A Polymath and the Pain

A polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, “having learned much”; Latin: homo universalis, “universal man”) is an individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.

–Wikipedia definition of “Polymath”.

This past year, I have learned a hard truth about myself. I’m not who I thought I was, and who other people may still think I am. And it hurts me to have to admit that to myself. It is painful but cathartic to admit it to you.

Around this time last year, I had a minimal existential crisis. A certain SiriusXM radio station broadcast their list of the 1000 greatest rock and roll songs of all time. Because I was on the road a lot that month, and because they kept repeating the 1000 songs, I got to listen to various sections many times. There were so many songs that I didn’t bother arguing with where they should be placed on the list–until we got to the top 150.

That’s when I had my crisis. I actually only knew a few songs here and there. At one point, I listened for an entire hour and never heard a song I knew. The critical point came when I realized that the top 150 had five songs by The Who, and none of them were “Pinball Wizard”. And, I knew none of those songs. Not one. I also knew only two of the five Rolling Stones songs, none of the Grateful Dead songs, none of the Grand Funk Railroad songs (though I called them GFR like I was their biggest fan), and only a single Jimmy Hendrix song.

I was a fake. I thought I knew rock music, but it became apparent I only knew enough to make it sound like I knew what I was talking about. Once you scraped off the thin veneer of my rock music knowledge, I was all guitar solos and no substance.

My undergraduate degree is theology. I graduated Summa Cum Laude. My minor was in ancient languages since I wanted to be a bible translator at one point. I know how to sight translate Greek and Hebrew. I have extensive theological libraries.

But recently, I have listened to excellent podcasts like “The Bible for Normal People” and “Almost Heretical” and I realize I am the theological equivalent of Jon Snow: I know nothing. I am not being falsely humble to make a point. There are so many questions people are asking recently where not only do I not know the answer, I don’t even understand the question.

I realize this is another veneer of knowledge.

And there’s more. I have several thousand dollars worth of woodworking equipment. I know how to use most, if not all, of the tools. I can talk a great game. Most people assume that my house is full of hand-made furniture. And it could be considering the tools I have. But I pick up almost any woodworking magazine and realize I couldn’t make a simple box properly that they showcase. I just don’t know how.

I have a $2500 Taylor 514 guitar. I love it. I can play a lot of songs on it. But when musicians sit down with me to jam, I realize I cannot even begin to keep up with any of them.

See where this is going?

The problem is, I’m a polymath. I like to know a little bit about EVERYTHING. But I lack both the ability to concentrate and the drive to be an expert on just a few subjects. So I dabble, and read, and allow people to consider me an excellent conversationalist. Because, if polymaths can do anything, they are able to speak intelligently on many subjects. But they are experts at almost nothing.

The current theory on what it takes to be an expert at something says a person must log 10,000 hours in doing something to be an Expert. I guess I could call myself an expert counselor since I have accomplished at least that many hours. I have read over 500 books on counseling and therapy, I have certifications for eight therapies and approaches to emotional healing. And, I am always looking for new trauma approaches and ways I can help victims of sexual assault.

Of course, not everyone agrees of that definition of expertise. Robert Root-Bernstein believes that the future belongs to the polymath, not the expert. He shows in his research how polymathic adults achieve a much higher degree of creativity and original thinking compared to so-called “experts” in the same field. He notes,

Yet, I emotionally struggle. There is part of me that wants to achieve and make my mark on this world.

But I am just an avid and unfocused learner, and someone who remembers what he reads. I average over 100 books a year. I know that is a pittance compared to Teddy Roosevelt who read a book a day over his adult life. But then I compare it to our current President who says he has only read five books cover to cover in his life. I’m on that continuum between TR and DJT.

Though I don’t have a photographic memory, I do remember most of what I read quite extensively. It makes me a fair to middling polymath.

