By Michael Simmons
Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. Warren Buffett. Jeff Bezos. Larry Page. They are all polymaths too.
The founders of the five largest companies in the world — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Larry Page, and Jeff Bezos — all share two uncommon traits. After studying self-made billionaires for many years now, I believe that these two traits are responsible for a lot of their wealth, success, impact, and fame. In fact, I put so much faith in these two traits that I’ve used them in my own life to start companies, be a better writer, be a better husband, and achieve financial security.
Here are the two traits:
- Each of them is a voracious learner.
- Each of them is a polymath.
Let’s unpack these two terms, and learn a few simple tips for using them in your own life.
First, the definitions. I define a voracious learner as someone who follows the 5-hour rule — dedicating at least five hours per week to deliberate learning. I define a polymath as someone who becomes competent in at least three diverse domains and integrates them into a skill set that puts them in the top 1% of their field. If you model these two traits and you take them seriously, I believe they can have a huge impact on your life and really accelerate your success toward your goals. When you become a voracious learner, you compound the value of everything you’ve learned in the past. When you become a polymath, you develop the ability to combine skills, and you develop a unique skill set, which helps you develop a competitive advantage.
By Bill Gates’ own estimate, he’s read one book a week for 52 years, many of them having nothing to do with software or business. He also has taken an annual two-week reading vacation for his entire career. In a fascinating 1994 Playboy interview, we see that he already thought of himself as a polymath:
PLAYBOY: Do you dislike being called a businessman?
GATES: Yeah. Of my mental cycles, I devote maybe ten percent to business thinking. Business isn’t that complicated. I wouldn’t want to put it on my business card.
PLAYBOY: What, then?
GATES: Scientist. Unless I’ve been fooling myself. When I read about great scientists like, say, Crick and Watson and how they discovered DNA, I get a lot of pleasure. Stories of business success don’t interest me in the same way.
The fact that Gates considers himself a scientist is fascinating given that he dropped out of college and had spent his whole life in the software industry at that point.
Interestingly, Elon Musk doesn’t consider himself a businessman either. In this recent CBS interview, Musk says he thinks of himself as more of a designer, engineer, technologist, and even wizard.
Warren Buffett has pinpointed the key to his success this way: “Read 500 pages every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest.”
Jeff Bezos has built his whole company around learning on a massive scale via experimentation and has also been an avid reader his whole life.
Finally, Steve Jobs famously combined various disciplines and looked at it as Apple’s competitive advantage, going so far as to say:
“Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that makes our hearts sing.”
And, of course, the founders of these five companies aren’t the only massively successful individuals who share these two traits. As I’ve written about before, if we expanded the list to a sample of other self-made billionaires, we quickly see Oprah Winfrey, Ray Dalio, David Rubenstein, Phil Knight, Howard Marks, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Charles Koch, and many others share similar habits.
Why would some of the busiest people in the world invest their most precious resource — time — into learning about topics seemingly unconnected to their fields, like fusion power, font design, biographies of scientists, and doctors’ memoirs?
Each of them commands organizations of thousands of the smartest people in the world. They’ve delegated almost every task in their life and businesses to the best and brightest. So why have they held on to this intense amount of learning?
After writing several articles attempting to answer these questions, this is what I’ve ultimately come to:
At the highest levels, learning isn’t something you do to prepare for your work. Learning is the most important work. It is the core competency to build. It’s the thing you never delegate. And it’s one of the ultimate drivers of long-term performance and success.
As I came to this realization, I wondered: Why isn’t it obvious that we should all become voracious learners and polymaths throughout our whole lives given that we live in an increasingly complex, rapidly changing, advanced-knowledge economy? Why does the average person think of deliberate learning as an optional thing to do on the side?
I think it’s because of three strong messages we’ve all been taught — in school, in college, and in general society — that may have been true in the past, but are definitely no longer true. Here’s how these three lies break down:
- Lie #1: Disciplines are the best way to categorize knowledge.
