking to expand their knowledge and skills. 

This constant pursuit of learning keeps them versatile and informed, ready to tackle new and difficult challenges.

You might also like: Top 7 LinkedIn recruiter certification courses to supercharge your skills

The CONS: 

  • Risk of underutilization

There’s a possibility that a polymath’s talents may not be fully utilized in a role, leading to underutilization and dissatisfaction.

  • Cost considerations

Due to their broad skill set, they might command higher salaries, which could be a consideration for recruiters with a tight recruitment budget.

  • Balancing expectations and role clarity

There can be a mismatch between their wide-ranging abilities and the specific expectations or requirements of a role, leading to challenges in role clarity and performance evaluation.

  • Risk of burnout

Due to their tendency to engage in multiple projects or roles, polymaths might be at a higher risk of burnout.

Also read: How to support & manage mental health as a recruiter?

Busting 5 common misconceptions about polymaths

When it comes to understanding polymaths, there are several misconceptions that often cloud their true value and capabilities:

1. Jack of all trades, master of none – A false label

This age-old adage unfairly undermines polymaths. 

In reality, they often master multiple domains, bringing a depth of expertise that defies this outdated stereotype.

2. Misjudged as unfocused

The notion that they lack focus couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Their ability to delve deeply into various subjects demonstrates a unique capacity for concentration and dedication.

3. Productivity misunderstood

The idea that polymaths are less productive is a solid misjudgment. 

Their range of skill sets often leads to more efficient and creative problem-solving, enhancing productivity in multiple areas.

4. Integration into teams – A misconceived challenge

Far from being poor team players, they excel in team environments. 

Their ability to understand and connect with various perspectives makes them excellent collaborators.

5. Limited career opportunities? Think again

The belief that polymaths face limited career opportunities is false. 

Their versatility and adaptability open up a lot of opportunities, especially in industries that value innovation and flexibility.

Also read: Diversity hiring 101: A quintessential guide for recruiters

Recruiters, the responsibility of determining whether a polymath is the right fit for your client’s needs ultimately rests on your shoulders. 

After considering all the relevant factors, ask yourself: Does your client’s work environment value and support their wide range of skills? 

Do the roles you’re recruiting for align with their skills? 

Reflect on these questions and make an informed decision.

Frequently asked questions

1. How many skills do polymaths have?

Polymaths typically have expertise in multiple areas, often spanning across various disciplines. While there’s no set number, they usually excel in at least three distinct fields, combining depth with breadth in their skill sets.

2. Are polymaths more suited for leadership roles?

Yes, they can be well-suited for leadership roles due to their broad perspective and ability to understand and integrate diverse viewpoints. 

Polymaths’ varied skills and adaptability often enable them to lead teams effectively in complex and dynamic environments.

3. Why are these multi-talent individuals rare?

They are rare because developing expertise in multiple fields requires a unique combination of curiosity, dedication, and the capacity to learn and apply knowledge across different domains. 

This level of commitment and versatility is uncommon. But polymaths do exist today. You just need to find one!

4. Are polymaths the future-proof assets in today’s changing business landscape?

Certainly, these individuals can be considered future-proof assets in the modern workforce. 

Their ability to adapt, learn, and apply knowledge in various contexts makes them particularly valuable in industries that are rapidly evolving and facing constant change.