Here are subjects I can speak on without fearing others will know I don’t have much of a clue:

–Computer programming (I know COBOL, QBasic, and FORTRAN)

–Sleep disorders

–Psychopharmacology (I have taken 5 courses in the subject)

–Science Fiction (perhaps I have logged the obligatory 10,000 hours, but when I get around other Sci-Fi people, I am Jon Snow again).

–Fly Fishing

–Preaching and Teaching (I am ordained)

–Narcissism (I’ve written papers on it)

–Writing (I have published 4 books of my own and my writing is in four other compilations. I have also published over 150 articles on many subjects).

–The game Go (I’m a 14-Kyu level)

–Mathematics (I started out as a math major before abandoning it to go to theological school).

–Medicine. My math major was the first year of my pre-med. They forced me to change to a biology major for my second year…thus,


–Human sexuality. I have read over 200 books on the subject and done at least 1000 hours of counseling with others. Yet, I’m not certified as a Sex Therapist where I now live.

–Rubik’s cube (my fastest time is 3:45)

–Memory tricks (I can create and remember a Memory Palace of ten items in less than a minute)

–Music theory

–Creative Writing (I have taught high school classes on this subject). Yet, with the writing I have done, I don’t think I’m that skilled. Two of my four books I was forced to self-publish because I couldn’t find a publisher. I have had seven other books I abandoned because no one would publish them either.

–Economics. (Over 50 books read)

–Church history (over 100 books read)

–Poetry (I may have written 1000 poems. None are published)

–Sports. I played five sports in high school: Golf, track, rugby, soccer, football. I played all at a mediocre level except track. The reason I did better at Track was because I was on relay teams which were exceptional. I also played one season of basketball because they were several players short of the minimum needed to field a team. I suck at basketball.

–Cooking. Before my heart attack, I was known for my smoking and grilling knowledge.

–ADHD. I have it, I’ve lived it, I’ve studied it, I’ve counseled others on it. Some days I hate it. Some days I don’t.

–Personality Studies. I am a licensed trainer for Myers-Briggs (MBTI). I am licensed to administer the Strong Interest Inventory and I regularly consult on it. I am also knowledgeable about MMPI-2, Enneagram, IDAK, StrengthsFinder, DISC, and Big Five.

–Marriage. Married to one woman for 39 years.

I could keep going. But the longer the list gets, the more depressed I get. The story I tell myself is if I had focused on even two or three of the elements of this list, I could have accomplished so much. I can’t tell you how painful it is to feel like both a failure and a fraud.

I feel like a failure because I know I have so much potential to learn.

I feel like a fraud because I know that any day I may be found out as having less than minimal knowledge in most of these areas. And yes, I do know that is called Imposter Syndrome. I’m a polymath, remember?

Some of you reading this are polymaths. Even though Dr. Root-Bernstein thinks highly of us, I have my concerns. Though no one has ever recognized it as a psychological disorder, I feel at times that it is. Due to spending a year in a foster home at age three, I have struggled all my life with attachment styles that cause me pain if someone does not think well of me. That may fuel the polymath drive. I also was molested as a child and suffered severe depression before teen years. That may be a catalytic force for my driven nature.

I admit it is possible I may have become a polymath notwithstanding those factors. Who can say?

In recent years, I have let go of some of the things on this list. I have forced myself to read only down certain lines of thought. I digest more and more psychology/counseling texts, and more sexuality books on my reading list. I only occasionally read a Sci-fi novel, just to break up the litany of serious works.

It actually hurts to narrow my focus like this. I’m not even sure it is the right approach.

But sometimes, we have to go against the grain of our own ego state to accomplish what is really there for the taking.

2 thoughts on “A Polymath and the Pain

  1. Hi Mike, thanks for inviting us into your wrestling/soul searching. I would love to respond with some thoughts of my own, but I don’t have the time right now to try articulate them. Thanks again for your writing; I love it! I’m going to check out the podcasts you mentioned. Are there any other favorite podcasts you would recommend?

  2. Resonating overall and also specifically in many of the details, which seem to have been copied and pasted from my own life. Thanks!

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