- Lie #2: Most learning happens in school/college.
- Lie #3: You must pick one field and specialize in it.
These beliefs are so insidious that they’ve destroyed our intuition about learning and knowledge, and they ultimately hold us back from creating the success we want. If we can become aware of them, we can rectify them, just as the most successful people in the world have done.
Lie #1: Disciplines are the best way to categorize knowledge
Our educational system is built on a model that divides knowledge into different subjects — math, reading, history, science. Beginning in kindergarten, we get the message that these subjects are best learned individually.
We even break these subjects down further into smaller fields of study — economics, for instance, breaks down into microeconomics and macroeconomics. This paradigm of breaking fields down and teaching them separately is called reductionism. Though it’s still the standard in our society, it’s actually starting to change in more progressive countries.
Reductionism has big benefits. Within tightly knit fields, ideas travel quickly and efficiently because everyone belongs to the same culture and speaks the same language. It is easier to investigate the pieces of a system rather than a whole complex system. The paradigm has led to many important discoveries.
But one key disadvantage of reductionism is that the connectionsbetween fields become obscured. This results is what is known as “negative learning transfer,” which is when learning one thing makes it harder to learn something else, because the concepts we’ve learned are so strongly tied to the specific field of study. If you’ve ever gotten tripped up while trying to learn a second language whose rules of grammar, word order, tense, or pluralization don’t match those of your native language, you’ve experienced negative learning transfer.
Another weakness is that people outside of a specialized field cannot easily grasp what’s happening inside it. Picture one neurosurgeon talking shop with another. No problem, right? Now picture a neurosurgeon trying to explain advancements in brain surgery to a graphic designer. Each field has its own language and culture, and so unique insights in one field aren’t applied to another even though they often could and should be. This leads to echo chambers.
In reality, what we learn is strongly attached to the context we learn it in. Take exercise. Until very recently, I used to circle my gym’s parking lot for five minutes in order to find the closest parking space. Instead of taking the stairs, I took the elevator up to the locker room. And do you know what machine I used? The stair climber! This is just one of many examples where seemingly obvious transfers fail to happen.
Biologist James Zull explains why learning transfer is so complicated in his book, The Art of the Changing Brain. “Often we don’t have the [neural] networks that connect one subject with another. They have been built up separately, especially if we have studied in the standard curriculum that breaks knowledge into parts like math, language, science, and social science.” Because we are not taught to see the common roots of all knowledge, we don’t see their interconnectedness.
Elon Musk feels so strongly that our educational system fails to teach children these “common roots” that he has created his own school and put all of his kids into it. In a fascinating interview that Musk did on Chinese television, he shares why he made the decision and challenges the paradigm of reductionism:
It’s important to teach to the problem, not to the tools. Let’s say you’re trying to teach people about how engines work. A more traditional approach would be to say, ‘We’re going to teach all about screwdrivers and wrenches, and you’re going to have a course on screwdrivers and a course on wrenches …. That’s a very difficult way to do it.
A much better way would be to say, ‘Here’s the engine. Let’s take it apart. How are we going to take it apart. Oh. We need a screwdriver. That’s what the screwdriver is for. We need a wrench. That’s what the wrench is for.
And then a very important thing happens. The relevance becomes apparent.
Over the years, I’ve learned that there is a deeper way to categorize knowledge, a way to learn fundamentals that apply across all fields and teach skills that stay with a person for life. These fundamentals are called Mental Models, and I’ve written extensively about them in this article and in my Mental Model of the Month Club.
Let’s look at just one mental model, called “stress and recovery.” Going back to the example of exercise, the phenomenon of stress and recovery is the reason exercise makes us stronger: it temporarily stresses our muscles and cardiovascular system past their current capacity, and they rebuild themselves during recovery. With this mental model in mind, we can look for it in other areas and across fields. For example, it explains why certain types of difficult experiences can help us become mentally strong. In the psychology world, this is known as post-traumatic growth. In the social psychology world, these type of difficult experiences are called diversifying experiences. In adult development, they’re referred to as optimal conflict. With these examples, we can see how the same underlying mental model is given a different name in different fields of application.
