The Digital Polymath – Absorbing the Web With Accelerated Learning Techniques

By on September 3, 2018

My main argument in this post is that the time is right for the return of the polymath. I believe that the web makes it easier than ever for us to become highly skills in multiple different fields, and that the current jobs market and economy makes this more viable than ever too. My second argument is that if you combine accelerated learning techniques with the huge resource that is the web, you can learn at an unprecendented rate.

On this channel and on my blog, I’m always talking about ways to develop yourself and become more awesome. Often that means looking at ways to increase focus, memory, creativity, or other cognitive skills. But actually, the best cognitive upgrade comes from learning.

Awesome image from Patrick Reynolds (Instagramm: @thelastjustice)

Learning entirely new skills, and gaining knew knowledge, can help you to thrive in a far wider range of situations, and accelerate your progress in your career and personal life. My job forces me to constantly learn and acquire new information as I’ll discuss more in a moment. This has often come in useful in the strangest of situations – such as when having to pick a lock (suddenly 100+ articles for locksmiths come in handy), or when having to fix a leaky pipe.

Imagine what you would be like if you spoke more languages, knew survival techniques, had management skills, knew how to program, understood quantum physics, and could fix anything… This would make you more ‘Limitless’ than any increase in focus or memory. And thanks to the web and new technology, this might be possible.

The Polymaths of Old

The polymath or ‘homo-universalis’ describes someone who is skilled in multiple different fields. The most famous example often given is Da Vinci, who was the ideal renaissance man as a painter, a biologist and an inventor.

Da Vinci polymath

While Da Vinci was exceptional though, it was much more normal during his era for a person to pursue interests in multiple fields. The wealthy elite would often spend their time on artistic endeavours while reading about science, philosophy and poetry. They might even have conducted some of their own experiments. Everyone was a polymath, or renaissance man/woman!

Today this is far less common. We might think of someone like Elon Musk as a modern polymath, or Howard Hughes. I personally think someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger (bodybuilder, businessman, actor, politician) or Stallone (painter, writer, actor) could be considered examples. But most of us are specialists. We learn what we need to know for our jobs and we show little interest in the arts and sciences beyond that.

The problem is that most of us don’t have the time or energy to learn biology or physics in our free time. Our lives are very different to those wealthy Romans who would lie around eating grapes all day. We also have more entertainment to keep us busy when we’re not learning. If the Romans had Netflix, maybe we still wouldn’t have central heating?

homo universalis

@thelastjustice

Likewise, most fields have developed to the point where it takes a much larger investment of time to make any significant contribution. Once upon a time it would take a bit of reading to bring you up to speed on gravity. Today things are much different: it takes years of study to become familiar with the extent of our progress in any given field. Good luck watching an apple fall to the ground and cracking string theory…

And thus, the argument for specialization: It makes more sense to focus on one area and to become – like Ash – the very best. To become an incredibly specific form of marine biologist, or PHP programmer. Even that takes a huge amount of dedication though, and so most of us will make do with becoming good enough at one thing in order to pay the rent and feed those noisy kids. Some would argue then that there’s no place or time for the polymath in today’s world.

Shame, right? Except I think we’re starting to move out of this era and toward a more positive one. A digital renaissance that we can only hope has the same dress code as that seen in Human Revolution.

Why the Time is Nigh for the Polymath

So, why is this a good time for a renaissance resurgence?

For starters, we now have access to more information than ever before. If you want to learn something new, then all you need to do is to open up your phone or laptop and Google a few questions. Honestly, during my psychology degree, one of the things that helped me most of all was realizing I could watch entertaining YouTube videos to learn the concepts I would otherwise have had to learn from dense textbooks.

Learning online

Perhaps you’ll find a tutorial or a series you can read along with or watch. This is my number one method for learning new coding concepts. Or, if you’re willing to pay, you can take an online course on Udemy or a Udacity. Or checkout SkillShare, Brilliant, or Khan Academy.

Even just by watching YouTube and engaging in discourse on forums, we are expanding our knowledge and skills. More and more people can now program, write, edit videos, compose music, and understand politics – thanks to the web. Watch videos by the likes of Mark Brown, NerdWriter, Patrik H. Willems, VSauce, Captain Midnight, or many others, and you will find yourself understanding the art you consume on a deeper level.

In my upcoming book Thriving in the Gig Economy, I talk about how important it is to keep educating yourself and developing new skills in order to stay relevant and charge higher fees. In traditional work, the most successful individuals are the ones who receive investment and training from their employers – who get sent on management courses, or receive qualifications in their areas of expertise. With salaries no longer increasing at the rate of inflation in many cases, this is the only way to get ahead and succeed.

