This article contains affiliate links. This means that if you make a purchase through one of these links we may get a small commission from the sale at no additional cost to you. Thank you in advance for your support.
The Polymath Defined
Welcome readers, to the 2nd installment of polymaths that are living and working today! You won’t find those tried and true polymath names like Leonardo Da Vinci here. This one’s all about CURRENT DAY polymaths! This article will hopefully shed light on some names you are unfamiliar with, while also adding additional context to those you may recognize. Ideally, you’ll be able to further research these individuals yourself, follow their work, and draw inspiration from them. Before going any further let’s take a minute and define the word Polymath.
“Simply put, a polymath is an exceptionally versatile human who excels in multiple seemingly unrelated fields.”Waqas Ahmed, author of The Polymath
I like the above quote as a nice short definition of the word polymath. For additional thoughts about what makes a polymath, you can take a look at one of my previous articles here. For the purposes of this article, we’ll be using the 4 criteria below to solidify that the following individuals are indeed polymaths. These criteria are also linked to the previous article which offers more detail on each requirement.
- Their Knowledge is in Disparate Areas.
- Their Knowledge is Expert Level.
- They Have Skill/Knowledge in at Least 3 Areas.
- Combining Physical/Athletic Expertise with Academic/Knowledge-Based Expertise is a Plus.
List of Polymaths
See below to see the list of modern day polymaths that appeared in the first installment of this series. If you’d like to know more about these individuals just click on the name(s) below.
Famous Polymaths Today
Natalie Portman (Psychology, Actress, Polygot)
Starting things off we have another actor/actress. Does anyone notice a trend here? Whether it’s due to preparation for the roles they play, privileged upbringing or some other factor(s), actors and actresses seem to have abundant opportunities to dip their toes into a multitude of areas. A few of them manage to develop the higher level expertise in several fields that is characteristic of the polymath.
Natalie Portman began acting at the age of 12 with the first of her many serious roles in the 1994 film The Professional. She’s since become one of the most respected and recognized actresses of her generation, starring in a bunch of well known and critically acclaimed films, including Closer, Garden State, V for Vendetta, and Black Swan, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. In addition to her acting, Portman has also successfully tried her hand at directing, producing, and writing for film.
Although Portman began acting at a young age, she grew into quite the studious child, even co-authoring a paper with scientists in high school, entitled “A Simple Method to Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar”. While that might not seem too advanced on the surface, I think it’s pretty impressive for high school! She’d go on to study at Harvard, contributing to research done on memory and earning a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology in 2003.
In addition to English, Natalie Portman is fluent in Hebrew, as her father is Israeli-born and she grew up speaking the language. There are several interviews and videos on the internet where you can hear Portman conversing easily in Hebrew. She is also able to converse in French. From what is available online, it doesn’t seem that she is quite as comfortable in this language as her other 2 native languages, but there are some details in her background that hint at her being proficient. Firstly, she is married to a Frenchman, dance choreographer Benjamin Millepied. For some time their family even lived in Paris. She has also acted in French, in the films Planetarium, ‘Paris, je t’aime’, and Hotel Chevalier. Portman seems very much a student of the world and also has some ability in Spanish and Japanese as well.
To learn some Hebrew slang from Portman, watch the video below, lol.
Scott Young (Writer, Programmer, Polyglot)
Scott Young began his career as a blogger, just before his 18th birthday. According to his website, he used his blog as a vehicle to discuss his philosophical thoughts on life and the best way to live. A prolific writer, Scott penned over 1,000 articles in addition to e-books and guides. Although he explores many different topics on the blog, his focus gradually began to hone in on the topic of the best ways to learn. In 2019, he published his book, Ultralearning, which details his strategies on how to learn difficult, complex things quickly.
Okay, big deal, why should I listen to this guy about learning? What does he know? In answer to that question, Scott has completed several of his own ultralearning projects with impressive results. One of these was his MIT Challenge, which he began in 2012. Over the course of a year, Scott completed the entire MIT undergraduate Computer Science curriculum. That’s a 4-year degree’s worth of classes…from MIT (not an easy, walk in the park school)…condensed down to a year! Since Scott didn’t attend MIT in person, he did have to make some modifications, subbing in classes here and there, etc.
If you’re a bit skeptical, he documented the whole affair on his blog, so you can check it out for yourself. Although he didn’t end up with an actual degree from MIT, he nonetheless learned the programming skills required (as well as some other things). If you take the time to look at the curriculum of classes he followed, you’ll see that Scott completed some other cool science classes as required, including Physics, Biology, and Circuits and Electronics, in addition to a number of math classes.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Scott completed “The Year Without English” ultralearning challenge, which he devised, in 2014. Over the course of a year, he and a friend traveled around the world, immersing themselves completely in one country/language at a time. During this time they would speak virtually ZERO English, with only a few exceptions. The languages included Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, and Korean. Maybe even more impressive than his MIT challenge, this one is documented on Scott’s website as well, including videos taken along the way, showcasing their progress.
Scott has documented other challenges on his blog, and has since continued to write and make videos about learning concepts. He has also partnered with productivity author Cal Newport to launch a number of courses focused on learning and career development. Needless to say, Scott and his work in the space of learning hard skills, has been and continues to be a huge inspiration.