Mental models are the invisible networks of ideas that connect disciplines together.
They are what many of the world’s top learners and polymaths use to get ahead in our knowledge economy.
TRUTH: It is just as important to categorize knowledge by mental models as it is by subject, because mental models underlie and connect subjects.
Lie #2: Most learning happens in school / college
“Self-education is the only kind of education there is.” — Mark Twain
One of the most fundamental problems with education, I am convinced, is the conflation of school with learning.
In reality, school is only one context in which learning happens. Almost all of the learning across our life spans happens outside of school: at home, on the playground, on the sports field, while traveling, from books we read and hobbies we enjoy, and especially from our jobs. Yet, we are trained to think of formal education as the “real” education.
Conflating what is learned in school with what happens in the real world is known in the military and law-enforcement community as “training scars.” The book Algorithms To Live By cites several extreme examples of these scars, which show how serious their consequences can be: officers in real-life situations holstering their weapons after firing only two shots (as they do in training) or pausing a gunfight to put their spent casings in their pockets (which is standard etiquette on a firing range). In one chilling example, an officer grabbed the gun out of the hands of an assailant, then instinctively handed it right back — just as he had done time and time again with his trainers at the police academy. Similarly, we often learn skills in school that either don’t transfer to the real world or even hinder our performance in it.
For example, most of us would agree that in the classroom, those who follow directions and stick to the rules are rewarded for that behavior. But in the real world, key leadership traits include risk taking and original thinking, both of which go against the grain of classroom learning. In short, much of our formal education trains us to be followers, not leaders.
Here’s how I uncovered the lie of “school equals learning” in my own life.
Much of my childhood was spent studying so I could earn a high GPA and get into a good college. I was told a good college was the ticket to a good life and I believed it. Things went to plan and I got into my top-choice schools: Wharton School of Business at UPENN and Stern School of Business At NYU. At first I dutifully completed every assignment and sweated over every subject. But then I read a study that said most US presidents, congressmen, senators, and even university presidents had graduated college with low GPAs. One survey of 700 millionaires showed that their average GPA was a 2.9. In fact, the president of my own university had graduated with a 2.1. Furthermore, I learned that most of my entrepreneurial role models had not even graduated college — or if they did, they didn’t consider it an important part of their success.
“WTF?!” I thought to myself. “I’ve been lied to my whole life! I want to be an entrepreneur, and none of this stuff is going to matter.”
That was the day I stopped studying for grades. My GPA went down to 2.9, and when professors assigned homework that felt like busywork to me, I simply skipped it. Instead, I designed my own curriculum of books, conferences, and sitting in on random courses I was interested in. I also set up dozens of informational interviews with mentors.
Fortunately, I made a good bet. I was only asked for my GPA once when I was interviewing for an internship. Despite my low GPA, I still got it. And never once in a professional setting was I asked what school I attended.
Over the years, my thinking has gotten more nuanced. Here is my current perspective on formal education:
- The most impactful leaders, artists, and scientists almost all have an intrinsic love of learning bordering on obsession that lasts their entire life. They find time for learning no matter how busy they get. This 1991 interview with Bill Gates is telling. He proudly shares how he works until late at night and then still reads when he gets home at midnight. When Elon Musk aims to hire the smartest people in the world, he cares a lot more about skills than he does about degrees:
- Secondary and higher education typically don’t inspire students to be self-directed learners or develop a lifelong love of learning. In fact, learning for the test or simply to get into a good college often fosters extrinsic motivation that can actually impede intrinsic motivation. Formal education doesn’t typically excel at showing students the connections between disciplines or teaching students how to apply what they learn in the real world to get the results they want.