But if your organization isn’t offering you training, why wait around for it to happen? Especially if you are a member of the freelancing movement. (If my book is out by the time you read this, the link will be in the description below.)

Accelerated learning

Want to learn to code? No problem. Interested in engineering? Sure. Creative writing? You got it. Take a couple of these courses and you can genuinely claim to be a genuine polymath!

Want to take a degree, become a personal trainer? You can do all this online and the qualifications are just as valuable. – the precise same ones you’d get by attending a school in person Invest in yourself during weekends, evenings, and more. This is the best way to improve yourself – to keep gaining new skills, new insights, new knowledge, and new opportunities.

Outsourcing

As for not becoming the very top of your field, that actually matters less now than it did before. Science is getting to the point where very few people can be considered top experts in their fields. Even those top experts rarely know the entire subject inside out, or can perform the necessary calculations with Specializations are becoming increasingly narrow. Concepts take years or decades to fully grasp.

Galileo polymath

So, what do we do? We outsource and we automate. If you happen to know a fair bit about one subject and someone else knows a fair bit about another topic, then you can work together in order to have a fairly decent working knowledge. Then you can use principles that others already developed and perhaps employ some software to do the big number crunching for you. The modern digital polymath doesn’t need to be at the top of their field – they need to know enough in order to help the community reach powerful conclusions and leverage powerful tools.

Nowhere is this clearer than in coding. Today, very few people can honestly claim to be ‘full stack’ developers (people who can handle all the front-end and the backend of a web project) but they don’t have to. Not only will they work in teams, but they’ll also use pre-existing frameworks and tools like WordPress or Joomla. If you want to create a computer game, you don’t need to create your own 3D engine from scratch but can rather utilize something like Unity to handle all those complicated calculations and all the physics. When creating Android apps, you can simply plug-and-play fancy menus from libraries other developers have made and you can access cloud storage through Google’s Firebase, or to machine learning via Google’s AutoML. Want to add OCR (Optical Character Recognition) or voice recognition? No problem!

programming polymaths

Meanwhile tools like Github leverage open source attitudes in order to make incredible things possible. This is a website where coders can contribute to existing projects, create their own ‘forks’ from other people’s work, or collaborate to build things that would otherwise be impossible. Like a human hive-mind.

It’s not just coding where this is happening either. Look at how tools like 3D printers allow us to do more with our knowledge. Today, learning 3D modelling means being able to create awesome works of art or products to sell. Today, anyone can publish their own book. Anyone can run advanced simulations.

Tony Stark polymath

In other words, you can now get an awful lot done by just knowing enough and still make worthwhile contributions if you have a good idea. And it’s by learning a cross section of different skills and disciplines that you can bring those fresh ideas to the table.

Steve Jobs polymath

Steve Jobs – not an engineer or a programmer, but someone who knew enough about those things and business to make waves

And on top of all this, we now have more creative tools at our disposal than ever before, and more ways to distribute those creative works. We can now write novels and self-publish them, create videos and share them online, or even design 3D models that people can print to create ornaments and useful tools. Most of us have professional-grade cameras in our pockets right now. There’s more incentive than ever before to learn lots of different skills, in order to be able to get those works made and then to communicate the ideas and promote them to a large audience.

And make no mistake: it is creative skill that we need right now, and that will be most valued in the changing economy (the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ as some are calling it). As computers take more and more of our jobs, those that remain will be the ones that require creative, out-the-box thinking, and problem solving. What is creative thinking? It is the unique combination of existing ideas. And by being adept in multiple different fields, we can thereby pull together influences from disparate fields in order to achieve just that.

Bruce Lee writing

Accelerated Learning Techniques for Digital Polymaths

Have I convinced you? All you need is a laptop or a phone and you can tackle a whole range of different topics, becoming a modern renaissance man or woman/digital polymath. Follow your interests and dip in and out. Don’t worry if you have a go at calculus and give up after a week, just try something else! Even the little bit of knowledge you glean from that might help you to better understand another concept in coding, or in engineering. Or to just sound a little more impressive in your next conversation.

Tony Stark playing human

And if you want to increase the breadth and depth of your knowledge even further, then why not try any of the many different ‘accelerated learning’ techniques that are out there? These are strategies designed to help you learn faster and master subjects in a fraction of the time it would normally take. When you combine accelerated learning with the digital age, you have the potential for Neo-style skill-acquisition. And as such, anyone can now become a digital polymath.

Accelerated learning Matrix

I know kung fu

Here are some of the most popular and effective examples of accelerated learning techniques…

The Feynman Technique

The Feynman technique is named for Richard Feynman and is a mental model that is designed to help ensure you gain a true depth of knowledge.