Derek Sivers (Musician, Businessman, Author)
Derek Sivers is one of those names you hear alongside the likes of Tim Ferrriss, who has been in the entreprenuer space for a looooong time. Sivers started off as a musician, beginning piano, viola, and clarinet in 1977 at around age 8. He eventually switched to guitar and attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music, former school of such notable names as John Mayer, Esperanza Spalding, Howard Shore, and St. Vincent. He’d go on to tour with his own band and others, join a circus (yes, really), and release an album under his own name.
In 1997, before mp3s were a thing, and long before streaming, Sivers started the hugely successful CD Baby. I personally remember ordering huge amounts of CDs from this website when I was in school myself, lol. In 2008, Sivers sold CD Baby as well as another of his companies for what I can only assume was an ungodly amount of money.
Newly rich, Sivers went on to…..pretty much do whatever he wanted. He wrote for his blog, authored books, went on podcasts, and gave TED talks. He’s well-known for having insightful thoughts about business, life, art, and entreprenuership. Perhaps you’re familiar with the below quote-
And this one-
““If more information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”Derek Sivers
Sivers has published the book Anything You Want about his time at CD Baby, as well as a newer book, “How to Live” and several others in between. Sivers is well traveled and introspective. If you can check out an interview with him it is certain to be informative, as well as entertaining.
Ever heard of, or seen, the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer? That movie, based on a book written by his father, is the story of young chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin. Growing up, Waitzkin was a chess wunderkind and was seen as a strong contender to assume the American chess master mantle vacated by the great Bobby Fischer. He was an 8-time National Champion while in school and eventually earned the rank of International Master.
Waitzkin talks at length about the processes of learning chess, the outside pressures he faced as a kid, and the mental game in his book The Art of Learning. The book is an essential treasure trove of ideas and strategies on how to reach the highest peaks of performance, mental and otherwise. Part memoir, part performance guide, it chronicles his upbringing as a chess player and his transition to the martial art of Tai Chi Push Hands.
At least partially due to increased visibility due to the movie, Waitzkin began to drift away from chess and eventually found his way to Tai Chi. Not just any form of Tai Chi though. Waitzkin devoted himself fully to the art of Tai Chi Chuan (Push Hands) which is a competitive, more aggressive form of Tai Chi, focused on grappling. Waitzkin won 5 National Championships in the art, in multiple weight divisions. His career in Tai Chi Chuan culminated in him winning the World Championships for Middleweight in Fixed Step Push Hands and Moving Step Push Hands (Co-Champion) in 2004. His run through winning the Championships is chronicled in The Art of Learning.
Waitzkin runs the JW Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on helping individuals optimize their learning and performance. While actively pursuing his goals in Tai Chi Chuan, Waitzkin began training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He eventually earned his black belt under BJJ phenom Marcelo Garcia and went on to create a digital BJJ learning platform with him. Waitzkin’s BJJ career ended abruptly due to a devastating back injury.
Always moving forward in life, Waitzkin took up the water sport of foiling, a modified version of surfing, which he does to this day.
You’ve already read about the amazing rock star polymath, Bruce Dickinson, in the last Modern Day Polymaths article. This time we’re looking at the erudite and creative force that is Brian May. May was and sometimes still IS the lead guitarist for glam-rock mega band, Queen, one of the most famous musical super-groups of all time! May co-founded Queen along with Freddy Mercury and Roger Taylor. He is well regarded for his unique guitar work, but perhaps his greatest contributions came in the form of his songs and arrangements for the group. He is the composer of such hit songs as “We Will Rock You”, “I Want It All”, and “Fat Bottomed Girls”. Needless to say, Brian May has been an integral part of Queen’s astounding success.
Interwoven with May’s success with Queen, is the story of his guitar, nicknamed Red Special. Growing up, May’s family did not have a lot of money, but what they did have was a can-do attitude. May designed and built the unique electric guitar with the help and guidance of his father Harold, a draughtsman at The Ministry of Aviation. Incredibly, the guitar was put together from parts and materials found around the house, including the neck, which was crafted from a piece of mahogany that was part of a fireplace mantle that was being thrown out. The instrument has a unique design, not the least of which is the tremolo system (the whammy bar that gives a guitar that ability to bend notes) which utilized two old motorbike valve springs. This guitar is almost as famous as May, lol, and you can read more about it here.
Brian May is active as a proponent for animal welfare and even has his own organization dedicated to the cause called Save Me. In particular, he has advocated against fox hunting and the culling of badgers in the UK. He even formed a pro-badger supergroup with naturalist Sir David Attenborough and Slash, from Guns N’ Roses fame, to write a song called “Badger Swagger”. Check out the video if you want to laugh for a good cause.
In all seriousness though, Brian May’s most impressive field of expertise has got to be his status as a respected astrophysicist. Before Queen had taken off on a rocket towards fame, May had begun a Doctorate in Astrophysics in 1970 at Imperial College in London. When Queen started to get massively popular and busy, May put his studies on hold. He later decided he wanted to finish his thesis and get his degree, but before he could he had to see what scientific discoveries made in the interim may have affected his paper! After concluding that his topic (zodiacal dust if you were wondering) was still a safe space, May finished his work and was awarded his Doctorate degree in 2008.
Not only is May, Dr. May now, but he continues to work in the field of astrophysics, contributing to research and co-authoring space and science books. He has even done a lot of work with NASA, specifically working on the stereography imaging of asteroids. Due to his incredible work, Brian May was officially knighted earlier this year.
If you know someone inspired by polymathy be sure to share this article! And check back soon for the next round of polymaths!
And if you’re craving more Polymath goodness, consider checking out the following-