No Polymaths Allowed

During an interview with Peter Thiel for “The Portal” by Eric Weinstein, the discussion on technology and culture made a turn towards how universities are forcing students to become specialists in their field. Peter Thiel described when he was an undergraduate that a lot of professors were polymaths. However, the institutional role of universities, both with regards to students as well as their professors, according to Peter Thiel, is “No polymaths allowed”.

Thiel: You can be narrowly specialized. And if you’re interested in other things (disciplines), you better keep it to yourself and not tell people, because if you do, [..] you must not be interested in what you’re meant to study or teach.

If we want to fill in the gaps – in between departments or even business units – we need polymaths: people that dare to be transgressive (pass over or go beyond what they are supposed to be doing) and have a trained interest in the disciplines that are adjacent to the gaps we’re trying to fill. Which is, by the way, the main goal of our online courses: teaching students to (help) steer horizontal integration and vertical alignment.

A polymath is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas—such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.

The uncut interview takes about three hours, but the statement made by Thiel is at 39 minutes:

Divergents threaten the system

One can not deny that our society is built upon specialists, while all those that are divergent, those that don’t choose their place in society, are lost.

In fact, this is the plot of the film Divergent (2014). In the movie, in a dystopian Chicago, children at the age of 16 need to do a test that will determine which of the five factions they will belong to the rest of their life. Or, if they don’t fit any faction, remain factionless – which equals a future with no rights and no future. There is, however, one hidden group, the ones that have traits that indicate that they could belong to any of the factions, known as the Divergent. These are the ones most feared because they pose the biggest threat to the system. When a divergent is discovered he/she will be either exiled or executed.

It is easy to see these five factions pointing to the Big Five personality traits, while the division in factions also points to how people are being contrived to choose highly specialized jobs in the real world.

Picture of Edwin Korver

Edwin Korver

Architect of ROUNDMAP™ - Advancing Grandmastership of Business™ ✪ Business Model Matrix™ ✪ Polymath ✪ Generalist ✪ Systems Thinker ✪ Board Member, CEO CROSS-SILO BV

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