Richard Feynman accelerated learning

The aim is to be able to explain the concept as simply as possible. Start with the basic concept (ELI5 – Explain Like I’m Five) and if you don’t understand it well enough to summarize simply, then try to identify where the gap in your knowledge is. Try using analogies and metaphors to better understand the precise gaps in the knowledge, look back at the source material to relearn those areas, and then repeat the cycle.

The importance of the Feynman technique lies in the way it forces you to really engage with and understand the knowledge. As a writer, this is something I contend with often. I am paid every day to read up on subjects relating to coding, hardware, biology, psychology… and then re-express those topics in a manner that is unique and that others will be able to understand.

This is why I would also highly recommend writing about the things you’re learning. It’s also an excellent way to commit them to memory.

Howard Hughes polymath

Try asking yourself while watching that fascinating V-Sauce video: how will I tell friends about this in a way that will be interesting?

This technique won’t necessarily help you to dig through reams of research material any quicker, but will instead make sure you are engaging with the information you do encounter to the point where you fully understand it.

A great article by Scott Young suggests that one of the most important important elements to learning is being able to build connections with pre-existing knowledge: thereby giving what you have learned context.

The DISS Method

The DiSS method is a technique that Tim Ferriss – superlearner extraordinaire – outlilnes in his book The Four Hour Chef. This is an acronym that stands for:

  • Deconstructing (identifying the minimal ‘learnable units’)
    • iNterviewing (asking people who already know the subject well)
    • Reversal (looking at the end point you are trying to accomplish and working backwards)
  • Selection (according to the Parento principle, which 20% of knowledge will result in 80% of the results?)
  • Sequencing (what is the best order to learn these learnable units?)
  • Stakes (how can you force yourself to learn – by creating real, meaningful stakes to motivate you?)
Arnold Schwarzenegger polymath

Arnie is for sure an example of a Polymath

I’m particularly fond of the interviewing step. Asking people who understand something well to share their knowledge is fantastically useful and has helped me immensely in every area of my life. If you don’t happen to have an astrophysicist to hand, recognize that everyone you know has something useful and interesting to teach you. And most people area eager to share that knowledge. So listen.

Target Performance Level

In his book, The First 20 Hours, Josh Kaufman describes another powerful strategy for learning, which is to set a ‘target performance level’ and aim for that.

For instance, instead of trying to ‘learn German’, you might set out to learn ‘German up to the point where I can order food in a restaurant and make small talk with the staff’. This helps to provide context and structure to your learning, and is also more intrinsically motivating as it gives you a real, tangible benefit for your learning.

Renaissance men deus ex

I always advise to people learning to code that they should not aim to ‘learn a language’ like C# or Java. Instead, they should aim to build a specific type of app and learn as they go. Choose to make a calculator, a game, or a quiz. Doing this will structure your learning and help you to understand why certain commands are useful and how everything comes together. From there, you can learn new concepts as you introduce additional features to your program.

And in fact, you’ll find this is how most professional coders work anyway. Very few know every command and API off the top of their heads – they instead refresh their memory with a quick Google each time they add a new line. In this way, the internet acts as a constant resource and repository of knowledge – an exocortex that ultimately changes the entire nature of the way we learn and use our knowledge.

More Useful Skills and Tools for the Homo Universalis

Another useful skill is simply being able to absorb large amounts of information quickly. Again, the internet is our friend here and gives us lots of options.

For instance, if you want to learn more from YouTube, more quickly, then why not try listening on 2x speed? You can also do the same thing on Audible.

Think as well about how you can fit in more opportunities for learning. I recommend treating learning as you treat your workouts: dedicate an hour or five to learning each week. But when you can’t manage this, just listening to podcasts while driving, exercising, cooking etc. can be the next best option.

Speed Reading

For reading, learning to speed-read is a useful skill. If you can read a book in a fraction of the time, then you can read more books and thereby finish learning more quickly. Every polymath should learn to speed read. Here is a great article on the topic from Tim Ferriss.

Successful speed reading is partly a matter of knowing the information you want to extract from a text before you begin reading. In truth, there is a lot of filler in the vast majority of books and you can usually get the ‘big ideas’ without needing to wade through all of it.

Bruce Lee reading

The other tip is to try not ‘sounding out’ every word as you skim through. Instead, sweep your eyes over the text and pick out the key bits of meaning.

I used to think I was an incredibly slow reader because I would like to sound out every line of dialogue in a book and even put on ‘voices’ in my head (just like my Mum used to!). I still do this when reading fiction, but I have since learned that there are effectively two types of reading. Some writing requires and deserves your full engagement, some is just there to be picked through.