- The most important output of formal education that we can foster is a love of learning and the ability to be a self-directed learner. A self-directed learner is able to identify and rank the problems they face, identify and rank what they could learn to solve those problems, consistently find time to learn for at least 5 hours per week, and apply the lessons they learn to the real-world challenges. Once a person falls in love with learning, they will learn on their own for their entire life. And naturally, this effort compounded over decades provides more value than a four-year degree ever could.
- Demonizing formal education isn’t the solution. Over the years, I’ve spoken at hundreds of high schools and colleges ranging from the most elite to the most disadvantaged, and my opinions have softened. I have two kids in elementary school. Their teachers have changed the lives of our kids. I’ve met so many amazing teachers within the education system that provide transformational experiences. These teachers, severely underpaid and under-respected, are some of the most valuable contributors to society. And within the overall system, there are institutions that are also amazing. The legislators who created the requirements for more intensive testing, which have led to a culture of teaching and learning for the test, did so only because they wanted school systems to have more accountability. It’s a complicated and important challenge.
TRUTH: Over the course of our life, most learning happens outside of school — and lifelong, self-motivated learning is a greater factor in success than grades and degrees.
Lie #3: You must pick one field and specialize in it.
“We are in an age that assumes the narrowing trends of specialization to be logical, natural, and desirable. … In the meantime, humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding.” ― R. Buckminster Fuller
On the first page of Adam Smith’s magnum opus, The Wealth Of Nations, he uses a pin factory as an example of the power of specialization. At this particular factory, just 10 employees are able to produce an astounding 48,000 pins per day as a result of a division of labor, in which each person specializes in part of the process. Smith estimated that if each of these 10 workers did every step of the process themselves, they’d collectively create just 200 pins per day. In other words, specialization allowed them to create 240 times the amount they would have otherwise.
Almost all of us have been taught that the way to get ahead in life is to specialize. And when you look at the pin factory example above, it’s no wonder. In the industrial era, productivity was measured by quantitative output. For those of us who still work in manufacturing, that paradigm still holds true.
But most of us now operate in a knowledge economy, where productivity is not measured quantitatively but by creative output. And one of the best ways to generate creative ideas is to learn and synthesize valuable skills and concepts that other people in your domain don’t yet know. In a knowledge economy, learning across diverse interests and competencies and then applying your insights to your core specialty — in other words, becoming a modern polymath — is what actually separates you from the pack.
In my article, People Who Have “Too Many Interests” Are More Likely To Be Successful According To Research, I make a comprehensive case for why nearly everyone should leave behind their learned bias toward specialization and instead become a modern polymath.
TRUTH: Specialization was key to an industrial economy. In the current knowledge economy, modern polymaths who learn across at least three domains and integrate them into a skill set that makes them the top 1% in in their field will have the advantage.
3 New Truths to Remember
To sum up, the way we were taught to learn is no longer applicable in a fast-changing knowledge economy. Instead, keep these “new truths” in mind:
- It is important — and often more useful — to categorize knowledge by mental models in addition to subjects, because mental models underlie and connect subjects.
- Most learning happens outside of school — and lifelong, self-motivated learning is a greater factor in success than grades and degrees.
- Specialization was key to an industrial economy. In the knowledge economy, polymaths who learn across at least three domains and integrate them into a 1-percent skill set will have the advantage.
This is why polymaths who read and learn voraciously — and those who study mental models — have been so successful. It explains why so many of the world’s top CEOs, billionaires, scientists and achievers seem to share these traits.
Make a decision now to stop spending all your time focused on the specifics of one narrow field, leaving yourself blind to what’s happening in the rest of the world, and stunted in your ability to adapt quickly to new developments.
Instead, invest in your own lifelong education. Spend at least five hours a week exploring outside your field, learning skills and concepts your colleagues don’t yet know. Be sure to also learn about mental models — the fundamentals that underlie all fields and that rarely, if ever, change. Training yourself to be a self-educated polymath with deep knowledge of mental models is the three-part key that turns the lock of success in the modern knowledge economy.