Spaced Learning and Anki Flashcards

Revision and learning strategies can also be applied to accelerated learning, as sometimes rote learning facts and figures is simply unavoidable. In these scenarios, Anki provides a powerful online tool that you can use to progress faster. Anki is a flashcard app available for most operating systems that employs two core concepts that have been shown in studies to be superior to many other methods of learning: active recall and spaced learning.

Active recall simply means that you are being challenged to retrieve the information you have stored. Rather than passively learning, you are being tested and challenged. This has been shown to be more effective at improving subsequent recall.

Spaced learning basically involves introducing carefully timed breaks into your learning. This has been shown to actually increase retention (study). One explanation given for why this might be the case, suggests that this slight pause gives the information time to move from our short term memory to our long term memory. If you’ve read my diatribe on working memory, then you will know that working memory may not in fact be a ‘container’ as such, but rather simply ‘visualization’ in the sense that we are activating certain neurons. So that explanation doesn’t necessarily work, but perhaps taking time out allows time for the potentiated networks to ‘go cold’? Either way, this might ensure that we are really retrieving the information, rather than regurgitating what is already there, and thereby help us to better cement those connections.

Working memory

The best part about Anki though is that there is such a huge online community. Download the app and you’ll not only be able to create your own ‘decks’ of flashcards, but you will also be able to download those created by the community – thereby gaining access to huge amounts of information on pretty much any subject you can possibly imagine, all ready for you to be tested on.

Google

The kind of skim reading I discussed earlier is something we actually do all the time on the web – and being able to quickly research what you want from the internet is a key skill in itself. And actually, something else I would describe as a ‘key skill’ for getting information online, is knowing how to phrase a question. Understanding how to Google is an immensely useful tool and often I’ll enjoy a eureka moment when I realize the best way to phrase a question I’ve been pondering so that Google might produce an answer.

Learning code

Also very useful for the budding polymath is Google Scholar. I’ve written a post on how to evaluate studies in the past, and I’ll be revisiting this discussion in a video very soon.

Communities

Accelerated learning online

If Google doesn’t have the answer, then you can bet that Reddit or Stack Overflow does. This is simply crowdsourcing your knowledge in order to utilize the power of groupthink. It’s like cloud computing with human brains…

I actually use you guys for that a lot of the time – the other day I asked a question about tax in the US for a book that I was writing. Tim Ferriss similarly points out how one of the best ways to get your news quicker, is just to ask someone who reads it daily to give you a quick breakdown. Anyone you talk to can teach you something, so make sure to listen and ask questions. If you get stuck? Head over to a forum – Stack Overflow or whatever the equivalent might be for your topic – and then ask others for a bit of help.

Comprehensible Input

After I had filmed the video for this one, I came across a great video on the YouTube channel What I’ve Learned.

This one discusses the way we learn languages through ‘comprehensible input’ – by treating the brain like a machine-learning algorithm. In other words, we don’t need to ‘actively’ learn, but rather immerse ourselves in it and learn through association, context, and repetition. When you hear a language in the correct context with visual cues and prompts, your brain draws the necessary connections and the meaning ‘sinks in’. This is the difference between ‘acquisition’ and ‘learning’, and it is why watching foreign films (with foreign subtitles) can be such an effective strategy (one my Mum used on me to try and teach me German). I also recommend foreign comics.

Brain Plasticity

Brain plasticity describes the innate ability of our brains to change shape, develop new connections, and generally grow in response to stimuli. I’ve written about this topic on numerous occasions, so you can find more information by checking any of those old articles.

Reed Richards polymath

Suffice to say, that learning increases plasticity, and increasing plasticity aids with learning. This means you will get better at learning with time and practice, but it also means that you can accelerate this process by using strategies aimed at supporting plasticity. That may include the use of nootropics, getting more sleep and exercise, and ensuring you remain engaged and interested in what you are doing, which will boost dopamine and BDNF.

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully this argument has inspired you to consider learning more subjects and skills, chasing qualifications and experience, and generally diversifying your knowledge. This can help you to advance your career, be more successful in every area of your life, and expand your mind. We can treat this just like physical workouts, and by utilizing the huge resource we have at our fingertips and the power of accelerated learning, we can all become ‘digital polymaths’. The web is an exocortex, and its potential is limitless.

You’ll be able to read more about this idea and many others in my upcoming book: Thriving in the Gig Economy!

 

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. Al says:

    Nice vid to rewatch but people being made smarter and more powerful by the internet and the home computer peeked about 2010.
    Kiosk type devices like phones have turned cyberspace into a destructive force that weakens and stupifies people as it said in ‘The Dumbest Generation’ a decade ago

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